Reader is the most interesting feature of Safari 5, the new version of the Apple browser released yesterday. It extracts text and related pictures from Web pages an presents them in a highly readable form. Multi-page documents are combined into a single, continuous stream of text. Pages are drastically de-cluttered.
At first, I loved it. But after a few hours use it began to feel really depressing. It took me a little while to realize why: Reader makes every page it reformats look exactly the same. Whatever the text styling of the original page, the Reader rendition becomes black Times type on a white background. That’s a combination that will score high for readability, but after a while, the monochrome nature of those pages starts to wear on you.
The arrival of HTML 5 raises hope that the web might finally support some decent typography. As a lifelong print guy, the lack of quality type is one of the things I dislike about the web. In that sense, Reader is a big step backward. In their standard presentation, New York Times blog pages have a distinctly Times-y look, while The New Yorker online manages to maintain much of the typography of the print magazine. With Reader, all that disappears in a sea of typographical sameness.
Of course, publishers with have additional reasons to dislike Reader. Once you click the Reader button in the browser’s address bar, ads, sidebars, and everything else on the page but the main text and its illustrations fades into a dimmed out background. I won’t miss the ads or the story broken into little pages to increase page views, though publishers may, but Reader may also hide sidebars or boxes with relevant content and embedded videos or audio. Safari is smart enough not to offer Reader as an option on certain complex pages, including blogs that don;t have a clear primary element, such as tables of contents or blog pages with multiple posts. I suspect this will cause some publishers to try to game the system by creating pages that won;t offer Reader. And that could make content pages even messier than they are today.
Without getting into what is likely to be a hot debate about ads, I like what Reader is trying to do. I hope Apple will find a way to do it that doesn’t lose quite so much in the process.
UPDATED: I knew there was something about the way that Safari Reader renders text that made it really ugly, but I didn’t figure out quite what it was until it was pointed out by others, including this comment threat at Ars Technica: Apple has chosen to fully justify the text.
We can argue forever about whether justification is a good idea on the web. Persoanlly, I like it in print, but find it doesn’t work as well on the screen. But everyone who knows anything about typography can agree that justification without hyphenation is a disaster. The program has to justify by breaking a line at the nearest full word and too often, this leaves test with unsightly gaps between words (or in some cases, with text too tightly scrunched together). Hyphenation allows the algorithm to come closer tot he ideal number of characters on a line. I think one reason H&J, as it’s known in the trade, works better in print is that it still takes a human eye to deal with typographical problems as bad hyphenation breaks, widows and orphans (short stubs at the top or bottom of columns), and rivers (strange patterns that appear when the spaces in lines align in certain ways).
If Apple does nothing else, it should either have Reader run text through a decent hyphenation dictionary or go back to a ragged right margin.