Reading the Times on the Splinternet / by Dan Weingrod

The "splinternet" is a term popularized by Josh Bernoff to define the new era of devices that have their own technology, formats, design standards and even physical approaches. I got a taste of the this the other day trying to read the New York Times digitally on four different devices.

We got an agency iPad a week after launch and I’ve been fortunate enough to be the Agency iPad librarian.  So last Sunday when I sat down with a cup of coffee to read the paper I suddenly realized I had a new range of options. As an ex-New Yorker I've always needed to have my daily dose of the Times, but as the owner of a Kindle, iPhone and laptop and the curator of an iPad I now had four ways to ingest the news. What follows are some quick thoughts about the different platforms and how they deal with the reading experience.

Kindle

I’m starting with the Kindle because it’s the reason for the absence of the fifth platform,print, from this list. One of my “rationales” for buying the Kindle was the high cost of my weekend subscription to the Times. The monthly Kindle subscription was actually far cheaper than our print subscription and it also allowed me to bring a far less imposing device than a laptop to the kitchen table.

That said, the Times/Kindle experience generally worked well. Almost immediately I found that reading news on the Kindle was more “efficient” than in print. The Kindle is pretty much a straightforward reading experience. A lot of this can be attributed to its black and "off"white screen, which focuses the experience on text. There is no color imagery, (and the black and white images are pretty lo-fi), and no ads or interruptions at all. The result is that my distraction level is lower and I can focus more on the actual content.

What also raises the efficiency level is the unique navigation that is part of the Times/Kindle interface. You can either begin reading directly at the lead front page article, or go to a summary page of articles within a selected section such as International or Sports. What works about this is that instead of the print experience of viewing the front page, scanning the articles, jumping back and forth and trying to decide if I want to turn to page 16 the Kindle experience lets me cycle through full articles or more often using the summary page to scan through the articles and quickly pick the relevant ones that I want to read.

Unfortunately, what’s missing in this is the traditional front page design hierarchy of headlines and images that denote importance, the Times’ great picture editing and the wonderfully "inefficient" browsing experience that I remember from my days of reading a print newspaper.  I'd also add that the Kindle also has a very intimate form factor. Not too dominating at the kitchen table yet personal enough to bring anywhere to read.

 

iPad

The first question with the iPad was which version of the Times to read? I could go to the browser and view the Times Web site, or I could go to the Times “Editors Choice” iPad app which I had previously downloaded.  I chose the app because I was hoping it was designed to make the most of the iPad experience. The app makes great use of some of the iPad functionality including portrait/landscape orientations, streaming video and color imagery, but there I found some aspects disappointing.

First of all, the App really is Editors Choice, which means not all of the articles in the print or online editions are here. The Kindle edition, by contrast, is published only once a day and, I think, contains pretty much the entire print edition. So the iPad gives you some of the news that’s fit to print and updates it during the day, but seemingly not as often as the online edition. This situation says more about the "splinternet"state of of things than it does about the experience itself.

The app does allow for a much more considered and controlled approach to design. The “Front Page” includes multiple articles at differing hierarchical sizes and image sizes. You can even scrub between front pages with the a swipe of your hand. The problem I have is that when you select, (click?point?press") and go to an internal article end up looking at a column format design that, for me, does not make sense on this platform. It feels like the designers are trying very hard to make you feel reach back into your brain and bring back the warm comfortable feeling of a good old newspaper experience. This fails for me for a number of reasons, primarily because it does not suit the platform.  (And as if in affirmation as I am literally writing this paragraph I get a tweet from TAT the excellent Swedish mobile design group with a link to an article with the following quote): Using three column layouts...for no other reason than imitating a newspaper… is kitsch. That The New York Times goes down that path, doesn’t make it right. The iPad App version of the Times takes little advantage of the positive directions offered by the platform and instead tries to conjure up a refreshed version of an old reality which ultimately does not work. What is really odd is that the Kindle actually gets this part right, or at least better than the iPad. The Kindle isn't trying to imitate anything except text display.

Of course the iPad does deliver color, video and updates and is a great first effort at a portable multimedia effort. Notwithstanding, one more downside is the form factor which while slick and beautiful does not have the simple intimacy that the Kindle has. It could be the shiny object newness that I treated it with, but it just didn’t feel as simple to have it on the kitchen table as the Kindle.

Another complaint is the odd inability to enlarge text on the Times iPad App. That’s a hangover effect from the iPhone and with that...

iPhone

So why would I even bother to read the Times on an iPhone when I’ve got the Kindle, the iPad and the laptop? For the simple combination of speed and ubiquity which is the main reason we love smartphones in the first place.  When the Kindle isn’t around and I don't want to boot up the laptop, or I’m waiting for the movie to begin and I’ll go on the iPhone and read the Times using the Web browser. (What I rarely use is the Times iPhone app which always seems to be loading up content forever when I try to log on, or the Times mobile site which can't be easily found).

Of course it really helps that I’m not farsighted, (at least visually), so I don’t need glasses to read the small text. I do love the combination of quick access, the familiar and simple web site navigation, even with my big fingers, but most of all l love the simple up and down scrolling page. In this case this is one thing that the iPhone does better  than the iPad. In either horizontal or vertical orientation the simple swipe lets me move back and forth with ease, scrub back to read something I missed and tap or pinch images and text to enlarge them when I need to. The experience might be a little too intimate compared to the iPad or even Kindle, but it gets the job done and most importantly feels true to its platform even though it is a Web site that is not wholly optimized for mobile.

Laptop

This should be familiar ground to all of us and comes with the familiar issues that we have heard for years. I’d like to tackle a couple briefly. The first is the whole idea of the efficacy of “reading” online. I agree with the general opinion that it is hard to read articles on a computer screen. A big part of the reason for this with the Times Web site is the distraction from multimedia tools, banners, links and features which are much more true to the Web experience. This is not really complaint, the Times Web site is a leader for innovation and delivery of news online. I just don't think that reading is the sole goal of this experience anymore and it's just harder to read when there is so much going on.

More importantly I think the laptop is less conducive to the reading experience is when compared with the tactile aspect of the other three platforms. Somehow for me, the idea of using your finger, or even the clunky Kindle button, to turn “pages” connects me more with the experience than a mouse click and scroll. This physical connection, somehow reminiscent of reading a newspaper in print, somehow makes it more of a connective experience for me.

The other issue of reading from a computer screen. Again there is general opinion that computer screen reading leads to eyestrain. In fact the Kindle’s raison d'etre is rooted in the idea of mimicking the calmer experience of print on paper.  Where do the iPad and iPhone land on this issue? For me, I find that reading on the iPad leads to similar, but slightly less, eyestrain than a computer screen. The iPhone however feels somehow easier on the eyes to me. This may have to do with the intimacy of the platform and the high resolution screen. By holding it closer to my eyes and also being able to enlarge the text some of the larger problems I have with screen eyestrain seem to have been mitigated. On the subject of eyestrain the iPad and iPhone are an improvement, especially considering the more personal approach to the device that they allow the user.

I sometimes find myself in conversations unable to say which "iDevice" I mean. Is it an iPad, iPhone, iPod?. I also still get very confused about which device is best for which application. I think that this brief example of living in the splinternet is more about how we need to continue to test, explore and change as we look at integrating these rapidly growing platforms into the mix. The days of publishing permanent visions are over and the more nimbly we can swim with constant small strokes the faster and farther we will get ahead.