I opened the Fin Review today to see a double page ad spread for the new afr.com. Fantastic, I thought; they’ve ditched the awful experiment that was AFR Access and reverted to an html-based site that I can actually use.

For those who never subscribed, the Fin Review originally had one of the best on-line services (see a sample view), with some stories free to all users, and some only available to subscribers. I used the free service since 1996 or 1997, and then had a subscription via my former employer, which I used daily.

Then for some reason Fairfax decided to switch to a flash-based version in mid 2006, called AFR Access. I tried it a couple of times, and gave up: it was impossibly slow, unwieldy, and offered no benefits at all over the former version — while introducing plenty of needless annoyances and a poor user interface. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was put off, as someone a few months ago mentioned a Crikey story that there were only 2,000 subscribers, about 1/10th of the budgeted amount. (Just found it – here it is.)

AFR Access: Disappointment

The reason was obvious: the site did not offer what its users wanted, and most importantly it made the content ponderously hard to access. A load time of anything more than 1 second puts off a substantial proportion of potential visitors (something which has been known since at least 1997), and my timed tests in July 06 showed 9 seconds before all headlines appeared. It was hard to find relevant stories, and slow to bring them up. There was an animated ad at the bottom left of the page, which was seriously distracting — something that a site should strongly hesitate before inflicting on non-subscribers, let alone those who have paid to access the content.

Further, the so-called “additions” tended to be marginally relevant information that could be obtained elsewhere at little or no extra cost – eg its stock quotes were delayed, identical to the data available from the ASX for free. Non-delayed data cost $1.30 for 100 quotes, but comes free with etrade. Other examples were postcode lookup (available for free at Australia Post) and property price guides by postcode ($50 from AFR Access, but $35 from other sources.)

The other big no-no is failure to cater to the customer’s wants. The two most important reasons to subscribe to a newspaper’s on-line edition are, first, to be able to read all relevant stories at a glance, which is irreplaceable for those who don’t have time to flick through the entire hard copy edition, and, secondly, to be able to read it easily on the go (eg on a Pocket PC or Blackberry). The flash-based version permits neither. So I switched to buying the Friday hard-copy edition only, as it was all I had time to read. Lost revenue to Fairfax? $25 per month, minus (4 x 2.70) = $14.20 per month.

So their experiment seems to have been a great example of the market in action: not catering to the needs/wants of a web audience makes a poor web product; and poor products sell poorly.

AFR.com: Disappointment redux

With the above as background, I eagerly tried the new edition, only to find that nothing much had changed. The page consists of multiple flash panels within a page, rather than within the monolithic block that it previously inhabited, and I couldn’t see the ad at bottom left (although there were now some on the right; update: trying the page in a non ad-block browser reveals an animated banner ad up there too, of all awful things!).

But nothing else has changed. The content still loads too slowly: 10 seconds by my tests. The panels don’t resize when I resize the browser window, meaning I can’t get more content onto a page for quick scanning. (Necessary, given the huge amount of space that the afr logo and toolbar unnecessarily takes at the top of the screen; update: this is where the animated banner ad lives). The intrusive mouse-over previews when the cursor hovers over a link are distracting. Not all stories in the hard copy next to me seem to be on the site, and there’s no way to tell what might be missing. And I couldn’t find the legal affairs section, nor see easily how to bring it up.

Printing an article has all sorts of problems — the print quality is noticeably poor (it seems to be generated from an image-based rather than a text-based job — confirmed when I tried printing to a pdf) and every paragraph is malformed, as it ends in a html tag ( < br /> ). This suggests the content is html-based underneath the flash, begging the question of why it has been converted into flash.

Nor do the extras seem to have improved. I just tried using the property information tab for “recent sales”. First few times it didn’t work – a message came up saying something like “Your page is now opening in AFR application” and then nothing. When I finally got it to work, it was preposterously slow to load, the content doesn’t resize to fit the webpage (I know; I only just fixed this problem on LawFont), the amazingly distracting animated ad at the bottom left of the page has reappeared, and I couldn’t even find the pricing of the data to see whether it is still the same.

Currently, the site seems to be unappealing to a web-based user on every front: slow loading (check); slow to use (check); intrusive animated ads (check); inability to scan content in one quick go (check); inability to reflow content to fit more on the page (check); inability to access site on a mobile browser (check); inability to print high quality hard copies (check); and inability to be sure that all relevant content is on the page and able to be located (check).

Disappointed, I sent Fairfax an email, to see whether any html based version is in the works? Unfortunately, the response is that management is “committed” to delivering content in Flash.

So I won’t subscribe, and I predict that the new AFR.com will do about the same as the old AFR Access.

Postscript: a look at Crikey reveals this revealing shoot the messenger missive from back in January – attacking Crikey’s coverage on the basis of the “business interests of Crikey owners”, because:

Even so, the Addis blast came with no mention of the blatantly obvious fact that Eric Beecher – another of the four – is an investor in the Eureka Report. Nor is Addis required to acknowledge that he was founder of The Intelligent Investor, another online investor product.

Perhaps a valid point, but no mention at all of the quality of the actual product — yet this contemporaneous Crikey story reveals I was not alone by any means.