Why Apple won’t make ‘Reading List’ a digital locker for web content

Apple have added a new "Reading List" feature to the next version of Mac OSX which is currently under development, 10.7 Lion. Reading List allows you to collect web pages and links for later reading, as such obvious but slightly inaccurate comparisons have been made to services like Instapaper and Readability, however, Reading List is different from those services as it doesn’t seem to actually cache, modify or strip back the content of the pages added to it. I was a bit surprised by this seeing as Apple added the ‘Reader’ function to Safari a while ago which basically adds the same kind of stripping back of content for easy reading that these other services offer. It seems like an obvious marriage of the two features.

Reading List + Reader = A step too far?

In light of this disconnect between these two features in Safari I’ve been wondering if there is a deeper motivation for not blending the two together. If users had the capability to use a version of Reading List which automatically used the Reader function to strip content back then I wonder if publishers would complain that Apple was robbing them of page views / ad revenue or manipulating their content without consent?

These are accusations that some have thrown at Instapaper and Readability, interestingly Readability does actually give 70% of the monthly fees that users pay to the publishers of sites that their users visit so there is obviously merit to this kind of service but also a conscience about the impact that it may have on websites which depend on visitors and advertising revenue.

I wonder if Apple are aware of this and feel that merging these two features in Safari would be a step too far? From an end user perspective the ability to strip out adverts from web pages and store website content for offline reading is a great user experience compared to browsing many of the advert-filled, cluttered websites out there. From a web publisher perspective the potential impact on revenue a service like this, albeit with the goal to provide an enhanced reading / user experience for web content, could be huge if a company like Apple integrates it directly into Safari.

Digital Locker / Cloud Streaming

Another couple of items of tech news recently were the launch of Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Google’s Music beta both of which offer what is known as Digital Locker or Cloud Streaming services for music.

Both of these services allow you to upload your own music to the cloud so that you can play it back via various net connected devices.

Now where this gets interesting is that both Amazon and Google have launched these services without any specific permission from the record labels, specifically they claim that there is no need for any special licensing terms as the service is intended for music that people own already or in Amazon’s case music which is purchased via the Amazon MP3 store.

In contrast to both Google and Amazon’s approach there is a lot of speculation about an upcoming cloud streaming offering by Apple, rumoured to be called iCloud it is thought that the service will offer cloud storage and streaming of music and movies that can be accessed via iTunes on Mac or via any iOS device. The difference between Google / Amazon and Apple is that Apple are apparently actively seeking licensing agreements with the Music companies in regard to providing this cloud based digital locker / streaming storage service and as such have the backing of the music industry.1

It’s obviously a hot topic – and which is the legitimate approach? Should Apple have to negotiate and pay money to the music companies to allow users (us!) the ability to stream content that we have already purchased? Or are Amazon and Google right that no licences are required or money due to the music companies? It’s a tricky one, but the music labels are adamant that licences are required and so it seems likely Amazon and Google will have to come to some kind of agreement or otherwise face some long drawn out legal challenges.

Reading List will not be a digital locker for web content

Apple’s stance in regard to the whole situation of digital locker / cloud streaming shows that Apple wants to keep things straight between themselves and the rights-holders of the content that will be stored in their rumoured ‘iCloud’ service. If you apply this same respect for rights-holders and publishers content to a feature like Reading List then it’s not too big a jump to surmise that Apple may not want to do the same thing to web publishers content.

It’s hard to know if there’s anything of substance to this theory, it’s just something I’ve been wondering about. The fact that even the Reader feature itself exists in Safari could be viewed as being a sign that Apple doesn’t think there’s a problem offering features that manipulate web publishers content without their consent. But given that there is / has been debate about services like Instapaper2 and that services like Readability do give money back to the publishers whose content is being accessed and read via their services, it is obviously not a clear cut situation either way. As such it would be entirely responsible for Apple to consider the implications of such a feature.


1. I also suspect that another difference with Apple’s service may be that it only supports content purchased directly via iTunes rather than letting you upload any music or video content. Two things back this up, 1: the music labels do not like the idea of users being able to upload their own content due to piracy fears, and 2: the Ping social network within iTunes only lets you like and share music that is in the iTunes Store.

2. I should point out that Instapaper does offer integration with Readability and as such allows Instapaper users to give back to the web publishers whose content they consume via the service. I definitely don’t intend to give the idea that the creator of Instapaper or similar services don’t respect the rights of web publishers! In fact it is possible for publishers to request that content be excluded for parsing by both Instapaper and Readability’s services – something that doesn’t seem to be possible for the Reader function built into Safari! I am myself a user of Instapaper and use the bookmarklet and RSS feed as a simple way to manage a list of articles to read at a later date.

How Google’s cache saved my bacon

The other day I was doing a bit of spring cleaning on my database server, I run frequent backups on database for client sites but I have a few that are hosted on their own server and they require me to connect via a VPN so I’ve no automated way of accessing the data.

