Will Apple force you to watch ads?

Jobs & Co. have filed for a patent on tech that embeds ads into operating systems and makes you prove you've watched them. This idea is so bad, Apple can't possibly be serious

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Yes, this is true: Last year Apple Inc. filed for a patent on technology that would force you to watch advertisements, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.

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First made public back in October, the notion is getting more attention thanks to an essay in Saturday's New York Times by Randall Stross, who has picked a few bones with Apple in the past.

The idea is that phones, computers, set-top boxes, etc. can be sold more cheaply -- or even given away for free -- if subsidized by ads. But because nearly everyone who doesn't work in the ad industry loathes advertising, the subsidizers need to ensure people are actually watching these horrid things. Per Stross:

Its distinctive feature is a design that doesn't simply invite a user to pay attention to an ad — it also compels attention. The technology can freeze the device until the user clicks a button or answers a test question to demonstrate that he or she has dutifully noticed the commercial message. Because this technology would be embedded in the innermost core of the device, the ads could appear on the screen at any time, no matter what one is doing.

In this scheme, once an ad starts running, you'll have to interact with it to prove you've watched it. Worse, the interaction will vary -- the required activity or location of the "clickspot" will change from ad to ad -- which makes them much harder to avoid. As Macworld's Jeff Porten notes:

...forget about having a third-party developer providing you with an AppleScript to bypass this. Unless the advertisement "counts," you'll be locked out of using the device until you can prove you've paid attention. Apple even provides a sample menu bar, which will be haunting my dreams thanks to its Lucida Grande font and obvious Mac integration. This menu allows for the user to "preload" the timer of how long they can use their device without interruption -- by watching multiple advertisements in advance.

This is, of course, a terrible idea. On the other hand, it's not all that alien to readers of this site and about a zillion others that run full-screen interstitial ads prior to displaying content.

OK, a quick show of hands: How many folks out in Cringeville actually wait the 15 seconds for the ad to display before clicking that little box with the X or the "skip this ad" link in the top right corner? I don't think I've ever watched more than 3 seconds of one of those ads in my life, and that was still 2 seconds too many.

The difference is that these ads will theoretically appear on iPhones and TVs as well as computers, and they won't go away by themselves. As the Fake Steve Jobs (aka the Real Dan Lyons) notes, being obnoxious is really the idea:

We can make those ads so bad, in fact, that the experience of using the device would be effectively ruined.

But see, that's the point. We don't expect anyone will choose the ads. Because, for a very reasonable monthly fee, you'll be able to eliminate all those ads and get your content free of all interruptions. How reasonable, you say? Well, let's say that for $30 a month you could watch all the TV you wanted. Let's say that we can get all the TV networks, or most of them anyway, on board for this. Let's say that we give you not just this week's shows but an enormous archive, one that ultimately includes every TV show ever made. Tear out the cable box, stop paying those a******s $100 or $200 a month, and go with us instead.

Thus Apple now becomes the cable company. And the cable company dies. Yes, friends, another enormous, ridiculous, old-fashioned, greedy, fat, slow-moving, change-averse, stupid industry falls before the power of Steve.

The real Steve Jobs would never cop to a strategy so crass. But Fake Steve's idea that Apple simply wants to control the horizontal and the vertical of your video and phone life -- the way it tries to control everything else it touches -- makes a lot of sense.

Like most large high-tech companies, Apple files for a lot of patents that may or may not find their way into products. Over the past three years, the Cupertino crew has sought to patent ways to embed sensors into clothing (like running shoes) that communicate with iPods and iPhones (and only iPods and iPhones); gadgets that would prevent portable devices from recharging if they've been synced with a nonauthorized machine; and gizmos that would sit inside Apple devices and record "customer abuse events" that void the product's warranty. (And then there are those half-human half-iPhone clones I've been reading about.) We haven't seen any of those things appear in Apple products... yet.

Advertising is coming to software products, make no doubt. Microsoft's Office Starter 2010 is coming with ads embedded. Some bloggerati speculate Apple filed this patent merely to beat Microsoft to the punch.

Maybe. But even if mandatory advertising schemes come to pass (and they've been tried before, never successfully), I think it will take about 15 minutes before somebody figures out how to break them.

If you want people to pay attention, you need to make the ads more entertaining. Apple knows that as well as anyone; the company makes some of the best ads in the computer biz. So I cannot imagine Apple forcing people to watch boring brain-dead commercials. Fake Steve may be right; there's clearly something else afoot.

What is Apple's master plan? Speculate below or e-mail me directly: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "Will Apple force you to watch ads?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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