Postponed: Google’s Attempt To Deprecate And Freeze The User-Agent Header

Google has recently announced that they are postponing their attempt to deprecate and freeze the User-Agent header until at least 2021. Purportedly, this is to give “additional time for the ecosystem to evaluate the new UA-CH [User-Agent Client Hints] capabilities”.

This, albeit a postponement, can be considered as a significant victory for industry. There have been many issues reported, feedback provided, and concerns raised by industry, including:

  • There will be a negative performance impact compared to accurate User-Agent header analysis
  • UA-CH is still a developing initiative – many believe that it is not at the point where it should be considered, as Google intends, an appropriate alternative source of information contained in the User-Agent header
  • UA-CH is not supported by all browsers (e.g. Safari) – businesses would be required to implement UA-CH while still supporting User-Agent header analysis
  • Sufficient industry awareness and consultation does not appear to have been raised or completed by Google
  • It appears that all User-Agent header use cases were not sufficiently explored or appreciated by Google. Similarly, it is not clear that an appropriate level of impact assessments was completed
  • Antitrust concerns have been raised as removing access to User-Agent header information will have a significant impact on Google’s advertising competitors – a negative impact that Google will not experience
  • A key goal of freezing the User-Agent header and introducing Client Hints (CH) is to increase privacy by reducing fingerprinting, however, it is not yet clear that this will yield a net improvement on privacy

Learn more about the aim and background of CH, here, and get further details on Google’s intent to deprecate and freeze the User-Agent header, here. Also, a more skeptical view of their plan can be read on mobiForge, here.

While Google has not cancelled its plans to deprecate and freeze the User-Agent header, it appears that they are listening to industry concerns and feedback. Google has been trying to force through this change in open web standards, via a Chrome update, at an alarming pace – a pace that most companies don’t have the resources to keep up with. This postponement will give industry some time, during a unique and difficult period due to Covid-19, to better assess the potential impact on their business and to further challenge Google’s attempt to leverage their market dominance to change open standards.

Image: Google's attempt to deprecate and freeze the User-Agent Header has been postponed

UA-CH Progress Will Continue

As mentioned previously, we believe that CH are a positive step forward in an increasingly diverse and fragmented landscape but believe that they should not replace the User-Agent header.

CH are an additional tool that will help drive the uptake of web usage on mobile devices globally, the initial and driving mission of DeviceAtlas, so we are happy to see that CH will progress separately. We’re also excited to be adding CH as an additional index to our range of keys that already include User-Agent string, device make / model strings and GSMA-issued TAC. The additional CH index, combined with our other index keys, helps insulate DeviceAtlas customers from negative impact that may arise if access to the User-Agent string is removed.

Whatever the future is for the User-Agent header, DeviceAtlas users can rest assured that they will continue to receive the most accurate device identification and intelligence solution on the market. DeviceAtlas is the stable, reliable, and future-proofed source of accurate device intelligence for market leaders. 

Learn more about our Device Intelligence solutions, get in touch here.

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