Apple's iOS 9 update will let you block ads
Life is about to get that little bit harder for digital publishers, thanks to Apple.
The tech giant quietly revealed at its Worldwide Developers Conference this week that it will allow ad-blocking software on its web browser, Safari, with the next Apple mobile software upgrade, iOS9, which comes out sometime between September and December.
That means consumers will be able to download extensions that automatically stop most ads from loading on Safari, which comes pre-installed on iPads and iPhones.
That of course will include advertising on news sites - a much-needed revenue source for online publishers, as readers are increasingly moving to mobile rather than desktop to access online content.
"I think publishers should be worried," former Fairfax Digital chief executive Jack Matthews said.
While the news from Apple would have an "incremental" rather than a "radical" effect on digital publishers, it marked yet another step in the "wrong direction" for sites that relied on advertising revenue to stay afloat, he said.
"I personally believe most advertising, as a revenue model, is under threat for a variety of reasons," Matthews, who is director at APN Outdoor Media, a billboard advertising company, said.
Ad-blocking software has been around for some time, including as an extension for the desktop version of Safari and other web browsers. However the news marks the first time Apple has given the green light to bring ad-blockers to mobile devices.
Matthews said "progressive" publishers had already developed some strategies to mitigate ad-blocking, including paywalls, which charge readers for access to editorial content; and content marketing, which fuses editorial content with advertising, and therefore is not picked up by ad-blocking software.
However he said opening the gates to ad-blocking on mobile put "greater emphasis on paywalls" for generating revenue, "which in turn places greater emphasis on unique, quality content".
That meant making paywalls less "porous" - meaning it is harder for readers to circumvent them.
"The current theory is to make them reasonably porous so that you extract some subscriber revenue without driving away casual viewers," Matthews said.
"[But] If they can be bypassed with impunity then there's a real problem.
Apple CEO Tim Cook (right) with Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp. Photo: Reuters
Commentators have questioned Apple's motivations behind the move, which it revealed in a note to developers.
In recent months Apple's chief executive Tim Cook has been talking up the importance of privacy - which many have interpreted as thinly veiled jabs at rivals Google and Facebook, companies that generate significant revenues from targeted advertising based on user data.
Telsyte managing director Foad Fadaghi said while the introduction of ad-blocking to iOS fit with Cook's privacy rhetoric, it was more likely intended to hurt the bottom line of its chief competitor, Google, which generated US$15.5 billion in advertising revenue in the first quarter of 2015.
"The continuation of that Apple versus Google battle seems to have really been stoked up in the last few months - even the last few days," Fadaghi said.
The latest move in the battle, however, leaves online publishers caught in the crossfire, he said.
Other analysts have put the ad-blocking news in context with a bigger announcement at WWDC: Apple's News app, which will replace the current Newsstand app on iOS9. It will aggregate and tailor news articles from around the web, similar to apps like Flipboard.
If Apple can reduce the impact of native advertising on publishers' websites, it can gain an edge on selling ads through its own ad platform, iAd, which generates ads on iOS apps.
Media analyst Steve Allen said Apple had likely already had discussions with publishers in the US about its plans for News and advertising.
"The next leg of this situation is that they will control all advertising that goes on the device, and those that want an ad on the device with their [editorial] content will have to pay," Allen said.
In a similar move, Facebook recently announced Instant Articles, which will see publishers' editorial content hosted directly in users' Facebook feeds, so consumers don't have to open a separate web page.
Both announcements mark an acceleration of the shift to distributing news through social media sites, news aggregators and other third-party platforms, with readers decreasingly accessing articles via a news website's homepage.
- Sydney Morning Herald