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A Few Thoughts After 19 Years of TidBITS

This month marks the 19th anniversary of the founding of TidBITS, making it (and us!) almost inconceivably ancient in Internet years. When Tonya and I started TidBITS back in April of 1990, we communicated with one another via email and telephone; moved files around the Internet with FTP; and did our social networking on mailing lists, Usenet news, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat).

Our Internet connection initially consisted of a slow modem hookup to one of Cornell University’s IBM mainframes and to a Unix box run by Cornell’s Theory Center. Back then, if you wanted an Internet connection, you just asked someone who had one already if you could connect to them – there was no Comcast Internet or Road Runner or EarthLink. We’ve used the domain for many years, but well before that became an option, we operated a UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy Program) node – the first email address I controlled was [email protected], and messages would hop their way from machine to machine on their way to me.

There was no World Wide Web – that wouldn’t start to become real until 1993 and 1994. The concept of an affordable always-on Internet connection in the home didn’t start to become common until the later 1990s. We installed the first “high-speed” Internet connection – a 56 Kbps frame relay connection – in our house in 1994 (see “Mainlining the Internet”, 1994-11-14).

Apple and Microsoft existed, and would be entirely recognizable to someone who went back in time, but of course, there was no Google, no Yahoo, no eBay, no Amazon, no Skype, no Flickr, no YouTube, no Facebook, no Twitter. Companies like Compaq, WordPerfect, Lotus, and Ashton-Tate muscled their way around the industry like raging thunder lizards, but all would eventually succumb to the force of change and be consumed by other, more successful competitors.

Mobile phones also existed, at least in the cars of the well-off, but their eventual ubiquity was merely in the dreams of phone manufacturers like Motorola. Portable music players used either cassette tapes (launched by the Sony Walkman) or CDs (like the Sony Discman). And the only wireless signals most people were going to receive were AM/FM radio and UHF/VHF television.

So we’ve come one heck of a long way, with our modern Macs, our iPods, and our iPhones, all using Wi-Fi and 3G data to search the Web via Google, watch video via YouTube, talk via Skype, and connect with far-flung friends via Facebook and Twitter.

The TidBITS anniversary rolled around this year while we were in New York City for spring break, which got me to thinking about some of these sea changes and what they mean for the future.

Computing to Communication — Perhaps the most significant change in the face of computing over the 19 years we’ve been publishing TidBITS is the extent to which computing resources are used largely for communication of one sort or another. Perhaps this trend should have been obvious from the earliest days of computing: after all, Alan Turing, considered by many to be the father of modern computer science, was best known for his work on decoding German communications during World War II.

But when the age of the personal computer started, most people considered computers to be computing devices for crunching numbers and sorting databases. One significant aspect of the Macintosh, with applications like MacWrite that offered font-handling and layout capabilities, was its emphasis on creating print materials for communication. The arrival of Aldus PageMaker and the Apple LaserWriter cemented that role, but many people failed to see it, instead thinking about these applications as “productivity” apps, perhaps because the costs limited their use to professionals who could justify the expense.

During the 1990s, we all stumbled onto the Internet in various ways, and looking back, it’s fascinating to see just how tentative those early steps were. Apple may have had an early FTP site in, but it took the company several more years before the necessary system software was in place for every Mac to be able to connect to the Internet. Today, a computer that can’t connect to the Internet is nearly inconceivable.

I’m struck by how we continue trying to improve our communications methods. Every technological method of communication is an effort to break time and place constraints on in-person talking – postal mail, the telephone, email, instant messaging, Twitter, and so on. Every so often, when I’m trying to explain Twitter to someone, I flash back to the same earnest explanations of email in the 1990s.

All modern Internet communication services are really just refinements on what email provided from the beginning. Viewed that way, you can see how email will never go away – it’s ubiquitous, the lowest common denominator, and based entirely on open standards. As popular as Facebook and Twitter are, they’ll never replace email, being proprietary (not to mention the fact that they come from companies that aren’t exactly stable businesses).

