Is transcoding a crime?

I was reading my RSS feed and of course this news item from TechCrunch caught my eye, Transcoding Is Not A Crime, Says Court In Veoh Porn Case (includes longer excerpt from the ruling and a video).

I was initially surprised that TechCrunch spoke about transcoders for mobile sites (remember Novarra, InfoGin, Openweb, etc?) and in fact they are talking about video and flash. The ruling is interesting and here is how it starts:

Here, Veoh has simply established a system whereby software automatically processes user-submitted content and recasts it in a format that is readily accessible to its users. Veoh preselects the software parameters for the process from a range of default values set by the thirdparty software.

The topic is very different, but if you read this text and applied it word-by-word to what proxy transcoders do, it would still make sense. So I wonder (and I’m not a lawyer by far), will this ruling also apply to mobile proxies?

DISCLAIMER: I agree this is extreme, but not entirely impossible.

Google’s GWT

Transcoding is a hot topic these days in the mobile community. Google’s GWT has come up a couple of times in some conversations I had in the last 2-3 weeks. I never wondered how they decide to transcode or not, anyway.
I gave it a shot today using cURL and an emulator to get access to some devices quickly.

How I did it
I got on http://www.google.com/m and searched for “WURFL test”; I left the default “Web” setting. As expected my http://t.wurfl.com was the first link. I clicked on it and got to the page, the layout was unchanged, but that’s not a surprise, it’s so simple. Scrolling down I noticed that the user-agent string is not my phone’s, but an ugly generic MSIE user-agent string. Scrolling down a bit more I noticed the standard chrome provided by GWT that lets you disable images or request the page in the original source.

The solution
I sent an e-mail to Sean Owen, who is in the W3C MWI with me. Surprisingly he replied on a Sunday and was very helpful. He explained me how their crawler is able to mark mobile sites and make sure the GWT will not transcode anything. The problem is that at the moment this magic feature is available in the US only and will be rolled out to the world soon. Since I left “Web” in my search I got the web version of my site (t.wurfl.com has a very basic device detection that provides different markup based on the Accept headers). US users should already get the mobile version of t.wurfl.com. Anyway, Sean also suggested a trick that now provides the mobile version to all mobile users without any other update required. I added the following tag in the head of the page:
<link rel=”alternate” media=”handheld” href=”http://t.wurfl.com/index.php”>

Seconds after the update I requested again the page with the emulator and got the mobile version.

PS: if you want to get a mobile page using cURL you can do this:
curl -D – -A “Nokia6600” “http://www.google.com/gwt/n?u=t.wurfl.com/”

You will see the page source and the HTTP headers sent by the server. Read the manual for more commands, cURL is super-powerful!

Are transcoding proxies needed on the mobile?

Most users have never used the mobile web, in some cases they have downloaded a few ringtones, a wallpaper or a java game. The operator portals are the still the first and probably only site that the average user has ever visited. Sometimes some brave individual looks for adventures and surpasses the borders of his operator portal. These users either know exactly what they want and know the URL or don’t have any idea of what they can find. Users who don’t know what they can find will go to some search engine like Google or Yahoo! (hardly the mobile versions) and type a keyword such as “tennis”. They will get a list of links and follow them. There are very good chances that they will reach a web site that doesn’t even take into consideration the possibility that a user with a mobile phone will visit and is not doing any device detection or content adaptation.
If this is case, and unfortunately still is for most sites, there are two chances, either the user has a really smart browser like Opera Mini or Nokia’s webKit-based browser, or he will download a huge page that he will not be able to read. After 2 or 3 different sites have been tested, users will be discouraged and will not take the risk of going out of the operator’s portal ever again.

Operators should be happy about this and try to disincentivate browsing outside of the portal. On the other hand, browsing means traffic, traffic means money, so accessing the “full web” can be a positive thing for mobile operators too. If browsing can be a revenue stream you don’t want your users to be discouraged, you want them to have a taste of what they can get on their mobiles.
Opera Mini is one possible solution, transcoding is the other. Google offers transcoding automatically, operators might choose to get their own transcoding software. The result is that users get what they want (the tennis site), operators get what they want, money from data traffic. Looks like a win-win solution.

Within some limits, this is effectively a win-win solution. The limits are defined by the user experience that the transcoding engine can provide. It is proven that transcoding a web page and fitting it into the small screen of a mobile device will not provide the best user experience, nevertheless it is still better than a kick in the teeth (like the average rendering of a full web site on a Motorola V3).
Transcoding is like a shortcut to get more users on the mobile web. Major web sites should consider developing a mobile version quickly simply because mobile is the future. At the same time there is a number of sites that will never be converted (think of all the geocities pages!) and there are many minor sites that will consider mobile only in 3 or 5 years from now. We do want users to be able to find information on the mobile today, don’t we?
Transcoding engines must be smart enough to recognize sites that are made for the mobiles and leave the content as is and convert the content only when this will not fit the features of the mobile device (or set-top-box). Transcoding engines should be smart and act when needed and never get in the way, they must be an extra tool, not a mousetrap that gets in the way of the developers and designers that are sweating to produce content that is optimized for mobiles. Transcoding the content of a site that was made for mobiles will most likely break the usability and optimizations that the designer put in place.

At the same time, users should be educated that there is a lot of information for them on the internet and that they should be looking and asking for mobile versions. We should not expect the average user to understand mark-ups, XHTML-MP [PDF], transcoding, image rescaling, but they do understand when a page is not usable on their mobile and if they can’t find anything interesting, they won’t come back.