What Is the “Middle Web”?


So you’re behind on developing your WAP site, and you obviously can’t give mobile users a full Flash experience on the handset (at least not yet). But you don’t want to get left behind on the iPhone platform… What to do? Enter the “Middle Web.”

Especially now that developers have had some “quality time” with Apple’s SDK (software development kit), you’ve got everyone from Google to Weather.com to the Food Network to Associated Press building sites specifically for the iPhone. Mobile banner server AdMob, for instance, has released a special ad unit exclusively for the handset, and Harper-Collins Publishers launched a pilot program to deliver excerpts of new titles directly to iPhone users.

But the iPhone is just the start. If anything stood out on the floor of the CTIA Wireless conference this past April, it was the number of supposed “iPhone killers,” or touch-screen knockoffs that look to replicate the Apple experience. Equipment makers like LG Electronics, RIM (the BlackBerry guys), and Samsung are all building high-end, Web-friendly phones that deliver PC-like experiences. So, the thinking goes that the more of these you’ve got in the market, the more customization of sites you get specifically for use on these devices. But really…?

That takes us to the so-called Middle Web, which goes beyond the stripped-down versions of sites you get when technologies like Google or Mowser do the transcoding–often choking the phones that can’t handle the data, or mashing up sites so much that the content is unreadable. Yet, while the Middle Web is both beautiful and functional on the iPhone (and soon to be many others), the argument goes that this is only going to further slice up a mobile Internet that’s already completely piecemeal.

Plus it leaves a lot to go wrong. The MySpace app for the iPhone, for instance, has been widely panned by users, complaining about speed and errors. And that’s only on the software side: When you start considering that creating device-specific sites requires building out multiple Internet destinations, conforming to very specific physical specifications, that are limited to a handful of browsers–it gets ugly pretty fast. And, realistically, how many device-specific landing pages will developers really build?

Especially when you start breaking that out by country and language. The BBC in London, for example, is committed to making mobile content; but they’re really only focused on the phones in the U.K., so that’s the extent of their reach. And this is just one of many stories that go in the same direction–meaning the promise of “one Web for all devices” rings a little hollow.

So from an advertiser’s perspective, we run into the classic reach problem in mobile: How do you do a buy across sites when you’re not sure how, and on what platform your ads will be viewed? And if you’re going to develop specifically for the iPhone or one of the upcoming “me-too” devices, how do you justify costs (AT&T, after all, has only activated about 3 million iPhones to date), or scale the technology across platforms?

The big answer…is a big shoulder-shrug. It’s too early to tell. You know that something like the Middle Web, purely by its name, won’t last that long. Neither will WAP, as far as that goes.

But Google’s Android–and I know I keep saying it–could change a lot of things. If they can launch and position it right, it might very well be the next target of Apple’s “versus” ads: “I’m an iPhone…and I’m an Android…” Hey, that could be funny. Especially if they casted Christopher Walken. Just picture it!