Archive for June, 2010

08
Jun
10

On Readability

While most of the ink spilled about WWDC yesterday was about iPhone 4 and iOS, the things that interested me most were Safari 5 and Xcode 4. This is mainly because I’ve been running iOS 4 since April and there really wasn’t anything new for me there and because I’m perfectly happy with my 3GS until iPhone 5 comes out. This happiness is due in no small part because my early upgrade “discount” would make it cost $399 for me instead of the $199 for the real upgrade discount. Oh the reality of wireless economics, how they mock me. <faux outrage> How dare AT&T want to make the money that they spent on my subsidy back! </faux outrage> i think that everything that needs to be said about iPhone/iOS 4 has been said, and been said well.

Anyway, as cool as Xcode 4 is, I have to wait for it along with all the other losers who didn’t go to WWDC, which leaves me to play with Safari 5. Besides extension support and enhanced HTML5-ness, the big thing is Reader. Like everything Apple does, Reader has spawned a rather stupid controversy among people who should know better. In a nutshell, what Reader does is simple: It makes irritatingly designed websites nice and easy to read.

Much has been made over the fact that Apple says that Reader “removes annoying ads and other visual distractions from online articles.” The howling goes from hypocrisy to a weapon of mass destruction against the web. People have been complaining about adblockers for years, screaming about how they’ll bring the end of ad-supported media. This movement is so strong that Block Firefox (remember them?) is gone and blockfirefox.com is now a parked ad site.

I’m going to take the other viewpoint that adblockers aren’t the problem. In fact I feel that ads and multi-page stories themselves aren’t the problem. The problem is exactly as Apple says it: annoying ads, to which I’ll add annoying websites that break posts onto multiple pages just to get more ad views. There are ways to do advertising that are OK. There are stories that make sense as multiple pages (like any of John Siracusa’s epic OS X reviews or other long article).

The problem is that way too many websites seem to feel that the content gets in the way of advertising. Ads that fold over the entire windows, keywords that get turned into ads that popup when you mouse over them, flash ads that play automatically, ads you have to watch before you can go to the story you want to read, ads placed into the column of text you’re trying to read, oddly-shaped text columns wrapped around the ads, etc. The other issue is with stories that get broken into multiple pages just to get more pageviews. How many times have you clicked onto the third page of a story only to find that there’s only a sentence or two there? What, they couldn’t fit that last sentence onto the second page? Oh, or when they include a few paragraphs from the previous page? That’s always fun. And the excuse that people don’t like to or don’t know to scroll is stupid. Its 2010, we’ve been scrolling on the web for over 15 years now.

Just look at this Computerworld article for an example. All of those ads for five paragraphs of text and a screenshot that in all likelihood that took less than five minutes to take, crop and upload. Scroll down and look at all of the crap next to and beneath the text. Also note that Reader doesn’t see that story as as story. It thinks that its a link page, so it doesn’t display the Reader button. That alone speaks volume.

“But what about the bandwidth? That costs money!”

Yeah sure, bandwidth isn’t free, but the content I wanted to look at weighs in at 36.8kB, including the image. That’s a whole kB more than the 35kB Google Analytics javascript that got called when I loaded the page. Now, I am aware that serving even text can add up, but let’s keep things in perspective.

After all that, here’s what people are afraid of. Random Mac user is surfing the web as usual, going to all her favorite sites, but using Reader to avoid the ads on each one, thereby depriving the site of its desperately needed ad revenue. Here’s the reality: Safari user goes to a site, gets pissed off at all the crap that makes it harder to read the content that they came to see that they click Reader simply to make their blood pressure go down.

When Apple says that they included Reader to combat annoying ads, that’s exactly true. Reader is not an assault on the ad-supported web, its an assault on shitty, user-hostile web design. If websites want not to be harmed by this, stop annoying people to the point where they’ll go to the trouble to click a button that magically makes it better.

 

Postscript

There will always be people who hate and are offended by all ads. These people tend to have the same characteristics of freetards (and now that I think about it, likely are freetards) and should just be ignored. Websites gotta make money, and ads help pay for it. Don’t like it? Buy a fucking subscription/pro account/whatever.

I also didn’t get into the security vulnerabilities and privacy issues that ads can introduce. Installing a flash blocker, disallowing third-party cookies and hacking your /etc/hosts file to lock out ad networks that like to silently install tracking cookies may be things that advertisers don’t like, but fuck them, I get to decide what goes on my machine, not them. There’s a reason why cops need a warrant to install a GPS tracker on my car, so why should Google or whoever get to do the same thing on my browser for free?