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The truth about transcoding

Sham Careem - MD, MoMac UK

Dec 5

Moves by some operators and others to transcode web sites to mobile might promise to put the web in the
hand, but they can play havoc with developers’ hard work...

Depending on your viewpoint, the arrival of the iPhone either heralds a new era in making the internet truly
mobile, or simply creates another closed environment for content transactions, controlled by the Apple
mega brand. While the latter is true, the former is less so.

You see, although many phones now come with browsers that can view full internet pages, some operators
are using so-called ‘transcoding’ solutions that automatically re-format web sites so they display ‘properly’
on handheld devices. While the technology is great for mobile users who want access to the web from more
basic devices that are unable to render sites in their full glory, it’s ruining many a mobile content provider’s
income.

The true open mobile internet should give consumers the power to interact with compelling sites that
complement the uniqueness of the mobile proposition. The fact is the iPhone and web-enabled devices like
it are hitting the market at a time when a host of conditions are coming together to make mobile, truly, the
fourth screen (after cinema, TV and PC).

Widespread 3G penetration, better search and discovery applications and flat rate data pricing plans are all
making it possible for any brand to ‘talk’ directly to its audience via the medium of mobile. With the ‘bill-
shock’ factor removed, users will be liberated to experiment and consume the new mobile internet services
on offer.

In addition, other barriers are being removed: cross-operator WAP billing solutions are emerging, giving
mobile users a one-click payment option for off-deck content.

The mobile internet is becoming a market in its own right, both in terms of size and value. What now lies
before us is a credible channel for media companies, brands and publishers. Happily, mass-market media
companies from magazine and newspaper publishers, social networks, broadcasters to mainstream media
owners are entering the market.

This is all great stuff, but in terms of usability, it’s not sufficient to rely on transcoding technologies that
change and re-render an exisiting internet site for a mobile phone display. Crucially, re-formatting sites
using this method masks the ‘user-agent’.

What’s a user agent? In basic terms it’s a piece of code that any web-enabled device transmits to identify
itself when attempting to access a web page. It’s like a virtual handshake. Once the visitor has been
indentified the server can then offer up the correct and optimised content, whether its for an Internet
Explorer or Firefox broswer being used on a desktop computer or an Opera broswer in a mobile phone.

Transcoding is therefore causing a big headache for companies that have gone to the time and trouble of
creating versions of their websites – if their servers can’t read the user agent, then the mobile page won’t be
served up to the user.

Herein lies the problem: a transcoded page can be a mess (just visit CNN or WSJ on a transcoded site)
delivering roughly chopped-up sites and cluttered mobile pages. What is really hard to understand is why
operators would adopt such an approach. It simply alienates the mobile developer community and spoils
the efforts of companies that have created good mobile versions of their web sites.

If a brand intends to integrate its mobile offering with a cross-platform digital strategy, it will need to
develop a fully a functional mobile internet site with a quick, intuitive and made-for-mobile user interface.
MoMac is already working with companies like EMAP, ITV, Ministry of Sound and even the Mobo Awards
to foster mobile interactivity, advertising and even m-commerce via integration with Pay Pal.

With so many of the real barriers to usage being removed, the open mobile internet is finally arriving. It
would be a shame to spoil things now with short-sighted technical approaches that comprimise the all-
important user experience.

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