Two steps backward

Microsoft is offering a means to read newspapers designed as newspapers on computers. Why? There are other methods of doing this now and I find them all not only awkward and unsatisfying but wrongheaded. Why not design the next frontier for the sharing of news that takes advantage of all the new opportunities technology permits — linking, conversation, multimedia, search, selectivity, depth, currency? Oh, yeah, it was already invented. It’s the web. The only reasons to do this are to feed editorial ego, to think you’re maintaining editorial control, to try to dupe advertisers into thinking this the same as putting an ad in print, and to grasp desperately onto a past that is disappearing. (Full disclosure: The Times is Microsoft’s first user; I consult for the company at

  • Geez, who would have thunk it? Two quickly becoming irrelevant products (Times: dead tree edition; Vista: whose clock Steve Jobs, with OS X, has already cleaned, before Vista even has been released (cross yer fingers, Gates, because Cupertino has you square in its sights and Apple’s hardware runs your current stuff as well as any Dell)) teaming up to try and save their flagging flagships.

    I agree about how lame Zinio is as a delivery system; I took one look at it and wiped it off all my hard drives where it had ingratiated itself.

    I know your only a consultant in Pinch’s maelstrom, Jeff, but isn’t there some way you can arrange to get close enough to the idiot behind this fandango, grab him by the lapels, and smack some sense into his head?

  • Mumblix Grumph

    I second TC’s suggestion about slapping Pinchy…but I’d do it just on general principles.

  • I think the operative term here is “publisher-centric.” Digital editions of print publications serve exclusively the publisher’s business interests and create no value whatsoever for readers — any suggestion otherwise on the part of publishers using such editions is completely disingenuous.

  • Microsoft’s goal is clearly stated in the Times article, “The software would allow The Times to replicate its look — fonts, typeface and layout — more closely than its Web site now does.” This question of controlling the layout and fonts has been fundamental for a lot of publishers whose brand is strongly supported by the look of the publication in print. If Microsoft’s reader does what the browser does and allows better control over layout for the publishers, it will be an improvement over how content can be displayed in the browser today. However, if the new reader technology is as static as Jeff seems to suggest, then it won’t be very useful. The vendors already in this space, Zinio and Newsstand, do a great job of replicating the print, but do not offer the interactivity of the browser.

    I wonder if a demo is available. I would love to see it in action before coming to any conclusions.

    The other underlying story here is Microsoft’s continuiing focus on font technology and a better reading experience. These are key features of Vista as I understand it and do have a potential impact on all kinds of electronic publishing.

  • Way back when I used to run DOS6.0 and Win3.11 I found my computer worked ok. At that time Microsoft was working on its latest thing. This turned out to be very mediocre. However, it came with a very expensive advertising campaign which succeeded in brainwashing the public to accept second best and be satisfied with whatever garbage was fed to us, whether it was ground breaking or just plain useless, and if it didn’t work properly, just hit it with an upgrade every couple of days. This flowed over into other areas pertaining to computers. As long as it made money, the quality didn’t really count. The excuse. We are working on the ultimate.

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  • I’m left speechless.

  • 60 and counting:
    I’m a Mac guy that had no choice but to interact with Windows, but the only thing I used to grant Microsoft any leeway before just thowing them off was the fact that i could always dip into DOS and fix their whacked out shi*.

    Once they cut me off from that, they lost me. they weren’t “evil,” they were plain dumb.

  • Bill Trippie:
    Hasn’t Apple already kinda dealt with the font tech stuff? I mean, that is SO NeXT…

  • Sherry G.

    I have been reading my local newspaper online for years. I can select the stories I want and skim through it quickly. I agree with you that the problem is not getting the information; it is making it useful in today’s (and tomorrow’s) environment. I find it most frustrating to see a URL in an article but I am not able to click and follow it.

