Will Safari 5’s Reader Feature Kill Web Ads?

June 9th, 2010

I realize that many of you hate Web banners, and you go out of your way to avoid them. Some of you even use ad blockers to prevent their display. At the same time the people who deliver free Web content need to pay the bills, and banners are one of the main sources of income. No banner income, no site.

Yes, it’s true that some publishers are making a big effort to use subscriptions to monetize their online content, and the Wall Street Journal is a prime example. But since so much content is available free, I don’t think the subscription option will sustain itself except for a few special cases, and that includes the iPad apps for such publications as Time and Wired. So we’re back to free and the need for banner advertising in order to put food on the table.

Call me selfish, but I also hope that the ads we run don’t overwhelm the content, so you can find my commentaries without much extra navigation.

With Safari 5, quietly introduced via a press release hours after this week’s WWDC keynote, Apple has tried to address a number of shortcomings of previous versions, in the hope that they can leapfrog the latest and greatest that includes Google Chrome and Opera. So performance is said to beat the competition, and, courtesy of DNS prefetching, complicated sites with loads of links will appear faster.

But the feature that catches my attention almost immediately is Reader. It’s similar to such third-party add-ons as Readability, but Apple almost always manages to implement an existing feature with a special element of pizzazz. They don’t invent so much as improve.

So, if Safari can correctly parse the text in a Web document, you’ll see a Reader button magically appear at the right side of the address bar. It can also be invoked by Command-Shift-R or from the View menu, but only if Reader can operate on that site.

When you click Reader, the text appears in a pop-up window, and the background is darkened. Convenient icons at the bottom of the page let you change text size, print or email. This is similar to the way Safari presents PDF pages in a browser window, and no doubt a similar interpretation engine is being used.

In the real world, Reader works quite well. Since this site already has a built-in Print function, I also noticed that Safari used that function when I actually printed a copy of one of my commentaries, complete with our logo; normally Reader is restricted to text. I don’t know if that’s a tribute to the work of Lester Chan, who created WP-Print for the WordPress blogging platform, or some smart programming from Apple’s Safari development team.

In the end I’m quite hopeful that Internet advertising won’t suffer seriously. The ads will still be there when you connect to a site, and if you really want to use Reader, the site’s content must be reasonably appealing, which means you’re apt to return. So making it easier to read our content may end up being a good thing. Perhaps more of you will be inclined to click on the ads that interest you, which will encourage advertisers to renew their contracts.

Now here’s the rest of the story:

In the scheme of things, Safari 5 is quite a worthy upgrade to what was already my favorite browser, regardless of platform. Yes, I realize some of you prefer Firefox, because you can add all those extensions, but now that Apple has added a similar feature, maybe some of those add-ons will ultimately come to Safari too.

For me, Firefox never quite struck me as a fully native Mac OS X application, perhaps the result of being ported using a cross-platform tool. Worse, application launch times were always a tad slow, compared to the near-instantaneous opening for Safari and, in fact, Google Chrome.

When it comes to Chrome, I can’t say that it handles sites any better than Safari. After all, Google also uses Apple’s WebKit rendering engine, so they should look pretty much the same.

What’s more, measuring browser speeds is largely an exercise in futility nowadays. Yes, even if one is a few fractions of a second faster than another in a specific benchmark, real world testing won’t show much of a perceptible difference. Quite often, the speed of your Internet connection will have more impact on your actual browsing experience. In saying that, however, I did go away with the feeling that Safari 5 is somewhat faster than its predecessor, and very much on a par with the competition on the Mac and Windows platforms. And, no, I do not regard Internet Explorer — any version — as competition. More and more users are going elsewhere, and the apparent success of Windows 7 hasn’t really helped that much.

I also remain intrigued by the way Apple looks for problems in existing products and devises elegant solutions. If Reader actually makes it easier for you to read the content on a site, we all benefit. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with that.

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6 Responses to “Will Safari 5’s Reader Feature Kill Web Ads?”

  1. dfs says:

    I’ve read a couple of things on the Web to the effect that the new Safari Reader is specifically intended to be an ad-killer. I doubt this, for several reasons: a.) there are already availble utilities that do a reasonable job of suppressing Flash displays, often a vehicle for ads, and otherwise filter out advertising elements, so in this sense Reader isn’t all that revolutionary; b.) as Gene notes, only some pages qualify for display by Reader. I don’t quite understand yet what design elements do and don’t pass muster and why (I have noticed that it does manage to include some graphic elements), but when page designers do figure this out, I have no doubt those who want their advertising to get read will be able to concoct non-Reader-friendly pages. c.) Anyway, there ’s no way to open a page in Reader, you have to open it in regular view first, so the web site gets credit for having displayed its ads, its revenue will be no less. On this site a couple of weeks ago there was a lengthy discussion of the eye-strain produced by reading small type on high-resolution monitors, and I’m inclined to think that this is the basic purpose of Reader. It also has the aesthetic effect of protecting readers against pages which are way too cluttered up with various design elements, including of course advertisement, so you can focus on the important stuff. Whether or not you object to advertisements per se, you can certainly be offended by poorly designed and needlessly cluttered pages in which you have to fight your way through a lot of extraneous crap to take in the stuff which you really want to read.

  2. Carlo says:

    Actually my favorite safari 5 feature is the return of the progress bar. I hated the wheel. I could never figure out if I should reload the webpage because if a spotty internet connection.

    Reader was the icing that me love this upgrade even more. One of my necessary news sites has a layout straight from geocities. Clutter everywhere! Actually reading text without pain is amazing

  3. sbsurfer says:

    The best thing about Reader is that after you bring it up, select all the text then have your computer read the article out loud. When I do that on a regular web page, too much that is not the article also comes out. Fantastic.

  4. MichaelC says:

    Main reason I like Reader? It puts the text into a larger, more readable font size.

    I am continually astonished at how many sites default to a small font size when displaying text content. And let me remind you that even an ordinarily large size like 14pt is small when displayed on a monitor with, say, 96dpi resolution, because at that resolution 14pt renders to something like 10.5pt (also note that the resolution of the latest Macbooks is even higher, meaning that the effective font size is even smaller on these devices). Until Apple and other browser developers implement resolution independence (Apple seems to be doing so in Mobile Safari for iOS 4, by the way), this continual font-shrinkage problem will only get worse as display resolutions become higher.

    Ladies and gentlemen, let me remind you of something that has been true since the dawn of interactive computing: the white space is FREE! You don’t pay more for extra paper and ink to display stuff at a larger font size. Another bonus: the larger the font size, the longer the text column, and the longer the text column, the more room along the side of the text to display ads.

    Shoe-horning content into a small space, using small font sizes, is counterproductive for almost everyone. Thank heavens that Reader makes so many pages readable again.

  5. dfs says:

    Notice another innovation in Safari 5, not so dramatic as Reader but also meant to help with the tet legibility issue: if you go to the View menu you will see that there is a new option, Zoom Text Only. When this is checked you can enlarge text without altering the size of non-textual elements. It really seems like somebody at Apple is Getting The Point about this question of displaying text content.

  6. MichaelC says:

    Actually, Zoom Text Only was around in the more recent versions of Safari 4 as well.

    Apple has been working for a while on resolution independent text display APIs, but haven’t yet implemented it for the Mac; probably because there are too many applications for which it won’t work because of their use of non-Apple APIs for text display (e.g., Microsoft, but they’re not the only ones). This is not an issue with iOS 4, so that’s why the new iPhone can make use of the Retina Display.

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