Talking tech since 2003

I was fortunate enough to have a Q&A session with AdBlock For Chrome and AdBlock For Safari developer, Michael Gundlach.  If you’re not familiar with AdBlock For Chrome or Safari, it’s an extension that blocks online advertisements from loading within the browser.  There are over 2 million people who use AdBlock every day.

Let’s see what he has to say.

1. What was the inspiration to create AdBlock For Chrome?

Firefox’s Adblock Plus addon — I love it and have used it for years.  I had halfway switched to Chrome from Firefox in 2009 because Chrome is so much faster, but couldn’t use it for long because of all the ads.  So the first day that extension support shipped in Chrome, I went excitedly to download an ABP port and found to my dismay that it didn’t exist — and that the author had no plans to port it to Chrome.  There were a few other ad blocking Chrome extensions in their infancy that weren’t terribly good, so I decided to build AdBlock For Chrome to fill the void.

I was also inspired by earlier frustrations with ABP’s somewhat difficult UI — I’m a power user but when I tried to change my filter settings to opt in to Google AdWords text ads, I managed to break ABP.  So I wanted to make sure to make AdBlock For Chrome usable by anybody and their grandma.  So I focused on making it work out-of-the-box, and making opting in to text ads a one-checkbox-click experience, and making an intuitive filter creation wizard.  I try hard to balance making a powerful ad blocker with keeping the UI simple — a lot like Chrome.

2. Do you personally hate advertisements (online or offline)?

I like ads that help me solve the task at hand, so I like Google’s relevant text ads in response to commercial search queries.  And when ads have enough intrinsic entertainment value that they’re virally being watched on demand online, I think the advertiser has done its job well.

But mostly, yes, “hate” might be the right word to describe how I feel about many ads.  I hate the message of consumerism behind them: “Don’t value your life, your health, your family and friends; value what you own.  Actually, don’t value what you own; value this thing that you don’t own yet.”  I hate ads that sell with sex: they manipulate men, and demean women, and tempt recovering porn addicts (I’ve received a few thank-you emails specifically thanking me for blocking ads for that reason.)

Separate from the content within ads, their format can drive me crazy too.  I can’t believe that anyone enjoys ads that get in your way and demand your attention, like a video pre-roll ad, or a full-screen ad in front of a news article, or video ads that cover the bottom quarter of the video until you close them.

Offline, my wife is kind enough to sort the mail so that I can pretend we don’t receive any junk mail :)

3. Why should someone use AdBlock For Chrome over another ad blocking extension?

It’s so simple to use.  Casual users can click Install and it Just Works — they’re automatically subscribed to filter lists appropriate for their locale, and the UI is probably translated into their language (there are 23 translations).  Advanced users can still get to powerful features, through an intuitive UI that allows but doesn’t presuppose knowledge of how to write an ad filter.

It’s the most thorough.  It prevents more ad resources from being downloaded than any other ad blocker I’m aware of.  Because Chrome doesn’t offer full support for blocking ads, most ad blockers have had to resort to hiding most ads after downloading them.  I go through some crazy hoops behind the scenes to pull off true resource blocking despite the lack of a proper API in Chrome.

It gets updated really frequently — to the point where Google is rate limiting my updates, because the Extension Gallery doesn’t want to shell out bandwidth for multiple updates a week to 2 million users.  As soon as a new feature is written and tested, I ship it, so that users get the improved experience as soon as possible.

It isn’t going to disappear out from under you or stop working.  It’s the most popular extension in Chrome, and the Chrome team makes changes to Chromium based on feedback from AdBlock users (e.g. the new Hide Button feature in Chrome 9, and the resource blocking API that they’re working on to simplify AdBlock).  I wrote AdBlock For Safari at the request of the Safari team, who included APIs in Safari specifically to support my extension.

And I think I love my users more than anybody else does :)  I learned years ago that I’d prefer to write software that improved people’s lives over software that I was paid a lot to make, so the huge response to AdBlock For Chrome has been a dream come true.  Basically all my free time in 2010 went to working on the extension, and I don’t regret it.

4. You recently quit your job to focus on AdBlock development.  AdBlock currently has over 2 million users (and growing), if you look at the numbers it would appear you could make a decent amount of money through donations.  However, now that you must rely on people to make an optional donation to earn a living, does that worry you?

My wife and I had saved up from “real” work enough that I can try this out for a while and see what happens.  I was kind of surprised that fewer than 1 in a thousand users donates, but I hoped that with the launch of the Chrome Web Store AdBlock For Chrome would have more exposure and it might turn into a viable source of income.

