So I’m off to Madrid for the Mobile Web Initiative Device Descriptions workshop. What is this all about? While I’ve been busying myself with chairing a working group on Mobile Web Best Practices, Rotan Hanrahan from MobileAware has been chairing the other Mobile Web Initiative working group: Device Descriptions. The Mobile Web Best Practices document is filled with recommendations like “don’t use xxx feature (cookies, for example) unless you know the device supports them.” The unanswered question is: how do you know if the device supports any given feature, or the answers to other questions like “how big is the usable screen space” (the size of the screen after you take away whatever is taken up by soft keys). The answer up ’til now has been: not very easily. The “official” way the mobile industry wants you to find this out is by using UAProf device profiles. The problem with these is that when they are produced (only a minority of device, they are often not accurate or they simply do not contain the information that Web providers need to adapt their services to different browsers on different devices. This is a key issues that is blocking the growth of the Mobile Web. There are numerous solutions to this problem in the market. Companies like Vodafone assemble big proprietary databases of devices that matter to them. Others employ commercial software that comes bundled with device databases (again proprietary). Still others employ the open source WURFL database. All of these solutions are “islands” that do not overlap or interoperate.
But what if there were a simple way for any Web developer to gain access to basic information about the devices hitting their site. What if they could use this information in a straight forward way in their templates (JSPs, ASPs, PHP, etc…) or other server-side logic for the purpose of more easily providing a mobile-friendly user experience in accordance. And what if this information were available as a utility – as transparent and ubiquitous as DNS or HTTP headers and integrated seamlessly into all the most used Web development frameworks and Web servers.
This is what I call “device description nirvana” and it is this promise that the work of the Device Descriptions working group hopes to help realize. The group has worked over the past year on defining the space. Now we shall see if we can take it to the next level. I have high hopes.
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