Rediscovering the Page

The World Wide Web has revolutionized reading and research but it has many deficiencies, one of which is the destruction of the page.  People use the word “web page” but that really means a single web document referenced by a unique URL.  A web page may consist of one or more screens depending on the size of the document and the size of the reader’s screen.  Printed out, a “web page” may be one or more printed pages.  Because screen size can vary so greatly in both pixels and technology there is no way to layout a static page like we see in books and magazines.  This causes a problem in readability.

        I’m not sure if the generation that grew up after the web will understand this problem because they consider the status quo the norm.  Not only that but layout artists have moved web design ideas into the realm of print and corrupted magazine layouts destroying the page there too.  Readability is the science of designing text so it is comfortable to read.  This is not a simple task because vision varies greatly in the population.

        Web sites are supposed to be accessible to the handicapped, but I think they often fail for people who can see, as well as those who can’t.  Web pages have become a jumble of tiny print and NASCAR ad layouts, and very often the tiny print travels across long unscanable lines.  One of the major discoveries of the science of readability is the width of the scanline determines how readable the print will be.  That’s why newspapers use columns.  Imagine if newspapers were laid out like websites – tiny fonts that could ramble across the width of a whole tabloid page.

        One of the great hopes for computers was the idea of creating a paperless society.  The web is actually bringing this about but it is transforming the concept of documents from a collection of paper pages to a digital files.  A book can be a single text file, a .pdf file, multiple .html files, multiple .tiff files, and even audio .mp3 files.   But in terms of readability and the web, it’s the .html presentation that counts.  More of people’s reading time is moving to the web.

        The New York Times is responding to this problem with a program called The Times Reader.  Essentially, it’s a custom web application that has brought back the page.  It has removed scrolling from online reading, reintroduced the concept of newspaper style columns, and added the paper’s printed typeface.  This makes for an incrediable jump in readabiltiy.  I find the Times Reader to be better than both the web version of the NY Times but also better than the print version in terms of reading pleasure.  The programmers of this software have succeeded in melding the best of web layout with the best of print layout to create a new paradigm of screen reading.  Unfortunately they have caused a rent in the reality of WWW because the Times Reader exists off the web in a universe of its own.

        Whether you know it or not, the evolution of programming is moving towards making all programs exist on the web and fit within the universal window of a browser.  The Times Reader is a rebellion against this development and could cause a civil war on the Internet.  Most people think of the World Wide Web as the Internet, but it is not.  The Internet is IP traffic.  Before the web, people used a collection of programs to communicate, each working seperately.  You used a FTP program to transfer files, telnet to talk to other machines, SMTP to send email and so on.  All those protocols continue to work but most web surfers no longer notice the mechanics working under their browser.  Each function has its own port number, but the browser on port 80 has dominated the evolution of the Internet for many years now.

        What the NY Times programmers have done is to continue to use port 80 but reinvented the browser so the only pages their readers can surf are The New York Times pages.  The technology they use is Microsoft’s Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) which uses .NET Framework 3.0.  This means The Times Reader is currently limited to users of Windows XP and Vista.  Mac, Linux and UNIX users are out of the loop.  I think you can see why I’m suggesting this could be the beginning of a civil war.  Microsoft promises to roll out WPF/E in the future that will allow Macs, Linux and UNIX machines to join the rebels if they want.  But think about this:  What if the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, Time, Newsweek, and all the other top publishers follow suit?  How many custom readers will you have on your computer?

        The old idea is one browser for all, although many users have both two.  Is there a way around this problem?  Yes – bring the page back to the generic browser, although that may not be possible.  Until you try the Times Reader you will not understand the advantages it has over the standard browser.  The Times Reader standardizes readability over a variety of screen technologies.  It is flexible like the standard browser, but it resizes and reforms its content to still layout a screen page.  Thus an article may be one page on a large 20” widecreen LCD and five pages on a 12” laptop screen.  The paradigm breakthrough is returning to paging and not scrolling.

        Interestingly enough I have discovered another publisher finding a lower tech solution that works with the web.  Tux Magazine formats its magazine to full screen Acrobat pages.  Readers have to download the .pdf file but when they open the document it springs out to cover the entire screen and the content is laid out in pages.  I’ve shown this magazine to people who create digital newsletters and they were impressed too.  It provides for impact and readability.

        This is an easier solution to roll out since most web surfers have Acrobat Reader installed.  Installing .NET Framework 3.0 is a big deal.  Both The Times Reader and Tux Magazine make for a much better reading experience because they both use columns to controll scan lines, pages to control layout and larger typefaces.  Browsers could improve readability by controlling the scanline and giving their readers larger typefaces to read.  However, that would require web publishers to change their habits of maximizing ad space over minimalizing readability and that might not happen.  Current web design seems to believe in cramming as much content on the screen as possible with little regards for the visitor who must read the page.

        In my daily browsing of the web I often find pages I’m anxious to read but the typeface is so tiny and the scanlines are so long that I just give up.  It really annoys me that some designers even design their pages so the browser’s built-in feature to enlarge the fonts won’t work.  Sometimes on pages I’m most anxious to read I will even copy the content to a Word document and reformat it for readabiltiy.  That’s why I admire the Tux Magazine people – they have used Acrobat to maximize my reading pleasure.  And their solution was so simple.  Create a document in landscape mode.  Format with columns, whitespace and large graphics and print to Acrobat with the setting “open in fullscreen” checked.

        The Times Reader improves on these concepts by adding a menu bar across the top of the page that leads to sections of the newspaper, a photo slideshow feature, font scaling, and flexible adaptation to screen sizing.  Both methods are weak for reading back issues.  However, by downloading Tux Magazine I get to add them to my digital library, which is nicer than the piles of physical magazines I have to deal with.  The web version of the NY Times is far better for looking up older articles.

        My guess is the Times Reader is a tool to prepare the public for subscribing to an online newspaper.  What I’m getting out of their experiment is the desire for web designers to lay out pages so they are comfortable to read on screen.  I’ve also rediscovered the value of the page.

p.s. 3/20/7

I got an email from the New York Times telling me the Times Reader beta is over at the end of March and I’ll need to subscribe if I want future issues.  I was shocked at how high the subscription rates are:  $14.95 a month or $165 a year.  As much as I like reading the NYTimes this way, I don’t like it $165 much.  This is a bargain compared to buying the paper edition.  I did pay the $49 to try the Times Select for a year, but I don’t plan to renew.  Paying $49 to read a couple columnists isn’t worth it.  I thought I’d take more advantage of researching their files, but I didn’t.  It’s hard to price a product that is essentially being given away in another location on the web.  If I got the whole deal, The Times Reader edition and the Archives for $49 a year, I’d consider it a bargain.  I might go as high as $99.95 a year if the software added aditional features that made it functionally a lot more than just a newspaper reader.

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