Transcoding the Truth?

There is an interview with Novarra President and COO, Jayanthi Rangarajan in Mobile Marketing Magazine that really takes the biscuit when it comes to spinning the truth around transcoding – its benefits and drawbacks: Rangarajan, as COO of Novarra is at best badly mis-informed or at worst blatantly transcoding the truth in her interview with the Magazine.


Novarra technology is being used by a few mobile operators to try to transform websites designed for PC’s to work better when viewed on phone browsers that don’t handle HTML pages or large pages well. A noble idea, to deal with the legacy websites that don’t deal with smaller screens and non-PC capabilities, but a process fraught with challenges.

Novarra chose to do this by sitting between the phone browser and the website, and replacing the information provided by the phone to the website with false information: specifically, changing the browser / phone identification to pretend the phone is a PC style browser.  The website, not knowing the user is coming from a phone then sends normal PC pages, which Novarra then “shrinks” and adapts to work better with the phone.   This can work well on sites that have not been designed to adapt to a mobile phone , but is disastrous for the hundreds of thousands of sites which do provide better service to phone users.

Mobile friendly sites identify the phone or browser and provide content best suited to that device. For example, video content, music, games and screen layouts are different on different devices.  Smart sites adapt to the device capabilities. If you are providing images to a phone you might want to fit them to the size of the phone screen for example. 

When Tim Berners Lee designed the Web, he foresaw the explosion in variety of browsers, so he enabled the browser to provide information to the website. The W3C mobile web initiative is the home of this activity: 

It is this information that Novarra hides or corrupts, and which is why Novarra is regarded with such disgust by those closely involved in Web activity and standards as well as among web site builders.

When Vodafone UK launched the Novarra transcoder on the now infamous 7/7/07 , to enable desktop optimised websites to render better on mobile, the result was outcry from thousands of content providers large and small that their sites could no longer be seen, were corrupted, or were destroyed.

Advertisers on mobile sites found their ads were no longer viewed.  People selling mobile content had a surge in customer complaints – content that was sold did not work (the phone type was unknown) or simply not delivered.  

Vodafone UK had not forseen the problem, but reacted very quickly to create a “whitelist” of sites that would bypass the transcoder – and this patch is still in place.  Organizations like the BBC, CNN, SKY, Facebook, Flickr and others had service restored within a few days.  The problem remains however that sites are “adapted” or corrupted unless the website owner knows how to get themselves added to the whitelist.  Estimates of the financial losses to website owners in the UK range from hundreds of thousands of pounds upwards. 

Novarra seems to expect that (a) website owners should be aware of Novarra transcoding stepping in and (b) know how to contact Turkcell and Vodafone UK among others to ask not to be transcoded.  Crazy!

This is all unnecessary.  Novarra’s main competitor, Openwave, can be configured to pass through the browser information to the website unmodified, only stepping in if it detects that the website is not returning correctly formatted web pages to that browser – a much better approach with less “fallout”.

Now lets look at the interview with Mobile Marketing Magazine…

“While there is a community that continues to complain, the facts are that the operators are very happy and the mobile content partners are very happy.”

The facts are that mobile content providers are much happier with the Mobile Operators that are not blocking or corrupting their sites and disappointing their users.  Vodafone UK has put a great deal of effort into working round Novarra’s shortcomings – which is appreciated by many, but the fact remains that while there are short term benefits in mobile users on Vodafine UK being able to browse PC optimized websites, the way ahead is for sites to optimize to device capabilities.  This is being seen with website owners adapting not only to mobile models, but even to teh iphone which has a great browser, and to devices like Nintendo Wii and set-top boxes, and to devices used over WiFi where thankfully Novarra cannot intercede. .

“The problem only arose on mobile sites that were not .wap or .mobi. – but there were a lot of people who didn’t address their mobile sites as .wap or .mobi. They addressed them as .com, because in the world they were used to, it wasn’t possible for their regular website to be rendered on a phone. ”

Er, yes.  I have no idea what a “.wap” site is, but of course most sites will be .com, .net, .de or or whatever.  They will be in peoples bookmarks, sent to users in messages etc., why should a person have to change their site address to stop Novarra breaking their site?

“We were screwing up some sites, and one of them, which was a Bango site, made a huge fuss. We had not tested some of these Bango sites, just as we have not tested all of the 1 billion websites.”

I have no idea which “Bango site” made a huge fuss. There are more than 10,000 mobile websites that use Bango services, most with their own web sites, some hosted on servers where they can’t change their domain name.  Many not even aware of what was going on in the UK.  Bango made a great effort to help these people who included companies like Disney, Paramount, EMI, Cosmopolitan, WWE, SKY, FIFA, NBA, Warner Bros, CocaCola, Maxim, and many others whose Vodafone UK connected users were harmed by Novarra’s lack of foresight and sensitivity.  Vodafone was very responsive – Novarra went into hiding.
“there’s one guy still going on about it.”

