New York Times releases Reader 2.0Leave it to one of the biggest names in news to launch a major upgrade of its digital service in stealth mode: The New York Times just released the second version of its “Times Reader”, a stand-alone application that automatically downloads the paper’s news content, checks for updates, and displays articles in a way that’s nicer looking and more readable than on the NYT website. But it’s easy to miss the upgrade, as the Times has so far done little to promote it.

That’s a shame, as version 2.0 is definitely an improvement. The Times dropped Microsoft’s Silverlight in favor of Adobe’s AIR (Flash on steroids, so to speak), meaning the Reader runs on all major platforms – Windows, Mac and Linux – and is easy to install within seconds. You can then read the news online or offline, as the application caches all articles for the current day as well as the previous six days. So in effect, you get a week’s worth of news. And yes, the crossword puzzle is there as well, in fully interactive form.

All of this makes the Reader perfect for reading on a plane or in other situations where you can’t be online. It’s also nice to see just a few ads, rather than drowning in them – static ads, too, that don’t try to set your Web browser on fire in order to get your attention. That said, interactive ads could be an option: Adobe’s head of development, Kevin Lynch, showed an earlier version of the Reader a while ago (when it was still the International Herald Tribune Reader), and he demonstrated how something that looked like a traditional newspaper ad could turn into a video commercial with just one click.

Now here’s the rub: The Times wants money for the Reader – $3.45 per week, meaning $180 per year. Not much money considering all the first-class reporting and other content you get. And yet, sadly, way too much as long as the website gives it all away for free.

That doesn’t mean the Reader can’t be a success. But I think it needs to offer more than the website: more convenience and extra content. Right now, the only added convenience is offline reading and automatic content updates. Why not offer the Reader as the only way to get the best of both worlds: the Times exactly the way it’s printed on paper – the layout, the pictures, everything – combined with Web updates throughout the day? Automatically and effortless. Add to that exclusive photos, videos, behind-the-scenes glimpses from the reporters, similar to making-of videos on DVDs.

I, for one, would be willing to pay for a service like that. Especially if the software made it easy to save articles, share them with others, and switch from one device to the next without losing touch with the Times. Nick Bilton, one of the paper’s digital developers, already gave a few glimpses at what’s to come at O’Reilly’s E-Tech conference. So clearly the grande dame of news is well aware of the future, and the Reader is a promising step in the right direction. Now, if only the Times weren’t so determined to hide its 21st century alter ego from its own readers so well, people might actually notice. And some, who knows, might even reach for their credit cards.

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