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TidBITS Hits a Quarter Century of Internet Publishing

by Adam C. Engst

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 [1],” 19 April 2013).

Alas, while researching this article, I saw a reference in the BITNET [2] entry of Wikipedia to eAIR [3], 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 [4] 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 [5] 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 [6],” 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 [7]? It’s now a great blast from the past.

[image link] [8]

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 [9],” 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? [10],” 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 [11] (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.