Category: Mobile

HTTP Compression – Have you checked ALL your browsers?

Apache has been my web server of choice for more than a decade. It was one of the first things I learned to compile and manage properly on linux, so I have a great affinity for it. However, there are still a few gotchas that are out there that make me grateful that I still know my way around the httpd.conf file.

HTTP compression is something I have advocated for a long time (just Googled my name and compression – I wrote some of that stuff?) as just basic common sense.
Make Stuff Smaller. Go Faster. Cost Less Bandwidth. Lower CDN Charges. [Ok, I can’t be sure of the last one.]

But, browsers haven’t always played nice. At least up until about 2008. After then, I can be pretty safe in saying that even the most brain-damaged web and mobile browsers could handle pretty much any compressed content we threw at them.

Oh, Apache! But where were you? There is an old rule that is still out there, buried deep in the httpd.conf file that can shoot you. I actually caught it yesterday when looking at a site using IE8 and Firefox 8 measurement agents at work. Firefox was about 570K while IE was nearly 980K. Turns out that server was not compressing CSS and JS files sent to IE due to this little gem:

 BrowserMatch \bMSIE !no-gzip gzip-only-text/html

This was in response to some issues with HTTP Compression in IE 5 and early versions of IE6 – remember them? – and was appropriate then. Guess what? If you still have this buried in your Apache configuration (or any web server or hardware device that does compression for you), break out the chisels: it’s likely your httpd.conf file hasn’t been touched since the stone age.

Take. It. Out. NOW!

Your site shouldn’t see traffic from any browsers that don’t support compression (unless they’re robots and then, oh well!) so having rules that might accidentally deny compression might cause troubles. Turn the old security ACL rule around for HTTP compression:

Allow everything, then explicitly disable compression.

That should help prevent any accidents. Or higher bandwidth bills due to IE traffic.

OCSP and the GoDaddy Event

The GoDaddy DNS event (which I wrote about here) has been the subject of many a post-mortem and water-cooler conversation in the web performance world for the last week. In addition to the many well-publicized issues that have been discussed, there was one more, hidden effect that most folks may not have noticed – unless you use Firefox.

Firefox uses OCSP lookups to validate the certificate of SSL certificates. If you go to a new site and connect using SSL, Firefox has a process to check the validity of SSL cert. The results are of the lookup cached and stored for some time (I have heard 3 days, this could be incorrect) before checking again.

Before the security wonks in the audience get upset, realize I’m not an OCSP or SSL expert, and would love some comments and feedback that help the rest of us understand exactly how this works. What I do know is that anyone who came to a site the relied on an SSL cert provided and/or signed by GoDaddy at some point in its cert validation path discovered a nasty side-effect of this really great idea when the GoDaddy DNS outage occurred: If you can’t reach the cert signer, the performance of your site will be significantly delayed.

Remember this: It was GoDaddy this time; next time, it could be your cert signing authority.

How did this happen? Performing an OCSP lookup requires a opening a new TCP connection so that an HTTP request can be made to the OCSP provider. A new TCP connection requires a DNS lookup. If you can’t perform a successful DNS lookup to find the IP address of the OCSP host…well, I think you can guess the rest.
Unlike other third-party outages, these are not ones that can be shrugged off. These are ones that will affect page rendering by blocking the downloading the mobile or web application content you present to customers.

I am not someone who can comment on the effectiveness of OCSP lookups in increasing web and mobile security. OCSP lookup for Firefox are simply one more indication of how complex the design and management of modern online applications is.

Learning from the near-disaster state and preventing it from happening again is more important that a disaster post-mortem. The signs of potential complexity collapse exist throughout your applications, if you take the time to look. And while something like OCSP may like like a minor inconvenience, when it affects a discernible portion of your Firefox users, it becomes a very large mouse scaring a very jumpy elephant.

Smartphones: On Moving Back To Blackberry

A couple of weeks ago, I moved my mobile life back to a Blackberry Bold 9700 from T-Mobile after being on a Dash 3G  for the last 6 months.

