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New site a peek into Globe’s technological evolution

Today’s BostonGlobe.com debut is part of a technological transformation underway at The Boston Globe’s headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard.

The same team that built the paid-subscription website is busy researching other novel ways to present and deliver stories, pictures, and video. And soon, it will tap into the expertise of some of the region’s top tech developers for even more cutting-edge ideas.

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To further its digital efforts, the Globe is offering free space to start-up companies that have no direct connection to journalism. They will be based in a development area featuring a living room, coffee bar, and work stations. In return, the Globe hopes the outside entrepreneurs will come up with new ways to help it better serve readers.

Keeping up with rapidly evolving technology is crucial to the Globe’s continued success, publisher Christopher M. Mayer said. “We do need to look ahead at the way people are not only consuming but are likely to consume news and information,’’ Mayer said.

The tech initiative is centered in a part of the building previously occupied by the Globe’s classified advertising department. Classified ads once generated a significant portion of revenue at most newspapers, but as more readers turned to online services such as eBay and Craigslist, print classifieds declined sharply and the once-humming department grew quieter.

Now the space is coming alive again, with whiteboards, stacks of 40-inch video monitors, and a host of laptops, smartphones, and tablet computers. The people using the equipment are mostly of a generation raised on pixels rather than ink. They are veterans of Microsoft Corp. , the Cambridge video game maker Harmonix Music Systems, and the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others.

“The goal of our digital efforts is to make The Boston Globe as relevant in the 21st century as it has been for the last 140 years,’’ said Jeff Moriarty, the Globe’s vice president of digital products.

‘All the technology just kind of falls away.’

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Moriarty came from The New York Times Co. , the Globe’s owner, to oversee the development of BostonGlobe.com. He did not have to be coaxed into leaving New York.

“To build a digital newspaper from scratch in 2011? Couldn’t resist,’’ said Moriarty, who has worked on websites such as NYTimes.com and About.com.

Building BostonGlobe.com meant thinking about how to publish for people who often do not use traditional desktop computers. Globe developers knew that readers will be just as likely to view the site on smartphones, tablet computers, and even televisions. That meant figuring out formats to fit a host of gadgets varying in screen size, computing power, and storage capacity.

Many companies have addressed the format issue by building different versions of a site - one for desktop computers, another for mobile users. Or they build customized software apps for different mobile devices.

BostonGlobe.com developers, with help from the Boston Web design company Filament Group, have adopted a different approach, called “responsive Web design.’’ It is a way of building sites that vary their appearance and features depending on the device used to access them, so the same page, with no alterations, looks just right whether it is displayed on a large desktop monitor or on a smartphone.

Responsive Web design also enables other powerful features. For instance, if a device has a touchscreen, BostonGlobe.com lets the reader scroll through photographs with the swipe of a finger. On devices without touchscreens, a standard mouse can be used. Also, if the device has onboard memory, the site will display an option to save a copy of a story so it can be read offline.

“All the technology just kind of falls away,’’ said Todd Parker, Filament Group partner. “The important thing is, you pick up any device no matter what shape, size, or capability and it just works.’’

Aaron Weyenberg, an independent developer whose clients include sports site ESPN and the TED academic video service, said BostonGlobe.com marks the first attempt to use responsive Web design on a large scale. “Everyone’s waiting to see what BostonGlobe.com does,’’ he said.

Weyenberg believes the new design will stumble over some of the advanced graphical features common to newspapers. Sure enough, Globe developers found online crossword puzzles to be problematic - the standard grid design will not fit well on a smartphone - and they are experimenting with different approaches to build crosswords for any device. A beta version of the crossword using the programming language HTML 5 resizes to your screen and is believed to be one of the first of its kind.

Still, a demonstration of the prototype on various devices - including an iPhone, tablet computer, BlackBerry, Android phone, and e-book reader - proved the software’s versatility. No two of the displays look alike, but all are easy to read and share a sleek, uncluttered look.

Moriarty said he and his team have lots more work to do as they test new online strategies in the media lab. Screens at the coffee bar will stream news from Globe reporters via the popular Twitter messaging service. Such displays could someday appear in restaurants or airport lounges, serving up Globe headlines along with advertisements.

Nothing has been ruled out when it comes to considering new ways to bring news and information to people. For instance, in the living room simulation, the digital team will test Microsoft’s popular Kinect motion-control technology. They will use hand gestures to control a large video display of the Globe website, flipping the pages from 10 feet away. Will people want to read the news this way? Moriarty said he plans to find out.

Meanwhile, the first start-up company is moving into the new incubation area at the Globe. Think Forward Productions, from Dorchester, produces videos for musicians and local businesses. “You bring external ideas, people, creativity into the building,’’ Moriarty said. “They get access to us. We get access to them.’’ And that could mean better access to journalism’s most precious resource: paying customers.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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