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Technology

Apple Saves Publishing... For Itself

With a News App and Safari Content Blocker, Apple attempts to redefine advertising

[Photos: Evgeny_Popov via Shutterstock]

A month ago, at the World Wide Developer's Conference, Apple's vice president of product management and marketing, Susan Prescott, walked the audience of developers, users, and fans through the features of a new app that will be bundled with iOS 9: Apple News.

A glorified RSS reader, the News app was compared in the press to other attention aggregators, from the design-focused Flipboard, to the 600-pound gorilla in sheep's clothing that is the elephant in the internet's room, Facebook. Apple themselves emphasized a clean reading experience, with "rich typography" that offers the "best mobile reading experience ever;" what it did not emphasize—because they were not in the demo—were ads. Ads, it seems, despite an integral part of Apple News, are too gauche for Apple to display.

The following day, an Apple engineer, Brian Weinstein, stood on a smaller stage to discuss "Safari Extensibility: Content Blocking and Shared Links." It was session 511, one of many nuts-and-bolts talks given by Apple employees to explain new features and capabilities that would be available to developers whose software runs on Apple's phones or computers.

"Content blockers identify subsets of content," explained Weinstein, "or resources on a page to not show or even load." The implication, despite the name, is to block things that aren't content—specifically, ads. "I'm sure you can all imagine content you might want to block while browsing the web." The first example given during the presentation? A "list of clickbait links on the left" of a hypothetical website, labeled, in the demo, as "Sponsored Links."

Apple, like Facebook, has entered into a standoff with the publishing industry and the open, if for-profit, web. And it's being done under the aegis of design: choose a better reading experience on our curated platform, they offer, or let us clean up that pesky advertising on the open web.

The appeal to everyday readers of the web is compelling. Dean Murphy, a mobile app developer, created an ad blocker—excuse me, content blocker—in under an hour, tuned specifically to block the advertisements on a popular Apple publication, iMore. With the ads and its attendant tracking software blocked, he was able to download and render iMore's front page in 2 seconds—9 seconds faster than the page loaded with ads. More content (in this case, headlines) were able to fit in the mobile Safari browser window. Another developer, in a particularly stinging observation, noted that a roughly 500-word article by iMore's editor-in-chief addressing Murphy's content blocker was 14 megabytes in size. The text of the article could be transmitted in under a kilobyte of data; the rest of the data is the ads, images, and code that surrounds it. In plaintext form, a couple of dozen good-sized novels could fit in a 14 megabyte file.

From a UX standpoint, optimizing time spent, space occupied, and data transferred is a significant achievement in the name of the user. To one versed in the mechanics of computing, where efficiency is an ideal, if not a byword, this waste of data seems almost criminal. More so since users pay a tangible financial cost for mobile data. But words are not data; they encapsulate the thinking of their author, measurable both in time and material cost—rent, food, perhaps even profit. And that profit is increasingly hard earned.

Online advertising revenue for display ads—the kind of ads you see as images or video, basically—has stagnated, or more typically, plummeted. Publishers have tried new models of advertising, like branded content, to varying degrees of success. But most commonly the preferred strategy for a publisher is to do everything at once: some display ads here, a little branded content there, perhaps a podcast with spoken testimonials from the hosts. Maybe try an app, too? And here is a little premium content, available only through a subscription-based paywall. It's hard to fault the readers for feeling overburdened, especially when pop-over ads and auto-playing video are back in common use.

But the readers share at least a fractional amount of the blame for the conundrum facing publishers: with a wealth of content on the web, much of it aggregated ad infinitum, brand loyalty has gone mostly out the window. Yet it's understandable: even if you love the work of a publication or author, paying for content when it is freely available elsewhere is a wide cognitive-wallet gulf. Ads have been, thus far, the only micropayment that has worked, even though ads are typically tolerated, at the best of times.

But the worst case scenario that's developing here is that we're going to let Apple and Facebook control the means of distribution simply by pitting readers who don't want to pay for content saddle with slow, hard-to-navigate web pages against publishers who are operating businesses with thin profit margins. The list of publishers already working with Apple News is long, with titles from big conglomerates like Condé Nast and Hearst already on board. And again, given the financial climate in publishing, I do not blame them. (Fast Company will likely choose to be on Apple News, as well.)

But let's not mistake the upside for Apple: it can appeal to user experience and privacy and be a force for good, while simultaneously creating an environment where it not only controls the publishing channel through its app, but also scrapes a percentage of the advertising for its effort. This has immediate consequences for independent media at the operational level—Apple's 30% share it takes for the ads it sells eclipses the profit margins of most publishers—but has long-reaching consequence with regard to the ability of news organizations to freely publish news and opinions it deems crucial for readers. Apple has shown itself to be capricious when it comes to the types of apps it allows in its App Store; it is not a reach to imagine there are certain ideas or images that will be verboten on Apple News.

In short, we're in a pickle. For publishers, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are simply another revenue stream that puts content where the audience has chosen to be. (The best thing about Apple News, sadly, may be that it will serve to keep Facebook in competition for publishers' content.) For readers, assaulted by bad advertising, these curated feeds could be a better—or at least universally banal—way to consume words and images. But it is unclear if most publications will be able to survive on only the revenue granted by these platform companies alone, and it feels incredibly aggressive for Apple to openly state that it—or at least some of its developers—have decided that advertising is always unwelcome, unless it happens to be advertising that Apple itself lords over.

Apple blogger John Gruber, in discussing Safari's Content Blocker, echoed a phrase I've heard said by many peers over the last few months: "A reckoning is coming." On that we agree. But when the reckoning is over, will we have a vibrant, cacophonous media landscape that the open web has fostered over the last decade or so, or will we be back to the publishing world of the '80s and '90s: a few big winners dominating the mainstream conversation, with smaller players forced to do their writing and reporting as a hobby? With small-to-midsize publishers already dropping like flies, things are looking perilous for readers and writers alike.