Partial Overview of Mobile Content Tools

Working at AdMob I’ve started paying more attention to the mobile content and application side of things than I had previously. I guess that comes along with the territory when running an advertising network. One of the parts of my job that keeps giving me a warm fuzzy feeling is knowing that we’re helping people who are building mobile websites who might not otherwise have a realistic method for making the money necessary to keep their project going. I think that rocks. People are able to try out new sites, experiment with developing a mobile service or a mobile side to their existing service and make money over the short term while proving the validity of their idea.

It’s already happening – the writing is all the wall, mobile advertising is driving an explosion in mobile services that wouldn’t or couldn’t exist under the models provided before. Of course I hope AdMob (my employer) continues to play a principal role in driving that forward. But even if we don’t for some reason, I think the trends we’re seeing now are only going to continue. So now that the arrow is good and sharp, how do we make sure that it’s got some wood behind it? Now that we’ve got a way to get some scratch into the hands of publishers and an open market where advertisers can drive traffic to their site/service/application, the next area that becomes a bottleneck is getting that mobile content up and online.

The set of devices I was playing with

I spent a bunch of time yesterday and today with my bag o’ devices, a set of links to existing mobile content, and as many tools as I could get through. Here’s a rundown of what I was able to hit and some of the more interesting stuff that I wasn’t able to, hopefully just a small part of what’s out there. There’s everything from point solutions for mobilizing a blog through frameworks for writing adaptive webpages tuned to specific device capabilities.

Programming Libraries and Platforms – if you’re already “developing”, here are a few tools that you might be able to hook in to speed things along. By no means a complete list, let me know if there’s something I missed you think should be in here.

  • WURFL – WURFL (the Wireless Universal Resource FiLe) is one of the first things that pops to mind for folks inside the industry when you talk about mobile site creation and supporting tools. Currently the project consists of a large XML database of device descriptions for all sorts of wireless devices and libraries in a number of different programming languages that can be used to access those descriptions. As a programmer you download the XML file, download the libraries for the language you’re developing in, and insert calls into your pages to query the capability of the device you’re talking to. The device detection is based mostly on the User Agent passed in by the browser on the device, and the kinds of attributes you can ask WURFL for once you know what device you’re dealing with are things like “does this device support WAP push?” and “can this device play streamed video?” WURFL is a fantastic tool, and I’ve made use of it for a bunch of different projects. However it’s really meant to be used by folks with a knowledge of wireless and who know what kinds of questions they should be asking and what to do in response. In terms of the overall ecosystem of web content for mobile devices, WURFL is like one of the first amino acids. It’s an essential building block for what’s to come, but it’s very far from a living breathing being who you would enjoy interacting with.
  • WALL – WALL is the next step up the ladder in terms of abstraction from WURFL. When using WALL pages are written in a generic tag set that the WALL system turns into different dialects of WML/CHTML/XHTML depending on the device it’s currently talking to. Very nice, it abstracts away all the domain specific knowledge about the hundreds of variants of systems out in the market and reduces the task faced by a mobile developer down to learning the WALL tag set. It is a new tag set however, so those of you hoping that you can just plonk down WALL on your site and all will be magically mobile enabled – that just isn’t the case. Also, the system is available for Java only right now. It would rock if the knowledge within WALL were abstracted out into a description file like WURFL has so that the tags could be implemented in other languages. The stuff is open source though, so there’s nothing stopping someone with the right mix of time and motivation from going in there and hacking it up.
  • Emoveo UAP – This one I just ran across while at CTIA last week. It’s a commercial platform, no open source here, doing much the same thing as WALL it seems. Creating pages on the platform requires some use of specialized markup, however they support all kinds of things like AJAX, Flash, video transcoding, and payment handling. Anyone who’s used this care to chime in on how it went and what your impressions were?
  • Stuff I haven’t had any time to look at:
    • Mobile Portal Toolkit for Websphere – I’m assuming has more of an enterprise bent, but you never know till you try.
    • Apache Cocoon – has much of the groundwork needed to take an existing set of content and transform it into a format that a handset could understand

Site Creation – If you have an idea for a mobile site, you’re starting from ground zero, and you’re not really a programmer or looking to become one. These are tools that let you put stuff up online accessible from mobile devices.