It’s like breathing air again.

Admittedly, I am not the typical modern smartphone user. I prefer a full keyboard over a touchscreen, and I still operate in a mainly text-based world. So the Blackberry is exactly what I need to get through my day. I get my work email fast, the GMail app is fantastic, and UMA is really an astounding thing.

When you compare the Bold 9700 to its predecessor in my life, it is like moving from a broken Windows 3.11 486DX to a new MacBook Pro. WinMo 6.5 is not a modern mobile platform and on the Dash 3G, it only gets worse.

It’s not T-Mobile’s fault that they have the Dash 3G. But I am glad it’s not with me anymore.

Compression and the Browser – Who Supports What?

The title is a question I ask because I hear so many different views and perspectives about HTTP compression from the people I work with, colleagues and customers alike.

There appears to be no absolute statement about the compression capabilities of all current (or in-use) browsers anywhere on the Web.
My standard line is: If your customers are using modern browsers, compress all text content — HTML (dynamic and static), CSS, XML, and Javascript. If you find that a subset of your customers have challenges with compression (I suggest using a cross-browser testing tool to determine this before your customers do), write very explicit regular expressions into your Web server or compression device configuration to filter the user-agent string in a targeted, not a global, way.

For example, last week I was on a call with a customer and they disabled compression for all versions of Internet Explorer 6, as the Windows XP pre-SP2 version (which they say you could not easily identify) did not handle it well. My immediate response (in my head, not out loud) was that if you had customers using Window XP pre-SP2, those machines were likely pwned by the Russian Mob. I find it very odd that an organization would disable HTTP compression for all Internet Explorer 6 visitors for the benefit of a very small number of ancient Windows XP installations.

Feedback from readers, experts, and browser manufacturers that would allow me to compile a list of compatible browsers, and any known issues or restrictions with browsers, would go a long way to resolving this ongoing debate.

UPDATE: Aaron Peters pointed me in the direction of BrowserScope which has an extensive (exhaustive?) list of browsers and their capabilities. If you are seeking the final word, this is a good place to start, as it tests real browsers being used by real people in the real world.

UPDATE – 09/24/2012: I found a site today that was still configured incorrectly. Please, please, check your HTTP Compression settings for ALL browsers your customers use. Including you MOBILE clients.

T-Mobile Dash 3G: Negative Final Impressions

When it comes to the T-Mobile Dash 3G, I have some simple advice.

Don’t.

The longer I have this phone, the more of a clunker it becomes. My list of complaints include:

  • In the last 24 hours, the battery has started to drain for no apparent reason – and yes, WiFi, Bluetooth, and background apps are all off. There appears to be no reason or logic behind this. The phone drained itself sitting on my bedside table last night, supposedly doing it’s standby routine
  • Windows Mobile 6.1 is underpowered and ancient. There are a lack of (Social Media) apps for the Windows Mobile platform. All development seems to be focused on the iPhone, Android, and Blackberry platforms. And with Windows Mobile 6.5/7.0 delayed or underwhelming, it’s not going to get any better anytime soon
  • It has weird behavior with bluetooth headsets. For every call, you have to manually tell the phone that “Hey! How about setting this to handsfree?”
  • I got it for Active Sync, but frankly I could do better by hacking my way to near-Active Sync using Google Sync and routing my work email through a GMail account
  • 3G Maybe. The TMobile 3G network is definitely not developed outside of major metro centers. I spend most of my time in EDGE mode, so the upgrade I thought I was going isn’t really there

Overall, this phone gets a monstrous thumbs-down from me. But, I’m stuck with it. I can’t afford to replace it, and the more I handle it, the crankier I get. I’m to the point that I may drag my old, underpowered, EDGE Blackberry 8100 out of the drawer and stop using the Dash 3G altogether.

Buyer’s Remorse is sometimes hard to swallow. Looks like I have to swallow it for another 23 months.

