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TidBITS Hits a Quarter Century of Internet Publishing

TidBITS was initially Tonya’s idea. In April of 1990, I was doing Mac consulting in Ithaca, and Tonya was working for Cornell Information Technologies, helping members of the Cornell community evaluate and purchase Macs, PCs, NeXT machines, and a wide variety of peripherals. Some of her colleagues had been there for a while and didn’t seem excited about recent innovations in technology, like affordable printers that provided the WYG in WYSIWYG or NeXT computers with their unusual mix of power and graphics.

So Tonya came up with the idea of writing a weekly newsletter for her coworkers that would summarize what had happened recently in the world of technology, which we knew about from reading print magazines like MacWEEK, MacUser, and Macworld, plus PC WEEK and InfoWorld (may they rest in peace). She also wanted an excuse to stay familiar with desktop publishing in Aldus PageMaker. I loved the idea and dove in wholeheartedly, offering not only to help write articles but also to distribute them more broadly on the nascent Internet in the form of a HyperCard stack. The print version of TidBITS lasted only a few weeks, but the electronic edition took off online.

The rest, as they say, is history: 25 years of history, to be exact, our entire adult lives. 1,269 weekly issues of TidBITS, over 14,000 articles, and more than 300 distinguished authors, plus millions of readers. Most of those are casual Web browsers, but 21,000 people continue to receive TidBITS via email each week and another 16,000 follow our RSS feed regularly.

Until today, I’d thought that this issue of TidBITS would not just mark our 25th anniversary, but give us the title of the longest-running Internet publication. Previously, that spot was held by The Irish Emigrant, which started in February 1987 as an email newsletter and evolved into an ad-supported Web site. Publishers Liam and Pauline Ferrie retired in February 2012 on their 25th anniversary, leaving the field open to us (for more on the story, see “23 Years of TidBITS: Thoughts on Our Past, Present, and Future,” 19 April 2013).

Alas, while researching this article, I saw a reference in the BITNET entry of Wikipedia to eAIR, the monthly newsletter of the Association for Institutional Research, which apparently started in October 1987 and is still going strong, making it 2.5 years older than TidBITS (albeit with several editors over the years). So I guess we’ll have to stick with saying we’re the second-oldest Internet publication. Easy come, easy go.

I’ve written many things on our various anniversaries, and if you’re interested the history of TidBITS and the Apple ecosystem, I’d encourage you to read through the full TidBITS History series. (Tip: Click the “Show full text of all articles” link at the top and then just scroll down.)

This year, we’ve been thinking about inflection points, those events, decisions, or happenstances that determine the path that will be taken. Inflection points are pivots between what could happen and what did happen, and are thus more interesting than the day-to-day business where everything happens essentially as expected. Here are some of the inflection points that have resulted in the TidBITS you know and hopefully love. Some of these stories may be familiar, or you may even have intersected with them, but others have never before been told in TidBITS.

Discovering the Internet in 1986-87 -- Before we’d come up with the idea for TidBITS, there were two key inflection points during our years as undergrads at Cornell University. Every student could have an account on CORNELLA, an IBM mainframe at Cornell, but most didn’t sign up. I did, and in the fall of 1986, a friend and I were in a terminal room of VT100s in Uris Hall when a guy next to us left without logging out. We couldn’t resist poking around in his account and discovered resources on BITNET, a store-and-forward university network that was my first hint of what Internet publishing could be. That summer, I learned about Usenet, a worldwide Internet discussion system, and as part of my degree work in hypertextual fiction, I created the newsgroup. I was hooked on the Internet, addicted to the idea that I could communicate with a vast number of people around the world. In some ways, that was the true genesis of TidBITS.

