Multi-server Applications on the Wireless Web

Here we will discuss how we can build Web applications that can serve wireless clients according to client capabilities.

What are the challenges?
Development of mobile applications is often highly dependent on the target platform. When developing any mobile content portal we generally think about the accessibility of that portal through the mobile browsers (like Nokia, Openwave, i-mode browsers, AvantGo in PDA etc) which generally use markup languages like WML, HDML, cHTML, XHTML etc. We want to ensure that the browser gets the compatible markup language and can present the portal content in correct format. In short, creating a wireless application that works on as many devices as possible is not difficult, it’s useless. If you invest a huge amount of resources today, chance are that a new device will be shipped tomorrow and you‘ll need to tweak your application again.

What is the solution?
Wireless Universal Resource File (WURFL) is an open source project that uses XML to describe the capabilities of wireless devices. It is a database (some call it a “repository”) of wireless device capabilities. With WURFL, figuring out which phone works with which technology is a whole lot easier. We can use the WURFL to figure out device capabilities programmatically and to serve different content to different devices dynamically, depending on the device accessing the content.

Here are some of the things WURFL can help you know about a device:

  • Screen size of the device
  • Supported image, audio, video, ringtone, wallpaper, and screensaver formats
  • Whether the device supports Unicode
  • Whether it is a wireless device? What markup does it support?
  • What XHTML MP/WML/cHTML features does it support? Does it work with tables? Can it work with standard HTML?
  • Does it have a pointing device? Can it use CSS?
  • Does it have Flash Lite/J2ME support? What features?
  • Can images be used as links on this device? Can it display image and text on the same line?
  • If it is an iMode phone, what region is it from? Japan, US or Europe?
  • Does the device auto-expand a select drop down? Does it have inline input for text fields?
  • What SMS/MMS features are supported?

WURFL framework also contains tools, utilities and libraries to parse and query the stored data in WURFL. WURFL API is available in many programming languages, including Java, PHP, .Net, Ruby, and Python. Various open source tools are build around this WURL – HAWHAW(PHP), WALL(Java) , HAWHAW.NET (.Net framework) , HawTag (JSP Custom tag library etc).

How does WURFL work?
When a mobile or non-mobile web browser visits your site, it sends a User Agent along with the request for your page. The user agent contains information about the type of device and browser that is being used. Unfortunately, this information is very limited and at times is not representative of the actual device. Using WURFL API, the framework then extracts the capabilities associated with that device. Based on the device capabilities, the framework creates the dynamic content – WML, HTML, XHTML etc.

Though there is concern with the extra latency time taken due to user-agent look up, it’s worth to use it looking at its advantages. One of the biggest advantages is regarding a new device if and when it enters the market, we will not need to change our application, but just update the WURFL to keep the application optimized. It is very simple and the architecture is sound. Go for it!!!