CSA Newsletter: Reading on the Web

Vol. XXVII, No. 1 — April, 2014


Articles in Vol. XXVII, No. 1

Reading on the Web
New systems bring simpler approaches.
-- Andrea Vianello

Digital Data — Ur of the Chaldees: Making a Virtual Vision Possible
Making old information fit the modern world.
-- William B. Hafford

Website Review: National Register of Cultural Monuments (of Estonia)
An exemplar for a national cultural database.
-- Andrea Vianello

Preserving Photographs
The ADS is already doing this.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

The Time Has Come: CSA Newsletter Ceases Publication
All good things must come to an end.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

The CSA Newsletter Over the Years
Topics, authors, and approaches have varied.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

The Future of Digital Technology in Archaeology
What is in store for us in the future?
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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Reading on the Web

Andrea Vianello

(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

Computers have revolutionised our world and our lives. They have also affected our perception of the world: "newer" is always "better," and what was once fantasy is now the domain of the "virtual." There is also no apparent end to technological advancement.

In the past few years, mobile devices have been at the core of innovation. They have been considered evidence of a trend towards pervasive computing and subject to the same constant-improvement imperative of other computing devices. However, once mobile devices reached the point of being usable on their own for simple tasks, they began threatening the dominance of desktop computers, despite mobile devices being significantly less powerful.

Mobile devices are certainly less powerful, but that is not merely a reflection of their sizes. Their uses are also quite distinct. They are not meant to produce and consume digital content, as computers are, but only to consume digital content. Therefore, they have pushed us in new directions. The new trend is towards simplification and improved user interfaces for these devices. At the same time, the widespread use of these mobile devices has meant that digital content must also be simpler and look better on the smaller screens of those devices. Websites do not escape this emerging trend, and a new set of issues is posed to scholars by changing once again what should be considered good web publishing. Good web publishing must now be aimed at a far wider variety of devices, from small mobile devices to mammoth desktop computers, from simple, low-power devices to complex, all-powerful ones.

For some time now I have been using a new feature of the browser integrated in Windows 8 and subsequent versions, Internet Explorer 11 in its modern (read: mobile-friendly). This is something that I resisted in the early versions due to the bad integration of the two intefaces. In its latest iteration, things have improved, and there is now a simple button labelled "Read" that loads after most webpages have loaded (Fig. 1). Yes, "Read" there at the bottom of the browser window!

Fig. 1. A website review from the CSA Newsletter in IE11 modern interface. Note the prominent and highlighted "Read" button in the lower bar. [Please note that all images have been reduced to fit the newsletter format but may be better examined at full size.] Click here for full-sized image.

Is "Read" a bolder computer giving a command to you? Is it a suggestion about what to do, in case you do not know what to do with web pages? Does clicking the button prompt the computer to read the text to you? Worse still, perhaps is it a function to read a text on your behalf (students would like such a feature)? None of these. Clicking on it reformats the webpage to be simple text (Fig. 2). This is what some mobile browsers do normally to make reading easier, and many website authors provide versions of their websites for viewing with mobile devices.

Fig. 2. The same web page with "Read" activated. Click here for full-sized image.

There is no reservation here, I prefer pages formatted by the "Read" function. All pages are similar, and I can do what I am supposed to do, read the text, at my best. Any web page is the same every time it's seen that way, regardless of browser and device; very simple formatting rules determine what we see. The hidden issue here is that authors and website builders are no longer in control of presenting their work. Perhaps they have never been, since different browsers have always displayed webpages differently, even from version to version. Even printed texts are subject to rules from the publisher, which may change edition by edition. But I thought somehow that being in control of the published output was a given, and I could not have been more wrong. Almost instantly, I thought that this is how the Web should have been from the beginning. Contents displayed as efficiently as possible, where readability is paramount. Images and captions appear in the new browsing mode (Fig. 3), so it is pure contents and near zero interface (save for the browser toolbar, which can be hidden).

Fig. 3. Text, pictures and an optional toolbar. Simple and cool. Click here for full-sized image.

I have to say that this is an improvement of the technology for me. It really forces authors to re-consider their output as content and forces them to focus on just that. This is a very welcome news. Ideally, in the future all clutter will be forced into a single toolbar to facilitate navigation, and perhaps to allow ads, with the main window consisting only of text. The underlying technology is a hybrid between mobile browsers, which reduce the complexity of the layout of webpages, and ad-removal software, which attempts to de-clutter webpages by removing specific elements.