Connecting with Halcyon/Northwest Nexus in Seattle in 1991 -- The next challenge TidBITS faced was our 1991 move to Seattle, where Tonya had gotten a job supporting Word for Microsoft. I had no more consulting work and could focus on TidBITS, but I needed an Internet connection, and this was before you could just order one. Within a few weeks I had connected with Ralph Sims, who ran a UUCP machine called Halcyon and who gave me a feed for email and Usenet news. That was how it was done back then — passed-on favors. It was a lifesaver, and I repaid the favor several years later when I worked with Ed Morin of Northwest Nexus, with which Ralph had merged, to create the world’s first flat-rate graphical Internet account and include it in my “Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh” book. (Before that, all consumer-level Internet access was billed by the minute!) It was so much cheaper than the alternatives of the time that Northwest Nexus had customers calling from Japan.

First Internet Advertising in 1992 -- For our first few years TidBITS was purely a labor of love. That had been fine at first, but as it consumed ever more of my time, it became clear I needed to earn some income too. That’s when Tonya and I came up with the idea of advertising in the form of PBS-style sponsorships (see “TidBITS Sponsorship Program,” 20 July 1992), something that was previously unknown on the Internet, due to the National Science Foundation’s Acceptable Use Policies for the NSFNET, which comprised a large portion of the Internet backbone of the time. But in 1991, the restrictions against commercial use of the Internet started to fall away, and we pressed ahead, hoping mostly that, if we were breaking any rules, we’d merely be slapped and told to stop it. (Ah, the optimism of youth!) This predates the Web, and the ads in TidBITS were bolstered by an email-driven file server that readers could write to for more information about the advertised products. It was astonishingly primitive by the standards of today, but it showed the way and let me turn TidBITS into my career. For the record, I sincerely apologize for inadvertently spawning those “one weird trick” ads, but I’d also like to note that Google has never said thank you for making its billions in Web ads possible.

Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh in 1993 -- Ah, the big yellow book that changed my life, and the lives of vast numbers of other Mac users. I got the opportunity to write it for Hayden Books purely because of my work on TidBITS, and when it became hugely popular, selling several hundred thousand copies across four Mac editions, several Windows editions, and various translations, it also boosted the TidBITS subscription numbers dramatically. To this day, a large percentage of our subscribers are still those who joined in 1994 and 1995. Did you know that the third edition is still available in its entirety online? It’s now a great blast from the past.

Help from Friends -- In 1994, I was drowning under the workload of keeping up with “Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh” and dealing with email as people from around the world wrote with questions and requests for help (at one time, I believe I knew more about getting email working for customers of California ISP Netcom than their support people did). Luckily, we’ve had the great good luck to have some tremendously capable friends who have helped make TidBITS possible over the years, starting with Mark Anbinder publishing TidBITS for a month in 1991 while we moved to Seattle. Geoff Duncan played a key role starting in 1994, Jeff Carlson joined the crew in 1997, and Glenn Fleishman moved from being a reader and correspondent to hosting our servers in 1996 and in 2007 developing the TidBITS Publishing System that we still use today (for more of their stories, read “TidBITS Staffers Recall How They Got Their Starts,” 19 April 2010). Each made more of a difference than they probably know.

Sitting Out the Dot-com Bubble -- We were happily publishing TidBITS and writing books during the late 1990s, when the dot-com bubble was inflating. It was all very exciting, and Tonya and I had a lot of late-night conversations about whether we should try to expand the reach of TidBITS by seeking venture capital and hiring a staff. Actually making money wasn’t necessary back then, and our audience was large enough that it wasn’t inconceivable that we could pitch VCs we knew on the idea. But taking outside investment wasn’t our style, and we were highly dubious of the business models that were later proven to be insane. This is one of those inflection points where nothing happened, but I can’t see how it could have turned out well.