Worst case I can go back to working for someone else, but I really, really hope I can keep working for my users instead :)  Like I said above, I get so much more out of someone saying “thanks, your software made my life better” than I do out of getting a paycheck, so as long as I can scrape by I will keep working on this extension full time.

I’ve been thanked by a pastor for providing something he can suggest to his flock to make the Internet safer for their kids to surf.  I’ve been thanked by a blind man whose screen reader no longer has to read him the advertisements.  I’ve been thanked by a recovering porn addict who uses AdBlock to hide links to questionable web sites.  I’ve been thanked by students with ADHD who can surf the web without being pulled in ten directions at once.  Emails like these are so, so much more motivation than a paycheck is.

5. Have you ever received any angry emails from a company or website which relies on advertisements to make money?  If so, any stories you would like to share?

After I unveiled AdBlock For Safari at WWDC 2010, a guy came up and said that he worked for [a popular news website], and that his company absolutely hates my extension.  I asked him what he personally thought of it, and he said “Oh, I use it and love it, it’s awesome, of course!” and shook my hand.

In a similar vein, I recently got an email from a developer at [a popular social networking site], and in speaking with him I asked him how he found my address. He said that he was installing AdBlock For Chrome, and that he loved it, and that “all the devs here use it” — at a company that makes its money selling your information to advertisers.

I think these nicely illustrate the tension between users and publishers: many publishers want to shove ads down our throats, but everybody knows that most ads as they exist today on the Internet don’t serve users’ interests.

6. Can you provide information about any future developments or plans for AdBlock?

I’m waiting with bated breath for the improved resource blocking API in Chrome, so that I can simplify the code and stop doing all the backflips that work around the missing support.  That API will also mean I can block ads in videos across the web, instead of only on YouTube where I use a site-specific hack.

I’d like to offer one-click opt-in to different classes of ads (e.g. AdSense, or all text ads) like I do with AdWords today.  I’ve also been talking to the ABP team about convincing advertisers to support a protocol for “unobtrusive” ads, so that users could opt-in to a wide range of ads that promised to behave nicely.

I’d like to spread the word more.  2 million users is still fewer than 1 in 60 Chrome users, and I suspect that many more people would love to use it if they only knew it existed.  I’m relying on word of mouth, so tell your friends, and if you know Oprah, convince her to tweet about it.

7. Do you personally enable any ads on websites you visit regularly to show your support?

I actually visit very few websites regularly, ironically.  I love Slashdot, but I went cold turkey a few years ago because it was sucking up time that I could spend doing something productive, or being with my family.  I suppose I see ads on websites more frequently than most AdBlock users, because I’m so often testing, disabling, re-enabling, changing filter list subscriptions, etc.  I tend to buy merch to support websites that I love — the XKCD book, Topatoco T shirts, the Machine Of Death book from qwantz.  Hm, apparently I like webcomics.

Once AdBlock has opt-in support for AdSense, I’ll probably just opt myself in to AdSense text ads across the board, to support publishers who don’t try to shove ads down my throat.

8. You have a version of AdBlock for both Chrome and Safari, which browser do you prefer and why?

I am impressed with Safari for building and open-sourcing WebKit, the excellent rendering engine that Chrome adopted.  But I like Chrome’s speed, and that it has a security sandbox, and how little screen real estate it uses; and its extension system is so good that other browsers are imitating it.

From a development perspective, packaging a Chrome extension can be done in a script, while packaging a Safari extension requires running Safari and clicking menu items with a mouse.  And Chrome extensions auto-update themselves, while Safari users must opt *in* to auto-update — so I suspect that most of my Safari users are not getting bugfixes.

Finally, from a philosophical perspective, Chrome is entirely open source, unlike Safari, and I like the future that Chrome OS is betting on more than the future that the iPad is betting on.

9. Any chance you could stop AdBlock from working at all on BestTechie? Just kidding. But seriously…

AdBlock needs support for opting in to AdSense ads on publisher sites.  If you guys show AdSense text ads, well, patches welcome! :)

10. In your opinion, which site has the worst advertisements?

There are a few websites that I always visit as smoketests before shipping an update, because if AdBlock can block their ads then it must be working rather well.  But really, pick any website that interrupts you with large, animated ads pushing a product that you don’t need, and I’d consider that website plenty offensive.

11. Have you ever seen an ad which you have (or wanted) to click?

Plenty!  Like I said, I like search result ads for products I was looking for; but in the past I’ve also been caught off guard by ads that were interposed to look like required steps of a form, ads that I thought were notifications from Windows, and ads that masqueraded as hyperlinks in news articles.  Thank goodness for AdBlock :)

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