No more Across Lite????

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.

Concluding thoughts

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.

33 comments

  1. I’m not sure now how to solve the NYT puzzles come August 10. I’ve *always* done them (shades o’ my grandmother, I know!) in Across Lite. I mean, it’s so handy when you’re pretending to be at your computer working, when you’re actually solving a puzzle! (Rats!) I don’t — I really, really, REALLY don’t — want to solve them on my phone. For one thing? Who wants a business partner (and, sheesh, husband!) to see you on the phone when you’re supposed to be working??? So, I’m wondering…is there a way to use the app (which I’ve never used but have heard nothing but bleep about it, but that’s neither here nor there) on my Mac? (OS El Capitan). Thanks!

    Kelly <—honestly plans to tackle that project, darling…soon…really! 🙂

  2. The main problem will be that we will no longer be able to solve offline (unless we go old school and print out the PDFs).

  3. Maybe I’m a cynic but it’s difficult for me to imagine that this isn’t motivated by the NYTimes bleeding money and looking at whatever cash cows it has to generate even more revenue. How long before you’re forced to buy a subscription and suffer through ads?

    For me, absent Across Lite, the subscription is worthless. I only solve puzzles in Across Lite or print them. I have no interest in trying to figure out the quirks of a bunch of different online apps. I do the New Yorker puzzles on paper and suppose I’ll do the same with the NYTimes. The only difference is that I need to pay for a subscription to the New Yorker. In contrast, I can photocopy the puzzle from the NYTimes at my office.

  4. I’ve been doing the NYTXW for nearly 50 years and have been using AcrossLite for at least 15. I’m sad and angry about this, and yes I know, “change is hard.” Yes, AL does not reproduce all the gimmicks well, but it’s so clean and easy on the eyes and a pleasure to use for solving. I’ve used other apps with .puz files, and they’re fine, but we won’t even have .puz files anymore. I can’t stand using the NYT’s app. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m thinking of canceling my subscription.

  5. You are right, I am sure. Life will go on, but not as we knew it. Your analogy is apt, as I do not miss dial up one bit (tho I do miss the espresso machine sound of the connection – so visceral).
    But practically thinking, is there another app out there that people like?
    I will especially miss the ability to do the puzzle in unconnected spaces, which are becoming more rare and precious to me.

  6. And for Those of us with vision problems? Do you realize that across the light is the only way that some of us can see the puzzle?

  7. You can download puzzles in the NYT crossword app and solve them offline later. I do this when I take a plane trip and don’t want to pay for the inflight internet.

  8. Very disappointing. The NYT has made their decision and really doesn’t care what we think; but, it still felt good sending them an email voicing my displeasure. Question – are they also going to remove their complete archive of .puz files? Luckily, I just finished downloading all puz files onto my computer. Thank to Xwordinfo for keeping their repository, too.

  9. One week’s notice!? You’d think they would give us more time. But that would likely strain their servers as more AL users download the puz files they’re missing. I have almost all of the Thu-Sun Shortz-era .puz files. NYT should not have done this to us without first creating an offline app. Or … do they have one I haven’t heard about?

    1. I finally finished downloading and renaming all the puz back to 1993. I renamed all of them like this NYT_2021_08_04_Wednesday.puz Took a long time to do, but I can pull them out by difficulty

      1. My weekend project is to make sure I have all the available. Sunday dailies and cryptics. The others don’t demand Across Lite for me. I’ve tried renaming before and it was more trouble than it was worth. Instead I use Excel to read the file root and give me the weekday. I’m still hoping that NYT will allow someone to pick up the ball they are suddenly dropping without a good offline desktop app.

  10. So, I have a script that can turn a New York Times puzzle Crossword from the webpage into an Across Lite puz file. It’s a Python script, so there’s a bit of a learning order to using it (you’d need to use the command line to use it, for instance). If there’s interest, I can put it online somewhere.

      1. I doubt if the NYT would care. Only logged-in users could use the tool and it wouldn’t impact their revenue. Remember Earlybird? For years he would crack the code daily when the puzzles came out locked. I don’t remember that he was ever hassled by the NYT.. They’ll be getting a lot of complaints and might actually welcome a tool to help diehard AL users. I believe they just don’t want to keep supporting and storing .PUZ files. Jim, have you thought of hosting them yourself?

