Everything You Need To Know About iOS 9’s New Content Blockers

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Everything You Need To Know About iOS 9’s New Content Blockers

One of the lesser-known, but potentially groundbreaking, features arriving in the new version of Apple’s next mobile operating system, iOS 9, is support for “content blocking” extensions in Safari.

While that label doesn’t sound too dazzling in and of itself, users who install content blocking apps will see dramatic speed improvements when surfing the mobile web, thanks to the apps’ ability to block things like advertisements, trackers, scripts and other content that can slow down the loading of web pages.

Blockers also promise to protect user privacy as well as reduce data usage (and therefore preserve battery life), while allowing you to focus only on the website content that’s important to you.



Don't Call Them Ad Blockers!

Yes, the new extensions will allow you to block ads while you surf the mobile web. But that’s not all they do.

As Apple explains on its Developer Site, content blocking also lets you block “cookies, images, resources, pop-ups and other content.”

That means things like autoplay videos can be blocked, as well as invisible tracking scripts that follow you around the web, comprising your privacy unknowingly.

But it also means that you’ll use less data when web surfing, which can save you money on your data plan.


Why Do You Need Them?

On the desktop, powerful computers are capable of quickly loading jam-packed web pages quickly, even when they include visible ads as well as invisible scripts that do things like track users across websites or offer publishers analytics and other insights into their visitor base, and more.

But over the years, sites have filled up with so much of this “extra” content beyond the information the visitor came for, that performance has been impacted.

On mobile, this is even more noticeable and troublesome for web users, due the limited resources available on handheld devices compared with their desktop counterparts.

The idea behind content blockers is to stop all this extra content from slowing down web pages when browsing. When Safari tries to load all the junk that runs on the page, or behind the scenes, there’s a delay for end users.

Meanwhile, all you really wanted to do was read an article or get some information after clicking a link.

In addition, users today are more concerned with how their information is being tracked and utilized by web publishers and advertisers.

Content blockers can stop the scripts and cookies that let sites and their advertisers identify visitors and follow them around the web.

Plus, the blockers themselves aren’t logging what sites you visit or what’s been blocked. They just use a set of defined rules that tell the browser what should not be loaded. In other words, you’re not trading one kind of tracking for another.


How Do These Things Work?

The extensions work by blocking the unwanted content before the web page loads in Safari.

But to get started, you will first have to install a content-blocking extension by way of a mobile app download from the iTunes App Store.

These new apps will work a lot like the iOS 8 keyboards do – that is, installing them alone is not enough. You’ll also have to head into your iOS device’s “Settings” to turn them on.

For the content blockers, you’ll head to “Settings” –> “Safari” –> “Content Blockers.”


How Well Do They Work?

Since iOS 9 isn’t out yet, content blockers aren’t available to the public for testing at this point in time. That means we can only go by what developers are seeing in their early trials.

But the initial data looks good.

For example, the maker of an upcoming blocker called Crystal recently released some stats on how much faster pages loaded after his app and its Safari extension was installed.

Web pages load 3.9x faster with Crystal, he said, and the time to load is reduced by 74%. In addition, the pages used 53% less bandwidth on average.

Across 10 webpages, including major news sites like The New York Times and Huffington Post, for example, developer Dean Murphy said that he saved a total of 70 seconds and 35MB of data. (See chart).

In other tests with a variety of blockers, however, some found that blockers only shaved a second or two of load times.

This is because many site owners have already introduced stripped-down version of their websites for smartphone and tablet users that already eliminate much of the extra stuff that would otherwise get blocked.

(Image credit: Murphyapps.co; load times)


But What If I Want To See Something That Was Blocked?

Some of the content blockers will include more granular controls that allow you to configure what sort of content is blocked in the first place.

But otherwise, Safari in iOS 9 will include a feature that lets you long-press on the reload button to load the site again without the content blocker running.

(Image credit: finertech.com; requesting the site to reload)


Isn't This Going To Hurt Publishers?

Short answer? Uh, yes.

While mobile web users will appreciate the ability to block ads, speed up load times, save money on expensive data plans, and protect their privacy, the addition of content blockers in iOS 9 could have huge ramifications for web publishers and their advertisers.

Though often detested by site visitors, advertising is what helps fund many of today’s web properties, including most media publications.

But what’s an acceptable ad on mobile, where users are paying (often steeply) for the data they use to load it? It could be there isn’t one. 

Given broad adoption of content blockers, publishers will likely lean toward different types of advertisements that aren’t as easily stopped – like native ads that look like the other articles on the page, for example.

Or they’ll have to rely on other ways to make money altogether, ranging from paywalls to affiliate schemes to side businesses (like hosting events, or selling merchandise) to premium content or subscriptions.

(Image credit: Macworld.com; a variety of blockers installed on iOS 9)


More Trouble For Publishers Beyond Ad-Blocking

Ad blocking isn’t going to be the only trouble publishers face thanks to content blockers, as The Next Web recently pointed out.

Tools that publishers routinely use to measure their visitors and communicate with them, including Google Analytics, Parsely,Chartbeat, Intercom, Optimizely and others could also be affected.

Some of these tools provide publishers with critical information that relates to how they run their business, including being able to tell how many people are hitting their site, when and from where; what content is popular; what changes to the website are working; and a host of other information that’s often more passively collected.

It’s unclear at this time how publishers and analytics companies will respond to the threat of content blockers.

(Image credit: Murphyapps.co, before and after a content blocker runs)


Will Content Blockers Be Popular?

Is AdBlock popular on the desktop? Well, yes.

The company says it has around 50 million to 60 million active users monthly for its AdBlock Plus extension, and has averaged 2.3 million downloads per week since 2013.

And while it’s among the most popular, it’s also one of many.

A 2014 report said that ad blocking was up 70 percent year-over-year, and 140 million people worldwide blocked ads. Many of those users are younger – 41 percent were 18 to 29 years old, the report found.

Even though few people today know about iOS 9’s content blockers, when word gets out about Safari’s ad-blocking capabilities and the apps that enable it, it’s likely that it will become popular to block ads on mobile, too.


Why Is Apple Doing This?

There’s not just one simple reason behind Apple’s decision to enable content blocking in iOS 9.

For starters, the company has actually advocated for consumer privacy more so than its competitors, who tend to monetize by allowing advertisers to leverage user data for targeting purposes.

At at recent event, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated that Apple doesn’t want users’ data, nor does it think there has to be a trade-off between security and user privacy.

“I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information,” said Cook. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be,” he said.

However, Apple’s motives here may not be only about what’s best for users.

Some have put forth the theory that by blocking ads on the web, publishers will be driven to Apple’s forthcoming News app (pictured) arriving in iOS 9, where Apple can generate revenue via its own advertising system, iAd.

More broadly speaking, by clamping down on how publishers can make money on the mobile web, they may be forced to focus instead on their native app businesses, which also clearly benefits Apple as it takes a cut of App Store revenues.

That being said, recent data indicates that many mobile users have already ditched the browser for native apps.

According to data from Yahoo-owned Flurry out this week, only 10% of users time on mobile is spent in the browser, down from 14% a year ago. 90% of time is spent in apps.

Maybe website owners should have already been focused on their app businesses before this change, then?


Sounds Great! Where Do I Get One?

Uh, you can’t yet!

Content blockers will be enabled in iOS 9, which is due out this fall.

However, a number of developers are already testing their apps privately with small groups of people who are running the iOS 9 developer or public betas.

Some blockers you may have already heard about include:

Crystal, 1Blocker, Blockr, Adamant, Purify, & BlockParty

(Image credit: Murphyapps.co; a soon-to-launch blocker called Crystal)