File Under: Browsers, UI/UX

Safari 5′s ‘Reader’ Simplifies the Web

Steve Jobs hates your website’s design.

That’s the impression we’re left with after playing with Safari 5′s new feature, Reader. It takes a web page and, in Apple’s words, “removes annoying ads and other visual distractions from online articles,” presenting a clean, uncluttered version of the page content.

To try it out — head the Safari download page and grab a copy of Safari 5, which was made available Monday for Mac OS X and Windows. Click the Reader button (located in the URL bar once a page loads) and Safari 5 will overlay the current page with a black shade. You can also launch it with a keyboard shortcut (Command-Shift-R on a Mac, Esc to exit). The main article on the page is shown against a plain white background, stripping away ads, sidebars, headers and footers. Also, Reader pulls multiple-page articles into the window, so once you hit the first page, you don’t have to click anything to read more. Just scroll down, and the extra pages are tacked on at the end automatically.

The result is a clear message to web designers: Your designs are failing your readers. In contrast to what we all see everyday, Reader’s vision of the web is a very clean and more readable place — there are no distractions, nothing competes for your attention, the web page is suddenly simple and elegant.

It’s no secret that most people spend very little time on a web page; sites have mere seconds to capture a reader’s attention. With so many sidebars, gadgets, animated ads and other confusion, is it any wonder that most people just move on?

Reader’s vision of the web doesn’t make sense on every site, but for long articles in particular, it’s a godsend.

Read our full walk-through of Safari 5 here on Webmonkey.

Of course, Reader isn’t an entirely new idea. Browser add-ons and bookmark scripts like Readability have long offered the same feature (with customization options even), but this is the first time we’ve seen a browser ship with the feature. In that sense, Reader could be a signal of the tides changing.

On one level, Reader seems like it could hurt publishers by subtracting ad revenue, and it could hurt ad networks like Google’s. But Safari loads the entire page — ads and all — before it presents the Reader button in the URL bar. So, by the time the person clicks on the button and launches the Reader view, the ad impressions have already been counted. Reader also has the ability to string multiple pages together, and it appears as though Safari is loading all of the information (including the ads) from the next pages, but only displaying the text. Ad impression numbers should be unaffected by Safari Reader, but click-through numbers will no doubt go down. Also, we noticed some ads served within the text body made it through into the Reader view, so it’s not perfect at stripping out ads.

The message that ads are distracting is nothing new — ad blockers are as old as sin — but the the more interesting implicit message is that the web is currently a cluttered confusing mess. Or at least Apple thinks it is and, having used Reader all morning, we’re inclined to agree.

Apple’s vision of the web does not include Twitter sidebars, recently popular article links, fancy headers or sharing widgets. In short, Reader cuts through the distractions to the actual content. Of course, that’s exactly what good design should do in the first place — focus your attention on what’s important. If every web page were well-designed, there would be no need for Reader. Clearly, that’s not the case.

As web developers ourselves, we appreciate experimental page layout designs. But when it comes to actually reading things on the web, less is far more. In short, we’re hooked. Well, technically, we installed Readability in Chrome and Firefox, but conceptually, the idea of a cleaner, simpler, more readable web is a step forward.

What remains to be seen is how designer’s react to Reader. Some backlash seems inevitable; some sites may even go so far as to block Safari — though that would an extreme move given that just because you’re using Safari does not mean you’re using Reader. In fact, most users may not even notice or use the feature.

However, we’re hoping that not only will something similar appear in other browsers, but that web designers will focus on simplifying their designs. Reader takes things to an extreme. There are ways to give content focus without eliminating nearly everything, and we look forward to seeing that idea gain more currency.

We’re also looking forward to an iPhone version of Reader that eliminates iAds.

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