Man reading on phone

Google Chrome finally kind of includes a Reading Mode but only on Android

I’ve said it many times in many ways: Google won’t add a Reading Mode to their Chrome web browser because they’re primarily an advertising company, and people don’t see ads and distractions in Reading Mode. The Chrome 65 for Android release shows I was partially wrong.

Reading Mode takes the main text of a webpage and presents it in a uniform style while hiding everything else on the page. Users can also set their own preferred font, text sizes, and colors that will be applied to all texts on all websites when reading mode is used.

The feature started out as a bookmarklet (a primitive type of browser extension) and has since moved into Safari, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge. Safari and Firefox have built on the open-source Readability.js codebase from the original bookmarklet while Edge did its own separate implementation. Chrome have had something in development for about three years without actually shipping it in their browser. To quote myself from :

“Google — a giant in the advertisement industry — has a huge conflict of interest when it come to allowing their users to hide their own advertisement. Never the less, they have an experimental reader mode called “page distiller” available in Chrome 44.”

― Daniel Aleksandersen, The many URI schemas used by the browsers’ “Reader Views”

Chrome 65 for Android finally shipped their page distiller as a feature. However, there is no mention of a reading mode or distraction-free reading in the Chrome 65 release announcement. What Chrome shipped instead of a reading mode was a new accessibility feature called Simplified view.

When the feature is enabled, users will be prompted to switch to a Simplified view on supported webpages (any page that can be parsed by the DOM Distiller) using an Android “snackbar” notification at the bottom of the screen. The notification is more intrusive than the out-of-the-way Reading Mode toolbar buttons we’re used to from other mobile and desktop web browsers.

“Show Simplified view” snackbar in Chrome on Android

“Show simplified view” notification snackbar

Simplified view, like any Reading Mode, is indeed an accessibility feature. The name Simplified view seems to have been chosen to sound unappealing to users who don’t need a simpler representation of pages. People who rely on screen readers and other accessive technologies will greatly benefit from this mode. However, the average user is less likely to enable something that sounds like you’re getting a lesser overall experience compared to something that sounds like you’ll be getting a better reading experience.

There are some issues with Simplified view still such as the security indicators being confused about the security level of the page your reading.

Details from the DOM Distiller project — the open source component that reduces pages down to their main content for Simplified view — clearly shows that the Chrome team originally wanted to ship a Reading Mode comparable to what was available in other browsers. I’ve not found any details outlining the reasons why the feature was never shipped in its originally envisioned form. However, Google’s conflict of interests as a huge player in the online advertisement space comes to mind.

I find it interesting that Google has decided to go against their own business interests and include a feature that hides web ads. Then again, Chrome did ship with a built-in and on-by-default selective ad-blocker in Chrome 64. I didn’t really expect that to happen either. Turns out, I probably wouldn’t be the best technology analyst.