Steve Jobs gave his usual keynote address at WWDC today. The iPhone took center stage, as expected. But there was another announcement that web publishers should take note of and should dread: Safari 5.
The release of Safari 5 does not bode well for web publishers. Specifically, the inclusion of a feature called “Safari Reader” may ultimately prove financially devastating for many web publishers.
Here’s how Apple describes it on their site:
“Safari Reader removes annoying ads and other visual distractions from online articles. So you get the whole story and nothing but the story. It works like this: As you browse the web, Safari detects if you’re on a web page with an article. Click the Reader icon in the Smart Address Field, and the article appears instantly in one continuous, clutter-free view. You see every page of the article — whether two or twenty. Onscreen controls let you email, print, and zoom. Change the size of the text, and Safari remembers it the next time you view an article in Safari Reader.”
I highlighted the two worst parts of the description:
1. No ads.
2. Multi-page articles are now essentially one page.
The End of the Web Advertising Business Model?
This is absolutely disastrous for web publishers! As if people using ad-blocker extensions in Firefox isn’t bad enough, now Apple has made it so that an extension isn’t even necessary. Now the ad blocker is built into the browser and, to add insult to injury, users don’t even need to click to view multi-page articles.
Why are multi-page articles so important? Many web publishers get paid based on the number of ad impressions they generate (usually it’s cost per thousand ad impressions). This means that long articles are broken up into multiple pages so that a certain number of ad impressions can be generated per page view. Safari Reader only loads the ads on the first page of an article. The ads found on subsequent pages do not load in Safari Reader, only the content of the article loads.
Apple has essentially destroyed the web publishing model completely with the release of Safari 5. This is the equivalent of dropping a nuclear bomb on the entire web economy. It’s a weapon of potential mass destruction for web publishers. Publishers now have absolutely no control over how their content is displayed in a browser and if the content can even be monetized in a significant way or not.
Good! I Hate Ads Anyway!
I know that some people out there will be cheering Apple on and are probably thinking “Good! I hate those damn ads! I’m glad Apple gave me an easy way to get rid of them! And now I don’t even have to click to read entire articles!”
Fair enough but don’t bitch when the content sites you love to read go out of business for lack of revenue, or have to resort to a subscription model to try make enough money to survive.
Make no mistake; this kind of built-in browser feature is going to hurt web publishers like hell financially. It’s already difficult enough for publishers to make money in this awful economy. Many publishers have laid off staff and/or shut down sites, and this is just going to make things even worse.
Safari Reader in Other Browsers
The issue here isn’t just Safari 5 though, Safari Reader is a harbinger of things to come.
Watch for Firefox and Internet Explorer (and perhaps even Chrome) to copy this feature soon. It will proliferate throughout all browsers and it’s going to eat away at what little is left of the ad-based web business model.
Yes, I know that there are extensions for various browsers that already contain some of the functionality of Safari Reader. But this time it’s built-in. It requires absolutely no effort or knowledge on the part of a user to install an extension or even to turn the feature on. One click on the “Reader” button and ads are completely gone. And, unlike some extensions, there is no way for the user to “white-list” the site.
Publishers will have to consider themselves lucky if they manage to get any ad impressions when Safari users hit the first page of the article. After that the entire thing will load up in Safari Reader with no more ad impressions.
The Arrogance of Apple
We all know that Apple is an arrogant company. They’ve proven it many times in the past. And I say this as someone that owns an iPad, iPhone, iMac, etc. I’m not an Apple basher. But this really takes the cake. To build a feature like this into their browser and then arrogantly dismiss web advertising as “…visual distractions…” shows a serious insensitivity to the business model of web publishers.
I suspect that most publishers are not yet aware of what the consequences of Safari Reader might be over time. But when they figure things out, Apple is probably going to catch hell for doing this. I doubt they will care though, I suspect that there’s another reason that they did this.
And it involves one of their biggest rivals…
Google Versus Apple: Publishers Caught in the Crossfire?
I have to wonder if this is just a way to attack Google, one of Apple’s chief rivals. Google is deeply dependent on advertising and Safari Reader removes all ads, including Google Adsense. Did Apple decide to do this to screw with Google? Is the entire web publishing model being put on the chopping block just so Apple can undercut the revenue of one of its chief rivals?
If I were Google, I’d consider a lawsuit against Apple for this. What kind of business will Google have if ad blockers are deliberately built into browsers like this? Where is most of Google’s revenue going to come from?
A government inquiry into Safari Reader might also be a good idea. I’m not big on the government being involved in business but I think somebody needs to start asking some questions about why Apple put this feature into Safari. No other major browser has a feature like this built into it (yet). It could be construed as a malicious act on Apple’s part, since it deliberately designed its browser to purge advertising and reformat content.
It really is a direct attack on the web economy on Apple’s part and I think it simply cannot go unanswered by companies like Google, and by web publishers who are so dependent on advertising to pay their bills. Apple is playing some serious dirty pool here, under the guise of giving Safari users a new feature.
Aside from the consequences to the web publishing economy, I suspect there may be some consequences for Apple itself. It’s going to generate a lot of ill will for the company, once word gets out about it.
Apple had been looked on as some sort of savior for media companies with its iPad device. I doubt many companies will appreciate Apple destroying their ad-based web publishing businesses while simultaneously trying to get them to create apps and content for the iPad.
Or perhaps that’s part of Apple’s plan? To drive publishers to financial dependency on Apple’s devices, where Apple totally controls the advertising experience and the revenue sharing?
Currently ads cannot be blocked in iPhone or iPad apps. Will Apple also build an “iPhone app ad blocker” so that users can also block Apple’s own “iAds” platform? I doubt very much that we’ll see anything like that. It wouldn’t be in Apple’s self-interest.
For my part, I have decided to hold off on buying any more of Apple’s products. While I enjoy them, it’s hard for me to support a company that has decided to attack web publishers this way. I earn a lot of my living right now writing for my blogs and Safari Reader essentially removes my ability to monetize my blogs. It basically takes my content and puts it out there for free, in a different format than I intended when I wrote it.
I wonder how Steve Jobs feels about people pirating his company’s software? My guess is that he doesn’t like it very much. Goodness knows he didn’t seem to like a lost iPhone prototype showing up on a blog. But he apparently feels it’s perfectly okay for his browser to strip away a web publisher’s advertising and change how their content is displayed, without the publisher’s consent.
That, my friends, is hubris on an epic scale; and hubris always comes back to haunt those guilty of it.
What’s your take on Safari Reader? Is it a way for Apple to get at Google? Tell me in the comments.