Java Powers State of the Art Crosswords

By: Steve Outing

Crosswords are one of those newspaper staples that newspaper Web site users expect to find online. I last wrote about online crosswords about a year ago, and found the state of the art then to be somewhat lacking. But today, things have improved.

A good example of the current state of the art is the newest Java applet crossword from Literate Software Systems. (The link is to a "preview" of the applet; it will be available for commercial use in another week.) If you are running a Java-enabled Web browser, you can play a crossword with this applet. It takes about a minute or more to download over a dial-up Internet connection, but then allows you to play the crossword without being online. That's a big improvement over some of the earlier incarnations of online crosswords, which sent a request to the server (thus, a live connection to the server was required at all times) whenever the player entered an answer.

Electronic helper

Literate's Java puzzle also is very fast, in comparison to the older online crossword solutions. Typing in an answer does not require the screen to redraw or new information to be pulled from the server, so it's as convenient as doing the puzzle on paper. Actually, I'd argue that it's an improvement in some ways, since the Literate puzzle can tell you by color coding whether you have the right or wrong letters in your answers.

The one problem with the Java applet crossword is that it can't save a game if the user quits before completion. Literate vice president for technology Anil Gupta explains that Java does not allow applets to write data to a user's hard disk, which is a security measure of the Java language. Gupta says there is a solution that can be implemented if a publisher desires it, in which a Save button is added to a crossword, which sends data to the server indicating where in a game the user has stopped. The user bookmarks the returned page, which contains a long URL containing instructions for the server to pick up the puzzle at the user's stopping point. Of course, the user must again be online to save a game.

The Java applet is not for everyone, and some publishers may wish to stick with downloadable crosswords -- or offer consumers a choice. Downloadable crosswords, which Literate also offers, require a puzzle aficionado to download a client crossword application, which functions as a Web browser plug-in and automatically starts whenever a user picks up a daily crossword from a publisher's site. Gupta explains that the puzzles themselves are typically very small -- perhaps 2K -- and download very quickly. Like the applet puzzles, downloadable crosswords are played off-line.

Java applet puzzles hold an advantage in that consumers are not asked to download and install a helper application, which can turn away many consumers who consider the task daunting or just don't want to bother. The disadvantage for the applet solution is that each day the user must wait a minute or so for a puzzle applet to load, rather than the few seconds it takes to get the daily downloadable puzzle clues and board.

Another limitation of Java applets is that the current Web browsers cannot print the puzzles, because Java does not have a print facility. But that should change by year-end, Gupta predicts. So, for today there remain trade-offs about which technology -- dowloadable or Java applets -- work best for online crosswords. In time, applets are likely to win out because of their seamless nature; the user has to do nothing more than click on a link to see a crossword application appear on screen.

Pricing model

Literate's applet is being priced for publishers at $200 for a one-time fee, plus a voluntary $500 per year subscription which includes software updates throughout the year and end-user support. (Literate is a technology supplier, not a crossword content company.) While Gupta naturally would like to sell more copies of the technology, he wonders why so many publishers rather opt to develop in-house solutions when third-party technology like his can be had so cheaply. Indeed, his company even offers a program to allow publishers to use its technology free in exchange for providing crossword content for users of Literate's advanced crossword client applications.

The applet contains templates for inserting ads, which for most sites will be the primary revenue stream coming from crosswords. Among newspapers, only the New York Times Web site charges a fee -- $9.95 a year -- for Internet users to subscribe to its daily online crosswords. The Times uses Literate's downloadable software solution.

Literate also has designed a way to prevent "crossword hijacking." If another Web site tries to insert a Web site's legitimate crossword applet by inserting a link to the puzzle in its page, the applet won't run because it is restricted to running from the domain authorized to do so. Gupta says this solution goes beyond "water-marking" technologies that allow a publisher to document illegal use of a piece of copyrighted content, rather providing a technical solution to block copyright infringement of crosswords.

