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51Degrees – Better User Experiences With Mobile Device Detection

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51Degrees gives website owners an ability to determine the model of device accessing a website (screen dimensions, supported input methods, etc). Businesses using 51Degrees can then use this information to enhance their analytics systems, optimize their page content and provide better user experiences. Here is our recent interview with James Rosewell, founder and CEO of 51Degrees:

James RosewelQ: For those who have never heard of it, tell us something more about 51Degrees and your products?

A: I started 51Degrees as an open source project in mid-2009 to address the problems many designers and developers had adapting content for a variety of screen sizes. At the core of the solution is an ability to determine the model of device accessing a web site and return information about it such as the physical screen dimensions, supported input methods, whether the device is a smartphone, small screen mobile phone, tablet, TV, desktop or laptop. Businesses using the product can then use this information to enhance their analytics systems and to optimize their page content. For example the optimum position and size of adverts on a web site that generates revenue from advertising varies between smartphone, tablets and desktops. 51Degrees provides the intelligence needed to optimally position such advertising to maximize click through rate.

The open source project grew and in 2011 we adopted a freemium business model where extra information and more frequent updates were chargeable. The company grew from there and now consists of more than 16 employees. Our Data Operators work with device vendors to add over 200 new web enabled devise to the system each week. Premium subscribers now range from businesses such as eBay, Unilever, IBM and Microsoft to small businesses operating WordPress sites. Over 1.5 million web sites use 51Degrees.

Q: What is Cloud Device Detection and what are main benefits for the users?

A: The original 51Degrees solution is on premise, meaning the information about all possible devices is stored on the same computer that is running the web site. As a result the process of providing the information about the device is extremely quick, typically under 1 millisecond. The data files are between 80mb and 130mb and are updated automatically when new web enabled devices are released. Part of the reason our data files are relatively large is because we support all types of web traffic including search engine crawlers and applications. Uniquely we also record information which enables us to provide an indication of the validity of a given result eliminating false positives.

The on premise solution works very well for all types of web site. However some owners of non-mission critical web sites felt that the complexity of storing and updating a data file is too complex and requested that we provide an option to make the same service accessible via the cloud. We’ve responded with a solution which uses multiple global data centers to service requests from the nearest geographic data center to our customer. This results in the request taking 10s of milliseconds rather than less than 1. For many web sites this performance is acceptable and they prefer the simplicity.


Related: New Startup PageCloud Aims To Change Website Design Forever

Q: Could you tell us how your Image Optimizer Works?

A: The World Wide Web is inefficient. If a mobile phone screen has a width of 320 pixels and an image is sent to that screen that is 640 pixels wide then much of the image data sent to the screen is not needed. This extra data has to be transmitted over a network which is prone to performance fluctuations. We’ve all been on WiFi connections in coffee shops or trains that have been slower than a low speed mobile data connection. Reducing the amount of data sent when a web page is rendered is essential to improve performance.

51Degrees’ free image optimizer will delay fetching the image until the rest of the page has been loaded. It will then work out the size of the space required for the image and request an image of precisely the right size. Of course the web server needs to be intelligent and be able to return images of the size requested quickly. 51Degrees server side components perform the image size optimization. The solution can also be used with commercial image optimization services typically provided by Content Delivery Networks.

This approach is simple to administer and automatically reduces the amount of image data sent to any screen. Did I mention it’s free?!


Related: Redid – Pixel-Perfect Images For Every Screen

Q: What were the main challenges you faced in developing the company?

A: The business started as an accident when I took some time off from consulting to spend with my family and wrote some open source software in the spare time. Realizing that there was a commercial opportunity if developed in the right way become apparent a year later. I explored various different options to build a business including partnerships or seed funding. However in the end my wife Ruth become convinced we should invest our own time and money. Inevitably things took longer than planned and we ended up spending more money than we originally envisaged! Ruth now looks after the finances and operates a tight ship.

The UK government now provides some fantastic support for technology startups. There’s grants available from InnovateUK, technology assistance from the Digital Economy Catapult, and incubators available from organizations like Wayra to name but a fraction. The UK is considerably more tech startup savvy than it was 5 years ago.

Related: SimplyGoLive Makes Professional Web Design Accessible To Everyone

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: Organisations that measure their web site by profit consistently find there’s a benefit to be had by using 51Degrees device detection in addition to Responsive Web Design (RWD) techniques. Improving page load time, optimising user experience for different devices and providing greater insight are all part of realising such benefits. We’ll help more businesses understand and deploy these benefits ultimately making the WWW that little bit more efficient.

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