Apple Is Taunting Publishers With Ad-Blocking and Apple News
Apple wants to make your mobile web experience better. It wants it to be fast. It wants it to be pretty. It wants it to be streamlined. Apple wants to keep you hooked on, well, Apple stuff. But while trying to make you happy, Cupertino could threaten the very businesses that create what you want to see.
At its iPhone event this Wednesday, Apple is expected to demo its latest operating system, iOS 9. With it, users will see two updates that have vast importance for publishers and news readers alike: the app Apple News and support for ad-blocking on iOS devices.
These new additions may seem somewhat paradoxical. With iOS 9, app developers will be able to create ad blocking software for Safari’s mobile browser, which could hurt publishers who depend on ads online. At the same time, Apple is touting its news reader as another way for those same publishers to get their stories in front of readers on their phones. (WIRED will be an Apple News launch partner.)
“At some point, ad-blockers will have a negative impact on publishers, because they won’t be able to monetize their mobile websites as well,” says Ken Harlan, CEO of the mobile ad company MobileFuse. “Obviously, Apple’s hope is that more consumers will shift to just using apps, instead of Safari or the mobile web.” Unlike sites on the web, Apple reviews all apps that end up in its App Store and gets a cut of ads inside of iOS apps sold with its service iAd.
Both of these updates reflect the increasing pressures on publishers as ad-blocking continues to rise—tightening their wallets and encouraging them to distribute content to as many places as possible online. If readers want news on their phones—which they do—Apple wants to make sure they can get it. So the company is offering its very own solution, Apple News, for a very special price: more control over what you see.
Ad-blocking is becoming increasingly popular—and, with its official sanctioning of ad-blocking in iOS 9, Apple seems to be encouraging more mobile users to follow suit. In a report from Adobe and PageFair last month, the companies found that there are now 198 million active ad-block users worldwide, costing publishers nearly $22 billion.
“There’s a clear signal from consumers that they haven’t been given the proper consideration,” says Jason Kint, the chief executive of Digital Content Next, a trade association representing digital publishers, including WIRED parent company Condé Nast. “The industry at large needs to clean up the user experience of ads.”
Publishers, of course, depend on advertising—and, for smaller sites and blogs, the margins are small enough that, as ad-blocking increases, and the sites sell fewer ads, it may make it harder for them to stay afloat. And many of them are concerned. As more readers are getting more news on mobile, more readers could choose to block ads. We don’t yet know how easy it will be to use ad-blocking on iOS 9, but, on the Internet, if there’s a way, at least some users choose it.
“In some ways ad-blocking will be self serving because they’ll have more ads go into apps,” Ari Brandt, CEO of advertising company MediaBrix, says of Apple. “But ultimately I think it’s about user experience.” Android, after all, already supports ad-blocking—and it has been shown to speed up browsers while offering a cleaner, private experience. Apple is overdue to catch up.
Ad-blocking, however, may not be the determining factor on our phones. Mobile users are already choosing to spend more time in apps. A Forrester Research report from earlier this year found that 85-percent of time spent on smartphones is in apps. Publishers hoping to reach readers want to be where readers are—and advertisers want to serve up their message there, too. That increasingly means finding their way into, well, apps.
Free, Open, and Democratic… Or Not
In a way, Apple News seems like the company’s peace offering to publishers. With its news reader, Apple is offering publishers a chance to keep 100 percent of ad revenue for ads publishers sell themselves, or let Apple take a 30 percent cut if it helps, while promising a streamlined, aesthetically pleasing experience for readers.
It’s no coincidence, however, that ad blocking capabilities are coming on iOs 9 in tandem with Apple’s answer to the problems it creates. We’ll help you, Apple is telling publishers, but give us some control and a share of ad revenue (if we help you sell ads).
For advertisers, ads seem like a fair bargain between a reader and a publisher. A reader gets the content for free, and a publisher can create it for the reader. “Advertising keeps the web free, open, and democratic,” says Scott Cunningham, vice president of technology and ad operations at the digital advertising trade group Interactive Advertising Bureau. “Anything put in between that is concerning.”
The relationship between reader and publisher is changing with the rise of ad-blockers and tech intermediaries. Apple isn’t the only company pushing publishers off the web and into a space it, well, controls. Facebook launched Instant Articles earlier this year, allowing it to host partner publishers’ content directly to speed up load times. Snapchat similarly now features original news and entertainment stories from partners prominently in its app.
By partnering with Apple, Facebook, and others, publishers are handing over more power to giant tech companies to arbitrate how readers experience news. The trade-off is simple: tech companies get content to attract readers, plus control over what—and how—stories are featured, while publishers get the chance to get in front of you, and make a little more revenue. (This, of course, depends on ad-blockers being kept out of apps. One ad blocker company, however, tells WIRED that in its iOS 9 beta tests it has been able to block ads in Apple News and other apps.)
For readers, all of this may sound pretty great. No one likes intrusive ads, especially on mobile. But those same readers will have to decide if they want news to be free and pay the price of seeing ads—or if they want to give tech companies more control over what news readers see, and, more importantly, what they don’t.