Opera man muscles into Apple mobile ad kingdom
Ex-Apple 'Pink' engineer takes fight to Google
When Apple launched its iAd platform, says Mahi de Silva, it barred all third-party advertising services from accessing the platform's mobile ad network. That included de Silva's own AdMarvel, the mobile-ad exchange owned by browser-maker Opera Software. But according to the AdMarvel CEO, multiple big-name publishers told Apple they wouldn't use iAds unless the company backed down and allowed for integration with AdMarvel. And apparently, Apple complied.
"Apple's official policy is that if you want an iAd, you have to have a commercial relationship with Apple and you have to have a direct call to Apple – with the exception of us," de Silva tells The Register. Apple didn't respond when we attempted to verify this claim. But it doesn't respond when we attempt to verify anything, and several big-name publishers are indeed using AdMarvel to make ad calls to iAds, including CBS, Bloomberg, and Fox. Philippe Browning, vice president of advertising and operations for CBS Mobile, indicates that close collaboration with Apple was required to make the technologies work together.
"Apple looked very highly on the engineering team at AdMarvel and bridges were made to ensure that the two platforms worked together," Browning tells The Reg. de Silva goes so far as to claim that AdMarvel is the only outfit "on the planet" that can mediate Apple iAds. And when pressed on this, he stands firm. "To our knowledge," he says, "we are the only provider that is endorsed by Apple."
AdMarvel, which Opera acquired last year , offers a mobile-ad platform with an online interface. "We offer a horizontal advertising platform that publishers can use to more intelligently manage their advertising needs," de Silva says. If they have their own ad sales force, publishers can use AdMarvel to manage their own ad inventory, but they can also tap into the ad exchange, which aggregates ads from various ad agencies and online-ad networks, including Apple's iAds and Google's AdMob, two networks that focus on in-application advertising.
The trick is that the platform serves up different ads for different devices, from iPads to iPhones, Android phones, and Blackberry phones, to old-school feature phones, where Opera's Mini browser is so prevalent. "We build bridges," de Silva says. "Mobile devices have unique capabilities, from rendering capabilities to rich media to location information to the gyroscope to the accelerometer, and we make all that available [to publishers]." This is done through an AdMarvel software development kit (SDK) that integrates with networks such as iAds and AdMob.
AdMarvel will then choose ads for an available impression based not only on the format of the ad but also on how successful the ad is likely to be in that particular situation. "The exchange basically works on a yield-optimized algorithm," de Silva says. "Based on the available impression, it decides what the demand is. We have APIs that are hooked into the ad sources to get a view into what real-time economics are associated with that ad impression, and we pick the source that's going to provide the best yield for the publisher."
And, yes, you can track the performance of ads across devices. "We are the decision engine and the analytics engine that allow publishers to actually deliver the ad on mobile devices and measure engagement."
When mediating between advertiser and publisher, AdMarvel charges a service fee. "We're not an exchange that tries to arbitrage between the advertiser and the publish," de Silva says. "A lot of ad exchanges on the desktop tried to do that, a lot of them quite profitably, until publishers figured out they were essentially being raped on the ad payout. We make it very transparent that what they see is what the advertiser pays."
CBS began using AdMarvel as it moved into in-application mobile ads. Naturally, the company has its own internal sales force, but it also needed a way to integrate with ad networks such as Google's AdMob and, eventually, Apple's IAds. "AdMarvel has an SDK that umbrellas some of these products. There are instances where there are gaps in internal as inventory or there are particular campaigns in, say, Apple's iAds or Google's AdMob that we want to take advantage of. AdMarvel lets us serve internal ads as well as reach out to networks. It's a solution that allows rather complicated technologies to work together."
AdMarvel does not handle desktop ads. But it does integrate with existing desktop ad-serving software such as Google's Doubleclick for Publishers (formerly known as DART) and Microsoft Advertising (formerly aQuantive). It can, say, pull an ad from DoubleClick and place it on a mobile device.
For de Silva, AdMarvel fills a hole that someone like Google doesn't fill. And he pulls no punches. "When it comes to mobile, [DoubleClick] is essentially non-operational," he says. "A lot of the underpinnings of what makes DoubleClick work are irrelevant in mobile."
Google does not agree. The company currently offers a mobile-specific product known as DoubleClick Mobile, and it's "rolling out" a new product called DFP Mobile. "Our next generation [DFP Mobile] is rolling out officially soon and some publishers are already using it in production," a company spokesman told us, saying this product handles rich media, cross-device targeting, and advanced mobile reporting.
