Apple is rolling out products to cut down on autoplay video and retargeting.
At its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose on Thursday, Apple said it’s planning two features in the next version of Safari, dubbed High Sierra, that will cut down on ads that stalk you around the internet and videos that play uninvited.
Sounds a heck of a lot like an ad blocker. But not so, said Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of software engineering.
“This is not about blocking ads,” Federighi said. “The web behaves as it always did. But your privacy is protected.”
Autoplay blocking in High Sierra will detect sites that shouldn’t be playing video and stop them from disrupting the reading and viewing experience. Users who want to hit play can do so.
“Intelligent tracking prevention” will use machine learning to identify trackers and stop websites from tracking a user’s browser data.
“Ever had an experience when you buy something on the web – and you even complete the purchase – and then it seems that everywhere you go on the web it follows you around?” Federighi said, trotting out the oft-cited criticism of retargeting. “If it kind of feels like you’re being tracked – it’s because you are.”
Apple has long held itself above the rest of the ecosystem as the lone technology giant that actually cares about user privacy.
In 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an open letter to the ecosystem in which he declared, “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.”
The following year, Apple whipped the ad industry into a frenzy of fear and self-flagellation when it announced content blocking in iOS 9, which some developers were able to use to create ad blockers for mobile.
And in 2016, Apple announced Limit Ad Tracking in iOS 10, which allows users to opt out of ad tracking and prevents ad networks from targeting those users with ads.
For the moment, Apple’s WWDC announcements only apply to desktop for Safari on MacOS.
It’s too early to say what impact intelligent tracking prevention will have on digital ads, but Apple’s move “appears to be a continuation of the same trend toward certain kinds of ad blocking that consumers don’t want,” said Adam Fingerman, chief experience officer and co-founder of Grey-owned app development agency ArcTouch.
And kudos for Apple for focusing on the experience, he said.
“It’s ultimately a good thing for consumers and responsible advertisers,” Fingerman said. “There’ll be more transparency and it will prevent abuse and privacy violations.”
Hello, Siri (finally)
But despite beating the privacy drum at WWDC, Apple also intimated that it’s going to get a bit more data-driven with the announcement of personalized watch faces for the Apple Watch powered by its virtual assistant, Siri.
Rather than having to choose what information shows up on the watch face, Apple will start automatically populating it with information that changes based on time of day, location, the user’s routine and the apps that person is likely to use.
That might sound like a minor enhancement. But it’s a concrete example of Apple using machine learning “to pull what it thinks is the most relevant data at the moment,” Fingerman said.
For Apple to be able to compete with Google on mobile and in the home, however, “it needs to continue to emphasize AI and machine learning with Siri as the interface” across Mac, iOS and tvOS, Fingerman said.
Siri is also beginning to understand context, interests and “how you use your device, and this allows us to ultimately understand what you want next,” Federighi said, whether that’s helping someone respond to a text message or learning more about topics or interests so it can make better recommendations for news stories to read.
But Apple still has a lot of competition. Both Amazon and Google have a head start and support third-party development to further create experiences for marketers within their voice ecosystem, said Epsilon Chief Digital Officer Tom Edwards.
“For Apple to stay competitive alongside Echo and Google in the voice races, we may see Siri evolve to support more skills and actions that can be driven by marketers,” he said.
And that’s where Apple has the chance to shine: in the interoperability of its platform.
“Having deep integration gives new insight into data sets, opening up the door for more predictive and seamless experiences,” Edwards said.