iOS 9 content blocking features - what are the implications?


Posted by Tim Butler

With the release of every major new operating system, web developers around the world clamour to examine the new features and techniques made available to them. However, with the recent launch of iOS 9, Apple have given users of their devices more control over some of the functionality of Safari, the default web browser.

By allowing users to install content blocking apps, users can decide to stop adverts from appearing on websites whilst browsing the web. Whilst many users have shown their delight at removing these often intrusive adverts from their browsing experience, the implications for website owners are wide reaching. A report by PageFair in 2014 suggested that over 150 million web users worldwide are already using ad-blockers, with this number surely set to rise dramatically with the release of iOS 9. Users of Chrome and Firefox have been using extensions to block advertising for several years, but Apple have now brought ad-blocking into the mainstream. If it proves to be popular, it's only a matter of time before other browser vendors follow suit.

Many websites rely on advertising to subsidise their operations. Bloggers, review websites and many well-respected and much-loved sites use advertising to fund their sites. In return, they offer up high-quality content, free for everyone to enjoy. The problem is, in order to boost click-through rates and conversions, on-site advertising has become more and more intrusive. Pop-ups, autoplaying videos and modals that take over the screen are a nuisance, and have a negative impact on the overall user experience. Not only this, but the javascript files, combined with the large images and videos often make web pages unnecessarily bloated, causing slower page load times. This is particularly problematic for users of mobile devices, often with slower connection speeds and limited data allowances. So Apple have put the power back into the users' hands, allowing them more control over what they see and do on their devices.

Another type of content blocker which has received much less coverage is the option for users to disable webfonts on their devices. After many years of building sites using a limited range of web-safe fonts (think Arial, or Times New Roman), the rise of webfonts in recent years has allowed web designers the freedom to embed a wide range of fonts. This has led to visually engaging sites with beautiful typography, and allows companies to express themselves through type, enhancing their brand. However, these fonts have also added to the problem of bloated websites that take an age to download. A typical web font with a few different weights and styles can easily total over a megabyte. The HTTP Archive, who monitor the size of the average web page, are now reporting that the figure has recently topped 2 megabytes for the first time. And badly optimised fonts not only load slowly, they often render poorly at smaller sizes, impacting on readability.

By giving users the option to disable webfonts, Apple users may now see sites that load faster but appear broken. With webfonts disabled, sites will show a fallback font, either specified in the stylesheets or defaulting to a preset operating system font. As no two fonts are the same, this can lead to broken looking pages and a poorer experience. To get around this, developers need to test their sites without webfonts, making sure they still offer good usability. This is where progressive enhancement becomes even more powerful - offering a basic but usable experience to all users, but an enhanced one to those using browsers that support all of the bells and whistles.

It remains to be seen how these changes will affect designers and developers' processes and techniques in the long term. By giving the power back to their users, Apple have shaken up the industry with this move, and agencies will have to adapt appropriately to ensure their clients aren't adversely affected.

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