  • Hasn’t the NY Times tried this before? Didn’t they invest in a company called Newsstand that did something similar? I’m sure I wasn’t imagining it:

  • With journalists you need to remember you’re dealing with a group possessing the instituional memory of a gnat with advanced Alzheimers. We’re talking about a bunch who’d think the discovery of fire was front page news.

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  • Kevin

    The whole point of this reader and this application is not to look back -but forward. The application is about all harnessing all of the benefits of the Web today (URL deployment, connectivity, interactivity, dynamic content, etc) while taking content presentation and readability to the next level (sophisticated layouts, pagination, readable column, hyphenation, clear type, optimal paragraph, rich annotations, embedded fonts, etc etc). And, in one implementation, the reader can be installed on the system to provide offline capability. The content isn’t static – just smarter about caching. When connected, new content flows in.

    This is good for readers, publishers and advertisers. Readers get a great reading experience with rich content, mobile and offline. Publishers can actually bring their design expertise to the Web medium and, unlike the fixed document displays of today (think Zinio or PDF), this new reader will adapt to whatever display it’s running on. Advertisers get much richer and better integrated ad placement opportunties (the sophisticated layout makes this possible).
    Wait for the beta and judge for yourselves.

  • If you think the point of this is solely look and feel, you’re not paying attention. The Times is busy putting pay-walls on its material, and one of Microsoft’s major aims is to help its “content partners” lock everything up behind DRM (digital restrictions management) technology.

    This is about control — over the customers — at least as much as doing them any favors. Before endorsing this, we need to ask a a few questions.

  • Dan Gillmor makes some good points–and asks some good questions in his related post–which are at least partly in response to me, I think. I did discuss the eReader aspects of font and layout and left the control issues aside. Clearly Microsoft is in the DRM business as well, and publishers will be very interested in this. And clearly too, in response to [email protected], some of this is old news for Macintosh enthusiasts (and I love the NeXT reference! I haven’t heard that in ages!). Indeed, Windows is finally doing some publishing things now that I could do on my Macintosh Plus 18 years ago, though my memory tells me my Mac was more reliable…

    But I think that Vista having more capabilities for publishing is, on the whole, a good thing, given that Windows is so dominant, and I look forward to finding out specifically what publishers of all kinds can do with it. Some of the more complex typesetting and pagination needs–mathematics, chemistry, mixed character sets–are still difficult to bring to the browser, so there is potential for a much richer set of products outside of print and PDF. (And, yes, I know there are various solutions out there, but often they are not an automatic or direct fit with the workflow of a publisher who needs to produce both print and output to multiple browsers, for example.)

    And great catch by Rex Hammock in noting that eReader technology company Newstand, which I mentioned, had some earlier investment from the Times. This is more proof that technologies that start as separate applications often find their way to the operating system–especially when Microsoft has a broader interest in the target market. It suggests too that the Times is finding a number of ways to hedge its bet in which way electronic publishing will break.

  • Jeff, good job – on point. The timeliness of a January launch will hardly satisfy the RSS hungry internet crowd who obviously want content on a “now” basis in their own comfortable format. Sounds as if Bill’s team is late to the game but still interested in setting industry standards and managing the playing field.

    Take a look at how the Atlanta Journal Constitution is handling Web 2.0. Their MyAJC approach appears to be providing the benefits of modern newspaper content delivered in personalized form. Theirs is true interactive media only it is available today. Why wait?

  • Kevin

    This has nothing to do with Microsoft’s DRM technology. And this is many orders of magnitude better than Newsstand’s technology (which is based on static, fixed documents – PDF). Look, pretend it’s the browser except the content is rendered in a sophisticated layout that not only accomplishes a better reading experience but makes better ads as well. The content is just as dynamic as a web page – more so since there’s no refresh required. A web service tells the app when new content is available and it just comes in (when connected).

    The exact business model is up to the content publisher because Microsoft is just providing the building blocks (windows presentation framework and associated apis). But since ads are better in this model and can work offline, Web advertising works just fine. Some users (and publishers) may find they’d rather pay for content than see ads. Some users (and publishers) may find they like the ads as much as the content (indeed, the ads are part of the content). It just depends. You’ve never really seen something like this before. It never existed on the Mac, Adobe never did it with PDF, and no browser has ever had these capabilities. It’s something new (though everything in this world builds off of prior art).

