Let’s Get Serious: Safari Reader Is Not the Death of Media

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.

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