Apple’s decision to allow ad-blocking plug-ins for its Safari web browser has caused quite a ruckus this week. But this move is just part of an inevitable trend I’ve been describing for years. And it could be worse: Android users need ad-blockers in the OS itself, not to mention anti-virus and other security software.
If you’re a Windows phone user, here’s some familiar and depressing news: This conversation doesn’t apply to you. While Windows Phone OS–and, soon, Windows 10 Mobile for phones–certainly has its advantages over both Android and iOS, extensibility and popularity aren’t among them. So this discussion applies only to the mobile platforms people are actually using. Sorry, and yes, it pains me too.
As you may know, Apple finally released iOS 9 this past week. I provided an overview of this system in A Quick Look at Apple iOS 9, and for the most part don’t feel this release warrants a longer examination. But like many people, I did miss out on one important new change–in my defense, it’s well hidden–that Apple added: you can now install ad-blockers that work with Safari only. (And not third-party browsers like Chrome and Firefox, even though they must use Safari’s rendering engine on iOS because, well, Apple.)
If you’re familiar with iOS’s cryptic way of doing things, app settings are collected in the system Settings app, instead of being generally accessible from within the app itself. So to find out that Safari’s ad-blocking capabilities even exist, you need to navigate to Settings, Safari (it’s in that humongous list somewhere, keep scrolling), and then locate Content Blockers and understand what that even means, since Apple never uses the term “ad-blocker” anywhere. Hint: Content blocker means ad-blocker.
You find ad-blockers–sorry, content blockers–in the App Store, naturally. Today, this is easy since two of the top five paid apps in the store–Crystal and Purify–are ad-blockers. Crystal was only 99 cents, so I bought that one. (Purify is $3.99 for some reason. That seems excessive.)
To install the ad-blocker, you return to Safari and … oh, right. Apple. You navigate to Settings, Safari (it’s in that humongous list somewhere, keep scrolling), and then locate Content Blockers again. And then you enable Crystal or whatever ad-blocker you chose.
The ad-blocker worked as expected. For example, here’s a New York Times article that displayed two ads–one was a depressingly animated Cialis ad that neatly highlighted why people want ad-blockers in the first place–in Firefox.
But in Safari with Crystal enabled, no ads.
The promise here, of course, is that web pages will load more quickly and that they will display without often annoying and distracting ads. (Is The New York Times trying to tell me something? I didn’t really wonder.)
The problem is that ad-blocking in iOS 9 is a brute-force affair with none of the management and customization features that are common and expected in desktop browser ad-blocker add-ins. And that means that they just block all ads. This has triggered a backlash against these apps, since many small content publishers–including yours truly–rely on the revenue from web ads to stay in business.
In my opinion, this is an over-reaction to, again, something I feel was an inevitable and obvious evolution in mobile platforms.
No, I don’t mean ad-blockers specifically. I mean that iOS (and Android) are naturally improving as time goes on, and picking up more and more functionality that used to relegated only to more complex desktop systems like Windows and Mac. (Conversely, both Microsoft and Apple are working to make their desktop systems simpler, in turn aping how mobile platforms work. Someday, they’ll meet in the middle, much as did the people building the first transcontinental railroad from opposite directions back in the 1800’s.)
As a walled garden, iOS in many ways grows more slowly than does Android. And it also grows in a less sophisticated manner, which you can see perfectly in the differences between Google Now (all-powerful and all-knowing but also creepy) and Siri, which even in iOS 9 simply can’t do as much as its competitors because Apple values your privacy perhaps a little too much.
More to the point, ad-blockers have been on Android for quite some time. And not just in browsers. Android is so wide open that hackers have written malware that can run in apps or right in the OS, so those with compromised devices will see pop-up ads all over the place. So there are all kinds of ad-blockers, anti-virus and anti-malware, and other security apps for Android. In fact, looking through the Google Play Store, I see all kinds of familiar names. I’ve also contended many times that Android is the new Windows. If this doesn’t drive that home to you, nothing will.
Thinking about just ad-blockers that exists in web browsers, however, I must again point to that maturity issue. This is the v1 release of ad-blocking in iOS 9. Apple probably doesn’t give these developers enough leeway (yet?) to do the right thing in all cases, and some are simply rush-to-market solutions that will improve over time. Obviously, this stuff should work “in” the browser, when you’re viewing a site, and not require a user to know about and then find some obscure location in Settings.
As a content provider, I don’t struggle with ad-blocking at all. I know that more sophisticated users will always block ads in Windows and Mac, and–spoiler alert–I use one too. As the mass audience of readers naturally moves from PCs and Macs to mobile devices like smart phones and tablets—which, duh, are far more natural for reading–I will not express faux surprise or outrage that those same people will want to block ads there too.
The issue on iOS, as I see it, is that ad makers, and the people and companies who rely on those ads, are worried that some new huge audience of normal people will suddenly stop blocking ads. I think this is misguided, but whatever. Here’s a solution I am myself–along with my partners and coworkers at Petri–obviously working on as well: We need to find new ways to make money in this rapid changing world. Pop-over ads, pop-up ads, full-screen “interstitials,” whatever, are the past, and we need to figure out how to get paid while not annoying our own readers.
I will continue working on this, as will others. (And for me specifically, this year has obviously been a big transition, but we will increasingly start examining new ways of doing things.) But ad-blocking in iOS 9 is nothing more than a sign that this mobile platform is maturing, as it should be. Apple iOS and Google Android are, alongside Windows on the PC desktop, the major personal computing platforms. You didn’t really think those two mobile platforms were going to remain Fisher Price toys, did you?