This is a long time coming, partly because I've been actually using the product and I wanted to do it justice by sitting down and really exploring it. After doing so, I think it's one of the best Rich Internet Applications out there - bar none. Now whether or not that means that people are going to use it remains to be seen. One of the reasons I find this application so compelling is that because from a technology standpoint, it wears the RIA badge proudly. If there was a web-only version that provided the same level of richness and the complimented the offline version, I'd be happier, but I think this is a great litmus test for the entire Rich Internet Application space and it has all the pieces to succeed:
- Strong brand
- Compelling content
- Online content that syncs and can be taken offline
- Interactive, intuitive user interface
As I wrote before, reading a newspaper is something that can be very personal to people. Replacing it, or even "improving" on it is a risky thing. I realize that the NYT Reader isn't going to supplant the actual paper, but the newspaper is such a basic thing with some fond emotions, that people will be skeptical about an e version. With that said, lets dive in.
If you aren't familiar with the New York Times Reader, it is a collaboration project between Microsoft and the New York Times which uses Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation to bring New York Times content to your desktop as a standalone application. After installing the reader, you sign in with your nytimes.com credentials and you have access to the stories of the day. You can leave the reader running in the background and it will sync up with the New York Times website and download their articles so you can take it with you when you're offline. It provides the rich experience of a desktop app while being powered by entirely web based content that you can then take with you.
The NYT Reader really does manage to keep the "look and feel" of a newspaper while running on a computer. Microsoft has made readability and usability the focus, and the subtle tweaks that the NYT reader have make a difference. It's very easy to change the font size and the viewer scales accordingly. The fonts used are exceptional from a readability standpoint and the interface moves intuitively as you browse through sections. The transitions between sections mean that you never have a "page flash" like you would on the nytimes.com website, and as a result, the application flows just like a newspaper would.
The New York Times reader is also laid out just like a regular newspaper. Clicking on one of the sections brings you to the front page, with the headlines and bylines sorted in columns. Pictures are always a focal point of the section page, which keeps to the form of the newspaper's traditional front pages.
Bringing The Paper to the PC
Just like articles on nytimes.com, you can save, print and email directly from the reader. When you saved it, it stores as .trc file, or New York Times Annotated Article. One of the cool things about the New York Times Reader is that it lets you interact with the article to a certain degree. The "note" functionality allows you to select parts of the text and type in notes or use the "ink note" to put your own particular version of scribble on the article. You can then email or save those annotations and send them to friends and family. My father in law usually sends me interesting articles from the Times and I know he would love a way to add his own thoughts to specific parts of the articles - this makes that easy to do.
Another thing I think the reader does very well are the advertisements. They are laid out unobtrusively on the page, and as you scale the font size, the advertisements either leave the page entirely, or scale to fit the article. For instance you may be reading an article that has a small, rectangular advertisement in a box on the right hand side, but when you scale the fonts up, you will see a different, banner-sized advertisement at the bottom of the page. It allows the reader to change the advertising on the fly and in a way that fits logically with the article. As a result, the advertising feels like it fits and isn't obnoxious. Implementing good advertising is going to be key to Rich Internet Applications and I like the way the Times does it.
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My favorite feature, bar-none, is the search. Searching for an article in the regular New York Times is tedious and hit or miss. The Reader takes search one step further by using keywords to relate certain displaying them as a cloud diagram. For instance, if I search for 'Microsoft' It shows me a couple of articles on Microsoft that appear in the New York Times. With the reader, I can drill down and see other topics that article covers. For instance, this article, an interview with Steve Ballmer about Vista, had the keywords 'Microsoft Corp', 'Ballmer, Steven A', 'Computer Software' and 'Computers and the Internet'. Clicking on 'Computer Software' brings up all of the articles which talk about computer software. It's a great tool for relating articles within the paper to each other as well as helping to sort through what you're looking for. It's a shining example of how a rich experience can enhance usability and make the information we are looking for easier to find.
One area where I think the reader falls short is in its presentation of multimedia. There is an adequate picture viewer, which has a zoom and brings the photo to the front, but there are no sound clips and no video for any of the articles. What makes this doubly disappointing is that the New York Times website has video. I think one problem is that nytimes.com uses Flash Video to present their media and putting that into the reader would have been a tough sell from a business standpoint. It is a glaring weakness in an otherwise good product.
I am very impressed with the New York Times Reader. I've heard some people say that it misses the mark but when you look at the extra functionality it brings when compared to the website - a more interactive experience, better search, the note and annotation aspect, as well as the ability to take the content with you offline, I think it's a compelling offering and an excellent example of an RIA built in Windows Presentation Foundation.
I also think this is only the beginning of Rich Internet Applications and a richer reading experience. We've seen eBooks slowly make their mark and I think RIAs will have a huge impact on that space. Being able to sync content online and bring with you makes a subscription model more valuable to the end users. Imagine the times reader on a Windows mobile device that you can take with you and read on the subway. We're going to see a lot more here as content providers see the benefits provided by giving users freedom over their content. It opens up new and interesting advertising models as well as building a strong brand.