Apple’s iOS 14 Brings Us a Cookieless Future Sooner Than We Thought

ITP is switched on by default in Google Chrome on iPhones, the latest phase in an ongoing war

An independent analysis of the update revealed that "do not track" will be the default setting for Chrome users on iPhone. Source: Apple, Getty Images

Apple’s dreaded rollout of iOS 14 is underway, and although advertisers have been granted a reprieve from in-app targeting restrictions, this week’s release still had a sting in the tail that demonstrates the tensions in the sector.

The Sept. 16 launch of iOS 14 involved one of the most fundamental overhauls of the Apple operating system, including a home screen redesign and updated privacy protections for location data.

Not included in this rollout is a feature that had alarmed the media and advertising sectors, which would have asked iPhone users for consent to share their phone identifier, popularly known as IDFA. Though this feature was ultimately delayed until next year, the devil is in the details, as Apple’s intelligent tracking prevention (ITP) raised its head again.

The update effectively turned ITP on by default in all web browsers, including Google’s Chrome, according to an analysis of this week’s launch by software expert Simo Ahava, senior data advocate of digital strategy adviser 8-bit-sheep. “This is… pretty big. The development of these web browsers is now intrinsically linked to the evolution of WebKit’s tracking prevention mechanisms,” he wrote.

The fact that developers were given a day’s notice of the rollout also irked some. “Maybe a bit longer lead time next time, please Apple?” quipped Ahava.

He told Adweek, “Best thing for media owners right now is to benchmark, benchmark and benchmark. Make note of audiences that browse with Safari and with iOS/iPadOS browsers before and after the OS update. Use this information to calibrate your ad spend, for example.”

‘Death by 1,000 paper cuts’

The update brings all other mobile web browsers in line with Apple’s Safari web browser—the default browser on 90% of iPhones—an online environment publishers have struggled to monetize ever since the ITP rollout began in 2017. (Apple did not return Adweek’s request for comment by press time.)

The difficulties posed by ITP stem from its data-stripping features, which make it harder for advertisers and publishers to identify specific audience types, thus depreciating the price any ad impressions such an environment can command.

Although Google Chrome only commands a 5% share of browser usage on iPhones, the further loss of audience intelligence is a portent of things to come in 2022, when Google is scheduled to implement similar measures in its industry-dominant web browser.

One media agency source, who requested anonymity due to their employer’s PR policy, described the latest update as “death by 1,000 papercuts,” adding that the shifting landscape made it difficult for advertisers to devise a concise strategy for a cookieless future.

While there are several initiatives working on resolving the ability to target and track online audiences in a post-cookie environment, media buyers are largely in the dark while the industry’s power players, such as Apple and Google, make comparatively unilateral decisions. Even online advertising giants such as Facebook are limited in their ability to counter such decisions.

To several industry insiders, Apple’s latest move shows that it cares little about whether its policies hamstring the online ad industry, even if it did grant clemency with its IDFA deferral.

“They’re not that interested in playing ball with the industry,” said Ari Paparo, CEO of demand-side platform Beeswax. “I think the delay was because a lot of the big [gaming] app developers started complaining to them as the requirements were so complex, they just needed more time.”

And while this particular update isn’t “enormous,” it is a “signal” of what’s to come from the company, said Paul Bannister, chief strategy officer at CafeMedia.

@ronan_shields Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.
@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.