Google’s ad penalties are more significant than Apple’s ad blocker

“Highly unlikely” would probably be how you’d have responded a year ago to someone telling you two of the largest tech companies in the world — Apple and Google — would both try to fix mobile advertising by blocking ads, but that’s currently the case.
For instance, much has been made of a new feature allowing iPhone and iPad owners to block advertisements in Safari when iOS 9 debuts –with the rationale that it will enhance web browsing. But Google’s recent decision to start penalizing websites featuring app install ads –intrusive ad units that slow page load times and engulf the entire screen — might be a more significant way to improve the browsing experience.
Now, there are some clear benefits to the ad-blocking tool coming in iOS 9. The browsing experience is improved when a website isn’t cluttered with obnoxious advertisements, both because it makes things easier to read and because nixing the ads makes the websites load quicker, as others have already demonstrated.
Blocking those advertisements, however, isn’t a permanent solution. The measure doesn’t help people who never install the utilities Apple will allow onto the App Store, nor does it help those who browse the mobile web from a device that wasn’t “Designed by Apple in California.” That’s where Google comes in.
Google’s search tool is more popular than Apple’s iOS products. ComScore says some 64 percent of searches are run through Google. The iPhone, on the other hand, has 43 percent of the American smartphone market. Any changes to the former are bound to affect more people than any changes made to the latter.
This means Google has a little more power over websites than Apple does. Its decision to punish websites for bombarding people with annoying ads will probably do more than Safari’s new ad-blocking — especially since changes to Google’s search results take effect without any effort on the consumer’s part.
“Most blocking solutions discussed in the media are fairly esoteric and technical, so they won’t be widespread in adoption. Internet users still have to take several steps to enable ad blocking on their browsers or devices,” says PubMatic president Kirk McDonald.” As it always has, advertising will change and adapt — it will get faster, evolve to new formats, gain advancements in measurement and tracking, and find a way to reach the consumer.”
Having to respond to Google’s whims could have more of an effect than ad-blocking for another reason: It encourages websites to serve advertisements that don’t make people want to throw their phones against the wall instead of trying to find ways to sneak their existing advertisements onto people’s phones.
The arrangement also works for website owners that depend on ad revenues, and for Google, which is probably also making money off those advertisements. Consumers are happy, website owners are happy, and Google is happy. The only ones upset by this change should be people who profit off accidental clicks.
Besides, as much as the web’s dependence on advertisements is worrisome — it erodes privacy, compromises user experience, and has other drawbacks — that’s not going to change any time soon. Websites need to serve ads, and anyone who wants to view those sites without paying for the privilege has to accept them.
Provided they want those sites to stick around, that is. Otherwise they can install an ad-blocker (if they use iOS devices) and immediately benefit. Who doesn’t want a better reading experience and faster load times? Unless online businesses find other ways to sustain themselves, though, that’s not going to be a long-term solution. Finding a way to live with ads just might be.

Windows users are also vulnerable to FREAK snooping attacks

The “FREAK” vulnerability that downgrades and weakens secure web connections doesn’t just affect Google and Apple users — according to a security advisory from Microsoft, all supported versions of Windows are vulnerable too.

FREAK (Factoring attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys) is a recently discovered hangover from the early 90s, when the U.S. government banned the export of most software that used strong encryption. The SSL web security protocol was for that reason built with a special mode that uses key lengths considered weak today. The law was changed but the weak cipher suites remain, and although most modern browsers are supposed to avoid them like the plague, a widespread bug means they don’t always do that.

The FREAK flaw allows “man-in-the-middle” snoopers to downgrade a session’s security to that mode – as long as the browser is vulnerable and the server accepts those weak old cipher suites — then crack the keys and spy away.

When the flaw was publicized earlier this week, it was Apple’s Safari browser and the stock Android browser that were on the firing line for being vulnerable, endangering those users who communicate with servers that accept “export-grade” encryption – apparently a whopping third of servers with browser-trusted certificates. But it turns out the list of affected browsers and systems is way longer than that.

The big one is Windows. In pretty much every version of Windows that’s out there, Internet Explorer and whatever else uses the Schannel security package are vulnerable to the FREAK attack.

In its advisory, Microsoft said:

We are actively working with partners in our Microsoft Active Protections Program (MAPP) to provide information that they can use to provide broader protections to customers.

Upon completion of this investigation, Microsoft will take the appropriate action to help protect customers. This may include providing a security update through our monthly release process or providing an out-of-cycle security update, depending on customer needs.

