Good for the goose

AdBlock Plus comes to iOS ahead of Apple’s ad-blocking tools

After a long wait, AdBlock Plus has finally come to smartphones in the form of a standalone application that claims it won’t let obnoxious advertisements ruin the browsing experience.

The company behind AdBlock Plus, Eyeo, has been trying to make its way into the smartphone market for a while. It has visited Android smartphones a few times over the last several years, and now it’s debuted on the iPhone just a day before Apple is expected to make ad-blocking a part of its mobile web browser.

These efforts make this new browser part of a growing movement to improve the browsing experience on mobile devices. Apple’s embracing ad-blocking, Google is punishing companies with irritating advertisements, and now Eyeo has managed to get one of its products through the other companies’ app stores.

I wrote last week that Google’s efforts could be more influential than Apple’s. Google doesn’t require consumers to do anything for its changes to take effect, it provides a way for website owners to continue bringing in advertising money, and it will directly affect the many people who don’t happen to own an iPhone.

Eyeo’s plan is similar. The company focuses on blocking what it calls intrusive advertisements while allowing nonintrusive ads to make their way through its barricade. This is supposed to make it easier to browse the Web while helping ad-dependent businesses in a sort of “have your cake and eat it too” situation.

The new app (and the AdBlock Plus extensions available for desktop browsers) does allow people to decide to block ads on Eyeo’s whitelist. The company makes this clear as soon as someone uses the app; besides asking permission to use someone’s location, disabling the whitelist is the first thing the app shows.

Maybe that’s because Eyeo wants to be transparent with its users. Or maybe it’s because the Financial Times reported earlier this year that large companies like Microsoft, Taboola, and Google have all paid Eyeo to have their advertisements included on the “whitelist,” effectively making AdBlock Plus an extortion tool.

That explains some of Eyeo’s discomfort about Apple’s new ad-blocking tools, as shown by its attempts to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about them. If people use Safari extensions instead of AdBlock Plus’ new dedicated browser, Eyeo can’t convince large companies to pay to have their ads on the whitelist.

Eyeo’s solution has to be notably better than Safari’s to make an impact. So far it doesn’t seem to be. The app has some nice features, such as an expanded keyboard and using DuckDuckGo instead of Google as the default search tool, but is marred by sluggish performance while performing even basic tasks. Right now I’d rather use Safari without ad-blocking than this standalone browser.

But the release of this app could still benefit consumers, whether they download it or not. It could prompt developers to build better tools for Apple’s browser, and Eyeo’s criteria to have ads included on its whitelist will make them less annoying for everyone, provided more companies don’t pay to get on the list.

I still think Google will be more influential than anyone else in the long term. This new browser has the same problem as Apple’s solution: it requires people to do something about their browsing experience instead of trying to help them on its own, and I suspect more people know about Google than AdBlock Plus.

Still, it’s good to see some competition in this area. Consumers win no matter what — it’s just a question of whether they win because of an ad-dependent company like Google, an ad-gnostic (sorry) company like Apple, or a company  that uses the popularity of its free software to bully companies into paying it.