Derek Harbinson on Apple's plan to get ahead in advertising
Much huffing and puffing on the internet about a story concerning Apple, which has lodged a patent in the US for a computer operating system that makes it impossible to avoid advertising.
The system will force users to answer a question or hit a button to ensure that the user has paid attention to an ad. The patent was actually lodged at the US Patent Office last year but has just been publicised, in a New York Times story.
Most of the huffing and puffing is of the "I'll never buy another Apple again if they do this" and the "advertising sucks already and this is Big Brother, man" varieties. Anyone who thinks this is "Big Brother" at work obviously didn't grow up watching ITV in the 1970s.
This may be new technology, but it's being used to take us back in time. In the days before Sky+ and PVRs, that was the deal on commercial television — the price of watching the programme was watching the ads, because the income from the ads paid for the programme to be made.
In the online world, the deal is the same — advertising supports the content. However, online it is easier to block out the ads. Back in the 70s, you had to go out of the room to the loo or put the kettle on to avoid the ad breaks, whereas on your laptop you can just get rid with a click.
Unsurprisingly, I don't sit in the rather childish 'advertising is bad' camp. Some advertising is bad, some is good, some is painfully terrible and some comes close to art. It's a vital part of almost every business in the world.
Aside from the aesthetics, there is the economics. Everyone who works in commercial television, almost everyone who works in consumer publishing and online media (because it is free to the consumer), relies on advertising income to pay their wages. Remove the advertising and you remove the ability of everyone involved to get paid to do their jobs.
One of the funniest things about this particular teacup storm is watching the contortions of a certain type of conflicted hardcore Apple fan who seems to see the brand as somehow pure and unsullied. The only reason people ascribe Apple with these values is, ironically, because this is how Apple has marketed itself through its (brilliant) advertising. If there were no advertising, these guys would never have bought an Apple in the first place.
The 'We want everything for free and we don't want to look at advertising' brigade is living in a dreamworld. Someone, somewhere, has to pay. Look at the success of Spotify. Those with an account who are happy to listen to ads every once in a while in order to get access to music for 'free' far outweigh the number who have paid for the ad-free service.
Of course, Apple may never have any intention of using the technology and could have patented it simply to stop anybody else using it. Or it could allow computers fitted with it to be lower priced than those without it (and Lord knows we would all love a cheaper Apple). The fact that people might be forced to interact with advertising may also force advertising agencies to come up with new and innovative formats that work even better for their clients.
Whatever happens, we are on the verge of a new commercial model for the web. Apple, Microsoft and the other big players want to be at the table. We'll just have to wait for them to declare their hands.
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