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Welcome to hell: Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook and the slow death of the web

Welcome to hell: Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook and the slow death of the web

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So let's talk about ad blocking.

You might think the conversation about ad blocking is about the user experience of news, but what we're really talking about is money and power in Silicon Valley. And titanic battles between large companies with lots of money and power tend to have a lot of collateral damage.

iOS 9 came out yesterday (in fits and starts) and with it, support for content blockers in iOS 9. There is already a little cottage industry of ad blockers available, and you should definitely try one or two — they will radically improve your mobile web experience, because they will... block huge chunks of the web from loading.

What we're really talking about is money and power in Silicon Valley

Those huge chunks — the ads! — are almost certainly the part you don't want. What you want is the content, hot sticky content, snaking its way around your body and mainlining itself directly into your brain. Plug that RSS firehose straight into your optic nerve and surf surf surf 'til you die.

Unfortunately, the ads pay for all that content, an uneasy compromise between the real cost of media production and the prices consumers are willing to pay that has existed since the first human scratched the first antelope on a wall somewhere. Media has always compromised user experience for advertising: that's why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long. Media companies put advertising in the path of your attention, and those interruptions are a valuable product. Your attention is a valuable product.

Now, here's the thing about the web, and in particular web ads: the biggest provider of ads on the web is Google. In particular, Google runs an ad server called DoubleClick for Publishers, or DFP. DFP is huge, and it serves ads for basically every major publisher: Vox Media and The Verge use DFP. BuzzFeed uses DFP. ESPN uses DFP. If you are seeing advertising on the web, there is a real chance it's being served to you by DFP. Even native advertising is served by DFP; that's how the native ad slots on The Verge's home page are managed independently of editorial.

iOS 9 is Apple's attempt to fully drive the knife into Google's revenue platform

Then, in addition to DFP, Google runs the web's largest ad exchange, AdX. DFP lets publishers serve their own ads, while AdX is responsible for those programmatic ads that follow you around the web. Those are the three biggest categories of web advertising revenue — premium display, native, and programmatic — and Google has a huge stake in all of them.

In fact, there's no other company that's managed to monetize the web quite like Google has through the power of DFP and AdX. The web has always been Google's native platform, and DFP means that the web is also Google's revenue platform — users search for things using Google, see Google search ads, and then land on content that is further monetized by Google DFP and its ad exchange. This is basically the foundation of Google's entire business: Google makes the lion's share of its money on search, and Google search doesn't work if the web isn't searchable, so Google has a huge interest in making the web profitable for media companies, so they can search all that content.

But what's happening now is that attention is shifting fast from desktop browsers — where Google's Chrome is dominant (and supports ad blocking!) — to mobile browsers. In particular, to Apple's Mobile Safari, which dominates usage statistics on mobile. There is no alternative web rendering engine on the iPhone; there's just WebKit, which Apple controls. The dominance of the iPhone and Mobile Safari give Apple "veto power" over the web, as John Gruber put it — a veto power which means Google's revenue platform is increasingly under the control of a major rival.

And with iOS 9 and content blockers, what you're seeing is Apple's attempt to fully drive the knife into Google's revenue platform. iOS 9 includes a refined search that auto-suggests content and that can search inside apps, pulling content away from Google and users away from the web, it allows users to block ads, and it offers publishers salvation in the form of Apple News, inside of which Apple will happily display (unblockable!) ads, and even sell them on publishers' behalf for just a 30 percent cut.

Ads in Apple News and the Facebook app are unblockable

Oh, and if you're not happy with Apple News, you can always turn to Facebook's Instant Articles, which will also track the shit out of you and serve unblockable ads inside of the Facebook app, but from Apple's perspective it's a win as long as the money's not going to Google.

This is the dynamic to keep in mind — especially when you see Apple bloggers like Gruber forcefully discount the notion that Apple's decisions will affect small publishers. The Apple vs. Google fight has never been more heated or more tense, and Facebook's opportunity to present itself as the savior of media has never been bigger — through hey-it's-just-about-speed Instant Articles, which will almost certainly be featured higher in the News Feed, and huge things like its massive video initiative, which is a direct assault on YouTube. And oh — Apple's new tvOS, that huge bet on bringing apps to TV? Doesn't support WebKit at all.

So it's Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook, all with their own revenue platforms. Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today.

And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google's revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can't invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.

Earlier this year John Herrman at The Awl said "the next internet is TV," and he's never looked more right — large publishers with digital savvy, big brands, and big audiences (like BuzzFeed and yes, Vox Media) will be just fine in this new world. In many ways, this is the opportunity new digital media companies were made to take advantage of, just as there was a moment for cable network upstarts and a moment for dynamic new print magazines to parlay their savvy with the younger generation into lasting cultural impact.

Taking money and attention away from the web means that web innovation will slow to a crawl

But taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. Innovation tends to follow the money, after all! And asking most small- to medium-sized sites to weather that change without dramatic consequences is utterly foolish. Just look at the number of small sites that have shut down this year: GigaOm. The Dissolve. Casey Johnston wrote a great piece for The Awl about ad blockers, in which The Awl's publisher noted that "seventy-five to eighty-five percent" of the site's ads could be blocked. What happens to a small company when you take away 75 to 85 percent of its revenue opportunities in the name of user experience? Who's going to make all that content we love so much, and what will it look like if it only makes money on proprietary platforms?

These are the questions worth asking — and they deserve better answers than simply "they'll adapt." Because there's only one thing that makes adaptation such a powerful force.