Apple’s plans to block advertising in the Safari Web browser on iOS 9 is not necessarily being done first and foremost with consumers’ best interests at heart and could serve to undermine content producers.
Later this year, Apple will release the latest version of its mobile operating system — iOS 9 — and, among the promised upgrades and benefits, is one that terrifies Internet content publishers that rely on advertising revenue to stay afloat: content blocking extension support in the Safari mobile Web browser.
Before delving into the potential repercussions of this move by Apple, it is probably a good idea to define what this blocking does, and why it is seen as a good thing by most consumers.
Content blockers are software extensions that allow the user to, as the name suggests, block certain types of content on the Web. Primarily this content tends to be advertising, tracking scripts and cookies, pop-ups, but can even be images or videos. The advantages for the consumer of enabling these content blockers are simple: Web pages load faster, there are no annoying ads obscuring information, Web activity isn’t tracked, and the amount of data required to open the page is reduced. The last one is especially important in the case of mobile data usage, which tends to be expensive.
These blockers aren’t new: there are already a number of desktop Web browser extensions that do it, but until now these kind of extensions and software blockers were not supported by the mobile operating system providers. Although theoretically possible on Android devices, it requires installing software from outside of the official Google Play Store, and it simply isn’t possible on the current version of iOS. That means that most mobile users aren’t doing any blocking, but this will change as Apple rolls out the new iOS.
For Web content providers, advertising revenue is the most common way to monetise content. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and you as the reader or viewer pay for your lunch by seeing the advertising. As Web viewership moves more and more into the mobile space (in the US in the first half of 2015, more than 50% of time spent on the Internet was using a mobile device), these devices are a key audience for the content owners and advertisers. Blocking the ads deprives those content providers of their core income, and that will lead to a few drastic changes in approach, not all of which are good for the consumer, or even advertisers.
But what of Apple? Is this a demonstration of how consumer friendly it is? My cynical view is that Apple is less concerned with making its customers’ Web viewing more enjoyable and more with ensuring that it gets a bigger piece of the advertising pie. Apple makes money off in-application advertising through their own iAd service. It earns nothing on mobile Web advertising that is viewed in a browser. Apple’s obvious endgame here is to push Web content publishers to supply their content to iPhone/iPad users through a native app, either their own or through Apple’s upcoming “News” app (also to be released with iOS 9 … what a coincidence). So users will still see advertising, and likely still be tracked. And in the case of the News app, it’ll all be handled by Apple itself.
Web publishers are going have to think long and hard about how they are going to approach this. For many traditional news publishers, the Web has already had a massive disruptive impact, and it has necessitated some experimentation with sources of income. Some of the big traditional newspapers have instituted paywalls to varying levels of success. Others have embraced alternative channels of distribution through content curation applications such as Flipboard or Zite, but most have relied on various forms of advertising. As more devices start to block this advertising, advertisers are less likely to place ads on these sites.
The most obvious thing to do for most of these sites is to just buckle to Apple’s will, sign up for Apple’s News app and hopefully make some money out of it. This is quite risky for niche and smaller sites, as they could find themselves overwhelmed by content from other publishers.
The second option is to create their own native application. On iOS it will be able to display ads, and it will ensure some differentiation, but the process of getting a user to download an additional application in order to view content is disruptive, and unless the content is genuinely valuable, is unlikely to succeed.
The last option is that of a paywall, making consumers subscribe for the content. The big advantage here is obviously that ad revenue becomes less important. But changing consumer behaviour is difficult, and getting them to subscribe with a credit card is a difficult proposition.
Until technologies are developed to bypass the blockers (and that’s already happening), content publishers are going to have difficulties. We can only hope that the thing that makes the Web such a vibrant place — variety — is not the victim of this process.