Apple’s Scorched-Earth Advertising Play Could Lobotomize Google

Apple has an advertising business. But Apple doesn’t have an advertising business that it must protect at all costs. Particularly when it can create cudgels to bludgeon Google.

The cudgel in question is Apple’s new content-blocking software that it’s building into iOS 9. The new version of Apple’s mobile operating system promises to significantly improve Apple customers’ experiences—even as it wreaks havoc on companies that depend upon advertising to pay the bills.

Like, say, Google.

While Apple is almost certainly focused on improving the experience of its customers, rather than beating up Google, Charles Arthur rightly reasons, “this could have quite an effect” on Google.


Apple Does Right By Customers

Apple has a bit of a love/hate affair with advertising. Originally it was pure hate, with Steve Jobs grousing that “most of this mobile advertising sucks.”

Apple then acquired Quattro Wireless and introduced iAd as a way to “create the kind of advertising that captures attention and drives results.”

Except it hasn’t. At least, not to the extent that Apple may have hoped. Apple’s iAd trails Google’s mobile business by a considerable margin. 

Given that Apple has more cash than many countries, this may not keep CEO Tim Cook awake at night. What does, however, are the privacy and experience problems that an increasingly aggressive mobile advertising community imposes on consumers. 

Despite the potentially negative impact on Apple’s advertising business, Cook went on the offensive, declaring in an online statement, “[A]t Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.” 

The same is true of advertising, which bloats mobile pages, ruining performance and cratering battery life. Services like Adblock Plus have cropped up to remediate this on desktops, and now Apple is giving developers hooks to block unwanted content on smartphones, too.

To be clear, Apple is not releasing ad-blocking software. Its approach is different, as Paul Hudson describes:

[T]he performance cost of ad blockers is so high to make it unworkably slow on mobile. Plus, the very nature of ad blockers requires the ad-block extension to know every page you’re visiting and what you did there, which is hardly a pleasing thing to think about.  So, Apple introduced a solution: content-blocking Safari extensions. They introduce a way to programmatically determine what websites users can visit and what content can be shown, but using a dramatically new model that offers significant performance enhancements and—best of all—absolute user privacy.

While this isn’t a foray into ad-blocking, per se, it will enable a new strain of ad-blocking. And it will definitely have a significant impact on mobile advertising.

Burning Google’s Boats

Which isn’t good for Google, in particular, but really, for any company that gives away free services in return for gathering data on users, thereby to better target ads.

Arthur details the potential fallout:

Consider: iOS 9 arrives, and lots of happy iOS users say how delighted they are to be blocking those annoying ads…. Meanwhile Android users won’t be able to follow suit (to anything like the same extent). At least one of two things will happen:

• some Android users begin considering switching to iPhones
• Google comes under pressure to allow ad blockers on the Play Store to prevent Android switching

Neither of these is good for Google.

But it is arguably very good for consumers. And Apple. 

On one hand, Apple’s iAd won’t be subject to the same content blocking constraints, because iAd runs at the OS level and therefore skirts the restrictions. 

Yet Apple doesn’t care as much about a few advertising pennies when it makes billions selling devices, devices that will arguably sell at even greater volumes if consumers feel they can get a cleaner, superior experience with Apple. 

Will this lobotomize Google overnight? Of course not. But Apple is driving the mobile agenda, and in a way that has serious potential to bloody Google.

Photo by Nestor Galina

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