iOS Systemwide Ad Tracking

With iOS 10 Apple is changing the way that the "Limit Ad Tracking" setting works in Settings > Privacy > Advertising, and it seems to be causing a mini storm in a teacup among the adtech world. 

According to "privacy thought-leader" Alan Chapell: "The net effect is Apple is enabling iOS10 users to effectively opt out of advertising."

Is this the case? Short answer, No. Long answer, lets jump back to 2011...


Every iOS device has whats called a UDID (Unique Device Identifier), which is a static string of characters, unique to your device, and cannot be changed. With the UDID, your device could be recognised between different applications, allowing advertisers & analytic services that developers use to build a profile of you to serve you more personalised adverts based on your behaviour and the apps you use.  

In iOS 5, access to the UDID was deprecated. This means while it was still available, Apple was giving advanced warning that this would eventually be revoked.

When iOS 6 got announced, it came with a new API specifically for advertisers to use and give more control to the end-users. This was called IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers). This worked in a similar way to UDID, only instead of having a static ID per device, users could opt to reset the IDFA at any time or "Limit Ad Tracking" where a developer has to agree that their app honours this setting while submitting an app. 

Changes in iOS 10

So in iOS 10, the functionality of "Limit Ad Tracking" is changing. Previously, turning it on would randomise your IDFA to a new string and set a flag that you have requested to limit tracking. As this new string was static until you have requested to reset it or disable "Limit Ad Tracking", it could still be used to track you, but Apple believed that developers & advertisers would follow its rules and ignore it for behavioural purposes. I doubt many app developers checked the code of their advertisers of choice to see if they conformed to "Limit Ad Tracking" when including their SDK, and I have no doubts that many abused this or simply not understood it.

In iOS 10, when you enable "Limit Ad Tracking", it now returns a string of zeroes. So for the estimated 15-20% of people who enable this feature, they will all have the same IDFA instead of unique ones. This makes the IDFA pretty much useless when "Limit Ad Tracking" is on, which is a bonus, as this is what users will expect when they enable the feature. These users will still be served ads, but its more likely they will not be targeted to them based on their behaviour. 

If you want to test the IDFA functionality, I made an example project for iOS which you can test in the iOS 9 & 10 simulators to test the differences, and the Apple API documents for this are hosted here.


I personally think this is a great change for iOS, although personally I would prefer this option to be presented to the user during on boarding, enabled by default, or no longer hidden under several menu layers. My main concern however from the editorial was this quote in particular:

The issues I see with this change is that it breaks legitimate advertising models, forces companies to use more intrusive tracking methods and doesn’t necessarily improve user privacy.
— Mark Chapell

For advertisers, they should notice minimal differences assuming that they are honouring the "Limit Ad Tracking" preference. This quote seems to suggest that some(most?) advertisers are not honouring this option and their business models rely on 100% behavioural tracking. Losing the 15-20% of people who opt-out breaks their advertising model forcing them they try more "intrusive" methods to profile you. This further proves that the advertising industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate itself when it comes to honouring user privacy and is one of the many catalysts that turn people to adblock tools, such as Crystal, for their privacy needs. 

I'll end with this quote from this article on Digital Content Next by Chris Pedigo:

Do consumers have a right to opt out of advertising? – it should be painfully obvious by now that consumers are already opting out of advertising. Instead of throwing stones at groups and companies trying to address the underlying consumer need, perhaps Chapell and the ad tech lobby could work on giving consumers an easier and more robust way to express their preferences.
— Chris Pedigo, DCN

Why are people using ad blockers on mobile?

I released Crystal last Wednesday, a content blocker for iOS 9 that blocks advertising and user tracking in mobile Safari. Since then, It's had an amazing response and hit the top of the App Store charts in 30 countries within a short amount of time. Other content blockers have also stormed the charts worldwide proving there is a huge demand at the moment for these apps.

But why? Well, I held a short survey to people signed up to Crystal's launch newsletter and visitors of the Crystal website,  that received over 800 replies.  (raw results here)

Why Do you want to block Mobile Ads?

A Loss of Focus

This question was to pick the most important reason why you would like to block mobile advertising.

Visual clutter and site load times make up 64% of the poll. They compliment each other perfectly as the more advertising you add to a web page, the more cluttered it becomes, the slower it takes to load and ultimately it'll cause more frustration to the reader. 

