Discussions about ad-blockers are all the rage. This is because Apple’s new iOS 9 allows you to put content blockers on the Safari web browser. Thus, this technology is brought to the mobile web; something one can guess Google will be reluctant to do on Android. Anyhow, I wrote about the broad issues here.
I, personally, have no problem with ads per se. It is a business model and I have clicked on ads so I would like them to be relevant but also not annoying. When pop-up ads first appeared, they were annoying and so most browsers quickly adopted pop-up blockers to stop this. Had they not done this, I suspect many people would have wanted to install more brutal ad-blockers and all this trouble might have arisen even earlier.
This week, a new raft of ad-blockers hit the App Store. One of them, by famed developer Marco Arment, jumped to the top of the chart even though it was priced at $2.99. It was aptly named Peace and it used the Ghostery machinery to block ads. I purchased it and I can tell you that based on my, admittedly poor measurement, sites load on Safari between 5 to 10 times faster than on Chrome (that doesn’t have a blocker). Considering most of that is saved downloads, that’s also a saving in bandwidth. You can see here why Apple pursued this path. Users need to block some content to get a good experience.
But Peace is a blunt instrument. While you can tailor it a little, it blocks pretty much everything. Arment decided he felt bad about that and pulled his app. But two others still grace the top of the charts.
The problem is not in concept but in design. Publishers have tempted people into blunt installations that stop everything. But pop-up blockers suggest a better path — why not provider content blockers that are more selective. Ones that punish bad behaviour and in so doing reward the good.
An option immediately comes to mind: a contingent ad-blocker. The current blockers can work out what is ‘unintended’ from ‘intended’ content. They should then take the ‘unintended’ content and, rather than blocking or not, impose a limit. If it is more than a certain number of MB or there are more than, say, three trackers, it should block everything. Otherwise, let it through.
The economic problem is that ad-based media encourages shaving behaviour whereby publishers are always tempted to offer a little bit more annoyance because it doesn’t impact on consumer traffic. So things get worse and worse. A contingent ad-blocker will draw a line in the sand. This much and no more.
It is a shame Arment did not decide to put his programming skills to work to do something more innovative rather than withdraw completely.
[Update: a helpful person on Twitter actually suggests that the blame is all on Apple. Apparently, Apple’s APIs may not allow contingency of the form I have posited here. In which case, that’s not good and Apple should ‘think different.’]