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Yes, this is true: Last year Apple Inc. filed for a patent on technology that would force you to watch advertisements, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.
[ According to Cringely's estimates, the Apple takeover may be nearly complete, as he documents in "It's Apple's world, we just click in it" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
The idea is that phones, computers, set-top boxes, etc. can be sold more cheaply -- or even given away for free -- if subsidized by ads. But because nearly everyone who doesn't work in the ad industry loathes advertising, the subsidizers need to ensure people are actually watching these horrid things. Per Stross:
Its distinctive feature is a design that doesn't simply invite a user to pay attention to an ad — it also compels attention. The technology can freeze the device until the user clicks a button or answers a test question to demonstrate that he or she has dutifully noticed the commercial message. Because this technology would be embedded in the innermost core of the device, the ads could appear on the screen at any time, no matter what one is doing.
In this scheme, once an ad starts running, you'll have to interact with it to prove you've watched it. Worse, the interaction will vary -- the required activity or location of the "clickspot" will change from ad to ad -- which makes them much harder to avoid. As Macworld's Jeff Porten notes:
...forget about having a third-party developer providing you with an AppleScript to bypass this. Unless the advertisement "counts," you'll be locked out of using the device until you can prove you've paid attention. Apple even provides a sample menu bar, which will be haunting my dreams thanks to its Lucida Grande font and obvious Mac integration. This menu allows for the user to "preload" the timer of how long they can use their device without interruption -- by watching multiple advertisements in advance.
This is, of course, a terrible idea. On the other hand, it's not all that alien to readers of this site and about a zillion others that run full-screen interstitial ads prior to displaying content.
OK, a quick show of hands: How many folks out in Cringeville actually wait the 15 seconds for the ad to display before clicking that little box with the X or the "skip this ad" link in the top right corner? I don't think I've ever watched more than 3 seconds of one of those ads in my life, and that was still 2 seconds too many.