Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Control

To celebrate their fifth anniversary, the Verge is publishing several interviews with key members of their staff, culminating in a redesign set to launch November 1. The first of those interviews was published today, with “engagement editor” Helen Havlak, who’s basically in charge of getting as many Verge readers as possible.

Nilay Patel, who conducted the interview, thought he’d help out by tossing in a particularly inflammatory statement, because there are no better readers than baited readers:

It was a good run, open web! So sorry that Apple killed you by turning Safari into the new IE and forbidding alternative browsers to innovate on iOS.

Not this shit again.

Since Patel left this hanging in the air with no supporting context, I assume he’s referring to Nolan Lawson’s whining and moaning about Safari’s then-lacklustre IndexedDB support. No matter how valid Lawson’s point may have been, to compare Safari to Internet Explorer is laughable at best.

But IndexedDB doesn’t really apply to a news site like the Verge. In fact, I can’t think of any features or APIs missing from Safari that will help the Verge deliver largely text-based articles. Even Lawson admits that the features he’s looking for in Safari are mostly there for web-based applications. A news site doesn’t — and, arguably, shouldn’t — need the same level of resources as Google Docs.

So what’s the solution that the Verge has come up with to enhance the way they deliver pages to mobile visitors?

“AMP is coming to eat our mobile page views,” says Helen, “But AMP loads super, super quickly and is simply a better experience right now. So can we add enough design to make an AMP page feel like The Verge? […]”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but first, a quick refresher on AMP. The Accelerated Mobile Pages project is an open-source fork of HTML, largely controlled and maintained by Google, that uses a master JavaScript file to control the prefetching and lazy loading of resources, and predetermine page layouts to speed up the load time of a page. It also disallows most JavaScript, requiring only scripts loaded asynchronously from certain components provided by AMP, and form elements aren’t available on AMP pages.

In theory, this is something I’d like: webpages stripped back to just the core elements, with as little JavaScript as possible. But, as I wrote earlier this year, I have significant concerns about the forking of HTML to a version that, while open-source, is largely built and controlled by one of the largest and most influential companies on the web.

In just two sentences, though, Havlak effectively admitted that the Verge’s mobile web experience is far worse than AMP’s. Why would that be? Well, it could be something to do with the typical weight of a Verge article: this article is about 1,200 words and includes just one visual of substance, yet it downloaded over 12 MB of stuff, most of it in the form of 56 different scripts, a bunch of ads, and a 2.6 MB decorative GIF at the top. This is not atypical — Google reportedly uses the Verge as part of a series of automated performance tests for Android.

The message here is simple: AMP may provide a better reading experience right now, but Patel and Havlak have control over that. They can improve the way that the Verge loads by removing third-party scripts and comments, just like AMP does. They can make the choice to include a small JPEG at the top, if they want to decorate their articles, instead of a large animated GIF. They can choose to reduce the number of different analytics scripts on any given page. All of these options are available for them to improve the reading experience of a typical Verge article while retaining the building blocks of the open web, as Patel so clearly would prefer:

You could also make a fine wine out of the tears I weep each night as the open web dies anew, but that’s neither here nor there.

Instead, they’ve chosen to embrace AMP, a technology that fractures the web. Why?

Our search traffic largely comes from Google, which already serves our AMP pages in Google News. Google is also switching mobile search results to AMP links, and that means almost all of our search visitors will see AMP pages instead of the mobile web.

In short: revenue.

To a certain extent, that’s fair. The Verge is a business and, like most others, they’re going to continue to try to expand in as many ways and generate as much money as they can.

But the Verge isn’t just adding support for AMP. They’re going all-in on it (emphasis mine):

So if we aren’t going to deliver The Verge on the mobile web, what do we have to figure out in order to deliver our brand to the digital audiences of the future?

It sounds like they’re making a conscious choice to skip most typical optimizations for the open mobile web, instead embracing platform-specific distribution to Facebook, Google, Apple News, and the desktop web. More than that, it sounds to me like Patel will stand up for “open” and “free” until it impacts business. Remember when he published that diatribe against the headphone jack-less iPhone 7 prior to its announcement?

Restricting audio output to a purely digital connection means that music publishers and streaming companies can start to insist on digital copyright enforcement mechanisms. We moved our video systems to HDMI and got HDCP, remember? Copyright enforcement technology never stops piracy and always hurts the people who most rely on legal fair use, but you can bet the music industry is going to start cracking down on “unauthorized” playback and recording devices anyway.

The message here is simple: the headphone jack was free and open, while digital audio has the potential for being closed and proprietary. It becomes dependent on the whims and business models of providers, labels, and technology companies.

The Verge has shifted their business model, too. Instead of relying upon traffic from third-party sources, they’re now entirely reliant upon third-party platforms. That seems pretty risky to me. What if, for instance, the Verge pursued a new initiative that was largely dependent on Facebook and, in particular, Facebook Video? And then what if, say, Facebook inflated the success of your video venture by 60–80%? That would make you re-think your strategy, no?

And here’s the trend: almost all of our growth is in video, particularly Facebook video. In particular, look at those Circuit Breaker numbers — most of the content posted to the Circuit Breaker Facebook page never makes it to The Verge’s website, but it’s still way out ahead of YouTube and our custom player, all of which get boosted when we embed them on article pages on the web.

Anyway, back to this article about the headphone jack. Point number six on the list:

No one is asking for this

Raise your hand if the thing you wanted most from your next phone was either fewer ports or more dongles.

I didn’t think so. You wanted better battery life, didn’t you? Everyone just wants better battery life.

Raise your hand if the thing you wanted from a website was more tracking, more ads, and greater consumption of your allotted mobile data or using a third-party platform to access the site through a proprietary language.

I didn’t think so.

We’re so out of ideas that actively making [phones] shittier and more user-hostile is the only innovation left.

Replace “phones” with “websites” and it kinda holds true, doesn’t it?