Adblock Plus, the Firefox browser plug-in that erases advertisements from web pages, is a killer of a killer app – or at least it could be if it ever becomes widely popular. Right now, it sits like a coyote at the edge of the net, quietly eyeing all the businesses it would happily devour.
The plug-in, writes Noam Cohen in today’s New York Times, has the potential to be an “extreme menace to the online-advertising business model. After an installation that takes but a minute or two, Adblock usually makes all commercial communication disappear. No flashing whack-a-mole banners. No Google ads based on the search terms you have entered. From that perspective, the program is an unwelcome arrival after years of worry that there might never be an online advertising business model to support the expense of creating entertainment programming or journalism, or sophisticated search engines, for that matter.”
Some 2.5 million people currently use the open-source plug-in, estimates its inventor, Wladimir Palant, and the program is being freshly downloaded 300,000 to 400,000 times a month. The number of users is not yet high enough to spur a counterattack by the big guns in web advertising. “For now,” writes Cohen, they “have decided to ignore the phenomenon.” Google, which has by far the most to lose, refused Cohen’s request for comment. The company is in a particularly dicey position. The broad adoption of ad-blocking software could devastate its business, yet an outright attempt to block the use of such programs would run counter to its often-expressed commitment to give users what they want. If web users decide they don’t want to see ads, Google would face an extremely unpleasant dilemma. Either its business or its credibility would end up in tatters.
That’s why Google’s best course – maybe it’s only course – is to avoid any mention of Adblock (which would only serve to raise people’s awareness of it) and hope that it remains a niche product. The odds would seem, at this point, to be in Google’s favor. There’s no evidence that Adblock Plus or similar products are about to go viral. In fact, there’s no evidence that the masses view online ads as a nuisance.
Then again, you never know. Viral events are unpredictable.
The most interesting aspect of Cohen’s article is that one company with a big stake in the ad business, Microsoft, did choose to offer a comment – and it’s a fascinating one. While carefully avoiding any endorsement of ad-blocking plug-ins, Microsoft also carefully avoids any criticism of them. (Although Adblock Plus works only with Firefox and related browsers, other ad blockers are available for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.) Indeed, it seems to be giving its tacit approval to the development and use of the plug-ins:
In a statement, Microsoft spoke of its success in permitting third-party developers to “add value to the browser experience through the creation of add-ons.” The statement continues: “The range of add-ons available does include ad blocking software. It would not be appropriate for Microsoft to comment on the merits or demerits of a specific add-on, or group of add-ons. Provided they have not been designed with malicious intent and do not compromise a user’s privacy or security, Microsoft is pleased to see new add-ons that add to the range of options that users have for customizing their browsing experience.”
Microsoft’s laissez-faire attitude may seem surprising, but it reflects a cold strategic calculation. Microsoft knows that ad blockers pose a far greater threat to Google than to itself. As they say: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.