Monday, May 01, 2006

The revolution will not be printed (it will be downloaded)

The New York Times is running an article about Microsoft's new newspaper reader available with it's perennially forthcoming Windows Vista OS. The first guinea pig/collaborator is "venerable" NYT itself.

With Microsoft's new Windows Vista software, to be available in January, virtually any newspaper, magazine or book can be formatted into an electronic version and read online or off. The software would allow The Times to replicate its look — fonts, typeface and layout — more closely than its Web site now does.
The "newspaper" can be downloaded to any Windows device -- desktop or tablet (or PDA, I am guessing). The technology, announced with MS' usual bluster suggesting nothing like it has ever existed before, is actually not new. Zinio has been doing it for a while. Another one, according to NYT is is eMprint, available for free from the University of Missouri.

The question is, do people want to read a newspaper (that looks like the real thing) on a computer screen, or even on a tiny PDA screen? Are we trying to pave a cowpath, automate a buggy whip, and other such metaphors?

Here's a more familiar analogy -- is watching a movie on a big screen in a theater the same as watching it on a TV? Is the difference -- assuming there is one -- only caused by the difference in the size of the screen? There are so many others: the context for instance. You cannot pause a movie in a theater, or watch it in bits and pieces over a period of time; you cannot talk; you cannot be watching it in your underpants. One is in a different state of mind, and one's goals are at least a bit different. Of course, many people do try to recreate the theater experience in the own basement using LCD projectors and biggish screens, but the result is a hybrid of the theater and TV experience.

Recreating a newspaper in its exact hardcopy form on an electronic device while being a commendable technical feat and interesting exercise for graduate students appears a little confused in its goals. Newspapers exist in a form that has remained largely unchanged over a period of at least 150 years. As long as the medium (paper) was not changed, and given the conservatism of the newspaper business, there might have been some justification for the statis. Once the medium itself is changed, however, practically every aspect of news delivery merits reconsideration. In light of this, the decision to exactly replicate the look and feel of the newspaper in electronic form ("The software would allow The Times to replicate its look — fonts, typeface and layout — more closely than its Web site now does.") seems wrong-headed in the extreme. This is not the way to pave the future path of news dissemination. The newspaper succeeded the town-crier but did not try to replicate the town-crier's look-and-feel. In a similar fashion, when electronic dissemination (nearly) fully replaces newsprint, a whole different approach is essential for its success.

I don't know what the thinking is in NYT's managerial chambers -- are they trying to build a bridge for old-time readers to cross the chasm separating newsprint and electronic news delivery? If so, this might be an interesting experiment, but I doubt it will be successful. Then again, this is very likely one of Microsoft's many failed Version 1 experiments where they try to stake their place in an emerging market with poorly thought out technology and wait until someone comes out with a better idea that they can quickly copy (e.g., Windows many lousy PDA versions and the final one they copied from the hugely successful Palm).