Newspaper software: pretty but dumb

The New York Times Reader, a piece of software you can download to read the NYT on your PC, came out in beta last fall and I immediately downloaded it for a few reasons — including the fact that I am a geek, a newspaper journalist and a big NYT fan. And I have to admit that it was (and is) pretty slick. Thanks to Microsoft’s presentation software, it replicates the look of a newspaper, but updates itself when connected to the Web, etc.

prison.jpgNow the company has announced several similar readers for two British papers, Forbes magazine and a Seattle newspaper (PaidContent has more here). And like several other people, including James Kendrick of JKOntheRun, David Rothman of TeleRead and Bob Russell of MobileRead, I am left scratching my head and wondering what the hell any of these publications are thinking. Why on earth would anyone download multiple pieces of software — all of which are based on the same rendering engine from Microsoft — to read different newspapers? It makes no sense. (John Dowdell says that it might appeal to someone who only wants to read one newspaper, which I will admit is a possibility, but it still seems overly limiting to me).

I think it probably makes sense to the executives at the NYT, who approved the idea, or to similar executives at Forbes and Associated Newspapers — after all, the lure of such an idea is that it has the potential to replicate the same kind of physical control that newspapers enjoy in print, but in digital form. No cutting and pasting, no linking from the outside, no messy webpages or RSS feeds or any of that nonsense. Just a very pretty, very appealing, Microsoft-controlled walled garden.

There’s already magazine-reading software from that does quite a good job of replicating the look of a magazine on a PC, and is quite handy for reading offline on airplanes and so on. But a single piece of software allows you to download dozens of magazines, not just one. Will any of these publications agree to be bundled all together into a single reader application? Unlikely. That would make too much sense for readers.

Further reading:

David Hunter at HunterStrat shares my bemusement at the whole idea of a dedicated app for a single publication, as does my friend Rob, and James Robertson. And Don Dodge disagrees with me and points out that “the business of software is about business, not technology.” I would agree — but the business of software (or the business of business, for that matter) should also be about serving the customer.

Will a dedicated application just to replicate the look of a particular newspaper be enough of a service to make these readers fly? I don’t think so. The newspapers in question might want you to think that they came up with this idea to help you as a reader, but I think the real reason is that they are trying desperately to think of a way to maintain their control. And my experience is that that kind of motivation tends to make for a crappy product.

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