Observers weren’t fooled by the last-day session placement and careful euphemism (“content” means “ads”). True to the “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum, we were treated to the usual clamor, from accusations of short-sighted tactics—Apple is at war with Google and wants to monopolise mobile advertising with iAds; publishers will blacklist Safari on iOS9—to predictions of calamity—content blocking will upend the Web, your favorite webiste is about to die, content creators are under attack:
“You realise that ‘bloat’ pays the salaries of editorial, product, design, video, etc etc etc, right?”
There were more moderate viewpoints, of course, but the congregants who assured us that ad blocking in iOS 9 won’t kill the web were fewer and quieter. Page-views, you know.
Initially, a few things jumped out at me.
First, although content blocking is available for iOS and OS X 10.11 (aka, El Capitan), the furor was concentrated almost entirely on mobile, a reflection of the dominant role of iDevices in Apple’s ecosystem. (A glance at the technical documentation shows us that content blocking extensions are actually easier to develop for the Macintosh than they are for the iPhone and iPad).
Second, the conjectured content blockers won’t be Apple products; they’ll be created and offered (whether free or for a price) by independent developers. You may quibble with the use of “independent” —the App Store judges will intervene, as usual—but we should expect a flurry of creative ad-blocking code followed by a round of noisy arguments accusing developers of attempting to destroy barely solvent Web publishers.
Third, in their entre nous concentration on advertisers, developers, publishers, Apple vs. Google, the commentariat disregarded the benefits of content blocking for mere users, the unwashed masses who supply the industry with their life-giving fluids of money and personal data.
The absence didn’t last long. In two previous Monday Notes (“News Sites Are Fatter and Slower Than Ever” and “20 Home Pages, 500 Trackers Loaded: Media Succumbs to Monitoring Frenzy”), my compadre Frédéric Filloux cast a harsh light on bloated, prying pages. Web publishers insert gratuitous chunks of code that let advertisers vend their wares and track our every move, code that causes pages to stutter, juggle, and reload for no discernible reason. Even after the page has settled into seeming quiescence, it may keep loading unseen content in the background for minutes on end.
In a blog post titled “An hour with Safari Content Blocker in iOS 9,” mobile-software developer Dean Murphy showed how a simple iOS 9 ad-blocker that he wrote made a dramatic before-and-after difference:
Before (left) and after (right)
With content blocking turned on, the page loaded in two seconds instead of eleven. Once loaded, network activity ceased, which means less strain on the battery.
Another developer, Paul Hudson, provides a calm explanation of what Apple actually announced, and proceeds to an example that blocks a daily newspaper he doesn’t seem to like—“How to write a content blocker extension in 10 minutes (and never see the Daily Mail again)”. No need to dive in if geeky JSON talk doesn’t float your boat, but Hudson’s conclusions are worth contemplating (emphasis mine):
“Safari content blocking is a huge innovation: the fact that the system can optimise the rules ahead of time rather than trying to interact with an extension is a huge win for performance. Then of course there’s privacy: no one needs to know what web pages you visit, which is just how it should be.”
“… web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution. Mobile Safari on my iPhone 6 Plus is a slow, buggy, crashy affair, starved for the phone’s paltry 1 GB of memory and unable to rotate from portrait to landscape without suffering an emotional crisis. Chrome on my various Android devices feels entirely outclassed at times, a country mouse lost in the big city, waiting to be mugged by the first remnant ad with a redirect loop and something to prove.”
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