About six months ago, I canceled my New York Times subscription. It wasn't an act of protest, nor was I canceling because, like so many moderns, I don't have time to read a newspaper. I stopped my home delivery because I had discovered in the newspaper's redesigned Web site a product much superior to the newsprint Times.
Fickle bastard that I am, I've now abandoned the Web version for the New York Times Reader, a new computer edition that entered general beta release today and is currently free. The Times Reader succeeds—as no other software has—in cramming a daily newspaper into a computer and making it 1) readable and 2) navigable. And if you're lucky enough to have once had an employer with deep pockets who bought you a $2,000 Tablet PC, the Times Reader is as portable as the paper version.
Times Reader shouldn't be confused with the Times Electronic Edition, that admirable failure that accurately bills itself as an "exact digital replica" of the newsprint Times, or any of the other static PDF-ish treatments newspapers and magazines have experimented with. Times Reader exploits new software from Microsoft Windows Presentation Foundation to do its work, and the less I say about WPF—a subset of Windows Vista, Microsoft's oft-postponed new operating system—the better. Suffice it to say that WPF and the Times-Microsoft collaboration has liberated the newspaper from the design constraints Web browsers place on designers.
A couple of tech notes before I return to swooning over this product. Mac weenies and Linux nerds will be sad to learn that Times Reader currently runs only on computers with Windows XP or Vista, which is also still in beta. It takes about 20 minutes to download and install the Reader software and WPF code needed to run. A good, high-res LCD screen is recommended, and if you can swing a Tablet PC, better still. (A heads up: The installation and downloading of Times Reader content may quarrel with your firewall. I leave it to your wisdom to decide how—and whether—to work around this problem. See the Times' complete FAQ.)
The Reader draws Times content from the paper's servers and displays it on a "Home" page in a browserlike pane. Upon inspection, you notice that this "browser" has no address bar and no scroll bars. The headline typeface used is Cheltenham, which is what the print edition uses, giving the Reader a distinctly Times-y feel. And while the body typeface isn't the newspaper's distinctive Imperial face, the copy reads cleaner than your standard Web page because WPF gives designers greater control over typography.
I know that all this sounds like beret-wearing design-speak, but trust me: One of the reasons you can't read more than a dozen screens of Web content in one sitting is that the professionals who set the Web's technical standards have never made beautiful typography their priority. By divorcing itself from the Web browser and hooking up Microsoft coders, the Reader breaks with the past to explore the future of online media. Publishers, broadcasters, Web developers, and other media moguls should pay close attention to this experiment.
In three days of test-driving the Reader, I've tried to push myself into ocular collapse—and failed. While there's room for improvement, I find it that good. What can you do with a Reader story? Many of the things you can do with a Web page, and some that you can't. Like Web pages, you can copy stories to your clipboard, e-mail them, print them, or save them to your hard drive. Like newspaper home pages, the Times Reader's home page is updated with breaking news all day long. But the Reader can be set to automatically update every 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. Also, you can highlight passages in stories, annotate them, and e-mail the annotated copy. On a Tablet PC, you'll want to use your stylus to scribble the notes. Because stories are stored locally, they open in a jiff whether you're connected to the Internet or not. Prefer viewing the Web version of the story? As long as you're connected, right click and open in a browser. When you resize the Times Reader window on your computer, the program avails itself of internal templates to draw an attractive layout.
The Reader lets you toggle between viewing all stories in a section and all stories you haven't previously opened. So, if you're called away from your computer while reading, you can easily surmise what's left for you to read when you return. Perhaps the most useful Reader feature is the "View All Sections" button, which pulls up a gray page with little boxes representing every story in each section of the edition. Mouse over the boxes and up pops the headline and byline (and sometimes a photo or illustration) to the story. Click through to read. This visual field allows you to quickly survey the entire edition, story by story. Mousing over boxes and clicking though also supplies the serendipity you experience while paging through a conventional newspaper.
TheReader's search function is as speedy as all hell because, once again, all the stories are stored locally. The search results produce a box for every story, with bigger boxes assigned to stories considered more relevant to your search terms. This visual clue makes grazing search results easier. Overall Reader navigation is remarkably simple and, dare I say, intuitive. The beta doesn't have very many ads in it, so I also expect the Times to get more aggressive about putting pitches in my face. I can live with that.
For a beta release, the Reader runs very nicely. Some sections of the paper, such as the Magazine, classified ads, the regional Sunday section, etc., have yet to migrate to the new platform. The crossword puzzle, tricked out with a few multimedia tweaks, is on the way. At present, the program stores a maximum of a week's worth of Times content at any given moment—jettisoning last Monday's edition when you load this Monday's. I'm sure there's some business reason for limiting storage to the last seven days (plus whatever you've saved to hard disk), but I hope the paper changes it. As a devoted reader, having a year or two of easily searched New York Times on my hard drive would be a real selling point.
Did I say selling point? I did. The major reason I unsubscribed to the print edition of the Times, which costs $621 a year in Washington,and started reading the Web version was because the Web version is free. (The TimesSelect columns and features on the Web cost $49.95 for nonsubscribers.) I've used the Times Reader for only a couple of days, but I've found it superb for keeping track of what I've not yet read and for commute reading. People have stopped me on the subway to ask me what I'm reading. I'd be willing to meet the Sulzberger family halfway and pay $310 a year for a souped-up version that offered much more storage. What's not to like? I suspect that in six months I'll feel slightly embarrassed about having written this mash note—not because my instincts are wrong but because the platform will have evolved in a way that makes this beta look primitive. Until then …
If you're interested in the history and uses of typography, see this white paper by Microsoft's Bill Hill. Disclosure: I worked for Microsoft between 1996 and 2005, when it owned Slate. They had the deep pockets to which I refer above. The Washington Post Co. became my employer when it bought Slate from Microsoft. The Post Co. has deep pockets, too. It just pretends to be broke. From time to time I write book reviews for the New York Times. Send your disclosures via e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)