Should a browser be the arbiter of a user’s web experience?

Posted by Andy Kahl On June 19, 2015

The relationship between web browser and web page has always been tumultuous. Language and protocol standards smooth over some of the roughest areas, but the brains of web developers are still crammed full with obscure rules, exceptions to those rules, and lost causes to avoid entirely. Yet even among the agitation, the basic principles of the relationship have always been clear – it’s the browser’s responsibility to make the act of browsing fade into the background, and it’s the duty of the web page to entertain, educate, and work on the user’s behalf.

With its announcement that Chrome will “intelligently pause” Flash content to preserve battery life, Google seems to have stepped over this traditional line, asserting control over page content. This new level of control is significant. Conservatively, this feature would have impacted 9 billion ads delivered via Sizmek’s platform in Q1. When the feature goes live, the intentions of the website publishers and their advertising partners will take a back seat to Chrome’s new capability as content is altered over 100 million times a day. Users will probably welcome the preservation of battery life if there is a noteworthy difference. But the creative minds responsible for engaging those users are not likely to embrace this intrusion on their otherwise standards-compliant content. Remember Mozilla’s proposed feature to eliminate cookies in May 2013? When announced, the backlash from content providers and privacy advocates alike led Mozilla to postpone the functionality. Subsequent releases of Firefox have not yet included this feature.

So how do designers mitigate this new play for control over their audience? Advertisers must deprecate Flash in favor of HTML5. Google provides its own incomplete workaround to the complication it has introduced. If you’re using Doubleclick Campaign Manager, standard Flash creatives will be converted to HTML5 behind the scenes, and Chrome will use this converted creative to ensure uninterrupted display. So for a portion of your creative inventory, you can use Google’s ad management platform to allow ads modified by Google’s conversion tool to display correctly on Google’s web browsing platform. However, this won’t work on rich media or dynamic creatives – those will have to be created in HTML5 regardless of the platform you use. Clearly that workaround doesn’t hand much control back to the content owners, and falls well short of actually solving the problem. Instead, creative designers should embrace HTML5 from the beginning of the design process. Building HTML5 ads doesn’t require advanced knowledge of code – Sizmek provides a robust HTML5 Ad Builder that easily allows you to meet brand creative standards as well as innovative rich media and dynamic creative features.

The time to turn to HTML5 as the format of choice actually arrived long before the Chrome feature was announced. Flash is not compatible with mobile inventory, resulting in billions of lost impressions every month. Innovative campaigns also look to HTML5 as a design tool, allowing for new compelling ways to engage with audiences.

This latest move by Google to control more of the user experience is overcome and outpaced by the benefits of HTML5 – but it should be seen as an illustration of how easily a platform can define strategy instead of facilitating it. Google and Adobe may consider advertisements as “unessential content”, but web publishers would disagree – and assessing the impact to the ad-driven online economy won’t be easy. Standards for Flash ad delivery assume the creative loaded as expected – and Chrome currently doesn’t report back to an ad server that anything was out of the ordinary. An ad-tech vendor shouldn’t be the arbiter of what is relevant and what is frivolous, what is purposeful and what is distracting. If we expect the content, user experience, and economy of the web to continue to evolve, we cannot restrict the options available to the innovative thinkers responsible for that evolution.

Key points to remember:

  • Chrome will now pause Flash ads to preserve battery power.
  • The new feature will pause at least 100 million Flash ads per day.
  • HTML5 is not affected. Campaigns using Flash should instead be built in HTML5.
  • This change does not affect video ads regardless of Flash or HTML5 player.
  • Google’s Flash to HTML5 conversion tool (Swiffy) has been built into their ad products (DoubleClick Bid Manager, AdWords, and Campaign Manager) and is used to auto convert standard creative, but doesn’t work on rich media or dynamic creative.
  • This conversion happens automatically and isn’t subject to client QA.

Andy Kahl