After four years of development, Brave Software has released version 1.0 of its browser, an iconoclastic product that strips out conventional website advertisements but that can pay you to see other ads the browser itself supplies. The update brings the payment scheme to iPhones and iPads, meaning that Apple mobile device owners using the browser can now cash in on the technology too.
Brave's browser protects privacy by removing ads and ad trackers, making it harder for marketers to follow people's behavior across the internet. Instead, the startup suggests that users join its Brave Rewards system, which shows ads that Brave presents. The company pays you 70% of the resulting ad revenue.
Stripping ads from websites only to display other ads from the browser might seem counterintuitive. But Brave, which sends the revenue you accrue back to the websites you visit, hopes it will help push internet publishers away from privacy-invading trackers that profile your online behavior. (You can check CNET's review of Brave 1.0, too.)
CEO Brendan Eich, who used to lead rival browser maker Firefox, describes it as "putting chlorine in the pool." He wants an internet in which online advertising can support websites but not with us having to share our personal data with tech powerhouses that are hard to fight and smaller players that are hard to identify.
The company has developed its own crypto-token, the Basic Attention Token, to make the payments. Users can direct BAT they earn to specific sites, Twitch video game streamers or YouTubers, or they can tip Twitter and Reddit users. They can also convert the BAT into currency, though no one should expect more than a few dollars a month.
When Eich co-founded Brave in 2015, online privacy was a nice idea but not a major tech industry priority. That's beginning to change. Apple has been a leader, banging the privacy drum steadily. And after Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed how much data companies have on us, the social network, as well as search giant Google, have indicated they want to do better.
Convincing people to switch to Brave
Still, it's hard to get people to switch browsers, especially away from Google Chrome, the dominant software. Brave has convinced just 8.7 million of us to use it each month on Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS. That's less than a percent of the billion who use Chrome and only 3% of the 256 million Firefox claims.
In addition to privacy, Eich says other advantages of the Brave browser have helped lure users. Without ads, for example, pages load faster and don't need as much memory, battery power or network data.
And to lure people to Brave, the San Francisco-based startup can also hand out BAT from an initial pool of 300 million tokens it reserved for promotions. On Wednesday, it announced a new grant of 8 million BAT to people using Brave on iOS and Android.
"We get people speed and battery life as much as we get people privacy," and the company needs to use every advantage to increase its user base, Eich said. Brave's monthly users are growing at about 10% each month, suggesting that it's found a foothold on the web.
Brave isn't the only browser trying to get ahead by offering tracker blocking. Firefox has begun a major effort to improve privacy on the web. Apple is pushing privacy with Safari, too, and it has the advantage of being installed and used by default on millions of iPhones and iPads. Even Google's Chrome has begun an effort to cut back on privacy invasion.
Brave by the numbers
Here are some indicators of Brave's status today:
- About 35,000 websites, 212,000 YouTube accounts and 30,000 Twitter users have signed up to receive Brave Rewards payments. By default, Brave pays BAT automatically each month, and you can also tip websites, including the Washington Post, the Guardian and Wikipedia.
- About 10% of Brave users have signed up for Brave Rewards, and 600,000 BAT gets sent to users and back to websites each month, Eich said. 1 BAT is worth about 24 cents at today's exchange rate.
- Advertisers have run 475 ad campaigns so far through Brave, including Amazon, Intel and Pizza Hut. Ads show as operating system notifications, though Brave plans a later update that will embed ads directly in websites in partnership with publishers that will get 70% of that revenue.
- About 14% of the time that Brave users see an ad, they click it to open a new browser tab, then spend on average of 12 seconds on the page.
Eich plans other BAT uses. Brave will let people use BAT to purchase VPN (virtual private network) services for better online privacy, for example. And eventually it plans to release a software development kit to let other software makers tap into the privacy-first ad ecosystem.
Disclosure: I transferred some bitcoin into my Brave wallet for testing in 2016 that was later converted into BAT. After that initial purchase, grants that Brave extended to users and BAT from ads, minus BAT transferred to websites and other publishers, I now have a BAT balance worth $312.37. I have received no bitcoin or BAT from Brave.
One complication for people using Brave on multiple devices today is that their BAT wallets don't synchronize. iPhone users opting into Brave Rewards will have a separate store of BAT there than on their laptops, for example. Brave plans let users synchronize their wallets the first half of 2020.
Targeting ads without tracking you online
Online advertisers and publishers often track your behavior so they can build profiles that reveal your interests. Advertisers are likely to pay more money if they know their ads are targeted toward people who are more likely to be receptive.
Brave does away with this tracking. It still lets advertisers target ads, but the browser itself does the targeting without releasing information to advertisers, publishers or Brave Software itself. It gauges your interest by scrutinizing the text of websites you visit or the words you're typing into search engines.
"I think the privacy wave is still rising," Eich said.
Brave reports to advertisers how many people saw their ads, but greater use of BAT's blockchain technology should help advertisers worried about that leap of faith. That'll come with the "Apollo" phase of Brave development that will follow the current "Gemini" phase and earlier "Mercury" phase -- names drawn from NASA's moon landing project. "The Apollo phase moves as much of our settlement logic onto a blockchain to enable anyone to verify reported results," Eich said.
Originally published Nov. 13, 8 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:16 a.m. PT and 2:36 p.m. PT: Adds details about wallet synchronization, ad performance monitoring, and a BAT giveaway.