Taking Control of Our Future in 2003 -- By 2003, the dot-com bubble had burst, and we had weathered it easily. Our son Tristan was born in 1999, and in 2001, we’d moved back to our hometown of Ithaca, NY. I was busy with TidBITS, but Tonya needed a bigger challenge than writing articles and editing the occasional book for publishers like Peachpit. We combined our experience in writing and editing for the Internet, for magazines like MacUser and Macworld, and for a variety of book publishers to create the Take Control ebook series: rather than write books ourselves, we’d get friends like Joe Kissell and Glenn Fleishman to write them, split the revenues 50:50, and publish solely in ebook form (see “Do You Want to Take Control?,” 20 October 2003). Take Control has stretched us in unimaginable ways, but we’re tremendously proud of the content we’ve created, and the tens of thousands of readers we’ve helped. Take Control couldn’t have gotten off the ground without the TidBITS audience, but now the tables have turned, with Take Control’s mailing list being 50 percent larger than TidBITS’s and Take Control making up the lion’s share of revenue.

TidBITS Members to the Rescue in 2011 -- Although Take Control was keeping TidBITS afloat as we started the second decade of the twenty-first century, it wasn’t pretty. I was torn between working on Take Control projects that actually paid and TidBITS articles that didn’t, and sponsorship revenues had been dropping for years. With Glenn’s help on the back end, we turned TidBITS from being entirely ad-funded to being supported primarily by voluntary contributions from our readers through the TidBITS membership program (see “Support TidBITS by Becoming a TidBITS Member,” 12 December 2011). That money has allowed us to hire Josh Centers as managing editor and pay our contributing editors and freelance writers. As successful as the TidBITS membership program has been, with nearly 2,900 people stepping up to keep TidBITS coming out every week, that’s still not even 15 percent of our email subscribers, much less the many tens of thousands of people who read in RSS or on the Web. If you’ve found our work valuable over the years, or if one of us has helped you personally with a problem, could you kick in $20 to help TidBITS keep going?

What’s Next? -- That question is as much for you as for us. A quarter century ago, we never could have imagined we’d be at this so long. Nevertheless, many of these inflection points have directed us down the path of least resistance, since we love what we do and the people we’ve met along the way. Our challenge now is to keep what we do fresh, both for you and for us. Almost anything pales with too much repetition, and after 25 years of TidBITS and nearly half as many of Take Control, we’ve done a lot of things over and over again. We have some ideas for how we can mix things up while staying true to our mission of helping people by explaining technology, but if you have suggestions, or things you’d like to see from us, don’t hesitate to write.


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Comments about TidBITS Hits a Quarter Century of Internet Publishing
(Comments are closed.)

Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-20 14:18
I first saw TidBITS in its HyperCard format in the UCLA MIC (its microcomputer information commons) right around the same time I made my first visit to Voyager for the meeting that led to the creation of the Voyager Expanded Books. For all I know, I may have mentioned it at that meeting as an example of what one could do with text on a computer.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:06
And now you're one of our key contributors!
David Gustavson  2015-04-20 15:49
For the (near) future, I'd really like to see the TakeControlBooks site recognize my membership in Tidbits, and know that I'm entitled to a discount as a membership benefit.

Furthermore, I'd like the site to pass my Personal Information along to esellerate, so my name and address would be pre-filled as i place an order. You wouldn't need to go so far as to remember my credit card.

The present system seems anachronistic. Other sites have long pre-filled these routine details for the buyer with an account.

And finding the member-benefit discount and getting it applied to a purchase always involves a lot of poking around until I finally find the right link on the right page on the Tidbits site.

I'm sure I'd buy individual new books much more readily if it weren't for this hassle. Now I often wait for enough new items to arrive to enable a 3-item discount, but that's a needless inhibition and confusion.

Congratulations on your 25 well-earned years!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-20 16:04
You've identified one of our general sore sports, David! We've been working on a Take Control site redesign for 3 years now, and the TidBITS site is equally in need of redesign. With luck, the Take Control redesign will come online soon, and I've found a design team in Ithaca that might be good to work with on TidBITS.

Our first goal is to get the basic functionality of the new sites up, and then to add this sort of personalization.

I do pine for the old days of the Internet at times, when a generalist like me could actually do almost everything. Web design and development is such a specialty now that there's very little I can do to my own satisfaction.
Anonymous  An apple icon for a TidBITS Angel 2015-04-21 16:54
I jumped at the lifetime TidBits membership back during that little "inflection" and it's been great.