  • Prospero

    It’s new but not that big a deal. I saw the demo. Nice, flash, a little easier to read. But not what young news consumers will be looking for.

    Just another attempt by publishers to hang on to their dwindling empires.

  • Kevin

    I can understand that point of view given that you saw a couple minutes of a stage demo. It’s hard to grasp usability, readability and rich design from a seat 50 feet away. And you didn’t see video, blogs, search, p2p sharing, etc. All of this will be there. Stay tuned and give the beta a try when it comes out in a few weeks.

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  • What seems to be ignored here is that this is an off-line technology — people don’t have to be tethered to the web to use it. Blather on about the ubiquity of WiFi, WIMAX, EVDO, etc., but until it’s as easy as plugging a power cord into an electrical outlet, there is a need, however small, for such products. Another area overlooked by your posters is for distribution in areas where the physical product can’t affordable reach. International manufacturing distribution, for instance, is insanely expensive. If I have readers who are willing to pay for my content outside the US, why wouldn’t I want to perfect a distribution vehicle. I know the retort is that “content wants to be free,” “let your on-line advertisers subsidize it,” yada yada, but as long as The Times newsroom consumes more $$$ than the entire revenue (not profit) stream of NYTDigital, those pesky paying readers are a consideration.

  • Mr. Sulzberger said the software combined the portability of the print paper with the immediacy of the Internet. Readers can in effect turn the page electronically. There is also a gauge that tells them how much of the paper they have read and how much more is left.


    AHA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!1!11!!!!

    Oh my. Oh my my. Thank you for the gut laugh. It has been such a long time since I’ve had that sort of laugh.

  • BC

    Am I the only person left that remembers “push”?

  • T.

    Simple truth: most people don’t want to do that much reading on their screen, especially given the excessively pretentious length of NY Times articles. Most people I know would rather just print up an article from the Internet to read it once it gets past a certain length. Coming up with new ways to read books and articles online is a waste, in my opinion.

    Johnny Triangles

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  • Thor

    It’s not about looking like a replica of the newspaper. It’s about bringing the quality of design and readability to the digital screen. HTML was not designed with usability or variable display sizes /resolutions in mind. This technology addresses those issues. It’s not about bringing an exact replica of the newspaper (or any publication) to the screen. It’s about content, quality, design, branding. You could read the news in ’93 just fine over the early internet. But graphical user interface elements and hypertext made a huge impact on the usability of the technology.

  • I spent three days at the Allen Press Emerging Trends event at the National Press Club: One day getting there, one in attendance and one getting back home.

    EVERYONE there is a publisher in the science, technical, medical market. Know what’s on their mind? RELEVANCE! (Distribution, Postage and composition run close a distant seconds and thirds).

    Every single one of them is concerned that the ‘next big’ thing is going to eat their lunch. A nibble at a time, one big gulp? Doesn’t matter. They’re skeered. Big time!

    Now there was one really fine shining example of leadership in the space and that’s Nature Publishing Group. They’re rocking and rolling. They’re trying some of the predictable stuff (podcasting, rss, email alerts, blah, blah, blah). They’re blazing some interesting new trails Tim O’Reilly wrote about last week.

    More importantly… they’re NOT worried about the friggin look of their typeface! They’re not worried about much of anything except AWESOME content: RELEVANCE!

    They “get it” in aces. And, I’m not so sure that the ‘next big thing’ in publishing isn’t just having great content and letting the market decide if it’s what they want to digest (regardless of if it’s audible, visual or 18 pt Stone Serif).

  • Jeff

    Gerald, you sound like an ignorant fool. If noone is worried about their ‘typefaces’ then why does every newspaper in the country have a ‘design dept.’? You seem to forget that if it wasn’t for some form of brandintypography, branding and design people wouldn’t be able to read the content.