I use my database server during the construction process of sites so I have a copy of all these client databases on my server too. I decided to make an up to date manual backup from one of the client databases over to the version of my database server. So I connected via the VPN, did a Data Transfer using Navicat and copied the client database over to my server and all was well.

All was well that is until the next day when I get a call from the client wondering what had happened to the site, it had suddenly gone back to an earlier version of the site complete with ‘Lorem Ipsum’ gobbledegook text and all. Immediately alarm bells were ringing in my head and the dreaded realisation came over me that I had somehow screwed up the database!

The alarm bells were right, it soon became apparent that the client site had been connected to my copy of the database ever since it launched. So rather than update their own database when they edited the site they had in fact been updating the copy on my server, so when I performed what I thought was a backup of the latest data from their server to mine I had in fact overwritten the data with 4 month old content! Even worse, I thought the site was connected to the client’s database server so I hadn’t had any backups running for the database on my server. So I had overwritten the database and I had no backup! Doh ;(

Google’s cache to the rescue

After panicking for a few minutes a solution came to me – maybe I could get the pages out of Google’s cache?

A quick Google search and I came up with a blog post titled “Easier Google cache hacking“, this posted showed that it was very easy to access pages in Google’s cache:


Thankfully I was able to find every page of the client’s site that was no more than a couple of weeks old, fortunately the site hadn’t been updated much in that time so it was pretty much up to date. I simply saved out the HTML source from the browser for each page in the cache, then copied and pasted the content back into the database. I then made sure that the client site was pointing to their own database and not my server!

So, a major disaster was averted thanks to Google’s cache!


Google stops Videos for Sale / Rent: A blessing in disguise?

There was an interesting article on TechCrunch the other day highlighting the fact that Google has closed it’s video marketplace.

If there ever was an example of why DRM’ed files are a bad idea then this is it, a key statement in emails sent out to previous purchasers / renters is:

After August 15, 2007, you will no longer be able to view your purchased or rented videos.

So, plain and simple. Movies that people purchased will no longer be playable because the Google video store won’t be keeping its DRM system going. The notion of purchasing to permanently own doesn’t really apply when DRM is in the equation.

This situation happens because Google’s video DRM requires an internet connection so that everytime you play back your purchased or rented movie it calls back to Google’s servers to check you have rights to play it back. Now that Google have disabled their DRM server there’s no way for your video files to be checked so basically your purchased video files become useless.

It’s true that Google are compensating people by giving vouchers for use with Google’s Checkout payment system, there may also be the possibility of an actual refund, but many people are unhappy about the fact that their purchases will no longer play and that there is nothing they can do about it. At least nothing legal anyway, it’s not difficult to see why users having made purchases through this system and having their fingers burned might just decide to get it by some illegal means instead.

"Why is Hollywood more important than users?"

Back in February 2006 BoingBoing.net published an article called "Google Video DRM: Why is Hollywood more important than users?", in it the risks of Google’s then newly launched video store was described and how it was a real break in tradition for Google who have always tended to put the interests of the user first. In the article the author, Cory Doctorow, asked:

The question is, why has Google done this? There’s no Google customer who woke up this morning looking for a way to do less with her video. There’s no Google customer who lacked access to this video if he wanted it (here’s a tip: enter the name of a show or movie into Google and add the word "torrent" to the search, and within seconds Google will have delivered to you a link through which you can download practically everything in the Google DRM catalog, for free, without DRM.

The article proposed the unlikely event that if Google went bust that the DRM system would stop working, although the situation is far from that they did foresee what would happen if Google closed it’s video store doors.

Maybe Google gets it after all?

Reading the previously mentioned Boing Boing article gives you the strong impression of how ill-received the Google video store was by fans of Google. But I wonder if dropping the Google video store, despite being disappointing and frustrating for many, is actually a blessing in disguise? Given the dangers of DRM systems perhaps Google just needed to drop this venture and move on to what they are really focused on and put it in the past? The closure is a bit of a harsh move but if they’re going to stop perpetuating the DRM juggernaut then they might as well do it swiftly.

There’s obviously growing competition between the likes of Google and Microsoft. Whereas Microsoft has put itself whole-heartedly behind the DRM / Proprietary software juggernaut, Google on the other hand has focused on embracing Open Source software through things like Google Apps and Google Pack software downloads. Perhaps the Google store closure just highlights the difference in mindset between Google and Microsoft? Maybe they are not turning so evil as some people have accused them of becoming?

Cory Doctorow finished off his article on Boing Boing by saying:

There’s no way Google can win the DRM wars. The end-game for the entertainment companies is to use the sweet lure of content to turn Google from an unmanageable giant into a biddable servant, dependent on long-term good relations with its licensors to preserve its customers’ investment in its video.

The only way Google can win this game is not to play at all. The only way Google can win is to return to its customer-comes-first ethic and refuse any business-arrangement that subverts its customers’ interests to serve some other industry’s wishes.

I think he nailed it good and proper.