I would like to be able to have access to the TC library for a flat fee as well. Often I just want a chapter or a topic contained within a book and it would be nice to have those ready to go.

Thanks and go go go !
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 17:09
We've thought about that too - a lot - and once we get the new Take Control site up, that's the next big infrastructure thing to work on. The hard part is making sure that full access to the Take Control Library doesn't result in our authors taking a significant royalty cut!
Betty Fellows  2015-04-20 19:01
Mazal tov on 25 years. You and Tonya are awesome! I can't tell you how much I've learned from both of you.

I hope you keep going as long as there is technology to write about.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 14:52
Yikes! I'm not sure we'll ever get a rest then. :-)
Edward Wood  2015-04-20 19:28
Congratulations and thanks a million for doing so much to help those of us who are way too old to know much about computing
Snaggy  2015-04-20 20:05
Congrats on 25 years! Wow, amazing. I can't imagine an Internet without TidBITS. Thanks for all the incredible info and fantastic help you've delivered, year after year.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:07
And thank you for Joy of Tech, and the wonderful cartoons you've done of us over the years!
Russell Conte  2015-04-20 20:27
A very big congratulations on 25 years of outstanding work. I can speak from experience it has helped many of us in the Chicago area, and it is a solid and dependable source of information. It's been an incredible ride, and I look forward to many more years of TidBITS. Best wishes and congratulations!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:06
And we definitely need to make it back to one of your MUG meetings, but with time not just to get some of that serious BBQ, but also take in some art and architecture. I haven't spent nearly enough time in Chicago, and Tonya has only been in O'Hare.
Maryanne Solomon  2015-04-20 21:11
First heard about Tidbits on my Claris Homepage User Group. When I dropped AOL for Earthlink, I had to open a new Tidbits account because you couldn't transfer an email then - moving tidbits to .Mac was easier. Now my 25-year-old son calls me the Luddite, but I still read Tidbits every week. Best of luck to you. Enjoyed every issue - especially the personal stuff like the water birth and our joint love of HomeGrocer.
Tonya Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 07:07
HomeGrocer was a good one. Adam and I recently tried a local grocery delivery service here in Ithaca, Rosie. It was entirely okay, but there was no refrigerated truck. Just a car. I really liked how the milk was so cold from the HomeGrocer deliveries. We still have HomeGrocer truck magnets on our fridge!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:12
Things have changed a lot since the days of Claris, haven't they? But don't believe your son one bit - there's nothing wrong with sticking with the technology that you know and that does what you need. And besides the Luddites were actually protesting how industrialization was replacing skilled artisans with less-skilled, low-paid workers. Not wanting to be a cog in a wheel isn't a bad thing in my mind!
Ah the hypercard stack version of tidbits :) I still recall showing that to my mother and while she never warmed up to hypercard, tidbits became a must read for her (along with the BCS mac group). 25 years.. well done gang!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 14:53
Ah, for the days of the big user groups, like BCS and BMUG - that was something. In some ways it's a little sad that as the technology became more mainstream, we lost a lot of the organizations that made it special in those early days.
Chris Kohuch  2015-04-20 22:52
Oh how time flies. I first came into contact with TidBITS as student attending BCIT in the very early 90's on those same kinds of VT100 terminals Adam mentioned.

After graduating, my internet access came via dialup and bounced around to anywhere I could gain access. First universities and fledgling commercial providers via long distance (shudder) and later via small community startups. I remember using Mosaic for the first time and knowing (with as much certainty as I've ever known anything) that this was the future of the internet.

I also remember being one of the very first people in my area to connect to broadband when it was first introduced via the local CableTV provider in the late 90's. They were quite hesitant to hook up to a Mac, saying they didn't have any software or expertise in doing so. Armed with the latest version of The Internet Starter Kit (4th Edition by then I'd imagine) I told them to just install my Cable Modem and leave me an ethernet cable and I'd take care of the rest. Moving from dial up to a 5Mb connection was game changing to say the least.

