Apple has been turning the screws on applications developers tighter than usual lately, refusing to admit apps into the App Store that access the unique identification number (UDID) found on every Apple user’s mobile device.
The UDID is much like a computer’s serial number in that it identifies only one particular iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, making it the most descriptive piece of information that comes on every Apple device by default. Unlike other pieces of information, it can’t be removed or deleted from any device.
As TechCrunch reported, beginning in late March, some developers of new Apple apps that accessed the UDID were given rejection notices by Apple stating that the apps wouldn’t be admitted to the App Store due to the UDID accessing mechanism.
TechCrunch writer Kim-Mai Cutler theorized that the sudden crackdown was due to increased scrutiny of privacy issues in Washington, D.C., coming as it did just days after several lawmakers sent a letter to Apple apps developers inquiring about their information collection practices.
But Apple’s crackdown on UDID access has produced grumbling from third-party developers.
The reaction isn’t surprising, given that many apps developers access UDID to track app downloads and advertising clicks, which is critical to their ability to make money.
Enter Opera: The Norwegian software company best known for its privacy friendly web browser of the same name also runs a lucrative mobile advertising business, and now Opera thinks it has a solution to the UDID conundrum.
On Tuesday, Opera announced a new product called “App-Tribute” that it says allows mobile apps developers to track downloads and advertising clicks, as well as other data about mobile ads, all without tracking any identifying user information.
“Imagine if advertisers or websites had the serial number of your computer after every time you visited, and you couldn’t turn that off,” said Scott Swanson, head of the Opera team that developed App-Tribute, in a phone interview with TPM. “The fact that this [UDID] has been available to advertisers and developers in the first place has never sat well with me.”
Swanson said that potentially, because the UDID stays constant, “companies could collect and share information about a user, and that could be an invasion of privacy.”
By contrast, Opera’s solution only records when a user views a mobile ad promoting another app. Later, if the user downloads the app that the ad was promoting, it transmits a message indicating that the ad was a success. No identifying user information is recorded to transmitted during the process.
Swanson told TPM that App-Tribute has already been installed on some 1 million devices by apps developers and ad companies, some of Opera’s largest clients, though Swanson declined to name which ones specifically due to confidentiality agreements.
At the same time, Swanson said it was too early to tell if Opera’s solution would become the preferred alternative to accessing Apple UDIDs, pointing out that several other companies employ other tracking techniques, such as opening a separate browser window and dropping cookies on a user’s device or capturing other unique device information.
“Those both strike me as pretty bad user experiences,” Swanson told TPM, “Any identifying information, especially with a device as personal as a smartphone, we don’t want to be associated with. We think we’ve taken the high road here.”
But Opera has a self-interested stake in producing a such a product: Swanson is CEO of Mobile Theory, an ad firm that Opera bought in February for an estimated $50 million, its largest acquisition to date.
Opera’s overall ad business, called AdMarvel, was a stand alone company until Opera acquired it in 2010 for $8 million. Since then, Opera has rapidly expanded its advertising business by acquiring two other ad companies for millions more, including Swanson’s Mobile Theory. So Opera has an incentive to make sure it earns a return on its expensive acquisitions.
That said, Swanson is confident of one thing: UDID is going the way of the dodo. Swanson told TPM that his team had received word from Apple “about 6 months ago,” that it would stop supporting apps that accessed the number. And Apple’s intentions, though currently in line with affording consumers more privacy and less outside access of their identifying information, may not be totally altruistic, either.
“Apple has a mobile advertising network called iAds,” Swanson noted, “They’ve seen a number of businesses running successful campaigns outside their ecosystem. This could be a way of keeping more of that business in house while also not jeopardizing the privacy of their users.”