The Cookie Crumbles

by | Technology

Apple recently stepped on some toes — of course, when your company is on the verge of being the world first trillion dollar company, you’re naturally going to make enemies on the way. After all, it’s the nature of business.

So what exactly did Apple do, and to whom? And why are so many groups so up in arms with Apple?

Simply put, Apple is making it harder for internet advertisers to continually track your internet activity.

And this is making online advertisers steaming mad.

To understand why, it’s important to understand the basic behavior of nature of the internet.

Let’s suppose that one day, you’re interested in purchasing a new coffee maker. You realize you spend a lot of money going to coffee shops and cafes to purchases a cuppa joe during the day, and you realize you could probably save money by purchasing a coffee maker of your own, and not pay on the nose for the labor costs of paying a barista to make the coffee for you. There’s also the benefit of not having to wait in line and as well as making your coffee exactly the way you want it.

So you decide to do a little bit of internet research. You fire up your favorite internet web browser on your computer or smartphone and start doing a little internet window shopping.

Perhaps you go to Amazon or maybe to Best Buy online, and start browsing the online catalogs for the most popular coffee makers out there. And if you’re a real research hound, you’ll use Google to search for personal reviews from people who took the time and effort to write up their own reviews of specific brands of the coffee makers they love.

But then after doing a bit of research, you start backtracking about the need for a coffee maker.

If you’re like me, I’m one of those people who actually prefer paying other people for my laziness.

I don’t change my own oil in my car. Firstly, I don’t like getting dirty and grimy getting underneath my car, and spending a good half hour or hour waiting for the oil to drain out of my engine, replacing the oil filter and getting all dirty and uncomfortable in the process. Then there’s the hassle of figuring out where to take your dirty oil.

So I go to an oil change place or my car dealership and let them do the dirty job of changing my oil. Sure I’m paying extra out of my wallet to do so, but like I said, I’m willing to PAY for my LAZINESS.

The same goes for changing my tires. Sure, I can go to any major tire center, and purchase my own set of replacement tires and go home and replace them myself, but again, who wants to get dirty bending over, lugging around four heavy tires, and figuring out where to go to dump your old tires?

So back to the coffee maker. I’m a lazy guy. And I conclude that my laziness trumps my desire to save money. So after doing all this internet research, I decide one day to drop it. Back to coffee shops and instant coffee vending machines it is.

But the next day, I fire up my favorite web browser, and for some reason, the next time I go to Amazon or do searches on my favorite search engine, Google, I’m constantly overrun with internet ads for coffee makers.

Not only that, but other products that would make sense for coffee connoisseurs to purchase as well.

Items like coffee cups. And coffee beans. And coffee thermoses to keep your favorite coffee hot.

But it even goes beyond items directly related to coffee making. I see ads for coffee cake. After all, what’s a cup of coffee without cake?

Amazingly, I even get bombarded with ads for tea. After all, many coffee makers are also tea drinkers as well.

Of course, many coffee drinkers prefer drinking their coffee with cream or heavy milk, so of course, I get inundated with online ads for those products.

In fact, I notice that I’m getting blasted with tons of products I haven’t even directly search for or browsed. Yet somehow, no matter where I go on the internet, it seems like every web page seems to know that I started looking for coffee makers, and suggests products related to making coffee, even if I didn’t directly visit pages for those products.

It’s almost like a little virtual avatar was sitting on my shoulders as I was surfing for coffee makers, and knew exactly what I surfing the web for.

It’s actually a little creepy, when you think about. It’s like there’s some virtual stalker who seems to know every web page you visit on the internet, and over time, gets to know your shopping habits and preferences.

I don’t know about you, but I find this profoundly creepy.

And Apple happens to agree with me. And many other internet users who don’t like to be tracked on the internet.

The next logical question to ask is HOW is this possible? How do other internet sites that I didn’t even directly visit, somehow know I was searching for coffee cup makers, and make educated suggestions to me about other products that would be logical for coffee maker consumers to purchase?

Enter the internet cookie.

How Cookies Work

The internet cookie has been around since the earliest days of the first generation web browsers, and is still very much alive and well today.

It’s actually a very simple concept.

A cookie is nothing but a simple text file containing little bits of digital information passed between the client browser and the web server.

To understand WHY cookies are even necessary for many internet websites, it’s necessary to understand the basic concept of the internet.

The internet is based on two simple concepts. The REQUEST and the RESPONSE.

You, the internet surfer with your web browser, types in an internet web address into the address bar of your web browser. When you hit ENTER, your browser takes your web address and makes an http REQUEST to the destination address you typed in.

