Every year, a handful of clued-in pundits start floating “wouldn’t it be nice” Apple OS ideas just before the features actually show up in Apple’s products. Right before iOS 7 debuted a flattened design, at a point when few people even knew what skeuomorphism was, pundits began to ask, “boy, doesn’t skeuomorphism stink?” Then ahead of iOS 9, when people might have wondered what new marquee features were coming to Apple’s operating systems, pundits said, “hey, wouldn’t it be nice if Apple focused on iOS and OS X stability this year?” Recently, a new topic came up just before Apple debuted the beta version of News for iOS 9: “Web advertising really sucks — wouldn’t it be great if that all went away?”
Advertising is an easy target: it’s an eyesore, slows down web pages, and — in the wrong hands — compromises your privacy. But whether you accept it or hate it, advertising is also the reason you don’t have to pay for your news. As Ben Lovejoy noted last month, “without ad revenue, 9to5Mac wouldn’t exist; it’s that simple.” And he’s right: surveys suggest that the vast majority of people do not want to pay for the news they consume, and the few who do can’t pay enough to keep their favorite publications afloat for the long term. Ads keep publications alive.
Thanks to the introduction of ad-blocking technology in iOS 9, some people think Apple wants to help users get rid of ads. But that’s not Apple’s goal. Yesterday’s debut of Apple News shows that it’s actually angling to replace the ads you know, build upon them, and take a cut of their revenue…
Viewed most positively, Apple’s two new iOS 9 advertising initiatives have the potential to alter the balance of online advertising. First, iOS 9 supports ad-blocking plug-ins that remove ads from web-based content viewed using Safari, the dominant iOS web browser. If enough users install these plug-ins, web pages will look “cleaner” and load faster, but Safari ad revenue will go down, ultimately hurting both publishers and the people who write for them.
Not coincidentally, the ad-blockers are arriving simultaneously with iAd-sponsored Apple News. Apple is effectively forcing publishers who opt-in with Apple News to support Apple’s iAds solution, or lose revenue. If a publisher allows its feed to be read by Apple News users, its ads get stripped out, and the only option to replace them is to create new versions of pages in the Apple News Format, where Apple’s iAds appear, instead. Apple gets a 30% cut of ads it sells itself against the publisher’s content, or 0% if the publisher sells its own iAds. Should the publisher opt out of Apple News, it gets the worst deal: no Apple News views of their content, no revenue from iAds, and decreasing Safari revenue due to ad-blockers.
Everyone understands why readers would welcome big changes to web advertising. Top-of-page, right-of-page, pop-over, pop-under, beginning-of-video, between-video, and after-video ads are everywhere these days. It’s tempting to accept any opportunity to hide those ads and just get on with reading, watching, or listening to content… unless the solution involves actually paying directly for the content. If that’s the option, history suggests that most people will try to go elsewhere, returning only if and when the content becomes free again.
But if you don’t like standard web advertising, you probably won’t like iAds, either. Just like other ads, they come in multiple types of banner formats, interstitial formats, and pre-roll Video formats, as shown above. The basic ones range from 200KB to 750KB a piece, with video ads (10 seconds to 30 seconds) requiring between 9 and 27MB of data. iAds can feature animation, redirection to web sites/product pages, galleries, and other features. They’re not simpler than traditional ads: Apple actually calls them “an expanded ad experience.”
Aren’t they “less creepy” than other ads, though? Well, last year, iAds began tracking user activities inside retail apps to serve targeted advertising. This March, there were reports that Apple was letting advertisers target iAds to specific users, using data such as phone numbers and email addresses. And iOS 9 will let marketers push offers based on your location or interests. All of these tracking features are balanced by Apple’s standard promises of privacy, anonymity, and opt-out options, but add them up: iAds let advertisers reach you based on who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, and what you like.
I’m not trying to suggest that advertising is a great thing, or that I like the status quo — to the contrary, I hate the floating ads, pop-overs, and video interruptions at least as much as you do. Having to watch an ad for a TV show or bug spray before YouTube videos is a pain. But there’s no escaping the fact that advertising, whether it’s banners, affiliate links, or site sponsorships, enables people to spend their time creating content for you to consume at no charge. If advertising disappears, you’re either going to pay directly for that content, or the content is going to go away. In light of the changes Apple is encouraging, it’s time to decide whether you’re willing to accept sponsorship along with your free news, or whether you’re willing to start paying its production costs directly. The alternative — letting publications wither on the vine, reducing competition and the availability of information — will ultimately be far worse than the other options.