“TimesReader”: Microsofts digital newspaper proposition?

The hype

On Friday afternoon at the closing session of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) conference Bill Gates unveiled a “new” piece of software intruducing the software by saying:

Today we have two worlds that are limiting in their own way,

They are print and the Web. The Web surprisingly is not taking
advantage of its environment.

It looks like this software still doesn’t have a name, but is called “Times
Reader” in a version being developed with “The New York Times”.

The software was then shown off on a TabletPC by Tom Bodkin, assistant managing editor and design director at The New York Times, i.e. saying:

One of the things I find most appealing about the format, is that it
offers a variety of ways to read the content that closely mirrors how
people read the paper content, …

As a reader I find it natural and effortless, as a designer the
application gives me a tool to create a product with a clear visual
identity, …
I’ve become a total convert.

That’s in essence what you can read in the media and what i fear newspaper editors will believe is true. So if this piece of software is microsofts view of the future of digital newspapers one should definitely have a closer look at it.

A closer “look”

Unfortunately this is not possible right now. At least i could find neither screenshot of the software nor a video of the presentation.

Luckily the ASNE provides an audio file of the presentation so that one can hear it. (It gets interesting in the middle of the file. The first half is the usual Bill Gates looking into the chrystal ball predicting the future.)

After hearing through it, in summary, “TimesReader” sounds looks a lot like a version of”Microsoft Codename Max News” specially tailored to newspaper publishers to me:

  • Like “Max News” it is build on top of “Windows Presentation Foundation” and attempts to give the same experience as reading the
    print copy of the newspaper.
    This includes replacing the bottomless Web design with full-sized
    screens that can be paged through.
  • Like “Max News” the software is free and will be available on Vista.
  • Like “Max News” it is based on a closed content model, meaning that it is not possible for the end-user to change the configuration. Instead the newspapers
    will decide the extent to which they will
    use the program including the option tho download the whole edition.

Combining what i’ve heard and what i’ve seen from “Max News” i think i’m well prepared to give some comments.

Mimicking print layout on a computer screen in order to engage readers?

In the talk a lot was said about giving the reader the best reading experience on the computer, about engaging the reader. I definitely support that idea. But I strongly oppose the idea that mimicking the page based layout of a newspaper will just do that. Legions of webdesigners have fought against this very idea, not only because of browser restrictions but of factors that inherent to the physical device computer as we know it today. There are a couple of reasons I’m reiterating from time to time. So here we go again:

  • Firstly, there are major physical differences between the pysical devices “newspaper” and “computer”. The most important one in this case being weight. A computer, even a TabletPC as used in the talk is a lot heavier than a newspaper or a magazine. Even the newly announced Ultra-Mobile PCs weight approximately one kilogram. Back in 1999 / 2000 i was one of the few who could test the very first Rocket eBook. This eBook had a terrible display but it was not the main reason i gave it a thumbs down. Even if weighting just around 600 grams it was too heavy for long-time reading.The other major physical difference is the resolution of the display, usually somewhere between 72dpi and 96dpi as opposed to an at least 200dpi resolution on print.Unless convincing, eInk-based devices hit the market i don’t think the pyhsical differences will disappear. And anything above a couple of hundred grams (e.g. the weight of a magazine) will definitely result in different behavior while reading. E.g putting the reading device on the table rather than holding it in front of oneself. And as long as this differences exist, i can’t see that mimicking a layout that is optimized for other physical reading devices should also be the optimal one for computers or other electronic devices.
  • Secondly, current Newspaper layout has to take into account that there are constraints imposed on the physical ressources such the number of the pages of the paper. This restriction does not exist in electronic media, so why mimick it? Why simulate flippling through pages (and you have tho simulate it as long as you don’t have the physicaldevices) when instead you can scroll or click on a hyperlink?
  • Thirdly, another contraint on the physical newspaper device makes optimization of the layout easier, the actual size, and more important, the aspect ratio of the page is fixed for all reader.This is not the case for computer screens. Wheras a long time computer screens have been fixed to a 4:3 aspect ratio (with various resolutions), nowadays a plethora of aspect ratios more or less in the range from 16:9 to 4:3 is available. If you take into account that in more and more cases you can choose between landscape and portrait orientation of the screen, (especially with TabletPCs it’s up to the individual user). Hence a designer can’t optimize the layout for a single aspect ratio without causing some greater part of the readership to scroll. So if scrolling is unavoidable, why not incorporate it into the design?

Microsoft “Innovations”?

Taking all these factors aside, there is the big question what is so new about this new software.

If a newspaper wants to publish it’s printed version on the net, there is already Adobe Acrobat Reader. It is perfectly suited for this task but not used by newspaper for this purpose. newspaper might use PDF files for delivering the newspaper to their printing centers, but they do not use it for delivering the whole newspaper to their readers.

Instead, most e-paper solutions employed by newspapers use Adobe Acrobat only for the exact redering of single pages or single articles. They do this not because of technical problems but only because of business considerations and fear of misuse of the Pdfs by their readers.

In contrast to Microsofts proposition, Acrobat is cross plattform and thoroughly tested, so why use “TimesReader”?

Another Innovation that BG toutes as part of “TimesReader” is the ability to scale fonts and the pages smoothly to the screen size. Apple has incorporated this functionality into its Mac OS X core 5 years ago with DisplayPostscript. Microsoft is more or less reimplementing it with WPF.

For comparison just look at Firefox on OSX and on Windows XP.

BG: The Web surprisingly is not taking
advantage of its environment.

But what really got me while hearing the presentation was the rationale given by Bill Gates why “the web is surprisingly not taking advantage of its environment”.

He really has the chuzpe to attribute it to intrinsic restrictions of the browsers, saying:

Instead it was basically microsofts own fault by not implementing CSS in a decent way. CSS2 is definitely up to most of the tasks as one can see with Firefox.
Webdesigners hell are the IE 5 and 6 incompatabilities and the only way to cope with that is the least common denominator approach Gates critizises.