Perhaps Novarra  really believe there is just one complainer left. They must think that this “one guy” has hundreds of bogus identities on the mobile forums and somehow has many disguises to appear at trade-shows pretending to come from many of the world’s top mobile content companies…   More likely they are trying to hide the downside of their flawed system – rather than honestly acknowledging the problems they cause and addressing them.

Can you imaging if Novarra were able to stick themselves between iPhone users and their iPhone optimized websites – forcing them to deliver PC content?  What would Steve Jobs say?

“There are other people out there making a lot of noise, but they don’t have the people or the technology that we have.”

So, should they stop making a noise?

“If you look at the service that Sprint has launched with Openwave, it takes 60-70 seconds to load. That would take Novarra five seconds.”

This statement could be technically represented by the formula: B*LL()CK5
Bango sees traffic from millions of users across Vodafone UK and Sprint.
Both have deployed transcoders. Neither have a speed problem.

Talking of speed, if Novarra wants to become more than a temporary “speed bump” in the roll out of web to mobile users, I suspect they should listen more to the people who are already serving many times more users than them and who seem to want to innovate to solve problems rather than innovating
in the science of excuses and bluster.


Are you happy for somebody to wrap advertising round your mobile site – and sell it?

If you operate a web site, are you happy for ISP’s around the world to edit the content of your sites and add banner advertising to your pages – without telling you or getting your agreement? 

Several mobile operators have started to place “transcoders” or “filters” that intercept and replace web (HTTP) traffic going to their phones. 

The effects are sometimes relatively benign – for example reducing the sizes of images for faster download.

Sometimes it is a more damaging – some carriers masking the handset type from mobile websites – preventing website owners providing a good experience to users.

Telia in Sweden recently went to the next level, and has provoked a firestorm among web site owners site developers in Sweden.  They are using thei rweb transcoder to wrap advertising sites that are visited through their network.   

Imagine the uproar if Verizon started filtering out ads on their fixed broadband network and adding banner ads to web pages!  In the mobile world, where things are not so easy to see and mobile carriers are generally not called to account, this can happen by stealth. 

I expect that there is enough resistance to this idea, and sufficient competitive pressure between operators to stifle these misguided initiatives, but with 18 or 24 month contracts the norm for mobile data services, the users generally have to put up with what they are given in the mobile world.

Anybody seen this outside Sweden yet? 

The Great Phone Number Harvesting Scam

There has been a great deal of interest in UK mobile phone number harvesting and it is increasingly being referred to in the mobile industry as "the next subscription scam".

I thought it would be useful to outline what the scam is, the problems being caused and the steps Bango thinks need to be taken quickly, before it gets out of control.

The Scam
When someone visits an internet site, there is no way that the site owner can find out their email address or the phone number of their broadband line without being given the information by the user. In the same way, users browsing the mobile web do not expect their identity to be revealed to the sites they visit.

But mobile operators connect phone users to the internet.  Whilst they know the subscriber’s phone number they generally don?t provide it to third parties, except under strict confidentiality requirements, on a case by case basis. However, in recent months, the UK mobile operators have started to provide phone numbers (MSISDN) to accredited intermediaries, to enable them to send premium text messages to users and facilitate payment for content. 

A set of  "scheme rules" known as Payforit that mandates that the MSISDN is only provided to content providers that have user permission is currently being established by the UK operators. Unfortunately, citing technical difficulties and other reasons, some accredited intermediaries have started to simply pass on phone numbers in breach of the guidelines. 

This has in turn led to the problems that were foreseen by the operators when they devised the Payforit scheme rules.  Many thousands of users have already visited mobile web sites that have harvested their phone number.  And just like valid email addresses, these phone numbers have considerable value for marketing purposes.

The classic scenario is that a content provider buys popular search terms in Google Mobile Search. When users click on a link, the content provider harvests the user’s phone number, which they could then sell on to third parties. 

A typical top slot in Google Mobile search for a popular term like "ringtone", "porn" or "free" might cost around £1.00 a click – because the content provider can make a return by selling content for more than that value. A harvester will actually sell the content and then use the phone number for further marketing to that user, or sell on the phone number to others, with an indication of what that user is looking for. 
The return on this is obviously much higher than the simple content sale, so the harvesters are able to out-bid the clean suppliers.

The Benefits of the Scam
Interestingly, the short term gains can be significant for all the parties – except possibly the end user:

– The content provider sells more
– The intermediary gets more traffic by bending / breaking the   scheme rules
– The operator participates in more billing and gets more data traffic and more message traffic
– Google gets higher sales values for its keywords

This makes the motivation to stamp out the abuse or comply with the rules much lower.

The scam appears at the moment to be most popular for users seeking out adult content, perhaps because the likelihood of complaints is much less than with ringtones etc. However, it is possible that many of the phone numbers that are being harvested are those of children ? this has the potential to open up a legal minefield.

