Every time Salon.com (SALN) announced a redesign, Nic Wolff got excited. Finally, he hoped, the online magazine would do away with its messy graphics and streamline the site to what he really loved: the stories. But with each elaborate redesign, he was disappointed. So an impatient Wolff took it upon himself to do what Salon's staff couldn't seem to: make the site quick and easy to use.
In less than an hour, the 35-year-old New York Web developer wrote a program that strips out Salon's tables, ads and graphics and leaves just the raw text. Visitors to test.angel.net/nic/salon.cgi will find a "deboned" version of Salon that loads as fast as a brief e-mail message.
Wolff's program is one of a growing assortment of tools that let Web users satisfy their insatiable need for speed. While cable modems, DSL and T1 lines have sped things up, many sites are still overloaded with graphics, ads and animation that bogs down even the fastest connection. Using programs with subversive names like Leanweb and Sitescooper, or linking to the secret Web addresses of wireless news services, tech-savvy Web surfers are going retro - and getting their news fast, simple and ad-free.
The battle for an unencumbered Web dates back to October 1994 when HotWired.com introduced banner ads on its homepage. Programmer Axel Boldt returned fire with NoShit (later renamed WebFilter), a program that could strip the banner ads from any site. As ads have proliferated online, newer programs like Wolff's have become even more efficient at removing graphics.
Recently, the popular PDA news service AvantGo Inc. (AVGO) has become an unwitting ally of Internet speed demons. The company sets up no-frills Web pages for news sites (including TheStandard.com) for Palm Inc. (PALM) users - and likewise for maverick Web surfers who want to read a fast-loading version of, say, the Wall Street Journal or the Onion. While AvantGo specifies that its partners must block outside access to their bare-bones pages, many partners' Web sites, including the New York Times, don't comply with this requirement.
While only a few technically adept Netizens are privy to this trick, it's only a matter of time before it catches on. Jorn Barger proselytizes for the deboning movement - as it's sometimes called - on his popular Web log RobotWisdom.com. Barger, who provides a link to the deboned Salon on his site, says, "It's mind-boggling that supposedly Internet-savvy media sites slow their pages down with more than 100KB of dead weight."
This wave of renegade Web site customization is something Scott Rosenberg worries won't go away soon. As Salon's senior VP of editorial operations, Rosenberg knows about the stripped-down Salon but admits he's basically powerless to do anything: "The Web is an open platform. There's no way to technologically prevent it that I'm aware of."
But Rosenberg still wishes Wolff would leave well enough alone. "We have obviously built our own homepage a certain way based on some editorial choices and some business needs," Rosenberg protests. "And that's the way we'd like our readers to encounter it."
So, do these speed readers feel guilty? About as guilty as a TV junkie furiously clicking past the commercials. Jim Leftwich, a designer in Palo Alto, Calif., links to a stripped-down version of Wired News on his personal Web site and professes little sympathy for sites that slow his surfing: "It's simply a necessary evolutionary adaptation within the attention economy."