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.