Apple’s iOS 14 is probably the most privacy-safe mobile operating system on the planet. But a major part of the planned functionality was delayed until 2021. At the time, Apple said the reason was that mobile developers weren’t ready yet.
As it turns out, that might not be true.
And Apple has now admitted that its own advertising attribution software has two major bugs.
The Apple software in question is an attribution framework called SKAdNetwork. I consult with a number of mobile marketing companies, and I’ve been hearing for weeks that major mobile ad networks have been processing hundreds of thousands of SKAdNetwork postbacks that don’t appear to have all required information, and there’s been increasing internal consternation about it.
Listen to this post on the TechFirst podcast:
When Apple delayed full implementation of iOS 14’s privacy protections until some time in 2021, this is what the company said:
“To give developers time to make necessary changes, apps will be required to obtain permission to track users starting early next year.” (Emphasis added.)
Just a couple days ago, however, this appeared in the iOS and iPadOS 14 software release notes:
“SKAdNetwork Known Issues: The source-app-id and conversion-value parameter values aren’t available in the version 2 install validation postback that the device sends to your ad network’s registered postback URL.”
In other words, Apple’s software isn’t working.
To understand what’s going on here, you’ll need a bit of background.
When developers market apps, they want to know what campaigns are working. Mobile attribution services give them that insight using an Apple-created identifier for devices called IDFA, which until now has been freely available unless iPhone and iPad owners intentionally opt out in a fairly obscure system setting. Ad networks can see this device ID, however, and an attribution service can connect that visibility with the IDFA of a device that just completed an app install. In other words, an IDFA connects the dots for marketers on ads that were successful — that achieved their goal — enabling app publishers to double down on what’s working and drop what’s not.
SKAdNetwork is in some ways Apple’s replacement for IDFA.
Like any other identifier, the IDFA can be mis-used. So Apple decided to change the IDFA in iOS 14 from a mostly-ignored opt-out to an in-your-face opt-in every single time anyone installs an app. The result is that mobile app developers have been extremely worried that most people will opt out, blocking their ability to properly track and optimize advertising campaigns. While it would increase consumer privacy, it would also restrict app publishers’ ability to grow … and would also break many other standard mobile marketing and advertising practices.
SKAdNetwork was Apple’s solution: a privacy-safe mobile app attribution system.
Instead of exposing a device identifier like IDFA which can compromise identity, Apple’s SKAdNetwork’s privacy-safe method of attribution involves Apple itself informing ad networks when an ad is successful.
That’s all well and good — most marketers are in favor of additional privacy, as long as they can still measure ad effectiveness — but it has to work.
What’s Apple has essentially admitted now is that two critical parts of SKAdNetwork are simply not working at all. The first is the “source-app-id,” which is the source app where someone sees an ad initially. This is absolutely essential information for marketers: they need to know which ad placements are resulting in success for them. Without this promised piece of data, which is currently missing in SKAdNetwork notifications to ad networks, marketers simply can’t optimize future ad campaigns. They don’t know where success is coming from.
The second bug is that conversion-value parameters are also missing. Another important piece of SKAdNetwork is that it returns privacy-safe data to marketers not just on which ads in which apps resulted in success, but also what the new app users that you’ve acquired actually do in your app. That conversion value is also missing.
(Note: all SKAdNetwork data is reported in aggregate and is delayed. And advertisers only get a very limited amount of post-install conversion data so that it remains privacy-safe.)
Ultimately, Apple will get this fixed.
And ultimately, Apple will fully implement iOS 14’s privacy features, including those in SKAdNetwork for mobile marketers.
But it seems likely now that the company’s delay of full implementation to an unspecified date in 2021 is not so much about ecosystem readiness — although, to be honest, the ecosystem, including major players like Facebook and Google, is not ready — but about Apple’s own software readiness.
I’ve asked Apple for a comment on this situation, and will update this post with any response.