These technologies were developed as separate software that attempted to address an increasing problem with over-complicated layouts of web pages. The first real step towards increased readability was, however, a built-in feature of Apple Safari called "Reader" (Fig. 4), which removed all distracting items on webpages using an established ad-blocker and de-clutter process called "Readability," without the need for installing any additional software. The result is very similar to print layouts, and it works by removing elements of the page. "Read" instead selects some contents for display and applies to them a special layout which is specific for enhanced on-screen readability on any device.

Fig. 4. Reader in Apple Safari. (Note that the Safari view is a single-column presentation; whereas the Windows "read" view is a multi-columned one. No matter the width of a Safari window, the text will remin in a single column of a width well within the limits suggested by studies of reading and optimum text-column width.) Click here for full-sized image.

Microsoft's approach reformats the page entirely, reducing the freedom of authors about how they want their work to appear. In some cases (e.g. tables of data), contents are not compatible with such a layout (Fig. 5). This is a technology built specifically to improve readability of textual webpages.

Fig. 5. No Read here. Click here for full-sized image.

My conclusion here is that computing technology is reaching maturity. This seems an impossibility, given that IT is moving forward ever more rapidly, without a terminus or goal on sight. In fact, in this instance people have taken control of one specific technology running amok for too long, imposing their desires on it. This first happened with hardware but is now affecting Web contents as well. The purpose of websites is to make contents accessible to many. This particular browser-specific function, as well as the many mobile devices replacing desktop computers, all come together in providing the same browsing experience: one which is markedly simpler. The trend suggests that website builders got it badly wrong at some point. Simpler is better. This does not challenge the geeky and commercial trend that the latest products are "better," but it imposes (finally) a direction on technological development. For once, I am glad that textual information and contents win over eye-attracting pointless distractions. I am also glad that readers are given voice.

Whilst most of us are fine with having word processors or printed books looking almost identical, for some reason web publishing has relied on techies who defined themselves as "web designers" and really set out to create new layouts and interfaces, with each website ideally being a unique work of art. Whilst I agree that in many cases some discrete graphics should distinguish websites, especially institutional or commercial entities, it makes sense that there is one agreed standard for presenting contents, and that authors need not worry about design. This will make web publishing easier if it is accepted universally. It will also simplify preservation of digital data if a single, simple and widespread standard for textual data can be achieved.

In many website reviews I have noted how authors have tried to develop unusual interfaces, resampled pictures to fit an artificial resolution of the layout (often lower than the original), and chopped texts to serve appearances (long texts work well only in the simplest of interfaces, those that nobody seems to want). Serious publishing instead has been limited to digital copies of printed work, PDF and eBook formats. The former imposes the physical limits of printed text on the reader, when there is no need (there is no need for digital text to appear on a page with margins and binding space). The latter adapts the printed output to individual devices and is closer to what the "Read" feature attempts to do. Yet, there is a sense of uneasiness in taking that path. Being myself author of a book that has been reprinted in eBook format, I have never been told officially about this (the possibility was specified in the contract) or shown a copy of that edition. The publisher probably feared that I would disapprove the changed layout, even if I used a layout imposed by the publisher in the first place. All these novelties, mobile devices, "Read" and eBooks are part of the same trend, towards simplification and standardisation.

I recommend that scholars attempting to publish in digital format, in the form of a website, try this "Read" view (either using the browser function or a suitable mobile device). Web publishing has been too much about designing new interfaces to access contents than actually presenting text. A word processor view of texts is perceived to be simple and tiring, and indeed it is (compare Fig. 2 and 4). Word processors facilitate writing, not reading. The columnar, scrollable, view instead is more natural, and imitates the natural way we read printed pages, by moving the page, not the head. The Web is finally coming to maturity, and this is great news! The time has come to take it more seriously.

-- Andrea Vianello



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All articles in the CSA Newsletter are reviewed by the staff. All are published with no intention of future change(s) and are maintained at the CSA website. Changes (other than corrections of typos or similar errors) will rarely be made after publication. If any such change is made, it will be made so as to permit both the original text and the change to be determined.

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