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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Vodacom injecting a banner into mobile sites

Bannerized Twitter

This morning while I was in a doctor's waiting room, I thought I'd pass the time by checking out twitter and some other mobile sites. To my surprise I found Vodacom has started injecting code for a banner into sites I visit with my standard phone browser.

Link expired!

What is worse, sites that require logging in (such as Twitter and every single Google mobile site I use) are broken by this meddling, this is the error page displayed when trying to log onto any of these pages.

This is (in my opinion) a really unethical practice on Vodacom's part. Mobile screen real estate is limited enough as it is, without having extra text and images wasting more space. It would be understandable (not the broken logins, of course) if I didn't pay for data, but I pay per meg (and 3g data isn't cheap to start with) so this is really unacceptable.

Fortunately the industrious guys on the MyBroadband forums have already picked up on this and found a solution, just remove the proxy on the phone's internet connection. The following step-by-step instructions posted by joelus do the job on his Nokia E61, my Nokia N95, and presumably all Symbian Nokia models:

Cleared proxy Non-bannerized Twitter

1) Go to 'Tools' on the menu
2) Go to 'Settings'
3) Go to 'Connection'
4) Go to 'Access points'
5) Open the vodacom access point - On mine it was called Internet.GPRS
6) Go to 'Options' - 'Advanced Settings'
7) Remove the Proxy serv. address
8) Viola, no more banner!

Alternatively, using Opera Mini bypasses the problem altogether.

[Update 26/06/2008]

It turns out this is part of a Vodacom effort to make browsing easier for users by reformatting sites designed for desktop browsers, similar to Opera Mini. Apparently Vodafone already does this elsewhere. Unfortunately they didn't have the foresight to warn developers of this (see the thread linked above, at least two mobile app developers complain about the effect on their products).

There are some other nasty side effects as well. Nigel Choi and Luca Passani describe the effect this proxy level reformatting has on sites that automatically redirect to mobile versions, essentially bypassing the mobile redirect and rather serving up a mangled version of the desktop design. The discussion regarding the 'service' is getting rather heated, with the general feeling being that this should be an opt-in system, or at least have an opt-out option.

[Update 27/06/2008]

This is spreading to a couple of different threads (here, here and here) on MyBroadband, and it seems certain applications are affected as well. Simondingle reported on Twitter that Fring is broken thanks to this ballsup and Zandberg on MyAdsl reported at least 14 sites and apps that are broken as well. Last but not least it seems that all downloads over 1Mb in size fail as well.

The bog slow SA press has started picking up on this at last, ITWeb mentioned the customer complaints and concerns in their article on it yesterday.

This really is shocking, Vodacom is essentially using the public as subjects for an alpha test of their technology. Apparently even their support staff are now suggesting the droves of irate customers that complain to disable the proxy setting on their phone if they can (some models don't allow manual modification of connection profiles).

[Update 30/06/2008]

And the issue continues to draw attention! FMTech are carrying an article about customers' unhappiness regarding this fiasco (this blog even got quoted, though not directly credited). It seems from the article and a letter posted on the nicharalambous blog that the Internet Society of South Africa (ISOC-ZA) are getting in on it as well, and have condemned Vodacom for the move. Interestingly they note that Vodacom may well be 'blocking' sites and applications that may be offering services which 'threaten it's business' and are calling for Vodacom to disclose all sites which they block.

On MyBroadband's ongoing thread about the topic (13 pages as of writing!), Vodacom's online representative admits that they "did not expect so many 'problematic' sites". He admitted "In speaking with the other Vodafone countries who implemented this first, they pretty much had the same experience". Surely it would have made sense to include these other company's 'white lists' from the get go? I'm pretty sure many of the major problem sites (such as Twitter and Facebook) would already have been identified by them?


[Update 10/07/20080

This whole issue seems to be slowly cooling down, with Vodacom having made a concerted effort to deal with users' complaints. This is case-by-case though and I do have to wonder how many less-savvy user have just been assuming they are doing something wrong and just not reported site problems. In the same thread mentioned above on MyBroadand, Vodacom's representative claims that "first results that came back from the lower-end handset user surveys gave a 88% 'improved' browsing experience". I'd love to know how frequently their respondents make use of anything other than the VLive site though. I did particularly enjoy his comment hon how they (Vodacom) have been hit by this problem:

I think we can now officially declare Vodacom to be properly beaten up, sh@t out, kicked in the groin, spat at, made out to be idiots and general achieved status slightly lower than snail poo on how we deployed this thing......

Made out? I'd prefer to think they were idiots about how they handled it and stubborn ones at that. At least there seems to be steady progress.


Simon said...

I also can't get Fring to log in since the Vodacom meddling began. They've essentially taken the best mobile data offering in the market and nerfed it with this move. Not clever.

Thanks for the proxy info. I'm going to try that on my Nokia Navigator.

Coopz said...

South Africa is a country with some of the highest WAP/Mobile internet page views in the world (ADMOB report), on par with the UK. Surely this means that South Africans "Get it" and know how to use WAP on their mobiles. We certainly dont need VODABOMB's help - which makes things worse and not better. The business manager/marketing twit responsible for this descision should be publically hauled out in to the street and hung from the nearest tree.

I PAY to access the internet, and at no point ageed that you could modify what I was looking at! Do you think this is CHINA? It's an unethical, unconstitutional, anti-competitive invasion of my privacy and security.
What else are they recording/ changing that they're not telling us.

Flint said...

Even if I was to believe that the intention was innocent (yeah I know, naive) and that Vodacom is just trying to make life easier for consumers, this is not the way to go about it. A small test audience that frequents many different online services on a wide range of handsets would have been far more sensible.

feeshy said...

Proxy change works great with 6110 Navigator, and I assume with all S60 v3 devices.

It also broke my GooSync conduits. Vodacom is becoming my most hated company is SA even Eskom and Telkom look good next to them.

Flint said...

I haven't synced to GooSync since the change, I've already disabled my proxy though so hopefully it won't have an effect.

My wife's phone on the other hand (SE w580) doesn't allow modification of the connection settings so she's not having the best luck with stuff.

james said...

agree with Coopz south africa is one of the world's most developed mobile internet markets this is terrible for the local ecosystem especially developers looking to create the next Mxit - is it still a problem?

Flint said...

I disabled the proxy on my phone as soon as that solution became known, so I really have no idea how badly it's still affecting other people.
I did get a notification that someone recently posted on the thread on MyBroadband, so I'm guessing the problem persists for some people.


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