    You sound like a caveman. Idiot.

  • Love the dialogue, guys!

    As a digital publisher of mainly b-to-b publications, we’re excited about the attention this announcement has generated for the medium. As Kevin implies, the finished product could very well impress us more than we think, but we still wonder if this will do anything to improve Microsoft’s slow adoption rate. (More comments about this on our own blog at )

  • Robbie Robbertson

    Jeff Jarvis,

    You really are clueless. You haute and taute around the web like you represent the entire blogosphere. Why don’t you try exploring a new product before you go around berating it. You must be one of the most close minded and egotestical bloggers I know. Now that’s tough to pull off.

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  • To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, ‘When your only tool is a hammer, hammer at every competing tool.’ You’re a Web guy, Jeff, and you vitrolically wield your hammer. Smash anything that might not be the Web! Smash it!

    Sure, there’s nothing new in the NYT/Microsoft announcement. Zinio, Newsstand, and other vendors of so-called ‘digital edition’ have offered the same functionalities for years. The only notable things about the announcement are that Microsoft is building the capability into Vista, that the NYT digital edition might be pre-packaged into that operating system, and that Microsoft will be offering a SDK to let other publishers utilize the functionality. (If I were Newsstand and Zinio, I’d now be terrified.)

    Sure, the new Microsoft version of this has woeful functionality. FFF (a technical term meaning: Flat f*ck*ng file). Microsoft Reader, many years after its launch, still doesn’t offer the interactivity of pre-mosaic LINX. And though Adobe Acrobat has been embedded hyperlinks, streaming media, and other capabilities since 2000, hardly any publisher worldwide bothers to use those capabilities (which is mainly because most ‘digital editions’ are still being produced by pre-press departments. The new-media departments, who have the knowledge to properly use those capabilities, disdain use of anything but the Web.)

    Look, the issue here isn’t whether a vehicle with all those capabilities has already been invented (you say, “It’s the web.”). The real issues here are:

    (1) Newsprint and the Web each have advantages and disadvantages. A new vehicle needs to be built that has the advantages of both but none of each’s disadvantages. Newsprint isn’t interactive (nor, again as I mentioned, are the ‘digital editions’ of Zino, Newsstand, or this new Microsoft Reader version) but it does offers a much, much more pleasing layout and graphical capabilities than a VDT with HTML or Flash can and it can be automatically deliver as an entire package — as opposed to a user having to iteratively download each Webpage, etc. (I can name other advantages of print over the Web, but I’ll omit them to shorten this comment.) If a way can be developed to add the Web’s advantages to newsprint’s advantages, we all should be for it.

    When Spielberg, during pre-production of ‘Minority Report’, asked the MIT Media Lab to conceive what news media (note that I didn’t say newspapers) people would use in 2050, the result was the fully interactive e-paper you see in that movie. It combines the full capabilities of the Web and print but without those substrates’ respective disadvantages.

    (2) The Web publishing business model for newspapers obviously isn’t working. The data is apparent and I’m not the only expert point it out. Ten years into it, their websites are making 1/20th to 1/100th the revenues of print. Moreover, fewer people are using the Web editions, and less often and less thoroughly, than use the newsprint editions. Anyone who says that newspapers must stick with the Web as the solution for the future is dooming newspapers in the future.

    It must be fun to say that, “The only reasons to do this [digital editions] are to feed editorial ego, to think you’re maintaining editorial control, to try to dupe advertisers into thinking this the same as putting an ad in print, and to grasp desperately onto a past that is disappearing,” but that is polemical bunk, pure cant, and either disregards or overlooks the two points I make above, plus other evidence. It doesn’t stand up to examination. Publishers aren’t obsessed with control; they’re obsessed with saving their business [and revenues and profits] into the future.

    Ditto the bunkum in Dan’s inference that it’s a plot by the Times to lock-up everything behind DRM. If that were true, the Times would have locked up behind DRM years ago.

