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Will Safari 5’s Reader Feature Kill Web Ads?

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.