iPhone 4 owners get second rate experience on mobile web

Mobile content experts Volantis have noticed a peculiar flaw with the iPhone 4. Thanks to a problem with the way iOS 4 identifies itself to web-sites, people visiting websites on a brand-new iPhone 4 will get the same experience as those browsing on an older iPhone 3G or 3GS. We spoke to Paul Duffin, Volantis’ Lead Product Architect, to get an in-depth explanation of the problem.

But first…

In order to really understand the problem here, you have to understand User-Agent Headers. Don’t worry, it’s not complicated! User-Agent Headers are a widely supported standard that exist on thousands and thousands of devices. It’s a simple way for the device to store some information about itself, like what kind of software and hardware it’s running. When a device opens a website, the server can check it’s User-Agent Header, and use that information to tailor the website to the phone. It also allows for the collections of statistical information.

…and now on to the interview with Paul Duffin

What’s the problem with iOS4?

The basic flaw in iOS 4 is that when it makes a request to a website, the exact same set of User-Agent Headers are used for both an iPhone 4 or iPhone 3G/3GS. That causes problems because the iPhone 4 has such a better display than the earlier models. Apple made a big fuss about how good the new screen is, but websites can’t identify whether the device is running iOS 4 on an iPhone 4 or an iPhone 3G. And that makes it very difficult to tailor your website to create the experience on both devices.

For developers who’ve made a single mobile website – even if it is specifically optimized for the iPhone – their website will look the exact same whether it’s on the iPhone 3G or the iPhone 4. The only real difference you’ll notice when browsing on an iPhone 4 is that the text on the screen will be crisper. But images, videos and other visual media look no different. And that is something that iOS 4 does.

What we want to do is be able to differentiate between the devices so that we can send images that are suitable to the device. We want to send images with twice the resolution to an iPhone 4 as we send to an iPhone 3. But because we can’t tell the difference using headers, it’s not really possible. People browsing on an iPhone 4 aren’t getting as good an experience as they should be getting.

Without being able to differentiate, we have two choices. The first is to send high-res images to both devices – and that doesn’t work for the 3GS, because it’s already struggling to run the iOS 4 software and can’t really handle the extra workload. The second option is to send low-res images to both – and that doesn’t work for iPhone 4 owners because they’re not seeing the benefit of their purchase. And for advertisers and marketers, it means they have to consider whether or not it’s worth investing in high-resolution images for iPhone 4.

Is there a workaround for this? Or will the solution have to come from Apple?

It is possible to work around it – but it’s a solution that has implications for the experience of both the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3 user. When we get a request for a device that’s running iPhone 4, we need to figure out what the hardware is. So we send a page down to the phone that runs a Java script to query some info available on the phone, like the display resolution, and we then use that information to differentiate between the two. It makes things MUCH more complicated. Instead of being to do this transparently and quickly, you now have to send a page to the phone. And if the phone has its Java-script switched off, then it causes huge problems. And not every web page or service has the ability to send a page down to the device.

How did Volantis become aware of this problem?

I’ve worked out a basic time-line for this. iOS 4 was released in late June. We first became aware of the problem about a week later, because one of our European operator partners was doing some testing. They hit a website with an iPhone 3G running iOS 4, and noticed the graphical problems. They contacted Apple directly, and got a reply telling them “that’s how it’s meant to work”. That’s when they came to us.

We contacted Apple on July 6th and got told that using the User-Agent Header wasn’t “a good solution”. This is a standard that is specifically used to deal with device issues and for gathering statistics! I also asked them about UAProf (User Agent Profiles) – it’s an Open Mobile Alliance standard whose sole purpose is to provide web-servers with information about the device’s capabilities, so that the server can optimize the pages. Again, Apple wasn’t interested. But we’re still in contact with them, trying to get this sorted.

We’ve also had an urgent call from an enterprise customer who again found problems during user experience testing. Someone happened to test their product on an iPhone 3G running iOS 4. We sent them our solution based on sending the page down to the device – and that worked for them. Unfortunately it was specifically tailored for the customer, so we’re working on trying to make this a widely useable solution.

What does Volantis think the ideal outcome of this is? What do you want to happen next?

