Net ad-blocking fears mostly unwarranted

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Desktop software that filters out ads from Internet downloads scared the industry when the technology hit the scene about two years ago. But these initial fears never materialized.

The software has proven only marginally popular and has had little effect on the tactics or bottom lines of advertisers. Ad-blocking software, however, is not dead yet.

Many early ad-blocking programs suffered from clunky interfaces and configuration hassles, but many have improved markedly, making them more appealing to everyday Web surfers. Also, some of the ad-blocking software is now marketed to corporations with the ability to reach a far greater number of Internet users. Moves under way by AdSubtract.com, Braintree, Mass., and Symantec Corp., Cupertino, Calif., should make the software far more common.

Ed English, president of AdSubtract.com, said his company will introduce a family of ad-blocking software for corporate and consumer use in the first quarter of 2000. The company has signed bundling deals with a few undisclosed modem manufacturers, among other partners.

Currently customers can download AdSubtract's interMute software over the Web for $19.95.

PC Computing recently named AdSubtract's interMute one of the three best Internet utilities of 1999.

In addition, PC utility vendor Symantec (www.symantec.com), which markets the ubiquitous Norton AntiVirus software, will include ad-blocking as a standard feature in its Norton Internet Security 2000 product, which is to be ready early next year.

"They're validating the whole market," Mr. English said.

SPEEDING DOWNLOADS

AdSubtract's product filters Internet data downloaded into a PC. It searches for HTML tags and other programming that is germane to banner advertising, such as code that indicates a download came from a server run by DoubleClick or another advertising network.

Aside from philosophical opinions about advertising on the Internet, ad-blocking software can make Web surfers' lives easier by speeding downloads. A Symantec spokeswoman said this was the main reason customers requested this feature in its new product.

Mr. English said his product can speed the downloads of dial-up modems and double the download rates of speedy cable modems.

Despite improvements in the ease of use, effectiveness and availability of ad-blocking software, most industry executives say there's little risk to Internet advertising.

"They're pretty clumsy and most people haven't bothered to use them," said Sam Alfstad, editor of eMarketer, an information service for online businesses.

THE VCR COMPARISON

Mr. Alfstad likens ad-blocking software to the ability of VCRs to skip commercials when recording TV shows: The capability lost appeal as it proved more work than people were willing to invest.

In the end, commercials were just not that big of a deal to most people, he said.

But Mr. English said the Internet will not be the same as TV.

"That's wishful thinking on the part of the advertising community," Mr. English said, referring to the idea that ad blocking will fade away. "Our products will reach millions of people."

But Mr. English seems in the minority in his optimism about the demand for ad-blocking software. Even other makers of ad-blocking applications and died-in-the-wool opponents of commercializing the Web say these products are not likely to change the course of Internet advertising.

Marc Kanter, VP-marketing for Solid Oak Software, Santa Barbara, Calif., said demand is very limited. His company makes a product that filters Internet content, such as pornography, for parents and schools. Ad-blocking is only one of several functions of the software.

LESS THAN 20% USE FEATURE

Mr. Kanter estimates less than 20% of the 2 million owners of the company's CyberSitter program use it for banner ad-filtering. "I don't think anyone's getting rich off of just blocking ads."

There are probably a dozen or so ad-blocking software programs on the market, most created by individuals, such as Mike Ingle of Camarillo, Calif.

He designed Ad Extinguisher (www.ispec.net/adext/) after he became frustrated by distracting advertising that made it difficult for him to read Web sites. "I was driven off TV by commercials and I was being driven off the Internet by advertising," Mr. Ingle said.

DOUBTS PEOPLE WILLING TO PAY

Despite his dislike of advertising, "I think a lot of people would use ad-blocking software, but I don't think they'll pay for it," said Mr. Ingle, whose product is available free of charge.

Jon Morris, president of Net Traffic, Chicago, an Internet ad agency, said the percentage of blocked ads is "astronomically small." He said the bigger concern is to make ads more interesting to people who do see the banners.

Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp. (www.junkbuster.com), a privacy advocacy and Web consultancy, said people have used ad-blocking software to speed downloads or to avoid looking at the ads. He said consumers now have another incentive: privacy. If ads are blocked, companies cannot collect information about consumers. His organization publishes free software to block banners and said downloads have been increasing. He said there are about 10,000 downloads of the software a month.

But Mr. Catlett said at the end of the day, only a small minority of Web surfers is worried about such matters.

"The answer to ad blocking is plainly that the majority of people are going to do nothing," Mr. Catlett said.

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