This Is Not Your Grandma's Crossword Puzzle

By: Steve Outing

Lately I've been seeing some attempts at porting the crossword puzzle of newspapers onto the World Wide Web. But the first question that pops into my mind is, should we bother?

Take a look at a couple examples of newspaper crosswords in electronic version and see what you think. Here are links to:

The Times of London. (You'll need a free log-on name and password to get in; from the front page, look for the crossword link.)

Philadelphia Online's crossword puzzle.

Both of these interactive crosswords allow you to play a puzzle while online. To enter an answer, however, you must fill in a field at the bottom of the puzzle and click a button. After a few seconds, your answer returns as a new page with your answer. On the Philadelphia puzzle, you can configure the crossword to reject wrong answers if you desire.

If you tried out these puzzles, the problems with them are obvious: 1) You can't type your answer directly on the puzzle, but must type it in a field and click a button to send it off to the server, which returns a new puzzle with the answer displayed. In the Philadelphia puzzle, for 2-down, you would need to type "d 2 einstein", for example. The Times is a bit more intuitive; it includes a pop-up box from which you would select 2-down, then you type in the answer and click a button to send in the answer.

Not only is this an awkward way to play a crossword, but it takes too long for the answer to be displayed on your screen. Using a 14.4 modem, I could have gotten up from my desk and found the printed puzzle in my local morning paper in the time it takes for a single answer to be displayed on screen.

Worse yet, many Web users do not have unlimited-time access accounts, so the idea of playing a crossword while connected to the Web and while the meter is ticking is an unlikely activity for most people. If a viewer of a newspaper Web service has an account that allots him 20 hours per week, is he likely to spend an hour of that time doing a crossword while connected? No.

There are a couple other approaches that don't require puzzle players to be online:

1) USA Today takes the approach with its electronic crossword puzzles of making them downloadable, so that they can be played offline. Click on today's puzzle and it is downloaded to your local hard drive, then a helper application for your Web browser allows you to solve the puzzle without incurring connect-time charges. (USA Today's puzzle is only available to Windows users at this time.)

2) The Electronic Telegraph (London) takes the low-tech approach: Click on the crossword and the puzzle paints on your screen. To play the puzzle, simply print it out.

Users of newspaper online services seem to expect the full print newspaper's content to be online, and putting the crossword into electronic format is a noble endeavor. The early implementations seen today on the Web are not ideal, but I hope that later versions of Web crossword software will be more intuitive. The approach taken by USA Today may be the best one, since it solves the problem of connect-time charges accruing while playing a live-server-dependent puzzle.

And for those of you who poo-poo the whole idea of doing a crossword on a computer -- when doing the paper version is so convenient -- I will remind you that a younger generation that grew up on video games may be more comfortable playing the online puzzle than with paper. In a few years, I fully expect to be playing my newspaper's crossword puzzle on a portable flat-panel display tablet -- and never going back to paper.

Neither rain nor snow nor sleet ...

Time and again we've seen how natural disasters and major news events have given a boost to newspaper online services. While the Great East Coast Blizzard knocked many eastern U.S. newspapers for a loop earlier this week, online editions reported healthy increases in traffic as readers couldn't get their regular paper. The Philadelphia Online service of the Inquirer and Daily News reported a 43.5% increase in traffic over normal levels on Monday, when deliveries of the print edition were halted because of the record-breaking snows. New Jersey Online, which officially launched on January 1, recorded 50,000 visitors to its storm coverage on Monday. Most of that traffic came from online services such as America Online and Internet providers such as IDT and Netcom -- people sitting at their home PCs, unable to get to work. Normally, New Jersey Online's greatest traffic comes from the corporate sites, which were markedly absent during Monday's blizzard.

Best Online Newspaper Services Competition

Please don't forget to nominate your own company or another for Editor & Publisher/The Kelsey Group's 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition. The nomination form is on the Web at Deadline for nominations is January 24, 1996. Winners will be announced at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco on February 24, 1996.

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