The role of magazines in personal computing. (Reminiscence - software, stores and magazines) David Bunnell.
This being the tenth anniversary of Creative Computing, the first personal computer magazine, personal computer magazines seem an appropriate topic. The past ten years have taken Creative Computing from being a unique publication to being one of more than 200 such publications. Today these magazines range from general publications, such as Personal Computing and Microcomputing, to specialized, machine-specific magazines, such as 80-Micro for Radio Shack computers and PC Magazine for IBM personal computers. Other magazines are aimed at specific aspects of personal computing such as retailing (Computer Retailing and Computer Dealer), programming (Lifelines), and software buying (List).
The nature of peronal computers explains the existence of such a diverse collection of magazines. Unlike many of the great technological inventions preceding it, the personal computer acts as an extension of the mind. As such, the personal computer is immensely diversified and in many ways immensely complicated. Every aspect of personal computing, from buying to selling to programming, involves an incredible amount of decision making. The amazing array of personal computers, programs, and optional products emphasizes this fact.
No matter how you are involved with the personal computer, you need lots of information. Gathering this information is often difficult because the personal computer is still young and is evolving so rapidly that the available information is in constant flux. today's state-of-the-art spread-sheet is tomorrow's has-been.
Creative Computing, the first and longest lived personal computer magazine and its founder, David Ahl, deserve tremendous applause. Not all personal computing magazines have been such great successes. Over the years I have watched many of them rise and fall.
One of those that tried and failed was a personal computing magazine called ROM published by Erik Sandberg-Diment, now a well-read columnist for the New York Times. ROM came out only nine times before it bit the dust. Other titles no longer with us include Microtrek and Desktop Computing. Solid Background
As the founding publisher of four of the more successful ones (Personal Computing PC Magazine, PC World and Macworld), I like to think I know some of the reasons why some personal computer magazines make it so big while others fail. First and foremost, like magazines in other fields, a personal computer magazine must be well conceived. Creative Computing is based on the solid idea that many people who use personal computers want to use them creatively. David Ahl, who drew his early computer experience from minicomputers, knew that playing games on computers was not only fun but educational. He also realized that conveiving and writing new games was challenging and entertaining. He created a magazine designed as an information vehicle for people who like to learn by being creative and having fun with their personal computers.
Carl Helmers, who created the idea for Byte magazine, had a different idea. More fascinated with the technology of computers than with their applications, Carl believed that many people would want to learn about computer technology and actually participate in the development of the personal computer. He guessed right, and Byte became one of the all-time great publishing success stories.
Both David Ahl and Carl Helmers created magazines that they would like to read. Basically, David's magazine was a software magazine and Carl's, a hardware one. Their motives had little to do with building publishing empries or making megabucks. They simply knew that there were a lot of people who needed a magazine to help them actively pursue their passions for computing.
In 1976 I came up with the idea for Personal Computing. I was influenced by both David's and Carl's cretions, but I sensed a need for a magazine for people who were neither fascinated by computer technology nor interested in becoming as involved iwth their personal computers as the readers of Creative Computing. I thought there should be a magazine that was oriented toward people who wanted to use a personal computer as a productivity tool without knowing too much about how personal computers work or are programmed--this magazine would be the first consumer-oriented personal computer magazine. As a person who had no computer or technical background but who found the concept of personal computers fascinating, I created the magazine I wanted to read.
Fortunately I met a fellow with even less enthusiasm for computer technology than myself who was also one heck of a good writer, Nels Winkless. His contribution to my idea about Personal Computing was that this magazine should be less about computers and more about the people using them. Nels agreed to serve as editor, I played the role of publisher, and the magazine was born. Today neither of us is involved with Personal Computing but we are both proud of the fact that it is one of the most read of the personal computer magazines. Had Personal Computing, Creative Computing and Byte not been well conceived in the first place, none of them would be around today. Fiscal Strength
Having the right idea at the right time is always useful; however, other factors also have helped make the above three magazines the phenomenal successes they are today. While all three of them were started on a shoe-string by a small group of individuals or by small publishing companies, their transition into big-time publishing was accomplished with the helping hand of big-time publishers. Once a start-up magazine has reached a certain point, it needs financial backing and publishing expertise to continue to grow and prosper. Today Personal Computing is published by Hayden Publishing, Byte by McGraw-Hill and Creative Computing by Ziff-Davis.
