Technophile

Google AMPing up the mobile turf war

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on October 15, 2015

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Google is attempting to reclaim lost territory in the mobile space. Facebook may not be worried, but publishers should be

Every year, Google hosts an ‘unconference’ that brings together the movers and shakers from the worlds of news and technology. This year’s edition, held in May at Helsinki, was dominated by discussions of Facebook’s Instant Artices and other platforms like it. The initiative, described by one observer as a ‘land grab’ that would help Facebook ‘become the internet,' allows publishers to host content directly on the social media site.  Facebook says it is only interested in giving users a better experience, and the streamlined, fast-loading Instant Articles certainly do that. But the program has also kicked off a turf war in the mobile space that could fundamentally alter the way publishers interact with consumers.

From WAP to AMP

When the first mobile phones were being introduced to the early Internet, they were restricted to WAP-sites that were less functional and significantly uglier than their desktop counterparts. About a decade later, Apple shrunk the personal computer into a handheld form factor and introduced the first mobile browser that was fully compatible with web standards. The experience still wasn’t all that great because very few sites were optimized for the small screen back then, but the mobile browser had finally arrived. In fact, its immense potential led Apple to briefly toy with the idea of restricting all third-party software to the browser. But the idea was quickly abandoned due to the widespread clamour for native processing power and the mobile app was born.

Mobile web annoyances

Fast forward to today and the browser has been relegated to the background and apps dominate. While apps matured and gained functionality that surpassed even desktop software, mobile websites regressed into slow, cumbersome and unusable hulks. If you’ve ever opened an article on a mobile browser and been jerked up and down the page by slow-loading elements, or had the screen dimmed by a newsletter sign-up prompt or seen focus being stolen by a gigantic banner ad with a microscopic close button, you're already well acquainted with the problem. In a desktop environment, these are trivial issues that can be resolved with a little bit of ad-blocking and script-killing. But on a mobile phone, ad-blockers are not quite as ubiquitous; driving users to the small islands of sanity provided by apps.

In addition to Instant Articles, Apple News, Flipboard anare all attempting to carve out their own niche in your mobile consumption cycle. But with 30% of American adults already getting their news from Facebook (the number rises to a staggering 88 per cent among millennials), the social media giant is sitting on the largest parcel of Internet real estate. It is also able to bring its significant data mining prowess to bear in serving users with relevant content, which is a big draw for publishers.

“I feel like we are sitting on the Titanic discussing the beauty, design, and ethics of the lifeboats,” observed another delegate. The Titanic being referred to is the open mobile web as accessible from your browser, which happens to be Google’s primary stomping ground, where the majority of its ad revenue is generated. Little wonder then that less than six months after that comment was made, Google has unveiled the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project: its attempt at preventing the profusion of curated social streams from supplanting the open web.

Cutting out the cruft

The AMP project cleans up the clutter by severely restricting the kind of content that is permissible on a page. It banishes all of JavaScript, most of CSS and even some common HTML tags dealing with multimedia. The immediate implication of this is that pages will load an order of magnitude faster. But it also means that many of the interesting data visualizations and graphical elements that news organisations have been exploring recently will not work. Existing advertising and tracking methods will also break on AMP pages. Google has indicated that it will build support for paywalls, and ads into AMP in the future, both for its own Adsense and third-party networks. But according to Richard Gingras, head of social and news products at Google, only ads that “do not detract from the user experience” will be allowed. Clearly, the hope is to slow down the accelerating momentum behind adblocking software by making ads less annoying and intrusive. Google will also cache all AMP pages on its servers and present this version to users, thereby cutting loading times even further.

Open but not quite

The AMP Project is open source, meaning that anyone can contribute to its code or even fork the existing codebase into a separate project. But as it did in the case of Android, Google can and most probably will retain significant control over the project.

And herein lies the potential drawback of AMP. While Facebook’s Instant Articles is a controlled environment and clearly labelled so, the AMP Project is a Google-branded open platform that could be turned into a walled garden at will. The program bears more than a passing resemblance to Microsoft’s infamous ‘embrace, extend and extinguish’ strategy, a campaign through which it extended open web standards with proprietary capabilities and then leveraged them to lock out competitors.

Publishers beware

The war for control of content delivery is on. We may not see a clear victor emerge for quite a while, but the losers are already obvious. Publishers, who have already gotten used to relying on Google’s search and Facebook’s news feed algorithms to deliver traffic, will continue to lose control over the content they produce. The emerging platforms will further encroach on their operating space and once the dust settles, they will be recast as mere content farms with the technology companies taking over as mastheads run by algorithms that function as editors.

Published on October 15, 2015

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