The latest version of Apple’s Web browser, Safari 5, sports a feature called “Reader” that concatenates the multi-page articles seen on most news sites (including Technology Review’s) into a single scrollable window. According to Apple, the stripped down format “removes annoying ads and other visual distractions from online articles.”
It, of course, also removes advertising revenues from the people who created those articles. Ad blocking software is nothing new; personally I’ve appreciated the option to block pop-ups that are incorporated into most modern browsers. What is new is that Apple doesn’t give the user the option to not block ads in Reader. This option wouldn’t be technically difficult to add in comparison to the work Apple has already done on developing Reader: most websites already provide links to stripped down versions of their articles, under a “printer-friendly” link, which contain one or two static ads that could be integrated into the Reader presentation of a story without being disruptive.
Why would a reader want an ad-enabled version? Well, for the same reason I don’t install any of the freely available ad blockers; I’m happy to support sites that I think strike a reasonable balance between advertising and content. Having to, say, watch a few 30-second commercial breaks in exchange for free video-on-demand from Hulu seems a fair deal. Similarly, seeing a few display ads scattered around a news article also seems like a fair exchange for original reporting and writing. But Apple’s Reader doesn’t give users the flexibility to make that choice; if they want Reader’s functionality, they have to accept its philosophy, which is firmly oriented towards what’s best for Apple, not users.
Some have interpreted Apple’s ad-less Reader as a blow for the little guy. But I don’t think Apple really cares about sparing surfers from advertising; it seems more likely the Reader is designed to push publishers towards delivering their products via custom apps on the iPad and iPhone, where ads can’t be blocked. And if, as Apple hopes, publishers serve ads using Apple’s own iAd platform, the company will happily take its 40 percent right off the top.
I can only imagine how loudly Apple would complain if news websites retaliated against Reader by blocking Safari outright, and heaven knows no-one wants a return to the days when many sites came with a notice stating “Warning: Your browser is not supported!” if you dared to visit them with anything other than the one or two browsers that had been officially blessed. Instead, I hope a balance between Apple and content providers can be struck, perhaps as simply as by adding a “Display printer-friendly ads” checkbox in Safari’s preferences.