Per the researchers who brought this all to our attention, here’s the current list of browsers that need patching:

  • Internet Explorer
  • Chrome on OS X (patch available)
  • Chrome on Android
  • Safari on OS X (patch expected next week)
  • Safari on iOS (patch expected next week)
  • Stock Android browser
  • BlackBerry browser
  • Opera on OS X
  • Opera on Linux

As a Firefox user, I’m feeling slightly smug this week — the researchers’ FREAK test tool just gave my browser a clean bill of health, and told me my never-used IE installation is vulnerable. Not too smug though, given the impact on other Windows software.

Good thing the anti-strong-encryption nonsense that caused this mess is a relic of past decades, eh? Oh wait…

Opera founder unveils feature-rich Vivaldi power browser

Almost two years ago, the Norwegian browser firm Opera ripped out the guts of its product and adopted the more standard WebKit and Chromium technologies, essentially making it more like rivals Chrome and Safari. But it wasn’t just Opera’s innards that changed; the browser also became more streamlined and perhaps less… geeky.

Many Opera fans were deeply displeased at the loss of what they saw as key differentiating functionality. So now Jon von Tetzchner, the man who founded Opera and who would probably never have allowed those drastic feature changes, is back to serve this hard core with a new browser called Vivaldi.

Old meets new

Vivaldi doesn’t mark a return to Opera’s old internals – it uses Chromium as a base and has a user interface that is itself unusually built using web technologies – but it does bring back features such as tab stacking, an advanced bookmark manager, keyboard shortcuts and the ability to start with multiple session windows.

Opera used to be “more feature-rich, for a crowd of users that want more from their browser,” von Tetzchner told me:

After I quit [as CEO in 2010, then fully in 2011], Opera changed their philosophy. They made kind of a browser that’s more in line with most of the other browsers and doesn’t have a lot of features. The focus is in a way on making the browser disappear, and I think there’s a lot of people that want something different.

While these users could install Chrome with “30 extensions” to get all the functionality they want, von Tetzchner argued, now they can install Vivaldi and get everything in the main package.

Gigaom rendered on Vivaldi technical preview

Gigaom rendered on Vivaldi technical preview

Based on the quick play I’ve had with the first Vivaldi technical preview, publicly released on Tuesday, there’s more to it than just reviving the old Opera feel (though that’s a clear aim). For example, the HTML5-based UI allows the browser to rather neatly adopt the color scheme for the page being visited. The use of web technologies for the front end also makes it easier to launch cross-platform – the technical preview is available for Windows, OS X and Linux right from the start.

Future features

The “sister service” to the browser, the community suite, already launched quietly about a year back. This was in many ways a replacement for the old, ditched My Opera community, and it provides blogging and forum functionality.

“We believe it will be the natural playing ground for those that are using the browser, with a free mail service and a place you can put your photos,” von Tetzchner said, noting that the mail servers are based in Iceland. “It’s not really a commercial site; we haven’t spent a lot of time marketing it. But we will add more functionality and change it gradually.”

Von Tetzchner told me more new browser features will be revealed by the time Vivaldi reaches its first full version (WebRTC will likely be supported, for instance.) A mobile version is also in the works, though von Tetzchner wouldn’t say more on that subject than “We’re going for a browser that has more functionality than what you’re used to, but also has more different ways to do things – the principle of that will be the same on mobile as it is on desktop.”

The Vivaldi team numbers around 25, a “substantial part” of which is the technical team, and more than half of which are former Opera workers. Von Tetzchner is personally funding it all for now, but the browser’s business model will be the standard affiliate-deal affair.

Will Vivaldi be big? It’s hard to say – Opera itself hasn’t broke past a market share of a few percent for many years, apart from in the feature-phone market. But Vivaldi does seem to combine a fresh new look with an impressively old-school appeal to the power user, and it may well find its niche. Perhaps not everyone does want the browser to just disappear into the background after all.

No harm, no foul: Google wins case over browser tracking

Google landed in hot water in 2012 when a researcher found it was tricking Safari and Internet Explorer browsers into accepting cookies. A judge, however, threw out a class action lawsuit on the grounds that the advertising tactic did not actually harm consumers.

Chrome rises from 1.5% to 3% of iOS use since June 2012 launch

Chrome usage on iOS in North America has doubled since it launched. The data comes from a Chitika study on the company’s ad network. Google’s clever “linking” of its apps may be a big help since you can’t change the default iOS browser.