Point releases typically come and go without much fanfare. By their very nature, they're incremental, bringing modest performance and security updates, and not much else. The latest version of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 14.5, released yesterday, is different.
Why? Three words: App Tracking Transparency (ATT). First announced last year, ATT forces apps to disclose how they collect user data, and actively request the consent of end-users through a simple pop-up dialog box.
Apple has described this as a fundamental privacy feature, which will curb the excesses of some particularly data-hungry platforms.
In an online ad spot, Apple highlighted what it termed as legitimate uses of personal data (which can "map your runs, tag your photos, or track your location so a nearby store can offer discounts"), but added some apps "have trackers in them that are taking more data than they need."
No prizes for guessing which company this refers to. Facebook (a modern-day version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, but with GIFs) has lobbied vociferously against this policy change.
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Facebook has a vested interest here. According to analyst house IAB, the company swallowed nearly a quarter of US digital ad spending last year. A significant chunk of its users are on iOS, particularly in the lucrative Western markets.
For reasons that should be obvious, Facebook isn't exactly the most sympathetic character, and thus it has framed its opposition as in defence of smaller businesses, which may lose out if they're unable to effectively use targeted adverts. The company has taken out full-page newspaper ads, and launched a splashy website featuring interviews with smaller businesses that say they rely on data-driven advertising to effectively use their meagre marketing budgets.
Curiously, Facebook has since diluted its position, claiming the change may be good to the company if it limits smaller companies from effectively using targeted ads.
Speaking to a Clubhouse room in March, Zuckerberg said: "It's possible that we may even be in a stronger position if Apple's changes encourage more businesses to conduct more commerce on our platforms by making it harder for them to use their data in order to find the customers that would want to use their products outside of our platforms."
Thomas Husson, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, argued that ATT will force brands to reevaluate how they incorporate personal data into their in-app advertising strategies, forcing them to make the case to users about why they should be allowed to track them.
"This is definitely a way to protect consumers and for Apple to continue to differentiate on privacy while pursuing on its own business interest since its business model is not dependent on advertising, contrary to other digital platforms.
"Having said that, Apple should be cautious about how advertisers and their agency and AdTech partners perceive this shift," he said.
"There is a growing consensus that it will reduce the effectiveness and profitability of targeted ads and many expect the rules to be the same for all including for Apple services and apps, otherwise it could be interpreted as an unfair advantage and an opportunity for Apple to grow its advertising business. The potential launch of a new Apple ad format is thus likely to raise controversy among the marketing and advertising community."
'I was crying tears of joy'
But while iOS 14.5 presents challenges for the advertising industry, other users have hailed the update for very different reasons. One feature buried within the changelog is the ability to answer phone calls via the Siri voice assistant.
Speaking to The Register, campaigner and former BBC TV producer Colin Hughes described this as: "the most game-changing accessibility feature in a very long time."
"When I first tried the feature last night, I was crying tears of joy at its simplicity and effectiveness. Quite simply, it will change my life as someone with a severe physical motor disability," he added.
Hughes, who has muscular dystrophy, has indefatigably lobbied Apple to include this feature for the past three years. "Since Siri launched, you could place a call with a voice command, but until now, you couldn't answer a call," he told us.
"Thankfully, perhaps in no small part to The Register highlighting my experience, auto-answer was introduced as an accessibility option in iOS 11. However, the implementation had shortcomings because you had to touch the screen to hang up. I can't do that. You might also not want to answer every call. Auto-answer was a crude catch-all, and there was no way to whitelist certain contacts."
Curiously, Apple hasn't explicitly highlighted this as an accessibility feature. Hughes said he hoped this was because Apple had taken an inclusive design approach, which sees accessibility features incorporated into the core product, rather than siloed off as part of the operating system where they can be ignored. Nonetheless, he said he worries that some disabled users may miss out, should Apple fail to properly market it.
"I think Apple should be more proactive in their marketing, in terms of reaching out to disabled users and saying: ‘Hey, we have this great new feature and we think it will be really helpful for you.' So far, the company has said nothing," he said.
"The next AirPods advert, rather than showing a fit young person dancing down the street, it would be great if they could show how Airpods and Siri can help a disabled user answer phone calls and keep in touch with friends and family."
And there is still room for improvement. Users have to actively turn on the feature by touching the screen. There is no WatchOS support, despite cellular versions effectively being wrist-worn computers.
Another glaring flaw means users can't hang up with Siri, which Hughes worries may be abused by telemarketers.
"If you call a number and go to voicemail, you have to wait until the mailbox times out before the call ends, which is frustrating for both parties," he added. ®