Amidst all the hubbub and buzz generated by Apple's worldwide developer conference on June 8, one very interesting tidbit stands out. According to documentation released for iOS 9 after the conference's end, Safari will soon include functionality that allows developers to block "cookies, images, resources, pop-ups, and other content." In other words, Apple has all but officially thrown its support behind ad blocking.
The reason this is big news is that, until recently, mobile advertising was a relatively untouched market. As of 2014, the prevalence of ad-blocking was relatively low on mobile devices, according to a report by Pagefair and Adobe. What's more, Adblock Plus only recently released an iOS version of its software, while the usage of ad blockers on Android never really took off.
"While ad blocking has long been a menace on desktop, it's still largely a nonentity on mobile phones, thanks to a combination of offensive moves by Google and the difficulty of installing mobile ad blocking software," writes Ricardo Bilton of Digiday.
That's rapidly changing, and there are many advertising agencies and authors alike crying foul. Some particularly hyperbolic individuals have called ad blockers "as bad as Napster," while others have long maintained that ad blocking is slowly but surely killing the web. The idea is that it's killing revenue from websites, and that web users are entitled for wanting to use it.
What many neglect to mention is that online advertising is, at the current moment, horrendously broken, and in dire need of repair. Poorly designed advertisements and shady professionals have effectively fouled the waters for every legitimate advertiser on the web. Resource-intensive quagmires, invasive, obnoxious banners, and scripts laden with malware and adware do nothing to sell products or generate clicks - they simply ruin the browsing experience.
"A large part of web ads are malicious, misogynist, full of malware/ransomware, and are a risk to your computer," writes Design Is Law's Jeff Kunzler. "Adblock rose to popularity due to people growing fed up with risking their computer being infected by malicious advertisements, and the Internet's going to have to adapt."
On mobile devices, ad blocking is less about protecting oneself from malicious marketers than it is improving battery life and page load times - but the basic idea remains the same. There's something wrong with how some ad agencies go about their business, and people are tired of it. Apple's support of content blocking indicates that it's well aware of this fact.
"Consumers are spending more of their digital time on their phones, and Apple wants to own that experience," explains Julia Greenberg of Wired. "Ads don't just exist to track and annoy consumers...ads pay the bills. Google, Facebook, and Twitter run on ads. YouTube, Hulu, and WIRED run on ads. Apple, however, does not."
She continues: "A Safari without ads is a more desirable browser for users. If more users don't want to see ads, Apple is smart to provide that option for them to achieve parity with the rival mobile OS."
Content creators and advertisers aren't the only ones wary of Apple's content blocking. One unlikely detractor stepped forward last week: Adblock Plus head of operations Ben Williams. According to Williams, Apple's content blocking could be more harmful than helpful.
"The best case is that the new application programming interface will help us to improve the performance and adblocking experience on Safari, and pave the way for an iOS adblocker," he told The Guardian. "If Apple's ad block format turns out to be useless, however, that could mean the end of ad blocking on Safari."
What's more, notes The Guardian's Samuel Gibbs, Apple itself runs a mobile advertising platform, known as iAds. Releasing official ad blocking software without leaving room for its own platform seems akin to shooting itself in the foot. It damages Apple's own revenue stream.
Regardless of what Apple actually intends to do with content blocking, one thing is abundantly clear: modern advertisers need to rework how they sell to online consumers. Web users are tired of invasive, intrusive ads; they're sick of having their systems violated and their time wasted. To counter ad blocking, the traditional model needs to either be reworked or abandoned altogether - on mobile devices as well as desktops.