Sep 28, 2015

    Internet ads: A necessary 'evil'

    INTERNET advertisements. They can be pretty intrusive, disruptive and downright creepy. Love or hate them, you can't avoid them. Well, can't you?

    On the desktop, you can install browser extensions like Adblock and Ghostery to block ads from loading, and prevent ad networks from tracking you.

    And with the release of iOS 9 on Sept 16, you can now do the same on your iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

    The mobile operating system ships with a new content blocking extension for mobile Safari, which allows you to install apps that can help you to prevent ads and trackers from loading while you're surfing the Web.

    Besides preventing ad networks from tracking you - which explains why you can be looking at wallets on one site, for example, and then see ads for wallets when you go over to another site - blocking ads from loading helps websites to load faster, reduces your data usage and conserves your data life, because network activity lessens.

    The savings can be substantial - software developer Dean Murphy discovered that the site iMore was loading 38 third-party scripts, and when he ran a content blocker on iOS 9, the same webpage took two seconds to load instead of 11.

    Sounds great, right? More privacy, faster surfing, less data used - everybody wins? Well, not quite. A lot of people stand to lose, specifically, those in publications making the content that you're surfing on the Web, like the one I write for, Hardwarezone.com.sg.

    Most of the major sites online, including ours, make money from advertising. Our hours are spent creating content, while advertisers pay us to show you ads beside this content.

    Mobile advertising is a huge deal: Mobile usage has already surged past PC usage, and mobile advertising is growing faster than all other digital advertising formats. More people will experience the Internet for the first time in the next decade on mobile, rather than on the desktop. However desktop advertising goes, the future is clearly in mobile.

    Not surprisingly, the Internet has been abuzz with talk about how Apple's content-blocking extension will impact the bottom line for publishers since the feature was announced.


    But things really exploded two weeks ago, when developer Marco Arment's content-blocking app, Peace, soared up the United States Apple App Store's paid charts to the No. 1 spot, while Purify, another content blocker, climbed to the fifth spot.

    In Singapore, Peace briefly went up into the top paid apps last week, and Purity was at the seventh spot. Any hopes that content blocking on mobile Safari would be an obscure, little-known feature for power users were quickly shattered.

    And yes, as Matt Buchanan of weblog The Awl pointed out, there's a certain irony with making money from an app that stops other people from making money.

    So the odds are good, very good, that the bottom line for many major websites is going to look quite different from here on out.

    There might be a slight respite for some - you can whitelist individual sites to run without being blocked on Peace. But most users are likely to just set the app to block everything and forget about it.

    While websites are likely to be the most hit; there's no denying that Apple just dropped a solid thermonuclear bomb on Google, as succinctly pointed out by tech news site The Verge's Nilay Patel.

    Many - if not most - of the ads served online come from Google; it's the main way the company makes its billions year on year. And, wouldn't you know, Apple just launched its own News app that serves Apple's own iAd advertising, which cannot be blocked.

    Not surprisingly, there's been a backlash from publishers about content blocking, who argue that ad-blocking is unfair - somebody's got to make the content that people enjoy for free, and they've got to be paid somehow.

    There are also people who are loving the ad blockers, and argue that ads are terrible and that they never opted to see them anyway.

    Some understand that publishers should get paid, but they should find a better way to do it that doesn't annoy the reader. However, suggestions for this better way range from, well, scant to impractical.

    What is surprising is that there are people who are out in support of the publishers, and see ad blocking as wrong. They agree that there is an exchange to be made here, and they're willing to endure the advertising in order to see the content, so that the publishers can get paid to continue making content.

    If publishers are smart, they'll already be scrambling to find this better way. But whether there actually is one, or whether this is another nail in the coffin for traditional publishing, remains to be seen.

    With one OS update, Apple has changed everything again. And there's no going back.


    It would be hypocritical of me to write this without also coming clean with what I've done and what I believe: I work for a website where my salary is paid for by advertising - many of which are, I have to say, annoying.

    Yet, it doesn't have to be this way. It's not advertising that annoys people, it's annoying advertising that annoys people. I've actually sat through interesting ads (I watched the Monkey King/Pioneers Generation ad twice) and I've clicked on ads that interested me.

    However, I have no patience for annoying ads, like those that pop up and obscure a site. Ads that have hard-to-find "Close" buttons. Ads that are huge for no reason and slow down the loading of a site, as well as rack up my data usage.

    Don't take my word for it, Google did a study last year which concluded that almost two-thirds of visitors who encountered an interstitial ad - an ad which blocked the entire screen - simply abandoned the page. So I'm not the only person who hates these kinds of ads.

    I installed and used Peace. I've found that webpages load faster, sometimes surprisingly so, and that surfing is a better experience with it.

    But Mr Arment pulled the app from the Apple App Store earlier last week. While still believing that "that ad blockers are necessary today", Mr Arment now thinks that the all-or-nothing approach Peace took to ad blocking is "too blunt", and achieving "this much success with Peace just doesn't feel good".

    Apple is now refunding everyone who has bought Peace.

    For what it's worth, my iPhone belongs to me, and I have the right to decide what I want to see with it. Whether you think that's right, well, that's up to you.