The Times’ need for speed on smartphones drives interest in Google’s latest project

The Accelerate Mobile Pages effort is designed to help publishers and users in locations with old phones and bad connections

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Credit: Rock1997, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At The New York Times, speeding up web page load times on smartphones is a priority, just as it is for any publisher.

As a result, it made sense for the Times to join other publishers, even some of its competitors, in Google's new Accelerate Mobile Pages (AMP) Project, which kicked off Wednesday.

"We consistently outperform others in terms of speed, but AMP is a little different opportunity," Kate Harris, director of mobile product at the newspaper, said in an interview. "Speed is always a priority and we can always do a little better."

The Times started talking with other publishers and Google over the summer and decided to move ahead with the open source initiative. It will work with Google as a publishing partner, and also as a technical partner, devising ways to improve speed efficiencies that involve new methods to build web pages, Harris said.

So far, developers in paper's technical group have held Google Hangout sessions with technical teams from a variety of publishers. That list includes nearly 30 from around the world, such as The Wall Street Journal, Hearst, Gannett, The Economist, Financial Times, The Huffington Post and others.

"It's been quite collaborative and open, and we've been on Hangouts with people we traditionally think of as competitors," Harris said. "People will look at different approaches and say, 'Maybe there's a better way to do it.'"

Google is working with existing publishing tools, which Harris called a "lightweight version of HTML that's not rocket science and not hard to build."

She explained the AMP Project as taking existing Times articles and creating an AMP file, or page, that prioritizes the time it takes to load an existing web article through code and then also caching it.

In a brief demonstration from a smartphone, she directed a reporter to g.co/ampdemo, which opened to a blue ribbon beneath a traditional Google searching saying, "This is an Accelerated Mobile Pages demo." After entering a search for "Obama," a carousel of article thumbnails opened, including several from the Times, including, "Obama apologizes for bombing of doctors without borders hospital."

After tap on the thumbnail image, the full story opened almost immediately -- in less than a second.

"Google is serving it from a cache, a snapshot, so that's why it can be so fast," Harris said.

The Times announced its involvement with AMP in a blog post as an experiment in AMP's "preview phase." During that preview period, the Times will allow the majority of recently published articles "to be crawled and surfaced through a preview-only version of Google search hosted on the AMP project website."

Harris said the project is so new that she doesn't yet have a metric for determining success, or when it could move beyond the project phase. "It's so new and just opened, so we're looking for how the framework itself evolves with others adding code to it for monetization and how the market reacts," she said.

Google has described one feature of AMP as helping publishers avoid the need to support various platforms. That kind of support is considered a problem with rival platforms, such as Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles. "Publishers continue to host their own content, innovate on their user experiences and flexibly integrate their advertising and business models -- all within a technical architecture optimized for speed ad performance," Google said at www.ampproject.org.

AMP and other initiatives are also considered a response to ad blocker apps, like those on the Apple App Store that allow ad-blocking in Safari. But Harris said it's too soon to predict AMP's impact on ad blockers. "I don't know right now. AMP is so nascent that I can't predict how it's going to affect ad blockers."

The Times did its own test recently using ad-blocking apps. In one test using the Purify app, it found that the loading of The New York Times' 3.7MB home page took 7 seconds to download; with the app, the download size was reduced to 2.1MB, and the download time cut to 4 seconds. h

"Clearly, we don't know the ultimate impact of the [AMP] effort," she said. One thing Harris is waiting for Google to provide is more information on upcoming and undefined "monetization opportunities, which could be paywalls or something they want to build. That would be interesting, but I'm not sure it will be used [by The Times] and there are still so many questions."

Even if the Times doesn't see a sizeable overall time reduction for loading open web pages on smartphones by U.S. users, Harris said there is a broader, global benefit for publishers in countries where users have older phones and poor connections.

"One of the major benefits of AMP is to the overall ecosystem, the global one, with users in places on the globe with older phones and poor connections," Harris said. "That's where it's really valuable."

This story, "The Times’ need for speed on smartphones drives interest in Google’s latest project" was originally published by Computerworld.

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