  • Winksite – Winksite lets you build a mobile site by pulling together a set of available mobiles you can turn on and off for your individual site and configure to your liking. There’s a blog module, syndicated news feeds, chat, guestbook, surveys, links, and a bunch of other stuff. Folks who hit you’re site from a mobile get a version delivered optimized for their device, and folks who hit it from the web get a small emulator window popped up that they can use to interact with. I have a ThisIsMobility Winksite for this blog. Most of the services available on a Winksite site are available in syndicated format so you can pull them out and expose them elsewhere also.
  • SocialText Miki – I always make the mistake of calling SocialText a wiki company until I go to their homepage and get reminded there’s a bunch of other stuff they’re working on. The wiki is pretty central however, a wiki being a site which allows visitors to easily change and amend the content of the site they’re visiting (using a wiki to define a wiki, how’s that for meta?). The wikis at SocialText include an interface for mobile devices that allows you to browse and modify that content from a handset. So if whatever you have to put up online is supposed to encourage a lot of community interaction and feedback, this might be the easiest way to get it together.
  • TagTag and dotMP – TagTag is much like Winksite, and dotMP is a top level domain name (.mp) tied together with tools for making a mobile enabled site. I had fooled around with dotMP a while ago and liked it, but I’ve never tried TagTag. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get either working this weekend to play around with them. TagTag allowed me to create accounts, I think, but I was never able to log in with them. Attempting to have it send me my password to see if I had mistyped it told me an email was sent, but I never got one. And trying to create the account again resulted in an error message saying that the account already existed. Not sure what’s up there. And dotMP is a commercial offering now, about $50 a year for, which I figured I could deal with to try out the tools again. Unfortunately I can’t get the credit card transaction to process there. Their press page has stuff from 2004, so maybe they’re inactive now but the servers are still up and running till the users with existing registrations run through their registration periods. Anyone know?

Blogging, RSS, and Transcoding – Plugins to make your existing blog mobile directly, mobilizing the RSS version, or trancoding from full HTML.

  • WordPress Mobile – a plugin for WordPress by Alex King that redirects users of mobile devices to a slimmed down XHTML version of the blog. It determines if a request is for a mobile device by using some simple substring matches against the User Agent, or you can direct folks to the mobile version directly once you have it up (I have it installed on my blog here, check it out). An excellent way to mobilize a blog and have it “just work”. Of course this assumes you have or want to use WordPress for whatever you’re doing. And this is XHTML only, it doesn’t create a WML1.x version of your site. What’s the difference and why should you care? It depends on your audience. Out here in Silicon Valley where all the phones are relatively new you find a lot of XHTML support. But out there on the wild wild web at large, support for XHTML can be spotty at best, and definitely tends toward the “quirky” side.
  • WordPress WAP – there’s also a plugin for WordPress that does WML format output. It doesn’t pick up visitors and automatically redirect them, and definitely doesn’t seem as mature as the XHTML version. But it’s there and has been working pretty well for me (yep, I’m running this one as well). It would be great to merge these two plugins and redirect the user according to what their browser can display. Maybe a project for another weekend.
  • RSS tools – another option if you’re outputting RSS is to get your readers to view the content through a feed reader. Great if your audience is already reading feeds, but it can be quite a cliff to overcome for a casual audience. There are a bunch of different ways to read feeds on mobile devices:
  • Transcoders are sites that take existing web content and try to bash it into a readable form on a mobile device. Generally by stripping out most of the stuff known to be problematic to mobiles (most CSS and javascript, sometimes transforming of eliminating frames, resizing images, etc). The result tends to be kinda fugly most of the time, but if you’re putting some content together knowing that it might go through a transcoder you may end up with decent results. And then you can put up static content and leave the transformation up to an external service (or component if you choose to run a transcoder for your own content). Here are a few transcoders up online that you can fool around with:
    • Skweezer – mixes in some extra features for registered users like email and favorites.
    • Phonifier – Phonifier is available open source. If you like what it does but just wished it did X, you can download it, hack it, and run your own copy. I’ve fooled around with it some, it’s a great project.
    • IYHY – if you create a free account and login, saves your mobile browsing history for you.

I was actually going to go through some “On device portal” style application tools as well. Some folks who do widget sets really hate that term (on device portal), but I think it explains things fairly well for people familiar with component based development and mobile portals. All both of us, we understood it perfectly the first time we heard it. I’m going to have to save that one for another time, but the basic idea is taking your content and wrapping it in a simple mostly prebuilt application that runs on the platforms you would like to reach. The idea holds pretty strong parallels with the CDROM industry that existed for PCs when CD drives were all the rage and networks were still slow. Except the limiting factor in this case isn’t always the network, it’s more the UI of the device. That’s a discussion for another time though.

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6 Responses to Partial Overview of Mobile Content Tools

  1. Pingback: Smoothplanet - .mobi ajax and the mobile web

  2. Anders Borg says:

    I hope this comment makes a bit more sense than the first one. Looks like a database corruption to me.

    Great roundup!

    Unfortunately I don’t use WordPress but Google Blogger, and it’s a bit late to change now. Blogger has no means for converting to WML etc, so I instead transcode my RSS feeds to whatever formats I need (WML, mobile-optimized HTML and “full blast” HTML). Practical scripts no doubt, but they don’t give me the possibility to provide the full blog archive on a mobile device, only what Blogger chooses to put in the RSS feed.

  3. miker says:

    Good point, there definitely are limitations to publishing through RSS trascoding.

  4. nima says:

    hi me mobile nokia n95 seded me

  5. bey rakdar says:

    Can you help me switch my chinese astrology data or contents into mobile contents for mobile users

  6. Mike – I was really pleased to see you write this article, it covers what I too have found over the last six months. We are a Boise Idaho start -up named and have plenty of reason to believe every word you have stated.

    We would ask you to continue these findings and post them, as you GET IT.

    David Clemons
    President – Founder

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