T-Mobile Dash 3G: Continuing Impressions

I’ve now had my T-Mobile Dash 3G for nearly a month, and I can say that it is a very useful little mobile computing platform for someone who doesn’t need all the power of an iPhone (and who doesn’t what to pay the AT&T tax on mobile computing). After a month of use and thought, I thought it was time to update my first impressions.

The Good

  • Active Sync works like a dream with our work Exchange 2007 Server
  • Evernote Mobile is great for collecting stuff and works flawlessly.
  • Skype Mobile over WiFi rocks, and will be very useful if I ever get to travel outside the US and Canada again.
  • Threaded SMS conversations remind me of the old Treo 600 I once had. It is a nice touch that the Blackberry really didn’t do well.

The Bad

  • I’m not always sure where I am in the interface. The Windows Mobile platform that the Dash 3G uses makes it darn difficult to figure out where you are and how to get to where you want. I sometimes find myself navigating through a number of layers to find out how to get back to certain apps.
  • Files? Where are my files? It shouldn’t be this hard to figure out where images/videos/audio files are stored by the default applications.
  • Camera can too easily be set to video mode, and it is not intuitive how to switch it back to camera-only mode.
  • Lack of native Google Mobile app for email. I loved the GMail app for Blackberry. The only option I appear to have on the Dash 3G / Windows Mobile platform is their native IMAP client which is a clunky hack, IMHO.
  • No intuitive way to sync Google and Active Sync calendar and contacts, a la Google Sync for the Blackberry.
  • No intuitive way to join PEAP WiFi networks. The wireless network at my office uses PEAP to authenticate, which Windows Mobile, despite being a Windows-like product, appears to have no clue about. I have helped at least one person setup their iPhone to join the PEAP network without difficulty.

The Ugly

  • Why can’t the Shortcut key launch any app, not just the ones Windows Mobile wants you to launch. Mobile IE sucks compared to SkyFire, but I can’t immediately start SkyFire without going through those nasty, non-intuitive Windows to find it.
  • Why is sending an MMS so hard? It isn’t clear if you are doing the right thing, and I’m never sure if the damn thing has worked properly. This is a key functionality that needs to be fixed, ASAP.
  • Why offer the option to check for Windows Mobile Updates if you can’t connect to the server?
  • And, despite trying to hide it, it is still Windows. Occasionally apps just crash without warning, especially if the device has been on for more than 3-4 days continuously. I only had to restart my Blackberry when installing some apps and updating the firmware/OS.

As a smartphone, it is a good starter phone.

However, I am having some pretty large pangs of envy and regret about the myTouch, with full knowledge that the Android OS is not yet ready for the modern office environment, i.e. no ability to Active Sync. If Android gets Active Sync capabilities anytime soon, I will truly regret my decision to go with the Dash 3G.

Ratings:

OS: 4/10 – Still Windows. Can we hack Android with Active Sync onto this platform?

Apps: 4/10 – Complex menus. Lack of an App Store location or interesting/goofy utilities. Lacking Google apps (Google Sync and an independent GMail app).

Hardware: 7/10 – No light for the camera, keyboard a little small for Jolly Green Giant Hands, proprietary HTC plugs for headsets and power

Call Quality: 8.5/10 – Some fade out in quality when switching from 3G to EDGE

Data Quality: 5/10 – Mostly because I paid for 3G and I’m getting EDGE/GPRS in the Boston ‘burbs. T-Mobile’s slow roll of their 3G infrastructure shows

Do you need a smartphone?

In the rush to the mobile computing era, what is often lost by advocates of this technology are the actual needs of the modern mobile consumer. Do most users need to have a handheld computer with them at all times? Is that what they desire? What does the market say?

In March 2009, 23% of mobile phone sales in the US were smartphones. Yet this is where all the energy of tech writers and analysts is focused. What about the 77% of the market that uses what would be considered dumb-phones? Is there nothing interesting going on in this market?