I've seen a lot of websites cram so many different ad networks together, which often don't compliment each other and take a strong focus away from the content of the site. Here is a great example from Any point they tried to make with their article was discredited before the reader has got past the headline.

Privacy concerns makes up a strong 22%. Honouring browser options such as Do Not Track may be beneficial to rebuild the trust between a subset of users and the sites they visit. 

Given the option, how would you like to support your favourite ad-supported sites?

*Allow ads that meet a quality criteria.

Not All Readers Want to Block Ads

When surveying people who wanted to install an adblocker, this was the most surprising result to me.

71% of people who are blocking ads are not actually against advertising in general and are more than happy to allow advertising that meets an acceptable criteria or whitelist a site by site basis. My first planned update to Crystal plans to cater for this majority by introducing a feature to allow Acceptable Ads and a user-managed whitelist. You can read more about that here. 

22% however are willing to pay money to support sites, either to remove advertising or to receive extra content. If you're a publisher, would it be worth losing advert clicks/impressions for ~20% of your readers in exchange for $1-5 a month per user?

6.5% of the voters don't want to support their favourite sites with adviews or money. 

On Acceptable Ads.

Update: You can also listen to a discussion I had about Crystal on the Rampant Mumblings podcast here (Ep 42&43).

There has been a lot of confusion and mis-reporting going on today regarding Crystal allowing advertising. I'm hoping this post will clarify the information.

What Will Be Changing? 

In my first update (6-10 weeks time?) there will be two new features. A user managed whitelist, where you the user can specify a list of domains that you would like to support and an option to enable/disable Acceptable Ads on the websites you visit.

You are totally free to use all/any/none of these features as you see fit.

What Are Acceptable Ads? 

Acceptable Ads is an initiative, supported by 3 of my favourite websites  (Reddit, DuckDuckGo, Stack Exchange), that encourages and promotes the use of better advertising on the web. They have 5 rules for publishers and advertisers to stick to: 

  1. Acceptable Ads are not annoying.
  2. Acceptable Ads do not disrupt or distort the page content we're trying to read.
  3. Acceptable Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. Acceptable Ads are effective without shouting at us.
  5. Acceptable Ads are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Why do you need to partner with Eyeo?

Honestly? As a single developer, it would be impossible for me to manage the workload required to make sure publishers conform to any strict standard. Eyeo however has the experience & infrastructure in place, the data of acceptable ads that meet a criteria, the support staff to assist with reviews (all done through open forum) and the necessary business relationships within the industry. 

Why are you forcing this on everyone? 

Firstly - This will not be forced on anyone. It will be an entirely optional feature that will be described and presented clearly within the app before it is activated and that you can turn on/off at will. It will not be silently/secretly pushed out to everyone. I will to make sure that everyone is fully aware of how this feature works before it's enabled.
Secondly - by blocking all advertising with brute-force, it doesn't promote a healthy mobile web that is sustainable and allows publishers to make a living from the free content they provide. By including the option for a user-managed whitelist and Acceptable Ads, I'm hoping to empower users to be able to support the mobile web in any way they see fit.
Thirdly - In the long term, I'm hoping this convinces advertising agencies and publishers to reassess the kind of advertising they are using and bring them inline to a either the Acceptable Ads (or similar) criteria. 

But nobody wants to see ads online... 

I ran a short survey during the launch period of Crystal, the full results are coming in a post in a few hours, but one of the statistics from it is over 50% of people are happy to support sites by allowing ads that meet an acceptable criteria, around 20% favour a user-managed whitelist. These are the users this update will be catered for. Don't like the features? - No problem, you can choose not to enable them, they will be entirely optional.

Are companies paying you to be whitelisted?

No, but I do get a fee from Eyeo which will allow me to implement, maintain & support the features of Crystal in the long term. 

Can companies pay to be on the whitelist? 

I have no involvement with the whitelist directly - however Around 90% of websites on the Eyeo Acceptable Ads whitelist do not pay a fee to be included, only the absolute largest companies pay for inclusion, assuming they meet the criteria of course. In turn, this allows for better ads that meets the criteria to be displayed. What they are paying for is the service of whitelisting and the additional value it creates for them, but what they're doing is allowing it to be free for the majority and thereby encouraging better adverts to spread.

