By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 12:20 am
Having begun my day by sniping at the New York Times, I wanted to end it by complimenting it: The company released version 2.0 of its Times Reader application today. The new version–which dumps Microsoft’s Silverlight platform for Adobe’s AIR–runs on Windows, OS X, and Linux, and in many ways it’s an impressive piece of work.
The basic idea remains the same. Reader is a piece of software optimized for one task: Reading the New York Times. It downloads fresh content silently in the background every five minutes (which, unlike NYTimes.com, remains available even if you’re disconnected). The typography is beautiful, and beautifully Times-like; everything’s divided into newspaper-like section; there’s some use of video, as well as lots of photoraphs; and there’s an interactive crossword. You can search, rummage through sections, read each story one by one, or use a Browse feature that looks a bit like a less visually splendiferous version of Apple’s Cover Flow.
You don’t have to hit the Web to read each story, so content loads briskly, and pages lack the NASCAR-like clutter of ads and gegaws all over the place. (There are some ads, but they don’t overwhelm the experience.) If you want to read an electronic version of the Times when Internet access is unavailable or unreliable, this is the way to go, and I could certainly imagine folks preferring it to the Times Web site even if bandwidth is plentiful.
In short, Times Reader 2.0 does a terrific job of accomplishing what it sets out to do: create an experience that feels like it’s somewhere between a paper newspaper and the Web. The Times is asking $3.45 a week for the paper in this format–it’s free if you subscribe to the dead-tree incarnation–and on a theoretical, abstract plane it’s a perfectly reasonable sum to pay. (Which doesn’t mean that enough people will do so in an an era when the Internet conditions us all to assume that any content that’s digital should be gratis; some stories, including the front page ones, are readable even if you don’t subscribe.)
But as good as Times Reader is, I wonder if it’s ultimately a dead end. It’s the very definition of a walled garden–an application that provides access to one and only one information source. (Article do have hyperlinks to other sources, but when you click on them, Times Reader launches your Web browser.) You don’t even get all of the Times in its online glory–David Pogue’s weekly State of the Art column is present, for instance, but not his Pogue’s Posts blog, with its higher frequency and reader comments. I like the Reader, but if the Times could bring some of its design philosophy to its Web site–and maybe use something like Google Gears to enable offline reading–I’d be even more enthusiastic.
Or here’s an idea I can’t imagine the Times embracing, though it’s surely come up as a pie-in-the-sky notion: What if it licensed the Reader technology to any newspaper that wanted to use it? If Times Reader turned into Times, Post, Tribune, Herald, and Chronicle Reader, it wouldn’t feel quite so much like a proprietary island with little connecting it to the rest of the world.
Side note: The Times also makes itself available as a free iPhone app that feels a bit like a shrunken version of Times Reader. It, too, is a class act–although I’d love it even more if it could download the whole day’s paper for offline reading. (It does cache individual articles once you’ve tappd on them.)
After the jump, some images from Times Reader 2.0. Pretty, no?