The WWDC 2011 keynote was jam-packed with software innovations and new offerings from Apple, including new versions of its desktop and mobile operating systems, as well as the all new iCloud. Of everything announced though, there was one new feature I saw that could potentially disrupt my day-to-day professional life if it took off, and that is the Reader update to the Safari browser.
In a nutshell, if you navigate to a Web page containing an article while using Safari 5 and click the Reader icon in the Smart Address field, the article is pulled forward cleanly, with all disruption, advertising, and unassociated visuals removed. Basically, it looks similar to the double-spaced papers you used to hand in at your High School. The layout is actually painfully clean and easy to read, something not often seen online anymore. Even if the article is paginated across 10 or so separate pages, Reader pulls them all together into one flowing document.
So what’s wrong with easy to read content? For a user, nothing… yet (I’ll explain the “yet” later). For a publisher, the concept of a feature like Reader in browsers could seriously damage online advertising efforts: the life blood and singular revenue system of many of these sites. Pagination on articles is designed to increase repeated advertising exposure (impressions) based on a singular interest point. Reader negates that strategy entirely. Secondly, if your advertising does not run within the content of the article itself, it’s removed. As far as I can tell with some simple testing, Reader also pulls out all Flash/video advertising… even if it is included in the context of the article itself. Realistically, if a user becomes accustomed to using the Reader function exclusively, entire online advertising strategies become ineffective.
Currently the Reader feature is only available on Safari 5 (6.3 percent market share as of March 2011), but as mentioned in the keynote yesterday, it will be rolled out in iOS5 this fall across all mobile Apple products. I know, it’s still a drop in the bucket as far as market share is concerned. But, who isn’t to say that Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer won’t follow suit with similar features in the near future? They all seem to play copy-cat in some way or another sooner or later. It’s not like mobile usage is decreasing year to year either.
Now back to that “yet” from before. What does this change mean for the users? Initially, it means you’ll be able to read great content on the Web, but sooner or later these publishers are going to need to bring in online revenue. One way to bring in this revenue would be similar to product placement in movies. Conceptually, if you can’t run a commercial, work the product right into the content. This means content itself will become commercialized more so than normal. Publishers will start small, but eventually for the sake of the dollar it will be abused and content quality will suffer. Many publishers may want to retain their quality and move their online publishing strategies to an exclusively application-based solution. With an app, they regain control over their mobile content and advertising, without having to worry about browser features interrupting revenue strategies. In the long run though, this may cost the user in download and/or subscription fees.
Do I think this a doom-and-gloom feature? Absolutely not. Personally, I think it’s ingenious. As smartphones became more powerful and mobile browsers became easier to use, mobile versions of websites have gone the way of the Dodo. But, a cluttered website is still ridiculously hard to read on some screens. Reader basically makes article content of any website mobile friendly.
My only concern is that features such as Reader open a door that could potentially send a lot of the online publishers back to the drawing board, and we’ve essentially gotten the “heads-up” about it. Plan accordingly.