A few years ago, I made a prediction about the way the web was going and so far it hasn't come true but it's definitely coming closer. To me it seems that the logical extension of us developers separating style and substance – what we've been doing for years with semantic mark-up – is for the general consumer to take that substance and give it their own style. I'm in no way suggesting that everyone become a designer. That would be a terrible, terrible thing. What I mean is that the consumer takes in/reads/experiences whatever it is you're giving to them in the manner that best suits them. There are many examples of what I mean around already but they're still not quite where I think they will end up.
We (web developers) already provide RSS feeds on our sites. By subscribing to a site's RSS feed, you get the content delivered directly to your RSS reader. As long as the site is providing the full article content (shame on you, if not) the consumer gets to see your content in a design format you have little control over. There is a basic level allowed for RSS formatting but nothing you can rely on. The control for the visual appearance of your content is now in the hands of the designer of the reader and the consumer (by way of choosing which reader they use).
This was what initially prompted my thoughts on the subject. I've used Opera as my main browser for almost 10 years and I've always liked the Author mode/User mode switch. In essence, you can quickly toggle between seeing a web page as it was intended by the designer or disregarding the original layout and applying your own stylesheets to it. For the most part, this is used to be able to set high contrast for visually impaired users or to test various criteria (showing only images that have missing alt attributes, for example) but they can be used to produce any visual effect achievable with CSS.
User stylesheets can also be assigned on a per-site basis rather than globally which means that you could have your Google results rendered in courier, right-aligned in green on black while your facebook pages can be set in Times in a sepia colourscheme.
As with many things on the web, userstyles became a lot more popular once this functionality was available in Firefox (via the add-on Stylish) and not just Opera. Now there's a growing community of Userstyle developers and a directory of styles. Unfortunately, this is still not quite ready for mainstream use. It requires at least a basic level of technical ability to enable userstyles and to install them.
Again, though, these are still just that little bit too hard. The standard user isn't going to install the extension, isn't going to browse for scripts and isn't going to run Opera so these are still a bit too far away.
Grab now, read later
There are now quite a few sites where you can save stuff to read later. If you find an interesting article or a funny blog post but don't have time to read it or if it appears on a site with a garish and unusable design, you can send it to Instapaper or Evernote . You can then read it in their interface, on your iPhone, on your Kindle... all separated from your design.
It's not only text that gets this treatment, you can use Ember and LittleSnapper to grab and store visuals for later perusal or use Huffduffer to collect any audio files you find and serve them back to you as your very own personalised podcast. Again, this is your content separated entirely from the way you wanted it seen. And that's a good thing.
For content creators, all this means is that your content can be consumed anywhere, even via sites, tools and delivery mechnisms you've never heard of. Designers, don't despair, users aren't suddenly going to take their content elsewhere and not need you any more – users still want and need things designed well, this just means that if your design works for the user for a particular type of content, they'll use it for any content of that type. I'd much rather watch youtube videos using vimeo's layout than youtube's. Actually, I'd much rather have vimeo's comments, too.
We're still quite a way off the average user being able to see whatever they want however they want it but these technologies and tools are definitely heading that way. I just wish I'd made a bet on it way back when.