Thoughts on Ad-Blockers

The release of iOS9 yesterday brings with it many things, but it’s the support for content blockers in Safari which has the Internet foaming at it’s collective mouth. That’s because those content blocker features are being used to create ad blockers, stripping away the very thing that’s paying for all the journalists, designers and developers who work for the sites you visit.

And it’s awesome.

And therein lies the problem for publishers everywhere, nobody at those sites is going to deny that’s not a significantly improved experience for users. Removing all those flashing banners, massive image downloads, poorly written Javascript and full site overlays results in a faster browsing experience with a reduction in data consumption of anything from 50-80% on some of the biggest sites on the web. That means that not only is ad-blocking making your browsing quicker, it’s also potentially saving you money in data charges.

There are those with a cynical view that this is a ploy by Apple to stop Google by attacking their business model, since they make their money through advertising and Apple make theirs by selling devices. That seems like a stretch, because it can’t be denied that supporting this kind of thing is good for it’s users, and that’s often the stick by which Apple likes to be measured. It’s also a stretch because on the desktop, every browser supports extensions like ad-blocking, and they can be found within Google’s own Chrome Extension store. So these aren’t a new thing, they’re just a new thing to the largest mobile browser.

In all honesty, I doubt that the number of people that will install an ad-blocker is going to be a particularly high percentage of the people who have an iOS device, and therefore the actual damage is going to be limited. But what it will hopefully do nonetheless is making the publishers take a look at what they’ve been shoving down the throats of users for the past few years, and realise that it’s only come to this because the experience is so poor. If 80% of the data that you’re transferring to one of your visitors is superfluous to the actual content the visitor came to see, then you have a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Your visitors are actually spending more money just to see your poorly constructed HTML palace.

Adapt or die is a phrase often thrown around by journalists when writing about the music industry or the movie industry, whenever one of them is trying to fight back against the march of technology, especially technology which brings users more choice and erodes at the control these behemoths have always had. Now that shoe is on the other foot, and it’s the publishers who are going to have to adapt or die. And if a bunch of them do disappear, apart from those that may find themselves out of work, is that going to be so bad for the consumer? We live in a world of massive Internet over-abundance. There are a million gaming blogs, technology blogs and general news sites, all writing about the same events, the same press releases, posting the same manufacturer supplied footage. Few will mourn the passing of these sites if they start disappearing. The ones that are left will find themselves with higher visitor numbers and a more unique proposition, something which they can sell directly and perhaps not rely on advertising. People always say that nobody is willing to pay for anything online, but that’s because there’s so many free alternatives, why would you. That trend could reverse in a hurry if the long tail of sites disappears.

Or perhaps somebody could just invent a form advertising that doesn’t cost my time, money and patience every time I see it. Stop showing me the same ad over and over again. Stop showing me ads for things I have absolutely no interest in (want to buy a car in a country you don’t live in? how about a pair of shoes that are the same as the ones you bought two months ago because the tracking cookies don’t know you purchased?). Good advertising should be like getting a recommendation from a friend. But most online advertising is from a stack em high, sell em cheap model. It’s mud against a million walls. As soon as I think the ads on a site might actually benefit me, allowing it to show me ads is only a button tap away.

And ultimately, maybe thats where we need to end up. I give you permission to show me your recommendations, because I know they’re not going to suck, and you will have curated them well for me and my tastes.

Or who knows, maybe the dead tree business will flourish again, when everybody returns to buying newspapers when they can no longer get anything online for free.

How the Apple TV can win the living room

The Apple rumour mill has now reached a conclusion; an updated Apple TV is finally (yes, I’m allowed to use the word finally) coming on September 9th.

It’s been a long time in the making. After years of speculation on the form it would take, whether it would actually be a TV or just another set-top box, whether it would have a cable-busting streaming service along with it, and exactly what Steve Jobs meant when he told Walter Isaacson that he had finally cracked it.

The smoke is billowing in the direction of it being a slightly larger device than the current Apple TV, but still very much a set-top box. No streaming service just yet, that’s more likely to come next year. The selling point is going to be the significantly upgraded hardware, software and remote, but most of all, apps.

I wrote years ago about how Apple could win the living room (a post I seem unable to find) if they would simply offer an Apple TV with an app store. It seems they are finally ready to make that happen. The Roku is a fine little box, the Fire TV is the same, but neither of them have thriving app eco-systems. They both have the same fare, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Plex, MLB… nothing too exciting. On the gaming front, a few badly ported Android games make up the bulk of what the Fire TV has to offer, hardly anything that’s going to send shivers down the spines of those in the corridors of Sony and Microsoft.

But an Apple TV, now that really has the opportunity to shake things up. The shrine of Apple, despite the best attempts of their competitors, are where most of the top app developers now worship. Strong developer tools, regular updates, good documentation and three platforms that share a common core has allowed developers to quickly take advantage of each new product Apple has introduced. The Apple Watch, for all I’ve found the apps to be a total non-starter for me, had hundreds of the things within the first few days. The introduction of a fourth product into that list, backed by tvOS and the same core, will mean a gold rush of apps hitting the platform within the first few months.

Apps are the difference between a successful platform and a failed platform. Once consumers start seeing all the things their TV can now do, and if they can do it with Siri, the same assistant they’re already used to on their phone, then it’ll win out over it’s competitors.

The XBone and PS4 both have app stores, but they’re still much more of a closed eco-system than the Apple one, and their higher price point and image as being “for gamers” put them on a different footing. And when it comes to that market, it’s unlikely the hardcore gamers are going to be switching over to the Apple TV any time soon. But the casual market and family markets? The market where Skylanders is king and their last full game already runs on an iPad just fine – that’s where they should be worried. Nintendo, even more so.

What will be the make or break will be the remote. You’ll get a real sense of what Apple expect people to do with this when that’s revealed. Exactly who they’re targeting. Don’t discount that the aforementioned Skylanders for the iPad actually comes with a perfectly serviceable Bluetooth controller, but if the new Apple TV remote looks just the same as the current one, you know they’re not going for the gaming market directly. If it has some form of motion control, touch pad or a significant number of physical buttons, perhaps with the ability to hold it sideways to make it more gamer friendly – you’ll know they’re firing a clear shot across the gaming parapets. After market third, or even first, party controllers are one thing, but if you really want the device to make a dent, and want developers to care, you need a pack-in remote that satisfies 90% of what casual gamers need. If I can’t play Clash of Clans on this thing, they’re shooting too low.

Games, apps, social media, pack an HDMI pass-through into this thing for iMessage popups over your existing TV signal, sell an external iSight camera for Facetime on the big screen, let me ask Siri to play the Apple music of my choice from sitting on my couch – the opportunities here are endless. They have the eco-system, they have the technology, they’ve spent almost a decade putting all the pieces together, now they just have to take the ball and get it into the end zone.

Next weeks event might be the traditional iPhone event, but the ATV has the potential to be the biggest Apple story of the year.