The Info-Mac Network Retires
To all good things there must come an end, and it is with some sadness that I officially retire the Info-Mac Network. Nominally, I’ve been president of the non-profit volunteer organization since incorporating it in 2000, but in reality I’ve been only one of many volunteers who have helped keep Info-Mac running over the years. But over the past year or so, it’s become clear both that Info-Mac has outlived most of its utility and that it’s not worth investing yet more time, effort, and money in keeping it going longer.
Info-Mac Past and Present — For those who haven’t heard of it, Info-Mac was the oldest of Macintosh services on the Internet, predating TidBITS by six years. As far as I can tell from searching in Google Groups, Info-Mac started in June of 1984 (and amusingly, Google displayed the MacObserver coverage of our just-released "Take Control of .Mac" ebook on the same page).
There were two parts to the Info-Mac Network, the Info-Mac Digest, which was a moderated mailing list about all things Macintosh, and the Info-Mac Archive, which stored and made available freely distributable files of interest to Mac users. In the early days, Info-Mac was hosted at Stanford University on a machine called sumex-aim.stanford.edu (sumex-aim stood for Stanford University Medical EXperiment – Artificial Intelligence in Medicine; I have no idea why Info-Mac was given space on that computer). Apparently, the original sumex-aim machine was a TOPS-20 system, though I believe it was later replaced by a newer Sun workstation with a 68000 processor. It had a few gigabytes of disk space that Info-Mac bought after receiving almost $3,000 in donations in 1992. In 1997, America Online donated a new Sun workstation – called info-mac.org – to Info-Mac and we moved it to a new home at MIT’s Laboratory of Computer Science, which also ran the popular Info-Mac HyperArchive.
At its heyday, the Info-Mac Digest was probably read daily by some tens of thousands of people (it was mirrored in the Usenet group comp.sys.mac.digest from the very earliest days), and the Info-Mac Archive was the centralized collection of Macintosh software with over 100 mirror sites located around the world (this was back in the day when minimizing the distance data traveled over the Internet could significantly reduce transfer time and cost). For quite some time after the Internet became commercialized, popular software download sites, like CNET’s Shareware.com, were in fact mirrors of the Info-Mac Archive. (To be fair, there were other Mac archive sites, such as the UMich Mac Software Archive.)
As I noted earlier, Info-Mac has always been a totally volunteer organization. From what I can glean, it was started by Ed Pattermann, and John Mark Agosta and Richard Alderson next took up the moderation tasks, followed by Dwayne Virnau. Jon Pugh told me that he took over from Dwayne, and Bill Lipa, who was the moderator in the early 1990s when I first became aware of Info-Mac, said that Lance Nakata and Jon were moderators when he started helping out. Since those days, a number of other people have dedicated their time to the cause, including Igor Livshits, Liam Breck, Gordon Watts, Michael Bean, Mike O’Bryan, Robert Lentz, Shawn Bunn, and Demitri Muna. Currently, the Info-Mac crew includes Ed Chambers, Christopher Li, Chris Pepper, Tom Coradeschi, Hugh Lewis, and Patrik Montgomery, with able technical assistance at MIT from Mary Ann Ladd and Noah Meyerhans. Apologies in advance if I’ve forgotten anyone, and many thanks to everyone who contributed in any way.
The Changing Face of the Internet — In my mind, Info-Mac simply outlived its usefulness. The Info-Mac Digest, for instance, was a tremendously important method of communication for Internet-savvy Mac users in the 1980s and early 1990s when there were no other Internet venues for discussing the Mac. Note that this was before the Web: email, Usenet, and FTP were the main ways people communicated via the Internet. Info-Mac had all these bases covered. But today, anyone can start a mailing list easily, and the world of the Macintosh has grown so large that general-purpose lists make relatively little sense any more in comparison with discussions of particular programs or technologies. That’s why we put no effort into bringing the Info-Mac Digest back after a troublesome server move a few years ago.
The Info-Mac Archive is a somewhat different story. It has been supplanted by Web sites like VersionTracker and MacUpdate that have become indispensable for both Macintosh developers as a way of getting the word out about their software, and for Mac users as a way of finding out what’s new in the Mac software world. But as useful as these sites are, they don’t solve one significant program that the Info-Mac Archive always did, that of actually serving files. Thanks to a mirror network of machines around the world that spread the load among many different servers, the Info-Mac Archive ensured that software was more readily available than it sometimes is today, when most developers make their software available for download from only one or two servers. A popular program can swamp a single server, and even if the server can handle all the requests, the load might result in an excessive bandwidth bill for the developer.
Could Info-Mac have evolved to follow the changes in the Internet? Conceivably, although it’s important to remember that it can be difficult for a volunteer organization to compete with for-profit companies that are willing to invest significant resources. We tried on several different occasions in the last five years to attract professional Web designers to redesign our Web site, but none were able to free up the necessary time to complete a design. And although we had no significant troubles setting up and running our servers, we never managed to rewrite all the age-old code that looked at new uploads and automatically generated abstracts for the Info-Mac Digest. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was beyond either the skills or the time of the volunteers we had, and none of our grand plans for a fully database-driven site ever came to fruition. Lastly, Info-Mac would have had to do some sort of marketing to remain in the public eye, a task that doesn’t come naturally for a volunteer organization centered on the day-to-day operations of moderating the Info-Mac Diges, plus checking and uploading new software submissions to the Info-Mac Archive.
It’s easy to look at the success of some high-profile projects like Wikipedia and conclude that anything is possible if only you can attract enough volunteers to contribute a little work, but in fact, creating a system that accommodates such volunteer effort isn’t at all simple. That’s especially true when you’re trying to create such a system while maintaining operations with a limited staff, and when you have a history as long as Info-Mac’s to maintain in the process. People often dislike change, and making important under-the-hood changes while keeping the public face much the same is often more difficult than a clean break, as traumatic as it is initially.
Final Practicalities — We aren’t shutting the info-mac.org server down just yet, but we won’t be adding any new software to the Info-Mac Archive from now on. That will give our mirror sites time to figure out what they want to do with their archives before we shut the server down for good in a few months. Similarly, if you want to create a local copy of the archive before everything shuts down, now would be a good time to do so. We’re experimenting with public rsync access before we shut down the archive, so Chris Pepper tells me that you can grab the whole 7 GB archive with a Unix command (which Mac OS X users can run from Terminal) like:
rsync -va www.info-mac.org::info-mac-archive/ info-mac-archive/
This command creates a new directory called info-mac-archive in the current directory (your home directory, unless you switched to another one before running the command) and makes a local copy of the whole archive inside it. Alternatively, you can use FTP to retrieve everything from an up-to-date mirror site.