Intermediaries – part 2

The introduction of intermediate transcoding of the Web by proxies within the telco infrastructure has seen some unpleasant controversy in recent times. The problem is best understood with an example:

Pretend for a moment that I am the proud owner of a vintage car, and it is insured with one of the few companies willing to take on the risk. Damage to the windscreen, for example, would require a custom-built replacement by a specialist repair team. Now imagine that one day I try to contact my insurance company to inform them I’m about to embark on a vintage rally and will need temporary additional cover, only to find that I’m now dealing with an insurance broker. They don’t know anything about additional cover for rain damage, but amazingly I find that windscreen cover is now free! (But only if I go to one of their listed repair agents, none of whom deal with vintage cars.)

We have witnessed something like this on the mobile Web in recent times. You may have bookmarked a few interesting sites on your mobile browser to get news, sport, weather, your local train timetable and a few more items you happen to need when out and about. Then one day you click your bookmark and the familiar mobile Web page is now mangled. The interactive navigation widget has been replaced by a long list of links, the weather map has been resized so that although it now fits the screen, it is too blurred to read. You didn’t mind scrolling the picture on previous occasions. Strangely the message about scrolling the picture is still there! What’s going on???

What has happened is that an unannounced, and unwanted, intermediary has been placed between you and your favourite mobile sites. Other Web sites that were previously inaccessible to your mobile are now somewhat accessible, which is a bonus but not appropriate to your needs. You complain to one of your content providers but they say this only affects people who are customers of your particular operator, so you complain to your operator, whose response is “but now you have access to so much more on the Web, you should be thanking us”.

Well, no thanks.

It has taken a while, but the fiasco of last year’s introduction by “well respected operators” of intermediary Web transformation services is beginning to abate. Even the providers of the intermediate technology are beginning to realise that they need to consider the fact that some sites will already be fully mobile friendly. This includes most of the .mobi sites, and anyone using adaptive Web servers. As someone who designs adaptive technology, I’m glad to see that the work of the W3C’s Content Transformation task-force is bearing fruit.

But will the lesson be learned? Will we see operators insert intermediaries into our mobile payment transactions? Or into everyday interactions? Some day I’ll be asked on a call for my location (which I’d prefer not to reveal) when suddenly the person at the other end will say “it’s OK, the voice recognition intermediary has just detected my request and displayed a map to your location”.

The day that happens is the day I bin my mobile and leave the Big Brother house.

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