Mobile news sites (early 2000s)

Argo Times, Freedom2 and various early mobile news sites

Published , updated by Richard GoodwinFiled under Projects

News on the go

Partly due to the company's work on thin clients, and partly because the boss got stuck at a wedding unable to get the rugby scores, I was put to work developing a number of "mobile" websites.

All formats

From left to right:

  • a WML phone (emulator);
  • two similar phone emus, possibly using reduced HTML as there's coloured text on the bottom;
  • a full HTML version of the site viewed in an old Internet Explorer;
  • and lurking in the bottom right is an "inverted" set top box (TV) version of the site, from nearly two decades before dark mode became a thing!

This was back before smartphones: early tests involved having a Palm III hard wired into the comms cabinet.  Thankfully the Palm V could connect via infrared to a mobile phone whole millimetres away - woohoo!  Later we were given access to the "latest" HDML and WML 'phones, including an Alcatel prototype that would completely lose all of its settings if it ever ran out of juice.

One of the pinnacles of this development was Freedom2 (not to be confused with the company that recycled the domain name).  This was an "adaptive" website, back when this meant a big old Perl program browser-sniffing to change the output based on device capabilities.  This could output HDML, WML, various versions of HTML - cHTML for Japanese clients, dark table-based themes for TV-based consoles and thin clients, and full-fat CSS versions for "proper" web browsers. I also created a database with device characteristics, checking things like how long a page could be before it exhausted the device's memory then adding pagination to avoid it.  I even wrote a simple search engine that would trawl the Internet for the latest mobile device info.

Some of the features of these news sites were fairly standard: news, sport, travel, stock markets. And some... not so much.  As these were tech demos, and never meant to go commercial, I basically got to mess around with all sorts of crazy ideas. Argo Times was the first – but not the last – site that I created to feature satellite images in the weather section so you could see if it was going to be cloudy. It also took Dilbert cartoons and cut them into chunks so they could be viewed on smaller screens. Freedom2 had the ability to show a random passage from the Art of War.

Random Art of War feature

Original data file, all new code.  Yep, I added a random Art of War feature to my CMS.  Some things don't change.

III. Attack by Stratagem

13. (1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.

Mobile Amazon, turn of the century style

There's some other code kicking around - like the proxies I wrote to make Amazon and Alta Vista (THE search engine back in the day!) work on mobile devices back before that was a thing.

I was working on rapid prototyping at the time. I could throw something together quickly when time was of an essence, and then Jason could eventually come along and make it work properly with elegant, fast code when he was available.  Our company focus had become translating "proper" web sites for mobile devices - most devices couldn't even handle HTML, never mind style sheets and media queries (which wouldn't exist for about another decade).

I remember that the big bosses were in the States shopping the tech around, and I got a 'phone call saying that they had got a meeting with Amazon and needed a mobile version.  I think I started as they went to bed, and by the time they got up I had the whole site running (minus actually, you know, being able to buy anything).  You could go to any regular page and view books etc.

Looking through the code it was pretending to be MSIE 4.01 on Windows 95, was hunting through Amazon's table layout, and outputting simple HTML back - possibly for the AvantGo browser on a Palm device.

That particular user agent combo would suggest around a 1998 date for this code - the original datestamps for the whole directory having been overwritten in 2000.


Resurrecting Poppy in 2019

Poking around the data copied off an old hard drive, I thought it might be fun to try and get one of the old news sites working again.  The base code seemed to be called Poppy... was that the French site I did for the Palm conference?  I can't for the life of me remember why anything was called Poppy, or even using that name - maybe it was someone's dog or something?

I configured the Apache-based web server I run on my dev site to allow .cgi files to run in that directory, and... nothing.  For some reason including files from the same directory wasn't working, but add a ./ to the front and suddenly we get... well, broken images because I copied them from a RISC OS system with additional file information corrupting the file name.  But also... a login prompt? File names fixed and I tried an old PIN, and it sparked up!

The resulting site is called ArgoMIS, again no real memory apart from recently finding a mock-up of a Nokia 9110 smart phone with this and Argo Interactive Ltd. Mobile Information System across the top.

No news of course - data was being pulled direct from URLs that no longer exist.  I'm sure later versions cached the data (both to get around temporarily fetch problems, and so I was less likely to be caught slurping someone else's feeds!) but this obviously hadn't got to that stage.

I went poking around some more, and another directory called times had a load of .html files in it.  I had hoped these were cached data sources, but it turns out it was the Argo Times news site!  Apparently this wasn't a separate site at all, but just added a veneer around Poppy data feeds (by hard coding my PIN in the URL it called, great security - but then it was only ever a demo site).

 

This called dynamic_image.cgi which decided whether to provide monochrome or colour images (once I'd fixed another include error).  Up pops a shiny colour version of the Argo Times home page!  This appeared very like the monochrome version at the top of this page, but had SSI include commands to show the current date and include the Poppy latest news.

This is where I switch from getting old code to run to rewriting to see some output - it was far easier for me to get .html files interpreted as PHP than to get SSI includes running (because reasons), and there was still the problem of the news feed no longer existing.

So I re-wrote the news code to switch from  http://www.bbc.co.uk/tickerdata/freebeeb/news1.dat to an RSS equivalent (http://feeds.bbci.co.uk/news/rss.xml?edition=uk), picking the title and summary from the top article in that, and including it via PHP.

So here's a colour version of Argo Times, and ArgoMIS, both displaying news:

For some reason Times has colour icons but black headlines, and MIS has it the other way round.  I don't know why this is, and frankly, it's time for bed.

Update: I finally managed to find an early version of the French site! It was apparently for the Palm 7 (VII) launch in Nice.  Not sure if that went ahead, or if it did, my invite must have got lost in the post...

Looks like Freedom2 is off the menu though, the code I have is a much older version (only one column of icons, and a colour page background with a white main area - not at all like the all formats screenshot above), and even after I recreated a missing user database, there are no image files.  I don't have the artwork; and apparently there were 13 different colour themes that I'm not going to sit around recreating.

Most of the themes were named after food - Lime, Blueberry Muffin, Peach Melba, Banana Toffee, Coffee and Cream... it's making me hungry just looking at the list.

Edit: wait, I did find handful of images in a completely unrelated website backup, by scanning the whole hard drive backup for weather.

These appear to be from the "newer" version (seen in the All Formats image, above). The colours seem to have been rethought and the options cut down - it'll go from regular blue, to sunset orange, to midnight blue, to dawn pink. Plus red and green versions, perhaps Christmas/Valentines and St. Patrick's Day? I was obsessed with timed colour changes back then, although at least I didn't do different logos for different times of year.

Digging in to this "backup", it looks like the start of another news site, as the F2 icons were in a directory called news\ditched\graphics, near a bunch of empty directories called city, entertainment, geek, tv, weather inside news\site\. But sadly the bare bits of code kicking around in there seems like a very simple PHP re-work of the Palm-style icons (Perl), the only notable bit is an updated Freedom2 logo with red "transmission" loops.