Apple could make blocking ads mainstream on mobile

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Mobile ads: iOS 9 could take adblocking on mobile mainstream.
Mobile ads: iOS 9 could take adblocking on mobile mainstream.

Is Apple firing a warning shot at rival Google by cutting its ad revenue?

iPhone owners using Apple's Safari browser will potentially be able block a wide range of content — including ads — with the next major iOS update.

The company published preview documents for Safari 9 detailing the "Content Blocking Safari Extension" at its developer conference earlier this week.

Apple wrote: "Content Blocking gives your extensions a fast and efficient way to block cookies, images, resources, pop-ups and other content."

That means Safari users could block ads and a wider range of site content simply by downloading a browser extension. The blocking feature is already available on Safari on desktop.

Apple hasn't released further detail about content blocking extensions, but one adblocking service, Adblock Plus, suggests the technical changes will actually make adblocking more difficult.

The company's comments were initially interpreted as a complaint that Apple was encroaching on its business, but it has denied this is the case.

Developer Sebastian Noack wrote: "We are not crying about Apple taking over our business. They don’t. We merely [point] out that the new API they are going to provide us with, which eventually is going to replace the old one, might be inferior and putting adblocking in general — not only in our case — at risk."

Impact on mobile advertising
Until developers begin building ad-blocking extensions for Safari on iOS 9, it is hard to predict the impact on mobile ad revenues.

Adblocking across devices has, until recently, been the preserve of more 'techy' consumers.

But according to a report last year from PageFair and Adobe, the number of users installing the technology equates to almost 5% of the entire internet population.

One key reason is the growing popularity of adblocking extensions on desktop browsers, such as Google Chrome and Safari. Another might be the lasting impact of piracy on a generation accustomed to accessing online services at no cost.

The report suggests adblocking on mobile is currently "relatively low," but has warned this could change.

Steve Chester, head of data and industry programmes at the IAB, told Marketing: "It's challenging, because this brings the facility to block on Safari on mobile en masse."

According to the PageFair report, the majority of users installing adblockers are also unwilling to pay for the services which rely on those ad revenues - raising questions over how publishers are meant to make money.

Chester said: "A good proportion of people understand that ads exist because [those] pay for the content and services they enjoy.

"The unanswered questions is that if a growing user base will not pay for content, how do you deliver those services without an alternative model?"

Chester pointed to experiments such as Google Contributor, which allows users to pay to remove ads, but notes that the "jury is still out on that".

The IAB and other industry bodies have championed "informed control," where a user understands the consequences of behaviur such as ad blocking. The question is, since these technologies are adopted by the most tech-savvy users to begin with, whether this will be enough.

Privacy or competitive advantage?
Apple is not commenting on why it is permitting ad blockers on mobile but some have interpreted the move as an attack on its nearest competitor, Google.

Unlike Apple, Google’s primary revenue source lies in online advertising, which may be one reason it is increasingly unfriendly to adblockers.

Google began to remove adblocking services – including the popular Adblock Plus – from its Play store in 2013. Adblock Plus remains unavailable on the Play Store, though a beta version is available for Android from its site. Earlier this year, it emerged that Google, Microsoft and Amazon may be paying Adblock Plus to whitelist their ads.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has previously made noises about the importance of user privacy, and the company is known for its stance against tracking in any form.

But given the three firms comprise Apple’s biggest competitors in the tech sector, cynics have suggested that the Safari move is unlikely to be motivated by concern for user privacy.

Steve Chester noted: "People don’t block ads because of privacy – they block because they don’t want to see ads. The privacy debate is important, but it’s not [applicable] for the majority of people blocking ads."

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Microsoft gets into virtual reality
The partnership is really a win for Microsoft and its upcoming PC operating system, Windows 10, according to Jason Fox, creative director at Framestore.

The Xbox One gamepad only works with Windows 10. That means anyone who buys an Oculus Rift and wants to stream Xbox One console games to their headset via their PC will need to upgrade to the new operating system. It isn't possible to pair the Rift with an Xbox One directly, due to the console's hardware limitations.

Fox told Marketing: "The Xbox One controller, being tied exclusively to Windows 10, is part of Microsoft’s strategy to get people to upgrade. It’s a direct push from Microsoft to bully people into upgrading."

The "polite" thing to do might have been to ship with an older Xbox controller, compatible with earlier versions of Windows.  Fox points out, however, that most hardcore gamers tend to upgrade to the latest version of Windows anyway in order to get the latest games.

Still — it’s not clear that hardcore gamers are actually Oculus’ target market, according to Fox.

He said: "None of the games coming out for the Rift are hardcore — they are not games you want to spend hours in.

"They are more like tech demos, zen-like experiences where you want to spend 30 minutes at most.  In the games I have played, you lose the competitive edge against someone who is playing with a mouse, keyboard and a regular monitor."

Oculus Touch
Shipping the Rift with an Xbox One controller comes at the expense of Oculus’ own prototype controller, also announced this week.

The Oculus Touch is designed natively for virtual reality experiences, allowing the user to "reach out and touch objects". It consists of two circular controllers, with the ‘Half Moon’ prototype coming with a traditional analog stick, two buttons, and analog trigger. The controllers are wireless, and use the same tracking system used for the headset.

Oculus has not revealed price or exact shipping dates for Oculus Touch, but said the controllers should go on sale in the second half of next year.

More competition
In spite of these early question marks, Microsoft investing further in virtual reality will benefit the nascent market, which is becoming increasingly competitive.

HTC’s virtual reality venture with gaming firm Valve, the HTC Vive, is set to ship with a controller, potentially in November. Sony, Microsoft’s biggest gaming rival, is also set to release the Project Morpheus headset which will plug into the PlayStation 4.

While that means virtual reality is strongly targeted at gamers for now, Fox points out that millions of consumers are already plugged into the Xbox and PlayStation ecosystems, giving the new platform significant reach.

Fox said: "There will be more distribution and more people interested in the virtual reality format. For now, there’s [no feasible hardware] to launch a game on. There will be a swell coming soon."

Future of HoloLens
Microsoft’s push with the Oculus also raises questions over the future of its own augmented reality venture, the HoloLens. Fox, who has tried the prototype headset, says the device is real but "not ready for consumers."

But he adds that the HoloLens, unveiled in January, has not been designed as a competitor to the Oculus Rift, with a focus on enhanced reality rather than gaming.

Microsoft has not commented further on its own device, but it’s possible the company saw more immediate benefits in investing in Oculus, which is significantly further along in development.

For marketers, the announcements point to a more tangible future for virtual reality, particularly with the Microsoft tie-up.

For now, however, the target audience still looks like the traditional gaming stereotype — male, nerdy enthusiasts interested in having the latest gadgets.

That doesn’t mean brands should stop experimenting with virtual reality — rather, improvements to the headset (such as adjusting for glasses-wearers) means that the Oculus will offer more ‘wow’ experiences.

Framestore’s Fox said: "The better the toy, the better the experiences. To do something that no one has seen before, to do something that is fresh, that is still gold for brands who want to something experiential for a targeted, niche, audience, to excite them about their closest interests."

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