We’ve even seen computers become our primary news and entertainment devices, displaying our news stories and playing our audio, video, and games. For things that don’t work quite as well on a traditional computer, we’ve seen specialized devices – game consoles, portable music players, and even ebook readers – appear. But this is all communication as well – even these forms of mass entertainment are just particular forms of communication within our culture as a whole.

Lastly, even those things we once thought of as pure productivity applications – word processors, spreadsheets, and databases – are embracing communication technologies, becoming collaborative in the process. It makes sense – in most cases, there’s no point in producing something unless you’ll be communicating the results to other people, and of course, much of what is done in this world is too complex for a single person to accomplish it alone, making collaboration essential.

Modern Necessities of Life — In the decade before we started TidBITS, personal computers were a luxury of the well-off – the kind of thing parents bought their kids instead of a set of encyclopedias, based on the belief that computer literacy would be necessary for their children’s future job prospects. Starting in the 1990s, that changed, as computers become increasingly inexpensive and capable. When Tonya and I were at Cornell in the late 1980s, we were unusual in having our own computers, but on my last trip through a Cornell dormitory a few years ago, every student’s desk had a computer on it. (And when was the last time you heard the term “computer literacy” used in conversation?)

Those students, once they graduate, don’t stop using computers, since computers have become their connection to the outside world via email, instant messaging, Facebook, and the Web in general. Plus, these computers also act as stereos and TVs, and, with the rise of Skype, allow them to talk with college friends around the globe for free. In short, the computer has become a necessity of life in the modern age – almost no one is willing to give up that ability to communicate and to consume the products of our entertainment industry.

Want one reason Apple’s Mac sales haven’t been suffering badly despite the difficult economic climate? People can’t avoid buying a computer any more – they might put off upgrading or buy a cheaper one, but an educated individual today simply needs a computer. It’s not just adults – the age at which children need computers is dropping all the time. (The reason other computer manufacturers haven’t done as well, I’d argue, is that a higher proportion of their sales come from businesses, which are more likely to delay purchases until things improve.)

The iPod is in somewhat the same situation – it may not be necessary in the way that a computer is, but if you’ve had an iPod and arranged your life around having it available, you won’t go without if it breaks or you lose it. I don’t see Apple’s iPod business slowing for some time because of this.

Similarly, mobile phones, which were an expensive luxury back when we started TidBITS, have become far more prevalent in the United States, and even more so elsewhere in the world. As of 2008, there were 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, and nearly 15 percent of U.S. households have opted for a mobile phone rather than a landline. You want to talk about a modern necessity, look no further than the mobile phone.

The convergence of the computer and the mobile phone into smartphones like the iPhone further cements the mobile phone’s position of dominance. Computing is communication, and mobility increases the need for communication. I don’t talk or text on my iPhone much, but on our recent trip to New York City, I found myself pulling the iPhone out of my pocket constantly. Sometimes it was for basic calls or text messaging, but other times I was using its computer-capabilities – viewing a map of the subway system, getting walking directions to the museum, finding an auto-glass repair shop, and so on. After that trip, I can’t imagine living in an urban environment without an iPhone.

The Bar Keeps Rising — While it’s becoming ever easier to publish, thanks to the Internet technologies that have sprung up in the last 19 years, there’s a contrary trend as well: the rising bar of what it means to be professional in your publishing.

When we started TidBITS, email was all that was necessary (and, largely, was all that was possible). With the advent of the Web, it became necessary to build a Web site, something done for us originally by friends at Dartmouth College. Then it made sense for us to run our own Web site, which involved getting a high-speed connection and administering a server. Soon afterwards, it wasn’t enough to have a Web site comprised of static HTML files, and the entire thing had to be served from a database. Now we’re to the point where even a database-driven Web site isn’t really sufficient, and AJAX-style interactivity is necessary.

But it gets worse. Although text won’t ever go away, it’s become clear that the addition of graphics, sound, and video are becoming increasingly important for anyone who considers themselves a publisher. (That’s one reason we have audio versions of our articles – look for the Listen link at the top of every article, or subscribe to our podcast.) Some publications are going even further, such as the New York Times Visualization Lab, where anyone can mix and match from various data sets. It’s clearly an experiment, but this sort of thing may be far more common in the next decade.