If the connection between you and the destination address is successful, your request reaches the remote computer server, interprets your request, and responds back to you with a RESPONSE.

Again, if the connection between you and the remote server is successful, your internet browser will receive the RESPONSE, interpret the results, and display it in your web browser window.

And if you type in a different web address to your browser, you click ENTER, and the browser makes a new request to the destination address and waits for the remote server to send back to you their RESPONSE.

Request, Response, Request, Response.

It’s been almost 25 years since the birth of the modern internet, and even with all the advances made over the years, the basic architecture of the internet has remained the same.

The problem with the request/response model of the internet, is the problem of STATELESSNESS.

The stateless nature of the web is a problem that all web developers continue to grapple with today.

Once the remote server sends you the corresponding response for your initial request, it has completely forgotten about you.

It’s like ordering takeout pizza.

Say you want to order a pizza for the evening. You call up your favorite pizza joint on the phone, extra pepperoni, extra cheese, and plenty of anchovies (don’t you judge me!).

After a half hour, you hear your doorbell ring and the pizza delivery guy arrives with your piping hot pizza.

Now a week passes, and you can’t decide what to eat, so you decide to call up your favorite pizza joint again, and order the same pizza.

But it’s a completely different pizza delivery person. The new delivery person has no idea you purchased a pizza a week before. In fact, he’s never met you before and has no idea who you are.

Now imagine if you were the owner of this pizza joint. Wouldn’t you want to know who your repeat customers were? A repeat customer is a very valuable thing in the world of commerce.

Knowing you have repeat customers, you could begin marketing new pizzas and special sales to those repeat customers, couldn’t you? You could begin doing TARGETED ADVERTISING, tuned to your repeat customers favorite items.

If your repeat customer loves ordering pepperoni pizza, it would make sense to advertise pizzas with double extra pepperoni, wouldn’t it?

But in order for that pizza owner to know your purchase habits, they’d have to know you had previously ordered pizza from them.

They’d have to keep track of your previous purchases. Perhaps they jot it down on a piece of paper… your name, when you ordered from them previously, what you ordered, and anything else about your previous transaction.

By writing it down, the pizza owner now has a mechanism to know your purchasing habits.

Now every time you call up the pizza joint, the owner writes down every new pizza order you make, and over time, gets to know exactly what you like purchasing. This kind of purchasing information is pure gold because the owner knows your purchasing preferences and can target new pizzas and other menu items that you will most likely purchase from them in the future.

An internet cookie is nothing more than a digital version of that piece of paper the owner scribbled down all your previous purchase transactions.

Because the nature of the internet is stateless, a cookie can keep track of all future request/response transactions your web browser makes to a particular internet website.

The first time you make a request to a brand new internet site, the remote server will create a new internet cookie that will reside on your computer.

The second time you make a request to the same internet site, that client-side cookie content will get sent to the remote server. When the remote server receives your request, it will know you visited their site before.

Armed with that information, the remote server can modify the response it sends back to you. It can tailor the response, based on your previous actions.

For instance, if I’ve been searching on for a specific science fiction book, the next time I visit Amazon, thanks to the internet cookie, it will know I was previously looking for science fiction authors, and suggest other science fiction authors I might be interested in.

It stands to reason I am a science fiction fan, and will most likely look for new sci-fi authors in the future.

It’s almost scary how predictive website like Amazon know my purchasing habits. Thanks to internet cookies, Amazon knows my complete surfing and purchasing history on their site.

Very valuable information for Amazon, indeed.

But now think about how valuable my window shopping and/or purchasing history on Amazon would be to other e-commerce sites and advertisers.

That cookie would be a very valuable source of information, would it not? Especially to other third parties.

And that is exactly what Apple is trying to address with their flagship internet web browser, Safari.

Why Apple Is Rethinking Cookies

Apple wants to make it impossible for 3rd party advertisers to utilize internet cookie information for their own purposes.

As you can imagine, these third-party advertisers and networks are up in arms about Apple’s actions.

Apple, unlike Google, does not make its revenue by advertising. They make the lion’s share of their profits from their hardware products like Macs, iPads and iPhones.

They have no desire to let third party advertisers take advantage of cookies to follow your online surfing and shopping habits on the internet.

But I foresee this feature becoming very popular with most internet users.

We are already bombarded with internet banner ads and other types of online advertisements as we surf the internet.

Apple takes user privacy seriously and I don’t foresee many users complaining about making it harder for internet advertisers to limit the visibility into your surfing and shopping habits.

Could this be the beginning of the cookie crumbling? Only time will tell, but as for me, I can live without cookie abuse. I’ll make do with a cold glass of milk.

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