And so here we are, 25 years (or maybe 23 in my case?) and probably a dozen email addresses and internet providers later and still going strong.

Thank you Adam, Tonya and the rest of the TidBITS team for all your hard work, and here's looking forward to the next 25 years.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 14:55
When Cornell was getting rid of some VT100s (this was even while we were students, we snagged one, but it proved too big to keep when we were younger. I slightly regret not holding onto it, just for the memories.

And do you remember the days of putting ALL your email addresses on a business card? The more you had, the more important you were, clearly. :-)
Ko van Hespen  2015-04-21 00:32
Congratulations! And may the next 25 years prove equally successful.
For me TidBITS came into view as part of my work, setting up a scan service for a photo lab in the Netherlands in the mid nineties from scratch. For an awful lot of stuff I needed to know I was pointed in the right direction by TidBITS. To this day I am benefiting in my job in graphics from the information you keep publishing. And it has helped me to keep working on a Mac even in the most PC orientated organizations.
Since TidBITS has helped me so much over the years I jumped at the opportunity to join the membership program and keep things going.
Thank you, Tonya, Adam, Joe, Glenn, Josh and the rest!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 14:56
I'm tremendously pleased to hear that we're still publishing information that's helping you in your job - as computing has become more about communication and then entertainment, it's been hard sometimes to cover the more practical and productivity-oriented topics.
Don MUNRO  2015-04-21 01:06
A thousand thanks from Australia for what you've taught me over the years - not quite the whole 25, but close. I've read most issues since about 1993 and I can honestly say I've learned more from TidBits and the TOC books than from all the magazines and books I've read since the early 80s - and what's more I think I actually understand why and not just what to do. If there's ever a Hall of Fame for IT writers (especially Mac) you have to be in it. Long may you reign! And long may you enjoy life and what you're doing!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:04
And back in the day, getting anything over the Internet in Australia was a trick, given how expensive it was to send data back and forth. Nevertheless, some of the best friends we've made on the Internet are from Australia.

I'm really pleased to hear how much you've learned from our work. That's always been our goal.

Maybe we need to create a TidBITS Certification, completely with a gnarly technology test that people could take online. It could even have MacTCP configuration questions to put the young-uns in their place. ;-)
Mike Vlasman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-04-21 11:25
Congratulations guys!

Everything you do is always well worth a read. I've appreciated that professionalism in every TidBITS article and Take Control book I've read, and that's a fair number. And includes the Internet Starter Kit.

Twenty-five more, please.
Charlie Hartley  2015-04-21 11:16
Agreed! It's your professionalism that keeps me coming back for more. Your advice is golden. Thanks for your dedication.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 14:59
I love hearing that. Back when we started, we were so concerned about looking "real" (because we were just out of college and clearly not even adults, much less professionals). We've always aspired to professionalism, even as what has become popular is attitude and snark and controversy. That's not to say we don't think that stuff sometimes, but we seldom write it because that would be, well, unprofessional.
David Laffitte  2015-04-21 15:08
TidBITS quickly became the 1st place I looked for information for our Macs whether it be reports on OS releases, advice on apps and more recently the great Take Control Series. You, Tonya and the team are among the most valued, enduring aspects of the net! Thanks!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:08
It definitely used to be easier! :-) Now the Apple treadmill keeps us going ever faster; if we're lucky, they won't update OS X and iOS in a huge way again at WWDC in June. Just a breather, please!
Dave Crockett  2015-04-21 09:10
I started subscribing to the TidBITS-Talk shortly after inheriting a Mac SE at my office at Clemson University (pre-System 6, as I recall). Have remained a more-or-less loyal subscriber since and proudly write-off my paid membership against my post-Clemson retirement computer consulting business every year! Thanks Adam and Tonya!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:00
It's lovely that supporting TidBITS can be a business expense!
Mike Warren  2015-04-21 09:45
I'm so old I can't remember when I signed up for TidBITS but I do remember reading the setext-formatted version. Now I read it via the iOS app. I look forward to seeing what the next 25 years brings. Congratulations!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:09
Yeah, that's one reason I keep all my email - to remind myself of when I did certain things or first met certain people. It all blurs together after a million messages or so.
W.P. Fleischmann  2015-04-21 14:36
Congratulations, you two!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 15:00
Says the man who actually knew us during Cornell, albeit largely on the softball field. :-) As I said, I'm sure some people will have intersected with those stories.
Geoffrey Staines  2015-04-21 19:36
Congrats. My first encounter with TidBITS was circa issue 100, I believe. And as for Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh in 1993, I am one of those who can say that it changed my life!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-21 19:41
That's great - my favorite story about the Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh was a guy who had been laid off from a non-technical job, bought the book and got on the Internet, and then got a new job doing support for a local ISP. For him it truly was a lifesaver, and it has stuck in my memory because of that.
Chris Kohuch  2015-04-23 20:31
I'm not sure what I did with those earlier versions of The Internet Starter Kit (gave them away to other people I imagine) but I still have my copy of version 4, for nostalgia purposes I suppose.

