REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 22, 2007 – This week, three leading media companies released unique new software applications in an effort to broaden their appeal to existing and new readers. Aiming to carve out new territory in the publishing industry, the companies — Associated Newspapers Ltd., Forbes Inc. and Hearst Corp. — have developed digital reader applications that enable consumers to experience newspaper and magazine content in new and engaging ways.
The Forbes.com Reader combines content in the biweekly print edition of its business magazine with content from the company’s Web site.
Using technology developed by Microsoft, the applications enable an enhanced on-screen reading experience by combining the “look and feel” of traditional print media with the advantages of interactivity previously reserved for the Web. These new applications support a range of features, such as allowing users to navigate story lists, toggle between articles, move from one section to another, and view picture galleries. In addition, the reader can view the downloaded content while offline, then go back online for continuous updates as stories change.
The three preview reader applications, along with a fourth solution released last year by The New York Times, are at the forefront of a new wave of products. All of the applications take advantage of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), the advanced graphics technology recently unveiled by Microsoft as part of the Windows Vista operating system. In order to further assist publishers in their efforts to bring their content to the digital world, Microsoft is also developing a publisher starter kit, which will make the same product development tools and best practices easily accessible to other publishers at no cost.
PressPass asked Dave Wascha, director of Windows Client Partner Marketing at Microsoft, to provide his perspective on these exciting new publishing opportunities and to discuss the implications that such applications have for content providers, consumers and advertisers in the digital publishing world.
PressPass: Can you begin by explaining the significance of the media reader applications launched this week?
Wascha: We believe we’re seeing the publishing industry changing. Publishers today want to take advantage of increasing digital consumer demand, which is reflected by patterns of online readership and, in some cases, the loss of print readership. Until now, publishers have been reliant on continuous connectivity. In other words, if you wanted to read a newspaper on-screen, you had to be online, and that was tied directly to the capabilities of Web technology. Now, with a media reader application you can be offline but still have an on-screen reading experience. With the right device, you can read a newspaper on a bus or train on the way to work. And because that experience is more like a traditional newspaper experience, it becomes more and more appealing.
Today, that experience is available on laptops and desktops, but at some point in the future we’ll be able to extend it to cell phones and reading devices that have yet to be invented. We also made sure that the technology works well on ultra-mobile PCs, where the convenience of portability is likely to make media reader applications even more appealing. These Microsoft .NET 3.0 applications are an example of a new breed of rich, occasionally connected products that transcend the limitations of the Web browser to provide compelling and unique user experiences.
PressPass: How did these media reader applications come about?
Wascha: WPF, which we released as part of Windows Vista, is the key enabler that makes these applications possible, but the origin dates back much further. Microsoft has been involved in efforts to improve on-screen reading for many years — from the font development work we did in the early 1990s to our development of ClearType technology in the mid-1990s — as well as the application of those technologies to reading. We’ve always recognized that we have to do more than just transfer content designed for print onto a screen if we want to get good rendering and a richer user experience.
We also recognized that layout is incredibly important. For example, the layout of a newspaper page is what grabs your attention and keeps you interested in reading more. For example, magazine layout is designed to integrate advertising and reading into the same experience. Rather than trying to replicate newspaper and magazine pages, we use something called ‘templated flow’ technology to create new layouts and translate pages so they fit the particular screen of whatever device is being used to read them. By reflowing the text and images, pages fit the display or display window differently — for instance, the reader will see different pages on a laptop with a 12-inch display than they would on a desktop with a 22-inch display. One screen might have six stories, while the other might have 20 stories.
With the reader technology available with Windows Vista, you now have control over the size of the text as well as the reading window. Users can pick whatever’s comfortable based on their needs or preferences and the device they’re using at that time. We’ve been working with a number of key publications to develop applications for this technology, and the enthusiasm we’ve received so far makes us eager to introduce it to the rest of the publishing industry.
PressPass: What’s the nature of Microsoft’s relationship with the media companies implementing this technology?
Wascha: The relationship with our partners was driven by their business needs, based on the confidence they felt in the technical merits of our technology as a platform for building innovative applications. We first undertook a joint development project with The New York Times, which led to the Times making TimesReader available to its subscribers as a beta release in Nov. 2006. Based on what we learned in that development effort, we began building a publisher starter kit that includes documentation and sample code for developing a more or less turnkey media reader application. The next step was to select three key international publishers — Associated Newspapers Ltd., Forbes Inc. and Hearst Corp. — to collaborate with us as alpha users of the starter kit. Our work with those companies included extensive training and support, as well as a significant amount of feedback that led to the roll out of the three additional preview applications this week. We’re now focusing on a second wave of beta testing for the starter kit, and once that’s done, we plan to make the kit available via download at no charge. The goal is to make it easy for publications and their independent software vendors (ISVs) to duplicate our efforts without Microsoft having to be directly involved.
PressPass: Can you briefly describe the four reader applications?
Wascha: Associated Newspapers Ltd., a management company for five major newspapers based in the United Kingdom, developed a downloadable Windows Vista application called the Mail eReader that gives readers an easy-to-use electronic version of its Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday tabloid. The eReader is designed to run on laptops, tablet PCs, Ultra Mobile PCs and desktop PCs, and it features functionality available exclusively to users of Windows Vista, including a news gadget that updates readers with the latest headlines and an innovative “Speak the News” feature. The application was developed by Associated Northcliffe Digital, the online division of Associated Newspapers, and built by interactive media consultancy Conchango.