The absolute minimum that we need is for them to make a one-character change to the header settings for the different devices. Just to tell us whether it’s an iPhone 3 or an iPhone 4. That’s all we need: one character. What would be best for iPhone 4 users is if Apple starts to use UAProf to provide servers with information about their devices display capability. There are plenty of websites out there that can use that information automatically to improve the web performance. If Apple would just supply that information, iPhone 4 browsers would notice a huge visual improvement on their web browsing.

The same website can have a lot of different devices with different capabilities all accessing it using the same software – Android is a good example. Do they suffer from the same problem?

No. We’ve got over 7,000 devices in our device repository that provide us with information about their capabilities. Apart from one or two where there was an acknowledged bug in the device, we’ve never had a problem. They all provide some information that allows us to identify the software and the hardware.iOS 4

About Cian O' Sullivan

Ace reporter, Cian, has moved on from GoMo News. He is currently the office manager for Photocall Ireland - Ireland's premier news and PR photography agency. You can check out the site at www.photocallireland.com. If you want to contact him directly about anything, Cian's new email is cian at photocallireland dot com.
This article was published in Mobile Web, iphone, mobile browsers, mobile news and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to iPhone 4 owners get second rate experience on mobile web

  1. Thomcarl says:

    I submit that for a true 2nd rate experience read GOMO.

  2. JJ Mackey says:

    The thing second rate is your tagline…
    If it’s the same as the 3G or 3Gs then how is that second rate? It’s the same, not better not worse, not 2nd rate…
    Besides, I didn’t expect high res graphics browsing on a mobile device….

  3. honkj says:

    ———-
    And that makes it very difficult to tailor your website to create the experience on both devices.
    ————–

    this has got to take the cake as the most moronic statement to date about mobile computing…

    a Website should ONLY make ONE web experience in EVERY circumstance… if this were not the case, there are 80 different android devices, ALL with different configurations of the screen and keyboard and their horrific variation of OS’s… a Website trying to “tailor” to the huge numbers of fragmented Android designs along with iOS devices would be a very smart challenged website….

    so smart challenged that they’d be out of business within a year….

    a Website’s responsibility is to design to HTML5 standards, PERIOD… this is the standard that everyone will and has adopted… a Screen on an iPhone 4 does just fine with ANY website that has adopted the standard.. same with any other iOS device…..

    if i’m on an iPad, or an iPhone, the Website should not care, and they don’t… the smart device is responsible for displaying the data… not the website.

    a smart phone company is responsible to design to HTML5 standards… PERIOD…. this is the standard that everyone will and has adopted…

    get it????

    geesh man….

  4. Trevor says:

    Paul Duffin (and Cian, the author of this article) need to differentiate between what Paul Duffin WANTS and what is correct. Calling something a flaw when it is technically correct is FUD at best. Sure, Paul WANTS the user agent header to tell him what display resolution the device has…or at least what hardware the device is. But that’s not what the user agent header is for.

    If you look at one of the most common user agent headers (in this case, IE6):
    Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.0)
    …you will see no sign of display resolution or information about hardware (beyond that it is hardware running Windows).

    Or how about:
    Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; U; Intel Mac OS X 10.6; en-US; rv:1.9.2.9) Gecko/20100824 Firefox/3.6.9
    …nothing about display resolution or any real information about the hardware (beyond the operating system, which does mention that it uses an Intel processor).

    In the case of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS, both running iOS 4, you get the same information–the operating system and not the hardware or display resolution. Some phones do put that information into the user agent header, but it is hardly required, or even correct procedure.

    In short: the issue discussed is not a flaw, article is FUD.

  5. Walt French says:

    Guess if Apple gave a rat about these people they’d have joined the OMA that they tout. A bunch of other firms are listed, but I didn’t see Apple.

    And what does OMA do? They provide various dumbed-down capability descriptions for minimal phones, many hostile to the “full internet” on the phone that Apple HAS espoused.

  6. Shock Me says:

    Or they could just load a browser like iCab Mobile and change their browser agent setting to Safari 5.0 for Mac.

  7. VaughnSC says:

    This is a whiny non-issue.

    Both screens (Retina, non-Retina) are the same size. Layout should therefore remain the same.
    Sharper text incurs no extra overhead, but why should a site dictate that my thumbnail-sized images be twice the resolution (and soak up four times my bandwidth), especially since data plans are not necessarily unlimited.

    “that’s how it’s meant to work”
    Good call, Apple.

  8. Brian says:

    First you say it’s a huge problem, then you give your very simple work around. Pretty funny. And then you talk about performance. For top performance, just send the lower res photo.

