Apple’s next version of iOS — iOS 9, to be made officially available later this month — is full of tweaks and new features for iPhone and iPads. Those features will include better multitasking, an improved search experience, a revamped Notes app, and transit directions for Apple Maps. The list is long.
But one of those new features, content blocking, is likely to stand out from the rest, because it’s both appealing and controversial. Thanks to some under-the-hood changes, iOS 9 will make possible third-party applications that will in turn let us disable ads, prevent bandwidth-hungry media from loading, and turn off the trackers that advertisers use to follow us around the Web and tailor their ads to us.
For users, such content-blocking apps could sound great: The mobile Web is cluttered with distracting ads. The most frustrating ones pop up just milliseconds before you tap on a link, sending you off to another website you never meant to go to. And don’t get me started on those ads that fold down from the top of the screen shortly after the page loads, giving me just enough time to begin scrolling before I inadvertently click on them.
Those ads aren’t just annoying; they also have potentially damaging implications for both your device’s performance (because pages have to load so much extra data) and your privacy.
For publishers, making it easier for users to block ads — on which many of them (Yahoo included) rely financially — is a scary thought. In the long run, it could be scary for you, too: If you block ads on your favorite sites, you’re potentially threatening their ongoing existence.
Here’s what Apple’s controversial new feature should mean to you.
First, you need an app
To be clear, Apple isn’t adding the ability to block ads directly into iOS. Instead, it’s making it possible for third-party developers to create applications that’ll do that and post those apps in the App Store.
For example, I’ve been testing an app called Blockr, which offers the ability to block ads, media, and a variety of potentially privacy-violating elements (such as share buttons for social networks) across sites you visit in mobile Safari. Blockr allows you to specify what you want blocked on every site you visit; it also provides a whitelist option, allowing you to specify the sites you want to load normally.
Blockr lets you choose which page elements you want to block on which sites.
Note that it isn’t enough to just download an app like Blockr — you’ll also need to enable it in Safari’s iOS settings pane. That requires launching Settings, selecting Safari, and tapping on Content Blockers. Once there, you enable the app by sliding its switch to the On position. Each app will have its own method for blocking content and its own process for enabling those settings. But the point is that you will have to make a proactive choice to block ads.
Improve your browsing speed
If you do, the first thing you’ll likely notice — after the lack of ads taking up precious screen real estate — is the speed with which webpages load.
Owen Williams from The Next Web did some testing to find out how much of a speed-up ad blocking can get you. His findings were clear (and predictable): When ads are out of the way, websites load way, way faster. (It’s important to point out that the app Williams used for his test didn’t block media such as photos, only ads and tracking tools.)
On left, an ad eating up precious screen real estate. On right, the same page with an ad blocker enabled.
This speed-up isn’t just a convenience for the impatient. In addition to ads, webpages can load tracking tokens, photos, and videos. All of those take up precious bandwidth, which can in turn eat away at your monthly allotment of wireless data (when you aren’t relying on Wi-Fi, of course). With most carriers now offering tiered data plans of one sort or another, each megabyte you save is money in your pocket.
Blocking some content could also mean you’re lowering the time and system resources required to render a webpage, which means you could save (if ever so slightly) on battery life.
Protect your privacy
As you probably know, advertisers and ad networks track your movements across the Internet, monitoring your searches and the pages you visit. The end result is targeted advertising that shows up wherever you go, enticing you to buy that product you’ve spent the last two nights researching on other sites.
If content blocking is enabled in iOS, those advertisers and networks would lose the ability to track you. Your searches and browsing habits would remain between you and Safari. Depending on the content-blocking app you choose, you might have the option to block tracking tools while leaving ads enabled. In that case, ads would still appear on the sites you visit, but they wouldn’t follow you around the Internet. This would help ease any privacy fears without starving your favorite sites of valuable ad revenue.
Blockr also lets you turn off those social network share buttons on sites you visit. These buttons are often used by networks to keep track of the other sites you visit and the stories you read there. Losing such buttons means that Facebook and its ilk would know less about you, which, in turn, would mean the ads you see on a particular social network would also be less personalized.
Should you use one?
My feeling is that once content blocking is available in iOS 9, most people will enable it; I know I will. I’ve never used an ad-blocking app on my MacBook. But when browsing the Web on my iPad or iPhone, I really just want to see the content. Screen space is at a premium on smartphones, and I don’t want to waste any of it on ads.
At the same time, I know that my very livelihood depends at least in part on advertising revenue. My choice is to be selective about which sites I block and which I don’t. I don’t think it’s wrong to use a content-blocking app. But I do think you need to be mindful of the impact doing so will have on the sites you like.
Jason Cipriani is a freelance technology journalist based in Colorado. His work has appeared on CNET, Fortune, and PC World, among other outlets. You can follow him at @MrCippy on Twitter.