[6 October 2007 update: This post has been followed up here]
The Australian Financial Review, nicknamed the Fin and sometimes AFR, is perhaps the newspaper of record for the Australian business sector. It used to have arrangements with aggregators such as Factiva, Media Monitors and NewsBank. At some point, it decided that it wasn't making enough money from licensing its content online in this way. In addition, the head of Fair Business Media, Michael Gill, was convinced that AFR content needed to be locked down, "because because one bank used an AFR article to support a prospectus." So AFR decided to develop its own platform for online access to its content and abruptly ended licenses with Factiva and the others.
There's was more information about the afr.com debacle in the second article by Stephen Mayne in Crikey called "Remember the glory days of AFR.com", but sadly that's in the pay section of Crikey and I can't link to that. So I thought I'd add my impressions of afr.com and thoughts about the whole process. I am the first to admit that what follows is not a thoughtful objective review, but a rant. The afr.com fiasco has been a major inconvenience to me and many of my co-workers and faculty and students at MPOW.
I tried out the new afr.com both in beta and since its release on a trial subscription. My first impressions of the beta product was that it was an absolute dog. The current release is better than what I saw in beta, but I still think the product is a dog.
The product has a flash-driven interface. This has a number of effects. It makes afr.com a real memory hog. For example, when I'm running Firefox for Windows I don't use it lightly. I have multiple tabs open, I have various web apps running and maybe the Firefox application is using 90 MB of RAM. When I'm running afr.com in Firefox, that number jumps to 250 MB. The other thing is that the application is very slow. Don't bother trying to do anything quickly in afr.com, especially typing or scrolling or clicking on buttons. The other "feature" of the flash-driven interface is that it's impossible to copy and paste text from afr.com. This is a part of their strategy to eliminate copyright infringement by treating paying customers as if they were thieves.
Even if one pays for a monthly subscription (the cheapest being $A 25/month), it is not an all you can eat package. Usage is metered with credits. It costs one credit to open an article. What struck me as tremendously stingy - or clueless - is that if you do a regular search on afr.com, you do not see any page numbers in the list of results. That exclusive information only appears once you choose to spend a credit to open the article. Don't they realize that page numbers are needed in most citation systems?
I was expecting that afr.com would, if nothing else, be a good way of reading the Fin online, similar to wsj.com, the digital edition of the Wall Street Journal. But there seems no good way of browsing the current issue of the Fin in afr.com. The home page on afr.com seems to contain some articles from today’s paper, but it also contains links to other non-premium publications like Reuters or the Sydney Morning Herald – both of which can be viewed for free elsewhere. I've since learned that afr.com is different from the Digital Edition of the Australian Financial Review. The digital edition is only included with afr.com when people subscribe to the spendy ($A 150.00/month) advanced markets package. Compare that with wsj.com, that's available for $US 9.95/month [yesterday, that amounted to approximately $A 11.92].
I have one positive thing to say about afr.com. At least they bothered making it compatible with Macs. The product does work with Firefox and Safari, except that mouse wheel scrolling doesn't work in either Mac browser. For some reason, they use the most unreadable font for full-text articles in the Safari browser.
And what's with the advertising? I don't mind ads on products I use for free, e.g. Google or smh.com.au. But afr.com is priced as a premium product. I think that somebody paying for a clunky product should be spared from ads.
I doubt that this going to be a huge problem for me, seeing that I don't intend to use the product again, but the online help in afr.com is very poor. They are large glossy-looking slow-loading pdf files which look and read more like marketing pieces than online help. It's a microcosm of the problems with all of afr.com, they go for bling and end up with something slow and unusable.
Afr.com’s major flaw as a product is that it provides all sorts of miscellaneous research tools, as if it’s aspiring to become its customers new research portal, but it doesn’t provide cost effective (or effective in any shape or form) access to the frickin' newspaper, which is only thing that I think 95% of likely subscribers would care about. But that’s not the only flaw in play here. An esteemed colleague of mine is convinced that in a few years from now, there will be books and business case studies about this afr.com fiasco. How could a supposedly smart company get it so wrong in so many different ways?
I wonder if they thought they could get away with it because they thought, “we’re the Fin, the paper of record in the Australian business community, people will put up with this crap, because they need us.” The answer is no, if you make life too difficult and expensive for your customers, we’ll adapt to life without you. Some day you may realize that actually, it was you who needed the goodwill of your customers and suppliers – and try to win us back. That may work, but maybe by then we’ll have got used to not using the AFR at all.
[14 June 2007 edit: I wrote something else about afr.com here]