The market for personal computing magazines is new and different from the market for other magazines. Computer stores provide a natural outlet for personal computer publications--a far better outlet than newsstands. Far fewer magazines are returned from computer store shelves than from newsstands. Not many people realize this, but more than half of the personal computer magazines put on newstands are thrown away. Not only is this a waste of trees, but it puts a financial burden on publishers. Without computer stores, David Ahl, Carl Helmers, and I would have faced an almost impossible task in getting our-magazines distributed at a price we could afford. Also, the three of us benefitted from the fact that the number of personal computers has been doubling or tripling year after year--there are always new readers and new advertisers.
The incredible amount of advertising in personal computer magazines is a testimony to the vitality of our industry. I have often talked to publishers of other types of magazines who drool with envy when they consider the ad pages in personal computer magazines. This unprecedented volume reflects the entrepreneurial spirit in our country and the political and social environment that allows personal computing to prosper, uninhibited by government regulations.
Eventually all magazines, even computer magazines, must play by the rules. these rules identify three major revenue streams--subscription, single-copy, and advertising revenue. These are interwined in a triple helix that represents the science of magazine publishing. Single-copy sales directly affect the subscription rate, which in turn affects the amount of advertising you get. It is a delicate balance, the nuances of which have produced a library of literature.
We personal computer magazine publishers like to think that it is our sincere interest and our unique knowledge oe personal computing that make us successful. Creative Computing could never have been such as smashing success without the insight and dedication of its founder and the people attracted by his vision. Still, this is sometimes not enough; the founder of ROM also had many of the right characteristics, yet his magazine never really got off the starting block. The Future
During the next few years, we will see many of today's personal computer magazines fail, as many of them are ill conceived and headed by people who lack true personal computing vision. However, we will also see many new magazines; the market for personal computing is not static.
Some people think that IBM will become such a dominant factor that machine-specific magazines such as PC Magazine and PC World won't be necessary. Others argue with equal vigor that Apple, AT&T, and the Japanese will establish standards of their own. As personal computing continues to grow, vertical magazines, such as those that now exist for lawyers, could become the next rage. The topic will probably remain the same, though the specifications may change. Perhaps there will even be a personal computer magazine for movie stars someday--id there isn't already.
The majority of today's mainstay publications, including Creative Computing, should survive until the end of the century. Beyond that it depends on how well their publishers transfer them to entirely electronic media. Once personal computers have super screen resolution and massive amounts of memory, we'll find ourselves realizing the long-held vision of reading our newspapers and our magazines on screen. The printing business will ease to exist except for the novelty of printed greeting cards and business cards.
It is ironic that the personal computer, which should be replacing the printing press, has thus far given the ancient craft of ink on paper its biggest shot in the arm since the advent of the mail-order catalog. David Ahl and I invariably end up lugging heavy boxes of magazines at trade shows--a hassle that the new technology is trying to eliminate.
Since my bacground prior to the Altair was in journalism and not computing, I am glad that this irony exists. It is hard to imagine personal computing taking hold of our collective imaginations so quickly without magazines. Magazines have spread the news about personal computers more effectively than any other medium including books, radio, and television. More importantly, magazines have helped to create whole communities of personal computer users. By subsribing to Creative Computing you automatically identify yourself with thousands of other personal computer users who have a similar orientation to computing.
I often wonder if the IBM Personal Computer would have had the same phenomenal success withouth the support of the machine-specific magazines it has inspired. I know from personal experience that many companies in the IBM third-party market got their start by advertising in PC Magazine. Apple certainly thinks that magazines influence the market, since they agreed to give me access to inside information so that I could launch the first issue of Macworld on the same day that they announced the Macintosh. Obviously, it is no accident that my company has been approached by several smaller personal computer manufacturers practically begging us to create magazines oriented to their computers. Luckily, we didn't respond to these pleas because most of their machines have flopped in the marketplace.
For me this historic issue of Creative Computing is more than a well-deserved tribute to David Ahl and his publishing vision; it is a tribute to personal computer magazines in general and to the vitality and lasting impact of the personal computer itself. So congratulations both to the perople who produce Creative Computing and to the people who read it. Congratulations to all of us in personal computing.
Named Works: PC Magazine (Periodical) - History; PC World (Periodical) - History