Here is a copy/paste from Eyeo's FAQ which describes in more detail their business model in regards to whitelisting:

What is the process for being whitelisted?
To be whitelisted, a website or advertiser must apply. At that point we collaborate with them to bring their ads in line with the criteria of our Acceptable Ads initiative. After that, we send the proposed ads to our 27,000-plus community for 7 – 10 days for an open discussion. If members of the community raise legitimate objections about proposed ads, we go back to the drawing board with the website or advertiser. If nothing comes up we whitelist the ads after the time period discussed above. All whitelisted sites are available here.
Why do some companies pay to be whitelisted and others do not?
Whitelisting is free for all small websites and blogs. However, managing this list requires significant effort on our side and this task cannot be completely taken over by volunteers as it happens with common filter lists. That’s why we are being paid by some larger properties that serve nonintrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative.
Can companies pay to be on the whitelist?
Absolutely not. Anyone and everyone can apply to be whitelisted. Whether they are or not depends solely on the content of their advertisements, i.e., whether they conform to our unambiguous Acceptable Ads criteria. However, after approval, some larger properties that serve nonintrusive advertisements pay.

I encourage you, if you have any comments or concerns or would like to discuss this, feel free to drop me an email.

2014 Macbook Pro - First Impressions

For nearly 6 years my late 2008 MacBook has served me well.

Recently it has started showing its age in terms of performance and stability. It's no surprise, as it has had heavy use of photo editing, music recording, application development, graphic design, countless hours of movies, music and netflix streamed over many years... It needs a break!

I've decided to upgrade to the baseline Mid-2014 13" Macbook Pro with Retina Display (such a mouthful!). I won't do a full on review, as that has been done better and more in-depth elsewhere. What I will offer though is some first impressions on the differences I've noticed compared to 6 year old predecessor.

  • Speed: Everything is just so fast and responsive. I previously fitted an SSD into my old machine, which brought the boot time to around 25 seconds. This new MacBook turns on from a cold boot in under 10 seconds. Great for when I just want to get to work!
  • Sound: Well, there isn't any. The fan is whisper quiet thanks to the asymmetrical blades. Even under a few matches in Team Fortress 2, it didn't make much audible noise.
  • Sight: I have a love/hate relationship with the Retina Display. The amount of detail shown is incredible. The typography looks beautiful, icons shine, and Yosemite renders everything perfectly. However, after switching back to my old MacBook, everything on the screen looks slightly fuzzy due to the lower resolution. The Retina Display is amazing when you are using it, and sucky when you're not. 

That's all I wanted to touch on in this post, although I will give a last minute mention to the weight, dimensions & battery life, it feels light but sturdy and apparently can last for around 9 hours on a single charge which I have yet to test but have no doubts it will. 

Virgin TV Anywhere

Virgin TV Anywhere has been officially unveiled by the UK cable TV provider, billed as a cloud-based entertainment service for Virgin Media subscribers to watch TV and movies on computers, tablets and smartphones. And this clearly positions it alongside BSkyB’s online offering.
— The Next Web:

As much as I love Virgin Media's services, it does seem like they are always playing catchup to BSkyB.

Its good to see all the major content providers within the UK offering cloud services to stream on-demand.

At the moment this is only for iOS, I can only assume this would be rolled out across more devices in the future. 


Live hangout with the Corona Geeks

During this special episode of Corona Geek we hangout with Dean Murphy, developer of the Joke Shake app for iPhone and iPad. Dean shares his Corona experience as someone who is new to programming entirely. Dean also shares some of the lessons he had to learn the hard way.

I was invited by the Corona Geek's to join their Google Hangout to talk about my experiences with Corona. I had a great time appearing in my first live hangout, and there were some interesting topics covered. Check it out!

via CoronaGeek


Microsoft & Google rumoured to be interested UK mobile spectrum?

Both Google and Microsoft have expressed an “extreme interest” in currently unused white space spectrum in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A senior government source speaking to the publication says that both companies see the spectrum as “very, very important.”

Would be great to see a technology company in charge of some of the UK spectrum, after EE's poor attempt at offering LTE.

Google have outlined with their Fiber project that they want to promote an affordable and usable service to promoting media streaming, which would translate well to UK mobile 4G use.