If you look up love-hate relationship in any dictionary, it just says, “See Across Lite.”
The following announcement was published today (8/2/2021): NYT Games No Longer Available on Across Lite as of Aug. 10.
Is that good or bad, at least in the long term?
First some definitions:
Across Lite is a program that runs on Macs and PCs. It lets you solve crosswords.
Across Lite .puz files are the binary data files that you downloaded from sites like nytimes.com so you can print or solve those crosswords off-line.
What the New York Times has announced is that they will no longer be making those .puz files available to its Games subscribers. Access to these files has been a major benefit. We could download and solve any puzzle dating back to 1993. As of August 10, they will all disappear. You can still both solve and print NYT crosswords, but you must be online, and you have to do it on their website or from their iOS or Android app.
The History of Across Lite
Back in 1996, the Times first made .puz files available electronically. That was audacious. In those days, few people owned computers. Most had heard of, but had never interacted with this hot new confusing thing called the Internet. If you were tech savvy or if you knew a teenager, you could dial up the Times on your noisy acoustic modem and, if you were patient, download the files. Across Lite allowed people to solve crosswords on their computers – no more messy write-overs on cheap newsprint! The next day, you could get a code to unlock the file and check if your answers were correct. Amazing!
A few years later, Across Lite was updated. The biggest change was that it could handle rebus puzzles, i.e., ones with symbols or multiple letters in a single box. There seemed to be no limits to what the app could do.
And then innovation of the app stopped, just when innovation in puzzle-making was taking off. Across Lite never extended beyond it’s simple ANSI character set, meaning no Greek letters, no Cyrillic text, no cute emojis. Circles in the grid were supported but shaded squares and colors and images and extra-sized cells and on and on and on, never made it in.
Solvers who preferred Across Lite regularly stuffed the NYT mailbox with outraged complaints. They paid good money for their subscription, and now they didn’t get the full experience on the limited Across Lite app! We learned to dread the “notepad” suggesting that “this is another puzzle you really should solve in some other format.”
NYT invests in apps
In time, the .puz format became ubiquitous. Many apps can now read those files but they’re all still constrained by the restrictive .puz file format. To accommodate increasingly creative puzzles, the NYT decided to invest in their own apps that would provide a better experience with non-standard puzzles. Solvers are encouraged to use the web app where developers can tweak individual puzzles with add-on graphics or other unique features. It can track your solving times and streaks. (Some people care about this a lot.)
So, everything’s great, right?
For most people everything is at least fine. The user interface of the NYT web app is remarkably good, for a web app, but Mac or PC applications will always have advantages over browser apps. Speed solvers and offline solvers love Across Lite, and they’ll suffer a bit from this change.
There’s another group of .puz consumers you might not think about. People who analyze crosswords or build up wordlists or clue lists automatically or write solving software or do research. They probably get their data by parsing .puz files. (We show you how to do that.) XWord Info started because I was able to download a bunch of .puz files from nytimes.com and dump the contents into a database where it could be analyzed.
I have no idea what happens to businesses who rely on getting .puz file data for their own apps.
How does this affect XWord Info?
We have a lot of work to do to update how our site works, but we’ll continue to make NYT crossword data available to you.
One of the value propositions for our site has been that we organized access to Across Lite files in useful ways. You could easily download puzzles by your favorite constructor, or ones that won POWs, or dozens of other categories. We are organizing links to the NYT web app in those same ways. We’re working on new features too, but more of that later.
This is going to suck for some people, there’s no getting around that. Change is tough, and Across Lite has been around long enough to be fully entrenched in our crossword lives. The main advantage going forward is that, theoretically, you’ll never experience solving an NYT crossword in a way vastly different from what was intended, because you’ll only be able to experience it on paper or on an approved app.
I imagine the Times will get lots of feedback and you can expect modifications and enhancements over time. My guess is that it won’t be long before we look back on Across Lite with that same nostalgic feeling we hold for those noisy acoustic modems. Yeah, we don’t need to go back to that either.