AMITIAE - Friday 4 September 2015

Cassandra: Ad-blocking in iOS - Implications for Users and Site Owners

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


I am in two minds about the upcoming ad-blocking feature reported to be coming in the release of iOS 9, expected at the time the next iPhone is released. The new phone and other devices should be announced at the Event Apple has planned for next week at the Bill Graham Centre, San Francisco, but iOS 9 may not be released immediately: that depends on the release of the device. El Capitan, the next version of OS X - expected along with iOS 9 - is still in beta with no firm date for its release either.

A fairly clear explanation of how the ad blocking is expected to work is provided in an article by Abhimanyu Ghoshal on TNW. This appears to indicate that third-party extensions may be needed to make the feature viable, with one or two caveats. Other useful background is in an item by Sam Oliver on AppleInsider, while Jim Lynch on CIO outlines ad-blocking, expressing some confidence that it will not be a disaster for publishers as the feature is for iOS devices not browsers on computers. His assertion that "Those ads will never, ever be blockable" may be so for now; but that guarantees nothing for the future.

iPhone web page As a site owner, I have advertisements on most of my pages. I do not rely on income from these, but the occasional boost does help ease the load. I try to keep the ads on my site (feel free to click on these) unobtrusive. I position them at the sides top, bottom, left and right, so that there is minimal interference with the display of content. At least, that is my intention.

As a frequent user of the web, however, I am all too aware of the interference from some advertisements, particularly those that cover the text I am reading. A more recent type is the video that auto-loads. It may take some effort to find and stop; and this is even harder if a selection of tabs is reopened.

There is a solution to this in a new version of Safari: an icon appears to indicate which pages contain such content, also allowing the sound to be muted.

I was interested to see this week an article by Rob Leathern on Medium who, when using an iPhone, had analysed the access required by various sites that had advertisements displayed using Charles Proxy and other tools.

A number of people (including the author) were surprised by the number of invisible advertisements inflicted on users, with the obvious slow-downs that these would bring about. An implication is that not only is the user being penalised, but the sites may be "paying for traffic that just isn't there."

iPhone web page This is not just something that happens with the web-browser. Many mail messages are stuffed with extra media - images, advertisements, links - that slow down the basic task of reading a message. I have Little Snitch and find that sometimes I have to click on up to 8 "Accept" panels before I am allowed to read the email. The alternative would be to press Accept for all and that could well open other doors.

On some sites I access with the browser, I find that panels block my view of the content I am trying to read, while in other cases complete pages are opened on sites that I (usually) have no interest in. Perhaps some site owners have lost sight of the purpose of providing online content: alienating the reader may be more damaging economically than other perceived drops in readership. There are several sites that I now think twice about visiting, precisely because of this obtrusiveness.

The ad-blocking potential in the upcoming version of iOS 9 should be welcomed by most users, although many site owners will be critical. It might be more constructive if they were to direct their energies at finding ways in which they might better monetise their sites. Many are still locked into old ways of thinking that required an issue cover price, while most publisher income was derived from advertising. There are more people now sharing the same cake and the portions are smaller.

Black and White and Dead All Over This decline was recognised a few years ago and the documentary Black and White and Dead All Over focussed on the changing landscape of journalism in Philadelphia with the growing appeal of the Internet, where anyone can become a publisher (for good or bad). Some have made the mistake of downsizing.

Like the Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times had had several Pulitzer Prize-winners and the closure of its Photography Department - reporters were to be retrained to use smartphone video cameras. The resultant reduction in quality was a mistake.

Another feature of news displays on the Internet has been the unwanted video. I initially blocked Flash videos, then removed Flash completely after instability in the Mac and countless reports about security problems with the plug-in. That has not stopped video displays, many of which auto-run and may not be visible when reading a page.

This is a particular problem when a series of tabs is reloaded and the automatically-loading video is playing on one of the tabs. The ability to turn off sound from the URL window in El Capitan was demonstrated by Apple at the last World Wide Developers' Conference in June. This was well-received by those in the audience.

There is a basic conflict here. Those providing the news (or other online content) are not charities. Those accessing the sites, for information or entertainment, are often unwilling to pay for content. I use my own site as an example: for the last few years, I have provided a guide to System Preferences in the new version of OS X in the days after its release. This is in single-article pages, an indexed page and the entire collection as PDF. Despite thousands of downloads, no one has offered any payment. So be it.

iPhones Publishers and owners of many sites are not in the same position. They need to earn income from the online (and sometimes) print versions of their output, but have yet to strike a balance between excessive amounts (and types) of advertising that alienate the user and other ways in which income may be derived, from a medium that has usually been regarded as free by most users. As some have discovered, paywalls are only effective when the content is unique, such as may be found on certain financial sites.

A balance is demonstrated in the use of advertising in apps on mobile devices. While many users may be happy to pay a few cents for the removal of in-app advertising, a great number see advertising as an acceptable penalty for a free app. As many of these do not obscure the operations or content of the app, this is reasonable. However, a few apps are now including advertising that takes over the screen. These are simply dismissed by pressing a close button, but the damage is done: rather than inform the user, they are more likely to annoy.

When advertising is displayed in a balanced form and does not interfere with the use of a webpage display - on smartphone or computer - or the advertising within an app does not prevent the immediate use of that app, I am content to have these displayed. Unfortunately, with the ways that some advertising takes over the screen and prevents me examining content - consequently wasting my time - the proposed ad-blocking is a welcome solution, even if I may lose some income on my site.

There is an intersection here that the publishers, site owners and users will have to deal with: providing content, monetization, accessibility.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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