WWDC 2023: 4 things Apple could change in SKAdNetwork, ATT, privacy, and adtech

By John Koetsier May 25, 2023

WWDC 2023, Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference is just around the corner on June 5. Given that Apple launched SKAN 3 at WWDC 2020 and announced SKAN 4 at WWDC 2022, it’s possible that we’ll see some updates in just a couple of weeks. Naturally, if this early pattern of major changes every 2 years holds up, we probably won’t see SKAN 5 — especially since SKAN 4 has yet to be really implemented across the ecosystem — but there’s an outside chance that we may still see some tweaks.

And if not in SKAdNetwork per se, then possible more generally in the areas of privacy or additional adtech features like those Google is implementing in Privacy Sandbox for Android.

Here are 4 things that we could potentially see changes in at WWDC that are relevant to the growth marketing and adtech spaces.

1. Possible general privacy changes at WWDC 2023

Apple has made privacy a core component of its brand promise. That plays well on mobile and in today’s global regulatory environment, but it also opens up expansion opportunities for Apple in fintech (Apple Card and more) and health (Apple Fitness but much more), both of which require higher levels of consumer trust.

What could Apple potentially do here at WWDC 2023?

  1. Active fingerprinting ban
  2. Expanded ITP
  3. Expanded Private Relay
  4. Additional app safety initiatives similar to the SDK Runtime from Google in Privacy Sandbox on Android
  5. ATT changes

Fingerprinting ban

An active fingerprinting ban would add teeth to Apple’s stated antipathy to the tracking technology, and it could be accomplished in multiple ways, including by expanding Private Relay. Arguably, this is not highly necessary, since most of the major ad networks don’t provide data that can be used for fingerprinting already.

Intelligent Tracking Prevention expansion

ITP is Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which foils trackers on the web by blocking third-party cookies as well as some first-party cookies and non-cookie tracking data kept in Safari’s local storage. An expansion could mean Apple blocking measurement URLs being accessed by apps or by SDKs in those apps. 

The result, of course, is that more of the data that measurement SDKs transmit would move to server-to-server connections, which would be more opaque than measurement URLs.

Private Relay expansion

Private Relay is an Apple VPN for web traffic that obscures data about people from websites they’re visiting. Apple could potentially expand this from web traffic to app traffic, though that would add significant cost since we spend much more time in apps than on the web, and generally send and receive much more data. Also, it could add latency to applications where speed is critical, like multiplayer games.

(This could be avoided by per-app or per-service reversions to non Private Relay traffic, which Apple already does on the web for websites, countries, or ISPs that don’t support the technology.)

I’m on the fence on this one — I’ve been pretty certain in the past that Apple would at least somewhat expand Private Relay — but there are some challenges to making it work well.

SDK Runtime-like technology on iOS

I can’t imagine Apple not liking the capability that SDK Runtime would provide in terms of being able to vet and control SDKs. And, you could argue that providing a separate app and SDK approval process is cleaner and easier for app developers, and offers less risk to app publishers.

On the other hand, it loads more risk onto Apple’s shoulders, because Apple would now be in some sense certifying the safety of SDKs in addition to apps via some kind of submission and approval process.

Ultimately, I can see this happening on iOS, but probably not this year at WWDC 2023.

ATT changes

Theoretically, Apple could change some of the wording or operation of ATT, but I’m not seeing a lot of calls for that now.

2. SKAN improvements (and ultimately SKAN 5)

It’s just too early given SKAN 4’s barely-there position in the adtech ecosystem right now to see major changes from Apple at WWDC 2023, so don’t hold your breath for anything here. Marketers and ad networks have their hands full implementing SKAN 4, so muddying the waters with yet another version would be counterproductive.

In short: don’t expect SKAN 5 this year.

But that doesn’t mean marketers don’t have their wish lists for SKAdNetwork additions and improvements, and a few of those might include functionality for deferred deep linking, additional web to app features including expansion beyond just Safari, and perhaps just general increased simplicity throughout the solution.

3. Additional adtech components and initiatives at WWDC 2023

It’s worth noting as we get closer to the launch of Google’s Privacy Sandbox for Android that where Privacy Sandbox is a more-or-less 360-degree framework for advertising, SKAdNetwork is just a measurement solution, with some optimization thrown in. Privacy Sandbox offers solutions for targeting, optimization, measurement, and retargeting as well as privacy, while SKAN was built to reengineer measurement following platform changes — App Tracking Transparency — that crippled measurement while fixing a privacy problem. 

But ATT also crippled targeting, audiences, and retargeting.

The question is: will Apple pull a Google and offer solutions for those parts of the advertiser’s toolbox?

Google’s doing that via Topics API for targeting and Protected Audiences (formerly Fledge) for retargeting. But Google is an ad network, and therefore thinks like an ad network, while Apple is a company that merely owns an ad network, and one that is a small fraction of its overall business.

My guess: Apple does not offer solutions for these other components.

Other adtech changes that Apple could consider include one that would win it some goodwill in the advertising industry but hamper Apple Search Ads: moving ASA to SKAdNetwork measurement. Fairness might indicate this would be appropriate, but Apple has been fairly consistent that since ASA uses first-party data and does not share it to other parties, this is unnecessary.

Another would be a rebranding of Apple Search Ads as Apple Ads and an expansion to Apple’s music, podcasting, TV, and potentially other products. Apple employees privately say this is unlikely, but there is a significant revenue opportunity here. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, there’s a competitive moat to put up against other podcasting players such as Spotify by offering podcasters a share of the revenue, helping them with monetization.

4. Changes to Apple’s App Store fee structure

I would not be surprised to see additional changes to App Store revenue share agreements with developers within the next year or so. A key driver here is third-party payment processing being driving in countries like the Netherlands and Korea, but sure to expand to many more countries (and larger ones) with the introduction of Europe’s Digital Markets Act

A possible Apple strategy would be to reduce App Store fees in order to make using the official iOS App Store exclusively more attractive as third-party apps stores and third-party payment processing becomes more broadly available.

That’s particularly important if Apple wants to maintain control of the Apple privacy story on iOS, because third-party app stores would likely not implement App Tracking Transparency.

While Apple can control some things via the platform and APIs available, ATT is largely enforced via the App Store submission process, and third-party app stores would potentially considerably change the privacy story on iPhone and iPad.

Announcing these at WWDC 2023 — the developers’ conference — could make some sense, although it’s a bit early yet in terms of when the legislation will actually take effect.

Summing up: probably a quiet WWDC 2023 on the privacy, ATT, and adtech front

There’s a lot Apple could do. Given the timing and the complex competitive and regulatory frameworks within which Apple is working, I don’t expect a lot at WWDC 2023.

However, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if we do get some significant news in early June.

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