The end of UDIDs – what it means for mobile advertising

According to reports, it appears that Apple has conclusively pulled the plug on the use of UDIDs to track iOS users. This of course should come as no surprise, as the iPhone manufacturer announced it’s intention to phase-out the identifiers in August last year due to user privacy concerns. Nevertheless, now that the UDID train has officially reached its final destination the mobile ad industry is being pushed wide-eyed onto the platform, wondering where to go next.
So what are UDIDs, how will this affect mobile advertising, and what are the alternatives?
What are UDIDs?
A UDID is an alphanumeric string that is attached to each iOS device. The majority of mobile analytics revolves around the UDID in order to capture conversion data that tells advertisers how users are engaging with ads. It is a permanent, universal, identifier of a device and is therefore very useful for advertisers when it comes to tracking what users are doing, especially when that tracking takes place between multiple ad company partners.
Why does Apple want to stop UDID tracking?
Apple is primarily concerned with preventing backlash over user privacy, especially following the recent investigation by US congress on how iOS developers collect user data. The UDID could potentially be used to identify a person in the real world.
Who is this going to affect?
Firstly, this isn’t a retroactive policy, it only applies to new apps being submitted to the App Store. In terms of the bigger picture, Apple’s decision could effect nearly everyone in the mobile ad ecosystem – from ad-networks to developers. The mobile ad industry is already struggling to provide advertisers with a robust user tracking solution, comparable to the traditional online space, and this is largely believed to be the main issue holding back mobile ad spend. Apple’s decision, in the short term, could therefore see the value of developer inventory on iOS devices drop as tracking becomes more difficult.
When it comes to simple developer/publisher relationship the demise of UDIDs won’t be felt too strongly, the real problem comes with bi-lateral ad partner relationships, where there is a need for a universal ID to track users across multiple publishers.
So in the long term the mobile ad industry needs to pull up their bootstraps and devise an effective universal replacement for UDID. But more immediately, ad-networks, analytics companies and ad agencies need to quickly work-out a new tracking solution to their customers.
There are a few solutions on the table:

  • MAC Address – This is an ID generated at the hardware’s WiFi access point. However, the MAC address raises the same (or potentially worse) privacy concerns as the UDID and is an unlikely contender in the long run.
  • CFUUID – The Core Foundation Universally Unique Identifier is the UDID replacement that Apple itself recommends developers adopt. The CFUUID is generated when the app requests it from iOS. But unlike the UDID, it is not permanent and can be deleted, which could create problems when a users wipes/restores their phone.
  • OpenUDIDOpenUDID is an open-source initiative started by AppsFire in August 2011 to develop a replacement for UDID. However, as it’s a global identifier of a device, some have argued it faces exactly the same privacy issues as the UDID.
  • SecureUDIDSecureUDID is the most recent initiative to replace UDID. Like OpenUDID it is open-source, but it places more emphasis on user privacy by preventing different developers from accessing the same UDID as another developer. It also features a user opt-out mechanism.
  • Propriety solutions – There are a number of companies, such as Openfeint and MobileAppTracking, that use their own proprietary solutions and you can expect many more to roll-out in the coming weeks. Ad-network MobFox has been quick to develop its own mAdtrackr solution as a stop-gap measure, while the industry reaches consensus on a UDID alternative and MobileAppTracking, goes as far as to say its ‘fingerprinting’ method is just as effective as UDID anyway. However, unless Apple backs a new standard, such fragmentation of tracking will mean there’s no universal solution that allows ad partners to effectively work together.

While Apple’s decision to drop UDIDs has cast a grey cloud over the mobile industry, there might be a silver lining.
StrikeAds’ Michael Dewhirst argues that – irregardless of Apple’s recent decision – UDIDs were never that great in the first place and what the industry really needs is to revert back to cookies in order to track users.  Strikead claim that cookies are workable on mobile and it just requires the advertiser, agency and media to understand and utilise them properly. Could the elimination of UDID could finally be the catalyst for the wide-spread adoption of mobile cookies? Benefiting advertisers and privacy-conscious regulators and users alike?
Winner takes all?
As mentioned there are a number of proprietary tracking solutions out there and more are likely to be developed. This could spark something of an arms race, spurring innovative companies to develop their own potentially lucrative alternatives to UDID, and possibly creating even more effective solutions.
Letting go of tracking
What if we’ve got it all wrong and forcing an traditional online tracking approach to the mobile space is just never going to really work? That’s the idea offered by ThinkNear’s Eli Portnoy, who argues that in order to maximise ROI advertisers have to let go of traditional ideas about tracking. Cookies won’t work on mobile, not only because of technical issues, but because mobile browsing habits are totally different to online browsing. Instead advertisers need to focus their efforts on localising their message and take advantage of mobile biggest strength – portability. Now that tracking has become even harder on mobile, will advertisers be pushed toward local solutions?
Could Apple’s decision to drop UDID’s come back to haunt it? Numerous developers are eyeing up the potential of HTML5 as a way to circumvent the App Store, bringing apps directly to users from within the browser. When it comes to advertising, HTML5 will offer brands a rich and scalable solution. HTML5 could also provide a more effective tracking as the app store and the app are no longer native to the device and can read the cookie content stored in the browser – avoiding stuff like this.
So – in the short-term mobile advertisers and app developers are going to face some problems tracking downloads and installs.  With no universally agreed alternative, it’s going to be even harder to make sense of the ROI of mobile advertising.  Mobile advertisers, developers and affiliates need to keep an eye on the new solutions emerging and start testing them out to remain competitive.

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