The Solution
The Payforit Scheme rules state that:  "Merchants wishing to use an MSISDN (phone number) for marketing purposes must only do so based on the consents obtained from the Payment and Subscription Confirmation pages presented and accepted by the consumer" and "Accredited Payment Intermediaries must log all consumer consents and ensure that the information is auditable."

Unfortunately, since the phone numbers are being passed to content providers without consent of the consumer, once those numbers have passed from one content provider to another, it is impossible to track down the original source of the number.

Vodafone took steps to stop the scam when it surfaced last year:
however since that time it appears that the problem has become more widespread – across many mobile operators and with many intermediaries.

For information on Payforit

Web Apps vs Phone Resident (Java) Apps

There still seem to be quite a few companies an dindividuals pushing the idea of mobile resident java based shops, portals, magazines, vending machines etc.

I’m really surprised that people see them as having any future, especially now that browsing speeds and flexibility are improving on mobiles.

Web 2.0 is all about building things on the server and enabling them to be used by all on teh device.  Its avbout incremental development an dno need to update the client.

A browser approach eliminates the user install cycle – each day the service can be improved without me having to upgrade any software. The functionality of the archetypal PC app was fixed 5 years ago by whatever was implemented by Microsoft or whoever, and issues with installed base, file compatibility, simultaneous migration of multiple clients etc mean that the core functionality can only now evolve very slowly, if at all.

Of course there are also all of the counter-arguments in favour of resident apps. By my main point here is that these benefits are incidental.  A great mobile service benefits from mobility AND the network.

The “long tail” application world (on mobile at least) is made possible on the mobile web by virtue of the small incremental cost of development and teh power of teh browser model.

Paypal promoting use from Mobiles

Not many people remember that turned into PayPal. Until recently you could actually log in to on your mobile and log in to paypal.

Back last year, Bango started working with PayPal to enable mobile internet sites to use PayPal for micropayments. The collaboration is working very well. See for more info. Users can navigate round WAP sites and make one click payments, because Bango is tightly integrated with Paypal’s systems. Nevertheless, connecting a PayPal account with a mobile phone to enable this process requires (at least once) a user to go to a PC.

From this week, PayPal have started educating users about mobile from the PC end. Paypal mobile! uses a mobile phone as an extension of the PC to instruct payments to be sent to paypal merchants or other users. Once a phone is connected to a paypal account, the authentication of the payment is done by IVR (basically Paypal initiates a voice call to the user).

This is great news. Using a text message or a voice call to transfer money to people or merchants is a huge step forward from requiring a "logged in PC" and will open up PayPal to a much wider audience.

While the new system is more complex for mobile internet sites, where the existing PayPal/Bango system works very well, the new system has application where the user is not on the mobile internet when they make a buying decision. Bango will be able to leverage both the text driven and the voice driven stuff to enable users to pay or pre-pay money to mobile content providers before the user visits their site to collect the content.

With thousands of content providers using Bango to get to market, Bango is obviously very keen to exploit – on their behalf – any new payment methods that achieve mass market traction. Lets hope Paypal by text and voice is one such method.

Trends seen in 2006

2005 has seen a migration from content through SMS to WAP portals (just like 1995 saw an evolution from email services to web services)

Mainstream brands have entered to market directly, rather than solely through operator portals. Examples include SKY TV, THE SUN, Bands like OASIS, WESTLIFE, EMINEM Music Labels like EMI (The Raft)

Moble Network Operators (Carriers) are moving to support the D2C content channel. They see D2C on the mobile internet as the technical solution to SMS billing headaches, providing better consumer transparency and a better audit trail.

Bango’s slashing of the costs of going "off-portal" provides lower costs of entry, meaning more content players can get into the market. We are seeing independent music labels getting into mobile, smaller content providers etc.

In the US, the content market is gradually opening-up giving consumers greater choice and driving better quality through competition. While Carriers like Verizon are still opposed to giving their customers choice of content supplier, the leading network – Cingular – is on a clear path to supporting its users in getting what they want.

In the PC-centricUSA, linking mobile services off web sites is a key traffic generating tool. Sun Microsystems uses its web site to promote the benefits of the Java user environment and allows the user to experience Java content by literally ordering the download off the web page.

Motionbridge bought by Google – or was in Yahoo!

Heard a rumour today from a credible source that Motionbridge ( may be getting bought by Google for about £10million. No announcement from Google or Motionbridge so perhaps work still in progress. Siemens Mobile Accelerator Fund ( the biggest investor) is trying to sell on its investments at the moment so that makes disposal at an early stage somewhat sensible.

Motionbridge provides mobile focussed search for several mobile operator portals (O2 UK and Orange FR for example) and has some quite neat technology. They run the "paid for keywords" system used by O2’s search advertisers.

Google or another search company like Yahoo or MSN might like to buy Motionbridge to get a short-cut to operator portal presence, and to provide the "metatag" type search that works beter than crawling for mobile sites.

Access to Sprint
might also make sense.