I know at one point I was using an ISP via dialup based out of Seattle (Halcyon?) based on an earlier version. That's what made the books so great for me, back in those days it wasn't just about what to do with the internet, it was also about getting access in the first place.

Today ISP's are so much a part of our infrastructure, it's hard to believe there was a time when you had to search out access to the internet. I know my first several years after leaving post secondary schooling were a constant search for new and better (faster/cheaper/more reliable) access.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-22 09:36
Yep, you would almost certainly have been using Northwest Nexus (halcyon was a specific machine originally).

My problem is that every now and then I see a copy at a used bookstore or book sale, and I have to restrain myself from wanting to rescue it and take it home. I do have one copy of every edition, version, and translation (as you can see in the shelf photo).
Christian Kaatmann  2015-04-21 20:05
Dear Adam and Tonya
It's been a pleasure to follow you in TidBits all these years. We ( my wife and I) started reading TidBits back in the early 1990's. We had just met, had both just discovered theMacintosh, and were working together. We still follow TidBits and hope very much that you will be there for another 25 years as we approach that wonderful state of retirement when we will finally have enough time to experiment with our Macs and have a lot of fun after many years of spreadsheets since Excel 1.04. Thank you, continue please!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-22 09:34
Now there's a slogan - the couple that reads TidBITS together, stays together. :-)
Michel Dozois  2015-04-22 13:18
Keep on trucking!
Kevin La Rue  2015-04-22 22:34
Totally cool! Congrats on the longevity!! Having worked at venerable Silicon Beach Software, co-founded Allegiant to take SuperCard forward, and am now at Macphun (photo apps for the Mac), I know the amount of work it takes to "keep on keepin' on." Well done to you, Tonya and the team... ONWARD! ;-)
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-23 14:47
Thanks Kevin! This is why I miss Macworld Expo so much - far fewer chances to get together with others who've orbited Apple for as many years.
Eric Ward  2015-04-27 13:05
Well done old friend!
Steve Sorbo  2015-04-30 14:08
Ahhh those halcyon days in Seattle. Sorry couldn't resist. ;-)
Andrew James  2015-05-05 23:45
I became immeshed in the Apple world in 1990 when as a part time IT support person, my boss asked me to change over our admin XT/AT PCs for Mac LC475s. I fell in love with these boxes and Mac OS, and soon TidBITs became indispensable for helping me do my job.

Fast forward 25 years and I've been out of IT (work wise) for 10 years but still find TidBITs a compelling read due to personal interest and a home full of Apple devices!
Love your work and have enjoyed the ride. Even though we haven't met (I'm in Australia), I feel some connection due to similar age / family life circumstances.

All the best for the future and my thumbs up for your continued emphasis on professionalism and in-depth articles.