Last Wednesday Apple rolled out the latest version of its iOS operating system, and it came with a very nasty sting in the tail for newspapers, magazines and online publishers everywhere. A relatively small tweak means iPhone and iPad owners can now download apps that will block ads on web pages on their phones. The apps notice when an ad is being delivered to a web page alongside an article, and simply stop it ever getting there.
Following the release the apps almost immediately rose to the top of the download rankings. Many commentators who anticipated the software would only block annoying, intrusive ads (unlike their own sleek, pretty ones) were surprised to find it doing what it said it would – provide an ad-free experience on the web.
But Apple’s update only threatens to make mainstream what was already a growing existential threat to any publisher hoping advertising online will support their business. Research from Sourcepoint and comScore shows one in ten people were blocking ads on desktops and laptops before the Apple update, rising to around a quarter in Germany and France. Younger and wealthier people – those most desired by advertisers – are more likely to block ads. Blocking on mobiles is lower everywhere except India and China – in the UK just 00.1 per cent – but Apple could change that rapidly.
The trend reflects a truth even most publishers will admit; online ads (and the accompanying bits of computer code that slow down page loading) are annoying. It’s just that now consumers have a way to do something about them. “Most media companies have become desperate and they’ve thrown in more ads and more data collectors to eke out more pennies and we’ve had our fill,” says media commentator Jeff Jarvis.
On the record, publishers acknowledge ad blocking as a threat, but say they are equipped to handle it. “I am concerned,” says Jed Hartman, chief revenue officer at the Washington Post. “However, we’ve been accustomed to innovation and technology disrupting the publishing business from every angle for a long time.” In private, there is an awareness ad blocking could be more serious. “Is it more existential? Yes probably,” says one senior UK newspaper executive. “As a publisher you are relatively powerless, your key revenue generator is being undermined.”
Apple has been careful to say the update is designed purely to improve the experience of using its devices and is not specifically aimed at ads. However, there is much suspicion of the company’s motives. “The thing that worries me about Apple is they are not an ad business,” says the newspaper exec. “They don’t have skin in the game, and they want to do anything to hurt Google.” Jarvis puts it more bluntly: “Apple has basically failed at the ad business and they are trying to ruin it for everybody else.”
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