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A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
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May 12, 2009, 10:10 a.m.

At The New York Times, preparing for a future across all platforms

Here’s the second of our videos from inside the research and development lab at The New York Times Co., where they’re envisioning how news will be consumed in two to ten years. (You can catch up on the series here.) Some of the goodies you’ll notice: a Samsung tablet, an iPhone, a Sony Bravia TV, and an application called CustomTimes that they’ve developed to work on all three devices.

The R&D group is obsessed with the ability to seamlessly transition among web-enabled gadgets. They’re not convinced that the future will land on a single, multipurpose contraption — like some sort of Kindle meets Chumby meets Minority Report. Instead, they predict consumers will connect to the Internet through their cars, on their televisions, over mobile networks, and in traditional browsers, while expecting those devices to interact and sync with each other.

Nick Bilton, the group’s design integration editor who narrated yesterday’s video, and Michael Young, the lead creative technologist who stars in today’s installment, won a major hacking event in 2007 with their startup Shifd (pronounced “shift”), which is an attempt to achieve some of that cloud-like portability. And the same philosophy is evident in the way they’ve conceived CustomTimes (which, it should be noted, is more a proof of concept than a product on its way to the marketplace).

One term I didn’t hear in our visit to the R&D lab last week was “platform agnostic,” a concept once championed by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman to describe how the newspaper would offer its content on any medium desired by the audience, from e-readers to television.

That philosophy remains intact, I think, but the phrase’s meaning is worth some thought. One of the more pointed passages in Mark Bowden’s recent Vanity Fair profile of Sulzberger was a quote from Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism:

When I first heard Arthur talk about being platform agnostic, I knew he was trying to suggest that he was not stuck in a newspaper mind-set. But I thought there were two problems with that language. One is, agnostics are people who don’t—who aren’t sure what they believe in. That’s the first problem. And the second problem is, in practice, there is no such thing as being platform agnostic. You actually have to choose which platform you work on first, which one comes first. [...] Platform agnostic means that all the online companies are going to zoom past you, because they’re going to exploit that technology while you’re sitting there thinking, Well, we don’t care which platform we put it on. You need to exploit the technology of each platform. You need to be, in fact, not platform agnostic but platform orthodox.

There’s no doubt that the R&D group — and probably Sulzberger, too — agrees with Rosentiel’s point. (In tomorrow’s video, you’ll see one way that they’re attempting to repackage multimedia content for different platforms.) But I think “platform orthodox” is a useful perspective from which to assess their work: How well does CustomTimes prepare for our gadget-juggling future?

A full transcript of today’s video is after the jump.

Michael Young: So I want to show you something we’re calling the CustomTimes. It’s our vision of a three- or four-screen application with customized or personalized version of The New York Times on web, mobile, TV in the living room, and then potentially in the car.

So we’ll start with the web component. I’m just showing a website here on a Samsung tablet. The idea is that you would come to it and you would initially configure it and you would seed it by selecting some sections from The New York Times of content that you want to follow. So just a very simple, clean interface here, a couple sections selected. Actually, I have them all selected. Let me uncheck a couple. Save this here. And what we do is we customize a web version here with all the sections that I selected. I’ll just scroll through quickly. Very clean, simple UI, headline summaries, and images when we have it. So now you will get the same information across the web, across your phone, and in your living room.  

So let me show you a couple of other concepts we have here. Next to each of these articles is a flag button. And the idea here is that anything on any of these sites — web, mobile, living room — you can take a piece of content, whether it’s a story or a graphic or video, and you flag it to either watch it later or read it later on a different platform. So one example is if I have video on the website here, I could flag it and say, send it to my living room. I want to watch it in HD when I get home. Another option is at the end of the day, if you had a couple of articles you didn’t read, you could flag it and say, send it to my car. And on some of the new cars, what we’re going to try to do is do text-to-speech on the article, send it to the car, and have it read to you on the way home.

So earlier I had flagged a couple of videos that I would want to watch in the living room when I got home. We have a George Clooney, a Mark Bittman, and a third one here. So they’re sitting and waiting for me on the TV. Here is the Mark Bittman piece. So I can use my TV remote to play these, but also now that these devices are becoming connected, I can use any of these devices as the remote.

So if I start to, if I click on George here, I could play the video on this device, but as I start to take him and drag him up, you’ll see this blue panel drop down from the top. So it’s the devices that I’m near or that I’m connected to. And you’ll see a little TV icon pop up there. So if I just drag George up to the TV and drop him there, the video will start to play on the TV.

[George Clooney video plays on TV.]

[...] So the same idea: here is this flag section on the CustomTimes and, again, George Clooney video sitting there waiting for me. And now we built some sensors into the software with CustomTimes so that it knows what devices are on the same network. So I don’t know if you can see it here, but next, underneath the George Clooney link, there’s a play link.  So for any video that’s on the phone here, it knows that I’m now in the room near the TV, and it gives me the option to play it on the TV. So the same idea: I can hit play here and it will play the George Clooney video on the TV. [...]

But we’re also looking at how advertising and brand messages from advertisers to fit into this world. So right here I have one of our new ad units for the website that are actually going to go live this summer. It’s just one of the new OPA units. It’s just an expandable ad. So we wanted to look at this to say, what parts of advertising, you know, could we send to a TV if we wanted to, for example? So in this case, it’s a Ralph Lauren ad that we mocked up. Any component of the ad I can actually take to look on the TV on a larger screen. So if it was, in this case it’s shots from the runway. So if I saw this and wanted to have a better look at some of these clothes, again I could just take this and drag it up to the TV and see the high-res image of this on the television. And you can do that with video, you can do that with slide shows from the runway, really any content from the ad message.

POSTED     May 12, 2009, 10:10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     The New York Times R&D Lab
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