    Yeah, the iPhone 4 screen is twice as resolute. But you don’t really need that for the web, and the screen is still the same size. You can’t even SEE the pixels they are so small. You are making a huge issue out of nothing. Just treat the iPhone 4 the same as the iPhone 3. No problems whatsoever.

    The high res screen is more for other purposes, like viewing HD video without conversion to lower res, etc..

  9. Steve Phillippy says:

    I wish you could turn “off” the setting that tells web sites you are using an iphone, I HATE when a web site insists on sending their site as a mobile site rather than its standard site. Facebook is a prime example. (I know you can click at the bottom of FB to show full site, but what a pain, and many sites don’t even do that much)

  10. J. A. Hay says:

    Except for websites wanting to be able to tailor ads to devices and wanting to gather user data, I doubt that most websites are going to really provide different “experiences” for all of the different devices out there. To imply that being unable to distinguish a device provides a second rate experience, sounds a bit stretched. There seems to be a lot that isn’t said here about what exactly this enhanced user experience might be. I have this nagging feeling that maybe it isn’t really to provide a better experience for the user so much as it is to provide better data to advertisers and “better” ads for the user. If so, I’ll happily keep my inferior experience. Maybe you could be a little clearer about what exactly I am missing otherwise this just sounds like BS.

  11. Rob says:

    To quote Brian – take it away brian and I will finish.

    First you say it’s a huge problem, then you give your very simple work around. Pretty funny. And then you talk about performance. For top performance, just send the lower res photo.

    Yeah, the iPhone 4 screen is twice as resolute. But you don’t really need that for the web, and the screen is still the same size. You can’t even SEE the pixels they are so small. You are making a huge issue out of nothing. Just treat the iPhone 4 the same as the iPhone 3. No problems whatsoever.

    The high res screen is more for other purposes, like viewing HD video without conversion to lower res, etc..

    Beyond all true and good points that Brian makes this article lacks any adult perspective beyond what is clearly their on experience of arguing with apple over a feature change they want. Lets not take half a minute to relfect that Apple single handedly REINVENTED and REINVIGORATED the entire mobile market. NAh lets just trash their entire product line’s rep because they did not do what we wanted and then whine that an internal IT department had to build some of their own work around code. God forbid, what is the world coming too, we should know they need point and click networking in order to make it work. — Come on guys. its not that you had not point its that your point was the only thing you thought of and this is not news its just flaming Apple or a tiny issue masquerading as news. WOW. someone needs to go take a prozac or get laid or something. Jeesh. frankly I agree that it is likely that some narcissistic marketing coder is pissed that apple will not make it easy for him to collect product specific data without having do a little query work.

  12. Frank Gudison says:

    Just browsing and saw the head line, “second rate” (it IS a little harsh) but guaranteed to bring out the Apple fan boys. For the record I don’t personally own an iPhone, although I do use one at work for testing my web sites. I can probably guess which of the respondents does!!!

    @honkj – You must be living in a fantasy land, I guess your email address must be peter.pan@never.never.land, because that is probably when the HTML 5 / CSS 3 specifications will be complete. At least if Apple and the other browser vendors have their way!! Sorry, couldn’t resist the NeverNever bit!! ;-)

    @Trevor – Read the HTTP specification of User-Agent.

    @VaughanSC – Just because the image is double the resolution doesn’t mean it takes 4 times the bandwidth. Compression pretty much guarantees that it isn’t although it does depend on the image content and format.

    @Brian – Careful, Apple don’t like it when people dis their screen!! ;-)

    @Rob – All hail the mighty Apple, saviour of the mobile market!! ;-)

    Ok, fun over!!

    I am guessing that Apple don’t differentiate between the two not because they can’t but because they want to distort the analytics figures so it makes it appear that more people have bought the iPhone 4 than really have. Increased market share does have some advantages, e.g. it is a factor in deciding which browsers and phones I have to test my sites on.

    From a web site developer’s perspective browser vendors seem to go out of their way to make it difficult for us. HTML 5 and CSS 3 have not helped, in fact they have just made it worse. I hold out very little hope that they ever will.

    Where did I put that ActionScript book……..

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  14. Pingback: Is it right to take a bite from the Apple? | Volantis – Mob-rule Blog

  15. I delight in, result in I found exactly what I used to be having a look for. You’ve ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

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