          1. I predict that the contract may have to be revised due to this major change. I was surprised when they allowed you to set up the acrostics, so anything is possible. If not you, they will likely license someone to host the .PUZ files for NYT subscribers only.

    1. Today I started looking at the possibility of parsing a downloaded NYT Crossword PDF. Parsing the puzzle looks very easy when using the the ancient utility pdft2xml to convert the PDF to XML. It does a great job. It outputs an XML file, which can be parsed to find the clues and numbered squares, and a VEC file, which is an xml representation of the grid (very similar to SVG) and can be parsed to identify each square of the grid as open or closed.

      pdf2xml utility: https://sourceforge.net/projects/pdf2xml/

      Partial XML file: https://gist.github.com/rpresser/e7d22b0e7a3e84927fdcd46dec0ee068

      Partial VEC file:https://gist.github.com/rpresser/79d6fe46030d81d03392478b6534a83f

      1. I just realized this is a bit pointless since the PDF does not have the answers, and the PUZ format expects to have them. Sigh.

    2. Random Coder,

      I’d be interested. I can see where the squares and the clues are laid out … but I am not seeing where the answers are embedded. Are they buried in the pluribus or unum variables?

  11. It is tough for me not to add my two cents…

    I remember the days of Lyriq crosswords, those were the ones I recall entering the code the next day but maybe I recall incorrectly. I remember eventually finding converters online to get them into AcrossLite. My entire crossword collection then became that format since it was the NYT standard.

    It was the conversion format used by the Litz Bros. It was the format I provided to this very Jim Horne when he started xwordinfo. It was the format used by teenage David Steinberg in the pre-Shortzian project. It was the format I provided to Saul Pwanson who analyzed them leading to the plagiarism scandal as reported widely in FiveThirtyEight. I guess I have a particular fondness, so it is a sad event to see the passing of the format by the NYT however stale it has become.

    Like others my issue becomes there is no format for “offline” solving the NYT other than on paper. I use enough paper for my cryptic and variety crossword habit, I don’t really want to print regular crosswords, especially ones earlier in the week. So I probably won’t which is a shame as well-constructed early week puzzle is just as worthy of admiration as later week puzzles.

  12. Barry Haldiman has made heroic contributions to the preservation of historical crosswords. XWord Info would not have a complete database without his and David Steinberg’s hard work. Both contributed untold hours to the effort for the pure love of crossword history.

  13. Old school here. I print Thu-Sat NYTXP using across lite on recycled paper. Something about the tactile response from pencil on paper. Often I will lightly pencil in an answer until I’m confident that it is correct. I realize it is still available as a PDF but I’ve never been overly fond of the layout and font for printing and solving in PDF format..

    1. For recent puzzles, you can print from the NYT website in two formats. Standard PDF is available, which I admit is not always ideal, although it does have the best fidelity to the newspaper version. Then there’s automatically generate print version that is similar to Across Lite. That second method also allows you to choose right-hand or left-hand grids.

  14. This is a bit strange. The variety puzzles are usually out Thursday evening. I tried again to download the cryptic this afternoon in PDF format from the NYT prompt.. FAIL! The .PUZ file is there however! I’m generating my own URLs to get to the puzzles more quickly. Here’s what I have for Sunday:

    http://www.nytimes.com/svc/crosswords/v2/puzzle/daily-2021-08-08.pdf?block_opacity=15&large_print=true

    http://www.nytimes.com/svc/crosswords/v2/puzzle/daily-2021-08-08.puz

    http://www.nytimes.com/svc/crosswords/v2/puzzle/variety-2021-08-08.pdf?block_opacity=15

    http://www.nytimes.com/svc/crosswords/v2/puzzle/variety-2021-08-08.puz

    Only the last one works so far.

    1. The NYT was late with both the Sunday Cryptic and Monday PDFs, but the PUZ files were right on time. Does this mean they may not be ready to cut us off yet? It has always been unclear whether the last PUZ is today’s or tomorrow’s.

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