23 September 2015

Ad-blocking on iOS – a storm in a teacup

So iOS 9 launched with support for content blockers and it seems like everybody on the Internet went crazy. In typical tech news fashion, an issue practically doesn’t exist until Apple does something about it. There are an incredible number of articles and opinions flying around, from apocalyptic visions predicting the collapse of the web, to diatribes against Apple for allowing people to steal the work of innocent journalists, to wake-up-calls for publishers to adapt to the new situation or die. There’s even developers who jumped at the opportunity to make a quick buck, only to back down days later, because of supposed moral concerns – returning the money in the process (one has to wonder why he hasn’t offered the app for free in the first place). And unfortunately, most of these aspects have some grain of truth.

Ad blocking

It’s certainly true that the web experience has slowly degraded under the load of more ads, trackers, banners, full-page overlays, auto-playing videos and so on. Equally true that advertising is, for the moment, the most reliable source of income for publishers and removing ads threatens their already meager revenues. On the other hand… many publications add so little value for readers, simply repeating what other sites said or spewing out click-bait titles, that I can’t help but think few people will miss if they go out of business. This is constantly happening in the tech press, with sites rewriting press releases or shamelessly copying articles behind paywalls. I have long given up on reading individual sites and I am mainly keeping up by reading Techmeme (and Twitter), which does a very good job of presenting top stories, important reviews and rumors. When one site shuts down, others take its place, and so the overall landscape changes little.

Personally I have been using ad- and tracking blockers ever since I remember on the desktop, but I don’t intend to install one on my iPhone. The reason is simple: ad-blockers are limited to Safari, so they can’t remove ads inside apps or web-views; and I don’t browse the web that often on mobile, because I interact much more with apps. Under these circumstances I don’t see why I should purchase a blocker that does little for me. Which brings me to another point: I think the effects of content blockers on iOS will be limited, certainly much less significant that most people assume. Some compared this moment to Apple’s refusal to support Flash on iOS. The differences are obvious though: while Flash was never allowed on the iPhone, ad-blockers are optional and relatively limited, as I mentioned above. There’s an entire industry behind advertising, much more powerful than support for Flash ever was, and there is bound to be more backlash and struggle this time around.

Speaking about corporations, there are important business interests at play, something that many seem to overlook. As much as Apple likes to talk about taking the side of users against the big, bad people who force-feed us ads, the truth is Apple is following their own agenda here, as with the recent antitrust case with book publishers and Amazon, as with Apple TV. You may notice that in-app ads are unaffected, despite these being as effective at tracking users as web ads, if not more. Apple is, as usual, trying to tighten control over its ecosystem and steer users and content producers towards its own platform, in this case native apps and Apple News. It’s also hurting Google’s ad business in the process, something that Apple can only be happy about. Facebook will probably benefit indirectly as well, attracting more publishers to Instant Articles and advertisers to its ad platforms. In the next couple of months and years, I think we will see considerable consolidation towards major players in the tech industry, with quality journalism finding a new home inside larger companies that can afford to run a news site at a loss – the recent acquisition of The Washington Post by Amazon will serve as model – and new players constructing novel business models. Change is painful most of the times, but hopefully a healthier web will emerge from this one.

To finish, a couple of relevant tweets and thoughtful opinions on the subject:

  • The above graph shows the inefficiency of this arrangement: publishers and ad networks are locked in a dysfunctional relationship that doesn’t serve readers or advertisers, and it’s only a matter of time until advertisers — which again, care only about reaching potential customers, wherever they may be — desert the whole mess entirely for new, more efficient and effective advertising options that put them directly in front of the people they care about. That, first and foremost, is Facebook, but other social networks like Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, and others will benefit as well:

    Notice that none of this depends on the adoption of ad-blockers. Indeed, ad blockers don’t really hurt advertisers that much anyways: an ad that is blocked is one that is not paid for, meaning the pain falls entirely on publishers. But, as I just noted, the truth is that advertising isn’t long for the majority of online publishing anyway.

    Ben Thompson
  • I don’t think we’re done with this discussion. Publishers will continue to force a hostile environment on their customers and customers will find a way to get around it. Ad-blockers might be the talking point of today, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see paywalls be the talking point of tomorrow. Hint: we’ve already seen this play out with music & video. I don’t think it’s going to end in publisher’s favor.

    And this is kind of the thing: customers always win. Businesses serve at the pleasure of their customers. It is easy to fall into the idea that customers need you as a business owner, but history has proven otherwise. You need your customers, and if you don’t respect that dynamic, you will lose them.

    Publishers that listen to their customers will continue to thrive.

    Kyle Neath
  • Paying for content by displacing it with advertising is like supporting a nature reserve by filling it with shopping malls. We’re crippling the things we love to keep them alive.

    Daniel De Laney

Post a Comment