Gupta says the next development to come will be multi-player crosswords, where players might compete with others (to see who can fill in the most clues) or collaborate to complete a puzzle as a group. Digital delivery of crosswords also will be a nice service for publishers, but Gupta says the immature state of the "push" industry is troublesome at present. A good solution for a publisher wishing to deliver daily interactive crosswords might be something like Castanet Tuner, which must be downloaded by the consumer and then allows regular delivery of a crossword application. Unfortunately, that would be a solution for Netscape users but not those of Microsoft Explorer. Publishers should look for push solutions that are platform-independent, Gupta urges.

In addition to Literate, Universal Press Syndicate also offers an online crossword solution that's Java powered. That product is created by American Research Center. Pricing is under $25 per puzzle for use of the technology and the crossword content itself.

Contact: Anil Gupta,

Farewell, Prodigy

Gateway Virginia, the online service of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, has severed its ties with Prodigy completely. The service started out on the Prodigy proprietary network in October 1995, then launched a World Wide Web service in February 1996. Last month, Gateway Virginia was moved off of Prodigy's computers and onto servers owned by the newspaper's parent company, Media General.

Director of electronic publishing Mike Steele said in a recent Times-Dispatch story that when the service was on Prodigy, about 3,500 people visited the site monthly. Soon after going onto the Web, visitors numbered 5,000 to 7,000 per week. Today, the site gets 20,000 to 25,000 visitors each week. Gateway Virginia carries news from the Times-Dispatch, WWBT-Channel 12, the News & Advance in Lynchburg, the Register & Bee in Danville, the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, and Virginia Business magazine.

Prodigy, which at its peak had 2.3 million subscribers, now has 1 million. At one time, more than a dozen newspapers had presences on the Prodigy network. All of them now have Web sites.

Animated graphics not so hard?

Don Wittekind, assistant graphics director at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and head of the paper's online multimedia efforts, had some comments to add to my column about the use of animated graphics:

"I noticed that your sources said that multimedia was just too time-consuming to use. If we had judged by our first couple of projects, we would have agreed with them. However, after four months of learning (we started in December), our multimedia team (two people) can now even knock out projects on deadline. See the Miami arena graphic on our site for an example. It was started and finished at the same time the print graphic was.

"We've learned that by splitting duties between an artist and a producer/programmer, the time can be cut considerably. The arena, which includes art from three artists, was completed in 8 hours.

"They also mentioned Flash as the next big thing in multimedia, and it's certainly exciting, but even the beta version is extremely limited in its interactive abilities. A more important release, we think, is (Macromind) Director 6. It will finally introduce streaming Shockwave for Director, which means those large files will start to play very quickly. With just a few changes in how we work, our 300-400k files will start playing in a matter of seconds.

"Also, ... Microsoft recently announced that it will bundle Shockwave with Internet Explorer and Windows 95. This will add millions of people who get the Shockwave plug-in automatically."

Wittekind urges readers to take a look at their latest graphic (still in beta), a hurricane tracking system that pulls automatic updates from the Internet or allows users to type in their own latitude and longitude and track a storm manually. "At a slim 52k, it's a great example of a small, powerful multimedia news graphic that is actually smaller than most GIF tracking maps I've seen. It took a week to program and an artist spent about 8 hours on the map and interface. Not bad for a graphic that will have months of exposure," he says.

Because that graphic requires a viewer download, a static GIF version is also offered on the site. "We realize that you have to take care of the low end, but we think it is just as bad to ignore the high end. Newspapers are going to lose a lot of readers to other providers if they take a totally low-end stand," he says.

Contact: Don Wittekind,

Movin' ON

Ken Doctor is the new vice president/editorial for Knight-Ridder New Media in San Jose, California. He previously was managing editor of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press, a Knight-Ridder newspaper where he has worked since 1986. K-R New Media oversees the 34 Internet products of parent Knight-Ridder.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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