Why the 'Middle Web' Matters

The Right User Experience Lies Somewhere Between PC and Early Mobile Web

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Omar Hamoui
Omar Hamoui
As we look at what is on the horizon for mobile, one of the clear trends we will see over the next year or two will be the emergence and acceleration of the "middle web." This is the web that lies between the full web experience you find on a PC and the ad-less web experience you remember from the first web-enabled mobile phones. The middle web is the much needed, happy medium best suited for the growing number of iPhone and tablet PC-like devices capable of browsing the full web in all of its glory.

With the explosion of web-enabled mobile devices, it's no surprise that a growing segment of the population's primary touch point with the web is their handheld device rather than their PC. We already know that the iPhone, Android, Palm Pre and next-generation Research in Motion devices include a fully capable browser, as do a rapidly growing number of mobile-media devices, from book readers to media players. There is no doubt that users will be splitting their time online between their PC and one or more of these devices. However, now that that mobile devices can finally handle the full PC web, the question is, should they? What does consumer behavior indicate, and what does that mean for mobile advertising?

There is an important debate brewing over whether the full PC web is suitable for the smaller screens inherent in mobile devices or for thumb-typing consumers. One point of view is that given the opportunity, consumers will choose to browse the full PC web from a mobile device believing they'll find a richer web experience. However, we've seen that consumers are actually using their thumbs to flock to specific versions of favorite sites and applications that have been designed for a mobile experience.

For the first time, mobile sites can take full advantage of all the incredible technologies used in building for the internet. If we've learned anything from media companies and major internet services about mobile, it's that users want a unique web experience designed specifically for their device. Simply visit Facebook, Google, ESPN, or CNN on your iPhone and you will automatically be sent to a site optimized for mobile that is much faster, more relevant and in turn, easier to use. That is by design.

The question for all of us in the advertising business is: What does this trend mean for our particular industry? It's an important question and the wrong answer could lead to a significant amount of wasted ad dollars.

The theory goes that if everyone can simply browse the "real web" and see "read ads" then there will simply be no need for specialized mobile advertising. Our experience thus far has been the opposite.

First, there are problems with compatibility. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, consider the use of Flash on most PC direct response digital advertising landing pages. The vast majority of phones today aren't compatible with Flash and simply won't display the page at all. In terms of advertising, the cost of the click for an ad on this site has been completely wasted and a potential customer has had a negative user experience.

Second, the context in which people respond to an ad on a mobile device vs. a PC is just plain different. The interface, network speed, place, time of use and mindset of the consumer are all different on mobile and therefore the value an advertiser can get from a mobile consumer vs. a consumer on their PC is also very different. As a simple example, someone browsing on a PC is much more likely to engage with a shopping cart to make a purchase, while click-to-call is an effective and more natural technique in mobile. Similarly, online forms that capture important customer data must be simplified to be effective on a mobile device.

There is new usability thinking to be done about the customer journey towards the objective. What are we asking the consumer to do? How do we make it easy for customers to interact with company sites and ads? Understanding user behavior and addressing these nuances in site design will be critical to leveraging mobile. The web that will emerge for these new mobile devices will be the rich user experience consumers expect and also one that understands mobile interactions and context. It's not quite the PC web, and it's certainly not the restricted mobile web of old. It's somewhere in the middle --and it's the future.

Omar Hamoui is the CEO of AdMob, which he founded AdMob in January 2006 while in the MBA program at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously, he started and ran mobile, internet and computer companies such as Vertical Blue, GoPix and fotochatter, a mobile to mobile image sharing network.
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