Thursday, January 12, 2012

An approach to mobile support in ASP.NET MVC

I have been spending a decent amount of time working on a side project in ASP.NET MVC lately. From the start, I planned on supporting mobile. There are lots of ways you can use or extend ASP.NET MVC to support mobile. Having tried several, I can say they all have their merits, and the solution that will work for you very much depends on your requirements. In this post I will run you over the implementation that worked for me, for my specific requirements.

I looked at dynamically changing layouts, but I doubt if there is anyone who has gotten a satisfying result with that. I also considered rolling my own view engine, but after going with that for a little while, it became obvious that this wasn't going to work out either. The behavior and functionalities of my mobile version were quickly drifting away of those of the desktop version. I could only reuse so few existing actions or viewmodels that I was close to seeing the two versions as two completely different sites. Let me elaborate a bit further. While it was often possible to use the same viewmodels for both versions, it wasn't as clean as I wanted it to be. I strive for lean views, and doing projections in the views just to get the viewmodels in a workable format felt not right. Also, I had a few cases where I had to split one action in multiple smaller ones to make the flow work for the mobile version.

Eventually I ended up dividing the desktop and mobile version in two separate areas: desktop and mobile. Because some things do overlap, I share a few abstract base controllers between the areas.

So when I look at the root of my application now, I see no more views. Two things are left though: the HomeController and the AccountController.

I was able to pinpoint three points in the application where I need to take special care of detecting the device or rerouting to the correct area.

The default route when the user types http://MySite in the address bar still is Home/Default. In the default action of the HomeController I want to detect the area I want to redirect to, based on the user agent. Notice I'm using a permanent redirect, not wasting a HTTP request.
public class HomeController : Controller
    public ActionResult Index()
        var view = Request.IsAuthenticated ? "Index" : "Welcome";
        var area = Request.ResolveDestinationArea();             

        return RedirectToActionPermanent(view, "Home", new { Area = area });            
This is the first scenario. When a user opens the homepage, I redirect him to a specific area based on the user agent. If the user is on a desktop he will be redirected to http://MySite/desktop/home and when he's on a mobile device he will be redirected to http://MySite/mobile/home. If this somewhat well-informed guess turns out to be wrong, the user can still use a link to take him to the correct area.

There are two places left where I have to add some logic assuring the user stays in the correct area. When the session is expired, I have to redirect the user to the correct login page. Since you can only define one loginUrl and there is no way of plugging into that, I let ASP.NET redirect to the Account controller in my root.
<authentication mode="Forms">
  <forms loginUrl="~/Account/LogOn" timeout="2880"/>
In the AccountController I can use the loginUrl in the querystring to decide which area I want to redirect to. If it contains mobile, I redirect to the mobile area. If it contains desktop, I redirect to the desktop area.
public class AccountController : Controller
    public ActionResult LogOn()
        return RedirectToAction(
            "LogOn", "Account", new { Area = Request.ResolveDestinationArea() });      
If the url were http://MySite/Account/LogOn?ReturnUrl=%2fmobile%2fentry%2fadd, the 'mobile' substring in the ReturnUrl querystring would suffice to make this work.

Now there is one more place left where we want to take care of redirecting to the correct area: in the error handling. Like always, there are several ways of handling errors in ASP.NET MVC. I chose for the one where I could handle exceptions outside the MVC pipeline and add custom redirect logic easily. I'm talking about the Application_Error event in the Global.asax. When I'm handling this event, I can also use the request url to resolve the correct area.
protected void Application_Error()
    Response.TrySkipIisCustomErrors = true;

    var exception = Server.GetLastError();
    var httpException = exception as HttpException;

    var routeData = new RouteData();
    routeData.DataTokens["area"] = HttpContext.Current.Request.ResolveDestinationArea();
    routeData.Values["controller"] = "Errors";
    routeData.Values["action"] = "General";
    routeData.Values["exception"] = exception;
    Response.StatusCode = 500;
    if (httpException != null)
        Response.StatusCode = httpException.GetHttpCode();
        if (Response.StatusCode == 403)
            routeData.Values["action"] = "Forbidden";
        if (Response.StatusCode == 404)
            routeData.Values["action"] = "NotFound";

    var errorsController = (IController)new ErrorsController();
    var requestContext = new RequestContext(new HttpContextWrapper(Context), routeData);

The url in this case would look like http://MySite/mobile/home, so the 'mobile' substring in the url should suffice to make the correct decision.

