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Summary:

Cries of outrage — and conspiracy theories — have erupted over a new feature in Apple’s latest version of the Safari browser. The “Reader” setting extracts just the text from a page, excluding advertising. But claims that this will destroy ad-based content online are absurd.

It must be “beat up on Apple” week. Not only has the company come under fire for new license terms in the iPhone OS that appear to block Google’s AdMob service, but some are crying foul over a new feature in the latest version of Safari, known as “Reader,” which strips out advertising from web pages. The complaints over the licensing terms for the iPhone actually have some merit, but the howls of outrage over the Safari feature — which one commentator described as “dropping a nuclear bomb on the entire web economy” — border on the ridiculous.

Just to recap, the Reader feature (which is only available on certain web pages) is triggered by a small icon in the browser address bar, which when clicked pulls up a separate window within the Safari browser that contains just the text of the page, with graphics but without any advertising. This is the source of the outrage, as it’s seen by some as a dagger aimed directly at the heart of web publishers that rely on advertising. Wired magazine says the feature was designed to push publishers into designing apps instead of just letting readers browse their content, while Ars Technica calls it another “evil genius” plan from Apple.

The feature is hardly a brand-new Apple invention, however; it’s based on open-source code from a feature called Readability, which does exactly the same thing and is available for multiple browsers. And there are (and have been for some time) plenty of other services that do similar things: one popular one, called Instapaper, saves a version of a web page that can be viewed later without any images or advertising. Another very popular web extension or plugin, known as Ad Block, does exactly what it says on the package: blocks all advertising from every web page a user visits.

Do these extensions and plugins remove advertising? Yes, although in the case of Safari Reader, Readability and Instapaper, the user downloads the entire page and presumably sees the ads before they decide to implement the feature. So are they killing the advertising-based content business? Hardly. The fuss over the Safari feature seems particularly absurd, since the browser has less than 5 percent market share (although it is much higher on mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad, for obvious reasons). As for the new feature being a surreptitious attempt to push content companies to develop apps, that seems a little Machiavellian, even for Apple — especially since only a fraction of readers are ever going to use the Reader feature.

As a writer for The Guardian put it, the best thing about these kinds of features and plugins is they force media outlets to recognize just how broken the reader experience is on a lot of websites, with giant ads everywhere and other design choices that are made for purposes rather than readability. As he notes, if Safari Reader and other features like it do nothing else, perhaps they will remind content sites that appealing to readers should be their primary goal.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Social Advertising Models Go Back to the Future

  1. “The best thing about these kinds of features and plugins is they force media outlets to recognize just how broken the reader experience is on a lot of websites.” I actually agree with this. It seems like a lot of content providers, in a panic about a reduction of ad potency in traditional media, are making ads on the Web much too intrusive. They need to remember that it’s in their own interest to make the Web experience attractive to people who visit their sites – and if they don’t, they’ve missed the target.

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  2. In reality it’s no different than the “print” link a lot of sites already include.

    As far as blocking AdMob, have you see Google’s Terms for AdSense – http://bit.ly/cSoqwV – Google rules effectively the same as Apple’s it appears.

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  3. [...] de tapadillo y que ya ha cosechado su propia polémica (Safari Reader daría para otro post, pero GigaOM ya lo ha dicho muy [...]

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  4. I can’t wait until Apple approves my new app, it strips out all those pesky iAds.

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  5. If the Safari Reader succeeds in reducing a percent of a percentage of all the web ad spam I receive on a daily basis, then it is making the web a better place to live. The naysayers should be more concerned about fixing their broken UI’s than trying to make a quick buck from their spam infested existence.

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  6. Mathew +1

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  7. Thanks for the link Matthew, but I certainly did not argue that Safari Reader is the death of media, nor did the WIRED article you linked. Yet it feels a bit like you’re looping us in with Lynch’s take on the matter.

    My argument, which I’m sure you caught, is that it’s hypocritical of Apple to provide ad suppression tools to “improve” the web reading experience if they company is not also going to provide similar tools to suppress iAds to improve that experience.

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    1. It’s true that you didn’t say Safari Reader would be the death of media, Ken — I included your post along with the others because all three of you were responding negatively to the launch, and I thought all of your responses were an over-reaction (in varying degrees) to a relatively harmless feature. Thanks for the comment.

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      1. Can you elaborate in how you think my reaction was an over-reaction? Unless I’m misunderstanding, you didn’t address that in your post. Just curious.

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    2. You’re right Ken, I didn’t address your argument specifically in my post. Let’s just say that I think seeing Reader — a harmless usability feature that will likely be used by a tiny fraction of browser users — as some part of a sinister plot by Apple to push content companies to the app store is kind of silly.

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      1. Yeah, that’s WIRED’s take on it. Not sure how I feel about that aspect, really.

