In the economy of the internet, we pay not with our wallets but with our eyeballs, those slivers of time devoted to the glancing at adverts on web sites participating in a fragile balancing act where the content we demand for free must be paid for by attention we'd rather not give away.
Over time, we've become more sophisticated viewers, with our eyes trained to skip over ads without a second thought. But Apple's patent for a new system of delivering adverts differs crucially to this dynamic, not only with it's reference to an "enforcement routine", and the demand made for "the presence of an attentive user", but because it is rooted in the most fundamental part of our computing experiences, the operating system.
By hard-wiring the process into the computer itself, and demanding users verify that are actually watching the ads, Apple may be able to ensure they're supplying advertisers with attention rather than just screen space. With the company priding itself on providing a clean, seamless computing experience at a premium price-tag, though, the key issue is the damage they'll be risking to their brand if they're to offer it as part of a free version of Mac hardware or software.
There are strong rumours that Microsoft will be attempting something similar with a free version of Microsoft Office 2010, to "draw pirate customers into the revenue stream", as one Microsoft spokesman has put it. Indeed, the concept of ad-funded computing goes back further than that; in 1999, Bill Gross of Free-PC, a company offering free computers to those willing to endure an advertising "frame" around the edges of their screen, claimed "Free-PC is the breakthrough first product to start an inevitable trend". Within a few years, internet advertising had taken the wind out of their sails, and the company's plans never came to fruition; but perhaps Gross' prediction will prove at least partially true with some help from an unlikely ally in Silicon Valley.