Adblock Plus moves to Android, but will it hurt the app economy?

AdBlock Plus

At this point, most Internet users are used to being accosted by online advertising. Whether generic banner ads, skyscrapers, text-based touts from the likes of Google and Amazon, sponsorships, fly-outs, fly-overs, or even the dreaded pop-up windows, ads have been part of the browsing experience almost as long as the Web browser itself. However, while online advertising continues to be big business, mobile advertising is growing at a record pace. Hundreds of millions of consumers are spending their quality time on smartphones and tablets – and, by and large, those devices are happily sharing many details of user’s lives (including contacts, location, and online activities) with advertisers, who collate it all then attempt to deliver mobile ads based on what they can discern about those users’ tastes and habits.

Some of the most popular add-ons for desktop Web browsers are ad blockers: basically, software that identifies different types of online advertising and prevents them from loading based on users’ preferences. Now, Adblock Plus, one of the most popular ad-blockers for the desktop, has made the jump to Android. It’s available on Google Play and directly from the developer.

Like its desktop counterpart, Adblock Plus for Android can block advertising appearing in most mobile browsers – like Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and the default browser built into older versions of Android. However, it can also block ads appearing in many apps – and given how many apps try to support themselves via mobile advertising, ad blocking could mean developers need to re-think their apps – or at least rethink their advertising.

Do we need mobile ad blocking? Does ad blocking improve the experience of using our mobile devices? Or does it have consequences that may make those devices less useful in the future?

How Adblock Plus for Android works

AdBlock Plus (cartoon, desktop)

Adblock Plus got started way back in 2002 as a browser extension called “AdBlock,” but (despite popularity) it was largely abandoned for years until Wladimir Palant came along in 2006 and re-wrote it from the ground up. The project is now in the hands of startup Eyeo, but Palant is still the lead developer. Adblock Plus is free, but accepts donations to support development.

At a basic level, Adblock Plus is a filter that sits between a Web browser and the Internet. Each time the Web browser requests something from a remote site (whether that be a Web page, an image, a script, or something else), Adblock Plus quickly compares the request against a sizable (and constantly-changing) list of identifiers known to be associated with online ads. If there’s a match, Adblock Plus blocks the request, and voilà: the ad never appears. Adblock Plus also has other tricks that can hide some ads that get past its lists. Users are free to make their own lists, as well as choose between different filter sets and modify their criteria.

Adblock Plus’s system relies on constantly-updated lists to identify ads, and by default it lets “acceptable ads” through – basically, ads Eyeo feels are done responsibly and aren’t annoying. (Users can choose to block all ads via a manual setting.) Nevertheless, Adblock is tremendously popular and is available as a browser extension for Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and K-Meleon (but notably not for Internet Explorer or Apple’s Safari). Adblock Plus claims 15 million daily users and more than 100,000 downloads a day. At the beginning of 2012, Eyeo co-founder Till Faida estimated about 3.5 percent of desktop Internet users had Adblock Plus installed – and in Germany (where Adblock Plus’s developers are based) that number was 12 percent.

AdBlock Plus Android

Adblock Plus’s approach on Android is a little different. Most Android browsers do not allow for browser extensions (Firefox being an exception). Also, while ads certainly appear in mobile Web browsers, most mobile ads are actually served to mobile apps, meaning browser-based filtering can’t block them at all.

So, Adblock Plus for Android runs as a background application that attempts to filter all Web traffic on Android 2.1 or higher, using the same filtering lists as the desktop versions of Adblock Plus. However, traffic filtering possibilities on Android devices are more limited than desktop computers, so there are some limitations:

  • On Android 3.0 and older, Adblock Plus needs to be manually configured as a proxy server. If a device doesn’t support proxy configuration, it can’t use Adblock Plus.
  • On stock Android devices running Android 3.1 or higher, Adblock Plus will be able to filter ads over Wi-Fi only. It won’t be able to filter over mobile connections.
  • On rooted Android devices, Adblock Plus can filter all unencrypted Web traffic from browsers or apps, but:
  • Ads served via SSL-encrypted Web sites get through no matter what.

Eyeo notes Adblock Plus for Android is in early development stages; possible future features include more security and privacy features to enable users to better customize their experience.