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    3. I don’t see suppressing Ads in the reader as hypocritical when compared to iAd showing Ads within applications. Generally I’m not reading articles within the applications I use. When I’m actively reading… I don’t want the Ads and do not intend to click on one. The feature makes sense to me. I see it as Apple is helping the Ad expereince for the user by building the feature into the OS. That should result in more clicks and revenue for the app developers. All good for the platform as a whole.

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    4. Honest Mr. Fisher, Mathew Ingram was not the only person who felt your article contained a hint of Apple vilification. After one moved past a title that seemed, at first blush, provocative your theme seemed to maintain a un-”rosy” motivation to Apple’s direction. Nothing wrong there, just don’t be surprised when others see your verbiage brush has an un-rosy blush.

      There is nothing “hypocritical” unless you want to call AdSense on it’s terms also. How did AdSense ever get a pass in this argument? I, for one, THANK Apple for a move I have been wishing for.

      I feel there has been far too much hand wringing about Apple motives of late. I hear the laments damned dev community and money makers but fail to see the actual sins perpetrated on the user.

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      1. I quite intended the article to suggest that Apple’s motivations in the matter were not pure. The objection I’ve raised here isn’t that Matthew saw my post as “unrosey” (unrosey), but that he lumped it in with views I most certainly did not express a) that the feature will be the death of media, or that it b) is meant to shove media onto the iPad.

        You ask how AdSense got a “pass” in my argument. Simple: Google neither 1) produces ad banner suppression/blocking software, nor b) produce an unblockable ad service. Apple does both.

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      2. Mr. Fisher, I have enjoyed reading your thought for years and am flattered that you responded. I did not intend a discussion on your intentions, just on how other perceived your article. No defense required. It does beg consideration on another point, however; how do writers know Apple’s intentions?

        I see your well tempered piece, and other less well considered ones, ascribe motivations to Apple’s offerings. As a user, I enjoy the difference they offer and do not understand why there is so many seeing so much malevolence in what is likely just another way of offering information.

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      3. Mr. Fisher, I have enjoyed reading your thoughts for years and am flattered that you responded. I did not intend a discussion on your intentions, just on how other perceived your article. No defense required. It does beg consideration on another point, however; how do writers know Apple’s intentions?

        I see your well tempered piece, and other less well considered ones, ascribe motivations to Apple’s offerings. As a user, I enjoy the difference they offer and do not understand why there is so many seeing so much malevolence in what is likely just another way of offering information.

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    5. personally, I don’t see anything “hypocritical” in that, they are not really “suppressing” the ads, just provide a better readability on a page that’s already loaded, so if you put your ads at the top of the page, it’s not suppressed, and it will be seen before you press the “reader” button. If anything, it’s just “suppressing” those “unfriendly”, “annoying” ads that plagues in the middle of an article, while leaving those more “user-friendly” and less obtrusive ads intact.

      And since Apple’s iAds are aimed at providing unobtrusive and more user-friendly ads, so it seems both Safari Reader and iAds are not aimed to “suppress” ads, but to “fine-tune” ads, to encourage ads in more user-friendly and less obtrusive ways, so there’s nothing hypocritical in that.

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  8. All you folks who bemoan ads do realize that suppressing them means your favorite and most visited sites may no longer stay in business.
    You people who just consume content for free complain that web ads are obtrusive and annoying.
    How are they more annoying than watching a 30 min TV show and sitting through 8 minutes of commercials? What because you DVR it, or because you’ve downloaded it on itunes? So would you rather pay another service or the content producer to not show ads? I bet you wouldn’t.

    Please have to make a living and advertising is one way of doing it. If you think there’s a better way suggest it.

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  9. To you folks who defend these ads: How many times a day do you really wish they’d just go away? C’mon, now, be honest with yourselves. All this BS about how they pay for free content, etc etc, is just so much hot air.

    I’ll bet everyone who uses the Internet cusses at those intrusive ads, especially those that pop up “tooltip”-like mini-ads when you accidentally mouse over key words, and those that dance around like cats on hot tin roofs (you now the peripatetic spastic flashing goodies) and the ones that suddenly fly out of nowhere and force you do click the ‘close” button.

    I for one, and I think I speak for the vast majority of casual Internet browsers, really really detest them and am extremely glad that Apple has introduced Reader. Finally I get a chance to actually read without getting a headache or scream in frustration at all the juvenile interruptions.

    I do not ever click on ads on pages I’m trying to read and I dearly wish there was some way to signal web sites that no one is really paying attention to those ads. Oh, I know that there are tons of people who have nothing better to do in their so-called lives who click on everything, bolstering adverting claims that they “work,” but what percentage of viewer do this?

    To paraphrase a canny politician:

    It’s the content, stupid!

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  10. If online newspapers and blogs offered a clutter-free, well-designed reading experience, the Reader feature would not be necessary at all. Some, like GigaOM actually do offer a clean and simple interface, but in my opinion some of the biggest news sites just throw tons of bits of content at you, leaving you confused.

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