The New York Times has long been a leader in delivering news in the form of pigmented petroleum products arranged over processed dead trees. About 10 years ago, they realized that their primary delivery system would someday become obsolete. They have experimented ever since with replacements. First they had a free website. Then they had a free website with for-pay components. Then they went back to the free website. Now they’re trying a paid website with free samples. Along the way, they’ve played with ways to deliver the news with a reading tool more flexible than a web browser.
The first of these was Times Reader. When it worked, it delivered a pretty nice user experience, but reliability wasn’t its long suit. It experienced frequent crashes. There were a few updates with accompanying small improvements in reliability, followed by a long period with no revisions whatsoever. Then came Times Reader 2.0. I was so excited; finally they were going to fix some of the bugs.
No such luck. TR2 turned out to be based on Adobe Air, a spinoff from Flash that lets that cross-platform environment roam free on your desktop instead of confining it to your browser. This was a marriage made in hell. We got the user interface weirdness of Flash, the instability of Flash, and the lousy coding skills of the Times staff. I can’t complain any more about infrequent updates; every time I turn around the Air environment wants to reinvigorate itself. I might be more sympathetic if the updates produced stability, but I can detect no overall improvement. For desktop Times consumption, I’ve gone back to the Web.
When the iPad came out, the good news was that the New York Times was Johnny on the spot with an app. The bad news was that the app wasn’t very good. It didn’t offer a lot of content. After a couple of months, the New York Times came out with a much improved app, which only had one major problem: it crashed a lot. Every few weeks, there would be an update. Some of the updates were a small step forward, and some were huge step back, crashing on opening. When that happened, since the iPad and the Apple Store offer no way to reinstall an old version, there was nothing to do but wait until a new update occurred, and hope that that fixed the crashing. Usually it did (for at least on upgrade cycle), and once it did not, replacing a DOA app with another. Over the last year the New York Times iPad app has achieved moderate reliability. Considering where they started from, I guess you could say that’s a big improvement.
To be fair, the Android NYT app doesn’t try to do much, and does it pretty well, with the only persistent irritant being its occasional reticence to update the news.
Recently, the Grey Lady started to charge for electronically delivered news. The fees are high – thirty five bucks a month for access on all of your devices. I’ll let you in on a way to save a bit off that: subscribe to the weekday print version for thirty two dollars and change, and you’ll get access to all the online services tossed in.
I don’t know how most users will react, but I’m going to be a lot less tolerant of all the software bugs when I’m paying. Not that it will do me much good; the Times help line has been in “leave a message and we’ll call you back” mode for a while, and I’ve never gotten a callback.