The upside of blocking mobile ads

online ads phone (shutterstock, keith bell)

The most obvious reason to consider blocking mobile ads is the same as blocking ads in a desktop browser: plenty of ads are annoying. Whether they’re flashing banners, overlays that get in the way of content, pre-rolls before a video, or sneaky things interwoven with (and often indistinguishable from) actual content, mobile ads can be a tremendous frustration. Moreover, on mobile devices screen space is at a premium, and every pixel devoted to mobile advertising is that much more scrolling and fussing users have to do to simply use their devices. Moreover, for folks on mobile data connections rather than Wi-Fi, all the bandwidth consumed by ads can count against monthly data limits. (And it’s not unusual for 75 percent or more of the data transfer in a Web page to be taken up by ads.) Eyeo claims these savings from Adblock Plus for Android can make browsing up to 40 percent faster.

On mobile devices, users also need to consider privacy and security. On Android in particular, apps are infamous for sharing users’ personal data without asking (like phone numbers, contacts, location, even messages). Much of this “leaking” personal information is associated with ad networks, particularly in ad-supported and “freemium” applications that try to support themselves using mobile advertising. Worse, there’s no way for users (or even app developers) to know whether the ad networks they’re supporting in their programs are reputable: plenty of mobile ads are misleading, while others are outright scams or try to trick users into installing malware.

Adblock Plus doesn’t take the position that all advertising is bad; in fact, before it decided to let “acceptable” advertising through by default, a survey of its users found that only about 25 percent wanted to block ads altogether. The majority of users were fine with ads that weren’t annoying, intrusive, or malicious.

“Most people realize that ads are necessary for free content and products, said Eyeo co-founder Till Faida via email. “We have noticed a trend that mobile ads are becoming increasingly intrusive that’s why we think it is the right time to launch Adblock Plus for Android now in order to incentivize better advertising practices.”

The downside of blocking mobile ads

phone sale ad (shutterstock, denys prykhdov)

Not everyone will want to block mobile ads. While there are absolutely obnoxious mobile ads (and normal ads on everyday Web sites can be atrocious in mobile browsers), many mobile users aren’t bothered by them at all. Individual mobile advertising experiences vary widely with usage. Some people see almost no mobile advertising, particularly if they tend to use paid apps that get their revenue directly from users. Moreover, some people actually like mobile ads: after all, mobile ads are the kinds of things that might offer you a 25-percent-off coupon next time you wander by a local coffee shop.

If blocking mobile ads became widespread, it could impact development of mobile apps. After all, many “free” apps are ad-supported: users don’t have to pay anything up front for the app, in exchange for being shown advertisements. App developers get revenue based on the number of people who view and jump into those ads: if the number of people viewing and clicking those ads declines significantly, so does the revenue going to the developer – and, eventually, that could mean fewer apps, or at least fewer free, ad-supported apps.

Developer Eyeo hopes both developers and mobile ad networks will take notice of Adblock Plus for Android and choose to focus on “acceptable” mobile ad formats – which would presumably be let through Adblock Plus’s filters by default.

“We have only launched the app and the user base is way to small for now,” noted Eyeo co-founder Faida. “But in the future, when Adblock Plus for Android has reached a certain level of popularity, we will make sure to find a reasonable middle ground between app developers and our users.”

It could be a fine line: on the desktop, Adblock Plus has already engaged in a few arms races with advertising networks, some of which have come up with ways to detect whether Adblock Plus’s common filters are in effect and either serve ads to those users another way or (in a handful of cases) refuse to let users access the content unless they allow ads or disable Adblock Plus. So far, Adblock Plus’s filter lists have quickly caught up with these cases, but there’s always the possibility ad networks will choose to fight rather than play nice. Similarly, mobile ad networks might just shift to SSL connections and sidestep Adblock Plus entirely – at least for now.

There’s also a question about whether Adblock Plus will gain enough traction on mobile devices that advertisers will even pay attention to it. While Android is the market leader in smartphones – so Adblock Plus has a lot of potential users – it’s only Android’s comparatively open architecture: a product like Adblock Plus isn’t currently possible for closed platforms like iOS or Windows Phone.

Bottom line

Whether or not you’re personally bothered by mobile ads, most Internet users want to be in control of their devices and their own Internet experience. That includes what browsers and apps to use, and whether or not they’re willing to disclose personal information to advertisers and marketers.

“Adblock Plus comes in by putting users in control over what kind of ads they are willing to accept,” wrote Faida. “On mobile there is also the added benefit of increased security and blocking ads saves bandwidth and screen size consumption.”

Even though this first version of Adblock Plus for Android has some significant limitations, it gives users more options and the ability to control their browsing and app experiences. That seems like a step in the right direction.

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