    I respect Scott Karp’s opinions, but my eyes are so tired today from trying to read news Websites that I can’t understand why he thinks the eventual creation of a portable, more easily read, intact package of news would “create no value whatsoever for readers — any suggestion otherwise on the part of publishers using such editions is completely disingenuous.” Disingenuous my pulp.

    Again, I think the current ‘digital editions’ from Newsstand, Zino, and others stink. But to use those today to dismiss the future of digital edition efforts reminds me of the publishing executive at the Houston Chronicle who looked at the poor capabilities of the Web in 1993 and told me she would stick with Prodigy because that had better interactivity and graphical capabilities and was used by 1,000 times as many people in her market. No, I think the MIT Media Lab will be right.

    [BTW, Jeff, I spotted you in the NYTimes conf room Friday but didn’t get a chance to say hello. I hope your tickers’ feeling better. — Vin]

  • Nathan T

    Vin, very valid points. I have to agree with what you said. I’ve tried to read a 6,000 word story online and it’s not fun. I, like 90% of readers print it out and take it with me. This new application seems like it may tighten that bridge.

    I’m going to take what most of the writers (jeff included) said with a grain of salt… they are the same people that go around saying that blogs are taking over the MSM—these are the people that seem to forget that 95% of blog content is linked to an MSM site (or print edition).

    Maybe the new Times Reader is the new answer of the future, maybe it isn’t, but I think something along these lines definately is.

  • DT

    One valuable purpose of digital newspaper and magazine editions that tends to be ignored–perhaps because of the small audience–is the ability for those living outside their home countries to easily access their favorite publications.

    As a Canadian living in Brazil, I’ve used Newsstand, Zinio, Pressdisplay and other services to download papers and magazines. I agree that these services can at times be awkward, but I still enjoy the ability to download my favorite North American newspapers for morning reading. At times Internet service here can be erratic, so downloading an entire publication before reading can be beneficial.

    Having said that, I have finally been convinced by the New York Times’ web redesign to give up my paid Newsstand subscription. I like the feel of the new site. Whether it will more than make up for that “newspaper feel” of downloadable publications remains to be seen.

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  • I think this has more to do with market research than eidtorial control. Telephone marketing, street interviews, website surveys all do certain jobs that are essential to mainstream corporate business but they do something else as well which is to take a whole raft of results and compartmentalise that data. The market research people tell institutions they’ll find out waht users want. They ask How could we improve the New York Times online? The answer Make it more like the New York Times paper edition that’s sp easy to pick up and flick through I can just thumb through it or dip in and out as I please. Then that’s what the publishers ask for. the trouble is the people are answering the worng question with the wrong answer. What they mean is Make it streamlined use the latest technolgy so I can utilis it in my way rather than adapting to a new way of thinking. I think this has more to do with market research than eidtorial control. Telephone marketing, street interviews, website surveys all do certain jobs that are essential to mainstream corporate business but they do something else as well which is to take a whole raft of results and compartmentalise that data. The market research people tell institutions they’ll find out what users want. They ask How could we improve the New York Times online? The answer? Make it more like the New York Times paper edition that’s so easy to pick up and flick through I can just thumb through it or dip in and out as I please. Then that’s what the publishers ask for. The trouble is the people are answering the worng question with the wrong answer. What they mean is; Make it streamlined use the latest technolgy so I can utilise it in my way rather than adapting to a new way of thinking. The reason people ask for online publications to be more like paper publications is because it’s something they understand. Once you’ve learnt to read that’s all you need you’re away, couldn’t be simpler. The web has ‘yet’ to become that simple. To be fair to the organisations that put their heart and soul in to valid customer research you’ve got to understand that the people they end up getting results from are the people who were too dumb to cross the road when they saw someone with a clipboard on the street ahead of them or who thought they really were the millionth visitor to that website that day and had won a prize or said ‘yes I’ve a few minutes to spare’ to a cold caller. The web will out because it’s the best delivery platform but only until something better comes along.

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