Smartphone market share is growing, and quickly. But, if you step back and ask yourself what you want from your phone, your decision to buy a smartphone may start to slip a bit.

Go through a checklist of must haves before making a phone decision.

  • Do you need to check your email all the time?
  • Do you need access to social-networking sites?
  • Do you need access to your calendar?
  • Do you crave shiny new apps that entertain you?
  • Will this device be a single mobile computing/communication/entertainment device?
  • Do you need to make calls?
  • Do you need to take pictures?
  • Do you need to send SMS messages?

Advocates of smartphones will tell me that it is the fastest growing market share in the mobile phone market. Great.

But does the latest and greatest smartphone serve the needs that I have (or you have, or your mom has, or your sister has) for mobile communication?

I am an advocate for smartphones. I have one and I use it. I find that it serves the needs I have everyday. But I am not a phone-user. I am a data-user and a messaging-user. I have a massive phone plan, but unless I am travelling, I make very few calls (more due to my personality than anything, I suppose).

So I ask readers: do you carry more than one phone? Do you have a smartphone and a standard mobile phone? And if you do, why?

Is your smartphone a ball and chain for work, and when you aren’t working, you carry something that works for you? Do you have one plan for data and one for calling or messaging?

And if you have had a smartphone, have you found it a good thing? Or have you wished you could go back to something simpler?

T-Mobile Dash 3G – First Impressions

UPDATED: Impressions after the first month can be found here.

For the last 12-14 months, I have carried a Blackberry Pearl 8100 on my hip. And, as far as smartphones go, it served as a good, basic started phone. There were some issues though, including:

  • No push email, due to limited corporate licenses for the Blackberry Enterprise server and an addition $30/month cost for Enterprise Support through T-Mobile. I did get my work email, but it was through a hack, and my work calendar and contacts had to be supported through Google Sync on the desktop and on the phone.
  • Poor camera. It was a 1.3MP camera. The quality of the camera varied over time, especially through various OS upgrades I put the phone through.
  • Slow media support. Showing me the picture folder took up to 10 minutes, and got worse as more media was added

I was in the market for a new phone. The qualifications were:

  • Better Camera
  • 3G Support
  • Active Sync Support
  • Full physical keyboard
  • WiFi (optional)

As a T-Mobile customer, the Active Sync and physical keyboard ruled out the new myTouch. The battery life on the G1 ruled that machine out.

Then I learned about the Dash 3G on Monday. It was exactly what I wanted.

Based on the HTC Snap, this phone is a serious upgrade to the old EDGE/GPRS Dash, which had always interested me. But, I was not willing to settle for EDGE/GPRS speeds. And though the T-Mobile 3G network may not be as built out as the AT&T 3G network, it is likely to improve over time.

Now, I have had the Dash 3G since Wednesday night. Comments so far?

  • Moving contacts. This was sort of difficult, but it took only a few minutes once I had it sorted. Keeping my BlackBerry contacts synced with Google made this easy, as I exported my Google contacts, and imported them to Outlook
  • GMail support. It’s done through IMAP, which is great, but it created a whole bunch of new labels in GMail that weren’t there before.
  • Speed. Very fast, even when looking through folders of images.
  • Camera. While 2MP is pretty low-end these days, it’s perfect for what I’m looking for.
  • Ease of Use. Moving from one OS to another is always a challenge. But, Windows Mobile 6.1 benefits from being like Windows. And as much as you might disagree with that, it is a model that most of the world is used to.
  • Battery life. Not bad, but I am always power-conscious. I only turn the WiFi on at home, and I haven’t fire up the Bluetooth yet. Using mainly the 3G network, battery life appears to be quite good. I plan to put it through a drain test over the next 36-48 hours to see how long the battery truly lasts.

Overall, through nearly 2 days, I am very happy with the new phone. If you are looking for a work-ready phone on the T-Mobile network, I highly recommend moving to the Dash 3G.

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