Pay attention, when you assemble a routedata object, you want to store the area value in the DataTokens property.

So far we have identified three things we want to hold in account when resolving the correct area: the url, the querystring of the url and the user agent. These decisions are encapsulated into a ResolveDestinationArea extension method on the HttpRequest class.
public static string ResolveDestinationArea(this HttpRequest request)
    var mobileArea = "mobile";
    var desktopArea = "desktop";

    var uri = new Uri(request.Url.AbsoluteUri);
    // We want to search in the left part of the absolute uri
    var valueToSearchIn = uri.GetLeftPart(UriPartial.Path);
    // However if there is a returnUrl querystring, we want to search in that value
    var returnUrl = HttpUtility.ParseQueryString(uri.Query).Get("returnUrl");
    if (!string.IsNullOrEmpty(returnUrl))
        valueToSearchIn = returnUrl;
    // If the url contains 'mobile', redirect to the mobile area    
    var urlContainsMobile = 
    valueToSearchIn.IndexOf("mobile", StringComparison.OrdinalIgnoreCase) > -1;
    if (urlContainsMobile)
        return mobileArea;

    // If the url contains 'desktop', redirect to the desktop area
    var urlContainsDesktop = 
    valueToSearchIn.IndexOf("/desktop/", StringComparison.OrdinalIgnoreCase) > -1;
    if (urlContainsDesktop)
        return desktopArea;

    // If the url does not contain 'mobile' nor 'desktop', we have to look at the user agent
    return request.Browser.IsMobileDevice ? mobileArea : desktopArea;
The implementation of the ResolveDestinationArea method is a bit simplistic. Most sites would want to be a bit more careful about the way the url is parsed. Only the second part of the url really matters (/desktop/ or /mobile/), unless the returnUrl is present in the querystring.


Like I said in the introduction, there are several ways you can use ASP.NET MVC to support mobile devices. I think this pragmatic, maybe naïve solution, works for me. There are only three scenarios where I need to think about mobile devices: when the user enters the homepage, when the user needs to authenticate again and when there is an unhandled exception. All the logic is encapsulated in one little extension method on the request object, making it easily changeable in the future.

There is one extra scenario which I'm thinking of supporting in the future. When the user explicitly chooses a different version, I can save that preference to a cookie, so that I can use that as well to resolve the area in the future.

If you already implemented mobile support in some way, what worked for you?


  1. needful information for mobile application in MVC
    hanks a lot


  2. I dont think this is a best approch , why you use ResolveDestinationArea if the mvc already can direct the request to that area

    1. The ResolveDestinationArea does not redirect to an area. It tries to resolve the destination area based on a few parameters, such as the url and the user agent string.

  3. Quite useful and on time, bookmarked.

  4. One question:
    Why we have different area?
    Why can't have 1 controller with 2 view (1 for desktop, 1 for mobile)
    Detect the platform and render that view.

    Do you see any issue in this approach?

    1. Good question. While I looked at that approach, it didn't feel quite right. A mobile website is not just a different view on the full website. It's a website on it's own with a different user experience and a different flow. This means that just two separate views can not cover the load. I also need separate actions and viewmodels.

  5. nice job.
    i think instead of "when the user enters the homepage" we should think of "when the user enters the website". the user might follow a link and enter directly to one of the pages/views. so "layout" should always aware of user's browser device and resolve the final area.
    for performance sake, we can use a cookie (or session state) to store the user's device mode right after the first entrance.
    i would like to take a look at MVC 4 too. heard they improved mobile view...

    1. Thanks for your feedback!

      It's hard to redirect the user when the user enters any page on the website, because a reason why I took this approach is that the mobile and normal pages don't map one-to-one often.

      I'm not that worried about performance, because we only need to check the device mode one time. Once the user is in the correct area scope, there is no more need to check the device mode.

    2. Sooooo ya. it makes sense if your mobile and normal websites don't map one-to-one. i had a different scenario in my mind like a blog that every page in normal site is also supposed to be watched in mobile devices.
      again thank you for the article and your time. great job.

  6. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.

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