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01 December 2008, 10:31

MIT builds mobile-optimised site around open source

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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has built a special version of its website for mobile devices, designed to give quick, convenient reference by students, staff and visitors with smartphones, PDAs and other small-screen, low-power devices. The site launched in July, at the same time as the iPhone 3G, and uses a mixture of open source technologies to detect the client device in use and deliver an optimised version of the site. For instance, device detection uses Python code to parses the phone's user-agent string and look it up in the WURFL mobile-device database.

Supported clients include the iPhone and iPod Touch, Blackberry and Windows Mobile smartphones, PalmOS devices and basic featurephones. Content is tailored to the device in use: maps and images scaled to fit the screen, controls formatted to suit that platform, links inserted to make voice calls and so on. The new site includes directories of people and buildings, schedules of events and services and more. Future plans include secure X.509 authentication, personalisation and control of students' TechCash credit accounts.

MIT is not the first educational institution to make such a move; Texas' Abilene Christian University issues all new students with an iPod Touch or iPhone and has a mobile site designed solely for those devices. However, MIT's design is open, platform-agnostic and the back-end code will be available for others to adapt and use.

MIT's Andrew Yu, the Mobile Devices Platform Project Manager, says the site set a record for page loads when it was launched on the same day as the iPhone 3G. He estimates that MIT spent some $200,000 to create the site. The code should be available to others in early 2009.


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