Last week I caught a lot of heat for my column about Apple’s Weapon of Mass Destruction. The column seemed to go a bit viral and I got quite a lot of visitors, many of whom were angry. They felt that they were entitled to a quiet reading experience, totally free from web clutter and ads.
However, what many of these folks did not realize was that they were not looking for web content, what they really wanted to experience was an ebook. Currently most ebooks (as far as I’ve seen) do not contain advertisements. If you read them on the Kindle or in an app on the iPhone/iPad/Whatever, you use a more or less standard sort of interface.
I love ebooks; I read a lot of them via the Kindle and iBooks apps on my iPad, and even my ancient Kindle. Ebooks can be a wonderfully relaxing reading experience. I love to kick at night and read a book on my iPad. It helps me mellow out and relax after a long day, and I go to sleep thinking about whatever just happened in the story I was reading. Ebooks are one of the best reasons for owning a tablet device.
The Glorious Chaos of the Web!
While I very much appreciate a quiet reading experience for ebooks, web pages are not ebooks. The web was never meant to provide a reading experience similar to an ebook or print book. The web is color and chaos, with sites having different interfaces and navigation. There is no standard uniformity to web site experiences, nor should there be. Things are wild and woolly on the web, you never know what you are going to get when you visit a site.
Apple, by adding Reader to Safari 5, is essentially trying to force an ebook style interface onto the web reading experience. It will never work out over the long haul because web publishers will resist and the end result will be an arms race, with publishers on one side and Apple on the other.
The Arms Race Begins
Already some folks are analyzing how Reader works and are busy plotting to prevent their content from loading in it:
Safari 5 reader displays the pages of a site without advertising, apparently a way for Apple to go after Google, the Adsense service of which monetizing the majority of websites.
This contradicts the rules of a site when conditions prohibit the modification of pages before their display by any external tool.
That leaves webmasters to find a way to undo this tool to maintain their advertising revenues.
Apple has not made the tool itself, it only integrated an open source software, Readability. The source code is here.
Actually the Readability team has initially praised Apple for its product before realizing that it had used its own code.
(A tip of my hat to my reader Thinol for alerting me to that page in the comments in last week’s article.)
If publishers keep trying to block Reader, and Apple keeps patching it so it works again, things may just get uglier and uglier. It would not surprise me if lawsuits start happening at one point or another.
It is similar to the anger that some publishers feel when it comes to ad blockers. A while back, there was an attempt by one site to block Firefox users (since they were using a popular ad blocker) and that, in turn, pissed off many people:
“A site has sprung-up recently called “Why Firefox is Blocked.” They claim that webmasters should block all users running the Firefox web browser (sorry, morons, but Firefox is king) because of the AdBlock Plus extension. They claim that users of the extension are thieves because they use websites while blocking the advertisements. By some weird logic, they believe that webmasters should be given the option of blocking AdBlock. Seeing as they aren’t, they think that Firefox itself should be blocked.”
I would really hate to see this sort of thing happen.
However, it was easier for publishers to deal with the ad blocker extensions, since users had to install themselves. Safari Reader takes it to a completely new level since it is built-in to the browser.
Each publisher is going to have to figure out how he or she wants to deal with browser features like Reader. Some may opt to go to war with Apple, in any way they can. While others may take this opportunity to make changes.
How Should Publishers Respond?
I have decided to take a different path in response to Reader. Yeah, I could try to block it or whatever. But why bother? I’d just end up going tit for tat with Apple’s Safari developers, and that would just help them because then they could market their browser by saying “Hey, don’t like ads? Use our browser instead of Firefox, IE or Chrome!”
Some of the folks who posted comments in last week’s column actually made some great points about readability (others were simply angry Apple Cultists with way too much time on their hands). I thank you if you were one of the ones that took the time to post meaningful thoughts and feedback. Constructive criticism is always welcome and appreciated.
I’ve made a few changes to my blogs, based on some of those ideas. Improving readability is certainly a noble goal, and one that we should all strive for. Whether or not it will be enough to discourage people from using Safari Reader is debatable. I’m not sure that all publishers can attain the goal of making their sites function like an ebook. But I guess we’ll find out as time goes by.
If you’re a publisher who is angry about Safari Reader, consider making changes to your site that help deprive Apple of the ability to increase its share of the browser market. Serving your readers by improving your site’s readability might just be the best way to strike back at Steve Jobs, and his evil empire.
What’s your take on this? Do you think web pages should be just like ebooks? Tell me in the comments.