(browser proxies are back in fashion.. guest blogger Fredrik Ademar looks at the limitations of today’s mobile web and how browser proxies have resurfaced to bring the internet to the masses. Part of our Mobile Megatrends 2008 series).
Struggling with the limitations of the mobile web Numerous attempts, more or less successful and well-known, have been made over the past years to replicate the browsing experience provided on a desktop device also in the mobile context. Latency, low bandwidth, limited input capabilities and small screens have typically been main hurdles to overcome to really get something remotely close to the original web experience. A quite interesting trend in the mobile browsing space that now has gone through an exciting renaissance, is the concept of bringing in network proxies to intercept the web-to-mobile traffic and optimize. The most well-known example is probably Opera Mini, which truly has made a significant impact on how mobile web is perceived by the masses. But Opera is only one of many contenders in this space, and there is a set of different initiatives providing similar functionality and benefits (although in slightly different packages) such as Bitstream ThunderHawk, InfoGin, Flash Networks, Novarra, WiderWeb, Google Wireless Transcoder etc. The trend seems clear going forward – this could indeed be the answer to the quest for a truly pervasive web experience across mobile and desktop. Or maybe we are hoping for too much?
Ways to address the problem To begin with one should note that the solutions provided are not by any means new concepts. The ideas can be found already back in the early WAP days, and many of the issues that now attract attention, were in fact exactly the same that WAP attempted to address with the original WAP gateways etc. In retrospect one of the major problems with WAP was that the ambitions were stretching too far. For instance using SMS and USSD as transport mechanisms was a bad idea from the very beginning, and this seriously harmed the priorities and technology trade-offs made. However, one important assumption was right, the insight that simply applying the classical W3C standards to the mobile space was not going to do the job and that is still the case today.
These functionalities can be basically be categorized in the following three technology segments (based on the excellent taxonomy of browser proxies at the S60 browser blog):
– Speed proxies Purpose: image compression, efficient page contents caching, HTTP & content pipelining. Examples: Bytemobile, NSN, Flash Networks (NettGain), Venturi VServer, Novarra – Adaptation (transcoding) proxies Purpose: page reformatting, image reduction, menu simplification, session tracking, SSL session handling, XHTML/MP adaptation Examples: ByteMobile, InfoGin IMP, Google Wireless Transcoder (ex Req Wireless), Novarra nweb, Volantis Transcoder, WiderWeb, Greenlight Wireless Skweezer, Clicksheet – Server based (pre-rendering) proxies Purpose: pre-renders page before sending and improves navigation Examples: Opera Mini, Bitstream ThunderHawk
A speed proxy typically makes the mobile browsing faster and reduces data to a certain extent, while it still preserves a full page. Adaptation and server-based browser proxies on the other hand will drastically reduce the amount of data sent over the air, but at a significant cost since the page will no longer be the original web experience. Often the page is re-formatted into one long narrow column (like e.g. Opera SSR), and dynamic effects like pop-down menus and pop-up windows will not work.
Bringing in the proxies, pros and cons When benchmarking these products in terms of performance, the improvements are indeed often significant. Content size is reduced to 10-50% of the original size, and the downloading of typical sites can be done in half the normal browser download time (ballpark figures from Opera Mini). Since much of the heavy lifting is done in the network, an interesting side effect is also that the CPU, memory etc. requirements for the device are much lower. It is even possible to deploy solutions to devices post sales that will mobile web enable them, even if they did not have that kind of support from the beginning (using e.g. java based approaches like with Opera Mini)
Ok, this sounds great – are there really no weaknesses with the browser proxy approach? Yes there are. A common problem highlighted is the lack of true end-to-end security, as well as the problem of ensuring integrity of the transferred data. These problems are difficult to get around given the nature of the architectural setup.
Another very relevant problem is the fact that when applying different automatic intelligent conversion algorithms on content, you do indeed tend to violate the original intent of the content author. You can never replicate 100% of the experience on the desktop web, and in many cases content gets optimized away completely (like e.g. flash content).
Another typical comment is that networks and device hardware are getting more capable each year, and solutions including anything other than standard web browser technology, will quickly become obsolete. I think this assumption is completely wrong, there will always be a gap between mobile and desktop web – the mobile device will always be more limited and therefore needs to be treated differently.
Building a business case As always, the technology roll-out also needs to be coupled with a sustainable business model. Where is the money in all this? Besides the services of providing the core browser experience, there are lots of value added services like billing, content filtering etc. that can be applied, but the true value lies in the fact that companies in this space are right in the middle of a giant flow of very targeted user data going back and forth. Carefully catered this asset can prove to be far more valuable than what can be made from the original service – with that said it is really no surprise to find Google (Google Wireless Transcoder) as one of the contenders in this segment.
A megatrend going forward? As a future outlook for 2008, the mobile browser proxies will continue to provide an increasingly important contribution to the mobile web experiences, especially important harnessing the value of the long tail. This time, there is no doubt the proxy based browser model is here to stay, but it will typically not be perceived as a ground breaking revolutionary step, more as a natural and obvious evolution. We will also likely see a consolidation of technical solutions, as some players in the space today are to some extent not providing scalable and competitive enough solutions.