The final speaker at ASNE convention in Seattle this year was a local celebrity: Microsoft boss Bill Gates. Much to my surprise, he had something important to say specifically to newspaper editors.
Gates used the occasion to introduce software that will debut as a built-in feature of the new Microsoft Vista OS in January called Windows Presentation Format (WPF) . It's essentially a toolkit that allows programmers to build online/offline software that will display publications (or, I suppose, anything) in tailored formats that can closely resemble printed text, right down to the fonts. (This AP photo shows the demo at the convention.) Users navigate by "turning pages" rather than scrolling, make notes in the electronic margin, search, clip and email selections. Publications will be downloaded to users' drives and thus can be read without a live internet connection and refreshed whenever users are online. It's not a PDF or web archive. It's much richer.
The Vista OS is due in January, and Gates said developers kits for working in WPF will be available by late summer. The NYT got an early copy and has its version – called TimesReader – in workable form now.
The Seattle P-I had a story about the demo, as did the Seattle Times, here and E&P, here.
Perhaps most impressive to me was the testimonial of Tom Bodkin, design director and AME at the New York Times, who said he'd be working on their prototype implementation and has become "a total convert." Particularly when used on a handheld, tablet-device of some kind, the experience of reading in this format is nearly as good as text on paper -- and has many advantages once-a-day printed publications can't touch. Some of the advantages are obvious – text can be updated and changed constantly, whenever the reader in online – and some less so. For instance, clicking on an ad can bring up a richly animated video-style commercial. Probably it could easily open to full video, as well. WPF also incorporates the capacity to sense what size screen you are using and adjust the display to take fullest advantage of it. In the demo, anyhow, it was impressive.
I talked to Bodkin briefly afterward and met the "product manager" for TimesReader, who promised to get in touch. When I find out more I will post it here.
Both Gates and Bodkin talked about how holding the tablet or reader in your hands made reading "natural and effortless" in a way no fixed screen can match. (Readers typically make constant, microadjustments to the book or page they are holding to read, shifting the distance or angle to get it just right. This apparently comes close to that.)
Would a well-crafted, handheld tablet displaying newspaper copy in this new format have the capacity to become the "newspaper iPod" some have dreamed of? Here's hoping.