New mobile apps heading to Apple’s iTunes store this fall promise to make your Web browsing faster and safer, your battery life longer, and your data bills smaller by blocking online ads. They may also escalate a growing controversy over the effects of ad blockers on publishers.
Blocking ads benefits consumers by removing annoying auto-playing video and preventing ad companies from tracking them. But it also causes sites to miss out on ad revenue. Use of ad blockers on computers appears to be growing fast, and some publishers have begun using technology that smuggles ads past the blockers. The appearance of ad blocking apps in Apple’s app store could make them much more popular.
Ad blocking iPhone apps are coming because a new version of Apple’s mobile operating system due this fall adds support for apps that filter content in Safari, the default browser on iPhones and iPads. Apple hasn’t said it intends to unleash ad blocking apps and didn’t respond to a request for comment. But when the feature was quietly announced this summer, developers quickly saw it was perfect for that purpose.
Some are now testing ad blocking apps they intend to release when iOS9 becomes available. Their results suggest these apps could be popular. For example, when Dean Murphy, an app developer based in the U.K., hacked together an ad blocker in about an hour earlier this month, he found it slashed the time taken to load the popular Apple blog iMore from 11 seconds to just two seconds.
He is now working to release a fully polished ad blocker called Crystal, and expects there will be many others when iOS9 launches. “Apple has laid a solid foundation for quality ad blocking applications,” he says.
One of Murphy’s competitors will be an app called Purify, created by Chris Aljoudi, who leads development of the desktop ad blocker uBlock, which he says has over one million active users. A video of Purify in action shows how it makes a news site load faster and strips pre-roll video ads from YouTube. Aljoudi says his tests have showed that Purify cuts Web browsing data usage by about a quarter—which could cut some people’s data bills and extend battery life. Both Aljoudi and Murphy intend to make their apps cheap, but not free.
How popular the new apps will be is unclear because simple ad blocking tools have not previously been available through the mobile app stores of Apple or Google. Apple’s software didn’t support them, and Google, whose business is built on ads, actively bans them from its app store.
However, a survey of U.S. Internet users by PageFair, which tracks ad blocking usage, found last year that more than a quarter said they used ad blocking—likely referring to desktop use. Mobile ad blocking apps are already extremely popular in places where many phones based on Google’s Android operating system use app stores that Google does not control, such as China, India, and Russia, says Sean Blanchfield, PageFair’s CEO. The companies behind two leading mobile browsers, UC Browser and Maxthon, which have built-in ad blocking, together claim over 600 million active users.
“It might signal what’s about to happen with the release of iOS9,” says Blanchfield. “Dollars spent on data are less important in places like the U.S., but the performance improvements are real.”
Indeed, although PageFair is one of several companies that offers publishers technology that can slip ads past ad blockers, Blanchfield actually has some similar views to the people behind the technology he is fighting. “We can’t criticize hundreds of millions of people for installing it,” says Blanchfield. “There are ads out there that install malware and there are a lot of privacy and performance concerns.”
Matthew Adkisson, a cofounder of Sourcepoint, which also sells ad blocker-defeating technology, agrees. He and Blanchfield both say their long-term strategy is to convince the ad industry to give up on the most annoying ads, arguing that even people who use ad blockers are okay with more subtle advertising.
An agreement that PageFair has with Eyeo, the company behind AdBlock Plus, a desktop blocker claiming 50 million active users, lets it sell ads guaranteed not to be blocked because they meet Eyeo guidelines for “acceptable ads.” Other companies, such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, even pay Eyeo in return for a promise it won’t block their ads that meet the rules.
Adkisson calls those paid deals “extortion.” Sourcepoint is working on the idea of letting people choose how publishers make money from them, for example by opting to see conventional ads, or to watch one video ad per day, or even paying a few dollars per month to wipe out ads across a bundle of top sites. “We’re trying to put together the early test phase of what that subscription model would look like,” says Adkisson.
Apple has its own ideas about the future of publishing, though. The iOS9 update will also bring a news app that repackages content from different publishers in a slick interface, with ads sold through Apple. Facebook recently launched a similar feature, called “instant articles.”
Adkisson concedes that publishers worried about ad blockers and reaching large audiences may find those schemes more alluring than trying to fight it out on the Web. But he argues those “walled gardens” would also choke the freedom of publishers that made the open Web so great. “AOL in the 1990s was not a great place to be compared to the Internet of the last 15 years,” he says.