I say all this in part to note that although TidBITS may not have changed outwardly all that much for those who receive the email edition, we have put a ton of effort into our Web site over the last few years. Partly we want to do this because it’s interesting, but we also feel pushed – if we can’t keep up with the Joneses on the technology front, we worry that we’ll have an increasingly hard time attracting new readers. It’s not easy being in a state of constant flux and reorganization and improvement, but the world around us is moving so quickly that we’re running just to keep up.

There’s another concern hidden inside this worry about the publication bar constantly rising. TidBITS is a testament to the fact that the Internet provides everyone with a printing press, and if you look at the major blogs, they all started out small as well. But I feel some concern that the difficulty of producing a full-featured Web site will mean that the number of voices on the Internet will be dropping – we’ve already seen blogs falling away in favor of microblogging services like Twitter. Blogging is becoming too hard, and very few bloggers even try to produce enough original content to earn a living any more.

Following this to the next step, are we looking toward the demise of the publication? Is a publication anything more than an LP album, an arbitrary collection of articles that made sense to bundle together largely because of economies of scale when printing? Yes, I know there are artistic and other reasons for content collections, but still, how many people read an entire publication these days instead of just cherry-picking articles from around the Web? Maybe the Planet Money podcast has a great explanation on the latest move in the financial crisis, and ESPN has the wrap-up on last night’s game, and comics come from XKCD and
Joy of Tech, and… You get the picture.

In the end, we’re happy both that we cover a world that changes as much as it does and that we do so with original content, since that hopefully means that people read TidBITS for our perspective on a wide range of industry happenings.

A Little Bit Here, a Little Bit There — Finally, the last topic that’s been on my mind as I think back through our history is how we’ve scraped together a living all these years. The entire content industry is having conniptions right now about whether content should be ad-supported, subscription-supported, subsidized by a government, supported by sales of ancillary products, sponsored in some other way, or just given away for free.

Our experience since 1990 tell us that the answer is, “Yes.” All of these models can be made to work, and the main thing that publications must realize is that it’s worth using multiple approaches simultaneously. It’s likely that in any given business climate, one particular approach will generate the lion’s share of the revenue stream, but when times change – and they always do – other approaches may become more important.

As far as I know, we created the very first advertising program on the Internet back in 1992, before the Web had even arrived (see “TidBITS Sponsorship Program,” 1992-07-20). We were sufficiently concerned about the NSF’s Acceptable Use Policy that we modeled it after the PBS sponsorship model, and have kept it low-key all along. Being low-key, our sponsorship program has never scaled to the point where it could generate gazillions of dollars, like Google’s search-based advertising innovation did, but it has kept our lights on. We’ve supplemented the sponsorship program over the years with direct contributions from readers, Amazon affiliate referral earnings, and some Google AdSense income.

The major change for us came with the creation of our Take Control ebook series, which was possible only because of the skills and contacts we had built while publishing TidBITS, and it got off the ground only because of the TidBITS audience. Take Control is a lot of work, but it has also provided a structure in which some of our friends can supplement their income. It’s great when a business can build a close-knit community in addition to generating profit.

Just as we’re constantly working on our Internet infrastructure (both the parts you see and behind-the-scenes tools that make our lives easier), we’re also always thinking about things we can do to help the bottom line. It’s tricky, since the lesson of “If you build it, they will come” is no longer true on the Internet, and the amount of traffic needed to make advertising, affiliate referrals, or any other per-visit income stream sufficiently large is nearly impossible to achieve these days. We have ideas, though, and will let you know when we’re ready to pull the curtains back.

Despite the doom and gloom surrounding the content industry (with newspapers especially up against the wall), I believe there are plenty of solid livings to be made publishing content on the Internet. Publishing hasn’t been easy in the past, and it won’t be easy in the future, and serious money will accrue only to a lucky few. But with an eye toward producing original content and creating an appropriate scale of business, I think we will be able to keep publishing TidBITS as far into the future as we can reasonably see. Another 19 years? Maybe, but considering how far we’ve come in the past 19 years, I can’t even imagine what the world will be like in 2028.

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