At its annual developer conference in May, Google demonstrated DoubleClick serving up a third-party "rich media" ad into an Android application  (YouTube video, 41:14 in). "It turns out we have some tools you might have heard of called DoubleClick, Analytics, AdSense, AdWords," Google engineering vice president Vic Gundotra said, in his usual semi-sarcastic, quite entertaining, and very pro-Google style. "The tools that the industry knows and loves are being extended seamlessly to the mobile environment."
Asked about Google's rebuttal, de Silva stands firm once again. He still uses the old DART name, indicating that he sees the Google product as a legacy platform. "The bottom line is that DART was made for desktop browsers, not mobile browsers and certainly not in-application ad serving and management," he says. "We stand behind our position and value proposition vis-à-vis DART. Clearly, our customers have voted in favor of our platform - the same customers that use DART for their desktop Internet advertising needs."
'Is Google a friend or a foe?'
de Silva also argues that many publishers are wary of using Google for political, economic, and maybe even emotional reasons. "There are some growing concerns around the world [among publishers] over 'Is Google a friend or a foe?'," he says.
Google didn't address this argument directly. But it did point out that over 50,000 publishers are using the AdMob network, including Angry Birds and Best, Cool & Fun Games. "We are helping mobile developers monetize their apps," the company spokesman says. "Hundreds of developers in the AdMob network are on track to earn more than $100,000 annually."
Despite a certain amount of, well. disagreement between the two companies, their platforms do indeed work in tandem. The AdMob SDK is compatible with AdMarvel, just as it is with other ad exchanges and mediators. Like Apple, de Silva says, Google wants to reach the big-name publishers who use AdMarvel. And according to de Silva, AdMarvel is able to pull ads from DoubleClick for placement on mobile devices.
AdMarvel's relationship to Opera is less complicated. Opera's Mini browser is now has over 76 million users across the globe, and when those users access the web, all their traffic is routed through Opera proxy servers. Meant for low-bandwidth connections, Opera Mini used those proxy servers to compress webpages before they're sent down to the phone. But those servers also let AdMarvel tailor the ads that it serves onto Opera Mini devices.
"We have some unique intelligence from the Opera Mini servers about the contextual information of an ad serve," de Silva says. "What we can do better inside of Mini rather than a generic browser like [the ones on iPhones and Android devices] is that we can leverage that contextual information to deliver a more-relevant ad. We also have a more-clear view into the device capabilities." This includes the dimensions of a device and its physical orientation.
Whereas Apple and Google are focused on delivering ads to smartphones and tablets, AdMarvel can also serve ads onto millions of feature phones across the globe. "We see a largely untapped market in the developing world," de Silva says. "We're very present in developed markets, but we also see this huge potential in the rest of the world, giving them a scalable infrastructure they can play into."
Currently, the AdMarvel platform lets publishers target Opera Mini ads based on the time of day, geography, and device specs, including software as well as hardware. But they plan to provide even finer targeting, using things such as telemetry and GPS data.
Yes, Google and Apple are exploring such ad targeting. And Google, if not Apple, could transform its ad-network offering into more of an ad-exchange setup. But Google doesn't have Opera Mini. "Google and Apple, with their ad inventory, are very much focused on developed market – the US, the UK, Japan, the Nordics – where there's more concentrated spending," de Silva says. "But we think there's a differential opportunity of doing this across other markets. If you at the [Opera Mini] traffic we see, it's a pyramid that tends to be broadest in the developing world."
But even in places like the US and the UK, he says, Opera and AdMarvel have a certain advantage because they're, well, not Google and Apple. He talks about those "competitive frictions" between Google and publishers, but also about the need to provide competing options on iOS devices. "Apple has very admirably built a closed ecosystems, and services that ecosystem very well," he says. "We think there's an opportunity to provide choice, even within that ecosystem."
When we asked whether publishers are wary of Apple is the same way they're wary of Google, pointing to the 30 per cent cut Jobs and company are now taking from subscription apps, de Silva indicates that they are – though he's careful to say that he's voicing his own personal opinions. "At Apple, there is this overwhelming belief that what they do is in the best interests of consumers and the broader ecosystem that they power. But the [30 per cent cut] kinda flies in the face of the economics of the publisher," he says. "Apple is starting to look like an operator, demanding the kind of obtuse economics that operators demanded."
de Silva knows Cupertino well. He spent seven years at Apple in the late 80s and 90s, serving as the graphics-system architect for the ill-fated next-generation Mac OS known only as "Pink ".
He believes that Apple will eventually change its policy on subscription apps. But either way, he argues that Opera and AdMarvel have enough leverage to compete with the giants of the mobile ad world. "There is a unique opportunity for AdMarvel," he says, "to assert ourselves as a nonaligned technology provider and service provider that doesn't have a competing agenda to the publisher." ®