iOS 9 Content Blockers - Bring 'Em On!

Apple's iOS 9 announcement at WWDC included a feature that sent ripples through the online publishing community: Safari in iOS 9 will support third-party Content Blockers (as will/does Safari on OS X). The main goal of these is to give users the ability to filter out crap that impedes or slows down their web experience.

It's immediately obvious that blocking content which causes web pages to load slowly also means blocking ads. In fact, it almost primarily means blocking ads. Today's standardized web ads are delivered using a series of cascading scripts, meaning one script triggers another and then yet another until one of them has an ad to display. I should know, in addition to running The Mac Observer for over 16 years I've been running BackBeat Media — a boutique firm that sells ads for some of your favorite websites and podcasts — for 15 of those same years.

Though this will predictably fall on deaf ears, it's worth saying that much of the content on the web (including this very article) isn't presented to you for free, dear reader. The price to access web content is whatever the web publisher decides it is, and for TMO that means you agree to view the ads that we choose to show you. Blocking those ads — taking the content without paying the price — is stealing. I know many of you will feel a strong negative reaction to that statement, but it's worth saying simply because it's true. But just saying that doesn't solve the problem because it's also true that some of those ads that we (and even moreso, other web publishers) choose to show you slow down your experience. Trust me, I get it. I want your experience here to be the best it can be — and, believe it or not, it used to be different everywhere.

Over the past decade-and-a-half we've watched the online ad industry and related technology evolve, and very little of it has been good for you, the person who reads web content. Things were mostly fine until Google joined the game. Many of you may not remember a web with ads before Google, but it very much existed and it was very much a good place with quick load speeds. It had to be, most of us were still on dial-up at the time! Pop-ups and pop-unders didn't exist, there were no Flash ads and, most differently, everyone served their own ads. There was no such thing as a "third-party ad server," let alone something that was script-based and could potentially slow down or take over the entire page.

To be fair there were also no such things as cloud web hosting (think Dreamhost or Squarespace) or even content management systems (think Wordpress) so everything had to be built manually (up until 2009 TMO ran on a content management system that I built myself in PHP). I'm not saying I want us to rewind all the way back to the pre-Google and pre-Cloud days, though back then ad prices were valued at 10-times what they are today so I wouldn't necessarily mind if we did!

Content blockers in iOS 9 (or, indeed, every other platform that will eventually adopt them in a similar way) don't mean the end of ads on the web or the end of your favorite publishers. They just mean the end of massive third-party aggregators that rely on complex browser-run scripts to serve ads en masse to thousands of different web sites daily. If a website wants to take a direct sponsorship (as we do here at TMO), iOS 9's content blockers won't stop you from seeing that. If a website wants to run its own scriptless ad server engine and serve simple ad images (as we used to here at TMO), nothing will stop you from seeing those. There's no reason for content blockers to stop you from seeing those because they're delivered just like the text or an image in an article — and you certainly wouldn't want a content blocker to stop you from getting that.

Frankly, I'm pretty bullish on the concept of iOS 9's Content Blockers, and am looking forward to their mass adoption. Yes, it means we'll need to abandon some of the easy/remnant methods of earning money here, but most of those methods have become worth less and less to us — and become more and more annoying to you, our readers. We've already abandoned some of them including, as many of you were happily aware, our abandonment of the in-text ads from Kontera and Vibrant late last year!

In contrast to the mess that is ads on the web, here at The Mac Observer and BackBeat Media we've been having a very smooth experience (and immense success) selling and serving podcast sponsorships for some of your favorite Apple-related shows over the past decade. That process and those ads are quite similar to the way things used to work on the web, welcomed by both publishers and their audiences. I'm looking forward to content blockers bringing the web there again. Instead of places like Google devaluing the web en masse, websites and boutique firms (yes, like BackBeat Media) will be selling the web for what it is truly worth. That is much harder work than just plugging in a Google script and forgetting about it, but that's OK — we like hard work here.

Bring it on!