Forbes Inc., publisher of Forbes, one of the nation’s leading business magazines, went live with a Windows Vista application, the “Forbes.com Reader,” that combines content in the biweekly print edition of its business magazine with content from the company’s Web site. Selected sections will be updated on a daily basis, offering the publication’s readers a way to experience dynamic content that can be read offline in a comfortable environment. Forbes chose IdentityMine, a software development company specializing in WPF, to customize the starter kit for their specific needs.
Hearst Corp., the publisher of twelve daily newspapers and one of the world’s largest publishers of monthly magazines, has begun an initial deployment of Windows Vista “news reader” software at one of its key media properties, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The P-I Reader lets readers download an entire newspaper, then read it either online or offline. It was created with the help of software developer IdentityMine. Hearst is identifying opportunities across its brands — including within its other newspapers and magazines — to leverage this innovative new platform for publishing and distributing content and advertising.
The New York Times rolled out its TimesReader application in November 2006, becoming the first newspaper to enhance the on-screen reading experience through WPF technology. Readers who download the application can access The New York Times content on a PC in a way that mirrors the print edition, with text displayed in columns and formats that fit the size and layout of any computer screen, but with the added advantage of continuous news updates.
Associated Newspapers Ltd. developed a downloadable Windows Vista application called the Mail eReader that gives readers an easy-to-use electronic version of its Daily Mail. Click here for the high-res version.
PressPass: What else do you see media companies doing with this technology?
Wascha: We’re seeing publishers create exciting new user experiences and new ways to provide service to their readers and advertisers, both online and offline. The most compelling piece for publishers is this notion of displaying paginated content on-screen. Consumers can read that content like a print newspaper or a magazine, from section to section and from story to story, and navigate using a simple user interface. For example, on a keyboard, you can navigate using the up, down, left and right arrows, and on a tablet PC, you can use your fingers or a stylus depending on what type of interactivity the device supports.
Another appealing aspect for publishers is the unique offline capability, because it means readers can take their content with them and read it wherever they want. By introducing this functionality in media reader applications, publishers can expand the concept of connectivity even when connectivity isn’t available. We’re also seeing publications consider new business models such as offering their readers a “premium experience” perhaps tied to some form of subscription, much like a traditional newspaper subscription. Opportunities to integrate new and creative advertising are also endless.
PressPass: How do you think consumers benefit from all this?
Wascha: The Web has taught us that people not only consume content but they also want to interact with it. For example, people like annotating content and sharing it. We’ve taken all those concepts a step further by allowing users to store content locally — which the Web won’t let you do — plus annotate, forward and e-mail content. And to the extent that a publisher chooses to support this type of functionality in its product, readers could even interact with authors and blogs. Those specific features aren’t being implemented yet, but they are technically feasible, as is the inclusion of video content. Audio capabilities have already been implemented into the TimesReader application. What we are seeing today is the first step in enabling consumers to actively participate in the information they choose to consume.
PressPass: Do you foresee this technology trend having an effect on advertising in the publishing industry?
Wascha: Yes. We see endless advertising possibilities for publishers. We think — and our early adopters here agree — that interactive on-screen reading technology creates a new advertising model. Publications have to pay close attention to ad revenue, because it’s crucial to their business success. Publishers believe that the ad dollars still in print could also be captured online if they could provide a print-like experience to the consumer in a digital product. Many publishers see applications like those introduced this week as having the potential for new ad revenue, since these applications can provide both print-like advertising as well as the interactivity of the Web in a single product. Meanwhile, for advertisers, this technology offers another creative way to reach readers. Plus, advertisers don’t have to make a choice per se between print and the Web. They can get certain capabilities from the online interactivity as well as certain capabilities associated with print layout, all in the same product.
PressPass: Are the reader applications announced this week available only to people who have Windows Vista?
Wascha: The applications are designed to run on Windows Vista, so anyone who has Windows Vista installed can enjoy the benefits available in these new applications as soon as they’re downloaded. WPF is part of the .NET Framework 3.0 application development platform, which is available at no charge from the Microsoft Update Service. Users can install the .NET Framework 3.0 on a system running Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), and the same applications will run on that system. Not all of the available functionality will be supported in a Windows XP environment, however. For example, some of these applications have features that take advantage of Windows SideBar technology. SideBar gadgets, which are specific to Windows Vista, run continuously on the desktop to support capabilities such as delivering breaking news and other innovative features.
PressPass: Besides the media companies previously mentioned, do you know of any other companies developing media reader applications?
Wascha: A large number of publishers have contacted us and are anxious to get projects started, so consumers are likely to see more of this kind of software become available in the coming months — and increasingly once our publisher starter kit is ready for download. Longer term, we expect to work with all kinds of magazines, and we see this technology being applicable to textbook publishers as well, since one product can support both static print content and supplemental interactive content. There is even a possibility of incorporating this experience into an e-Book reading technology.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reader lets readers download an entire newspaper, then read it either online or offline.
PressPass: What advice do you have for other publications interested in creating media reader applications?
Wascha: I would encourage them to begin preparing now so they’re ready to move when our publisher starter kit becomes available. As a starting point, they should get the Windows Vista software development kit (SDK), which includes the Windows Presentation Foundation SDK, and line up a software development partner if they don’t have the needed application development expertise in house. If developers aren’t already familiar with our developer toolset, Microsoft Visual Studio, our C# programming language and Visual Basics are a good place to start learning.
Developers can also visit our Web site, where we’ve posted some of our published specifications for the publisher starter kit. One helpful piece of information to know is that the reader application is driven by an RSS 2.0-plus feed. Creating a feed can be time-consuming, but we provide a document that guides developers through that process. The application design process can be time-consuming, too. We’ve discovered that because the content reflows and pages change, the design is more complex than designing a static document with only one view. So we recommend that interested developers begin the design process and the feed development process as soon as possible.