The Open Road Ahead

Over the years, we've seen many computer publications falter or fade as they sought faithful readers and fickle advertisers in the face of an ever-volatile industry.

It's a delight to debut column-wise in one of my favorite magazines, a journal that has remained finely focused since March 1994. Over the years, we've seen many computer publications falter or fade as they sought faithful readers and fickle advertisers in the face of an ever-volatile industry. There has always been a broad spectrum of editorial targets with “content-addressed” titles, ranging from the cosmic general (Wired) to the minutely specialized (printf() Daily). By “content-addressed”, I mean the magazine title aims both to capture (figuratively) the themes to be addressed and to capture (factually) a viable market segment. The old signifier-signified problem has oft raised its intractable transient-fashion semantic head.

Consider the demises of Datamation (why does this sound archaic, in spite of recent data-centric resurrections?) and BYTE (the once “in” term, with a matching chain of Byte shops, encapsulating the 1980s thrill of affordable, personal computing, but now worth a few mundane bits). Some publications have survived with brash, broad names such as Computer Weekly, a title that was quite content-specific in the 1960s but nowadays reveals only its frequency. Others have gone for “insider” titles. Thus, unless you already knew, Dr. Dobb's might at first glance appear to be yet another paternal self-health advisory. (Some Dobb's fans may say “indeed”.) Mostly, though, it's an upfront WYSIWYG world (What You Subscribe to Is What You Get). If you pay through the nose for MSDN [Microsoft Developer Network] News, that's what you'll get: the current designation, security vulnerabilities, APIs-du-jour, and ETAs for NT 5.0. (To be fair, Dr GUI does offer “work-arounds” to the baffled with non-corporate aplomb.)

There's no shortage of drop-dead titles that strutted bravely but briefly and are heard no more. I wrote evangelically, no one more, for OS/2 Magazine until it succumbed-- not for want of reader devotion (they screamed “Stan, say it isn't so...”) but for IBM's own lack of commitment and the natural ensuing reluctance of the advertisers.

Then we have the fascinating name-change phenomenon. Reacting to those restless, highly paid “demographers” who filter your blatant reader-response fibs through a statistically stunted spreadsheet, the publisher-suits are often convinced that the titular temperature needs a tweak. (Consultant Axiom #1: It's difficult, alas, for the client to ignore expensive advice.) Whether the content should change to reflect the “hotter” title is a tricky problem. Too dramatic a shift in both is rather like a new magazine launch and everything that entails. Instructive exemplars abound: Computer Language moved fairly gracefully to the less “technical” Software Development with an appropriate content-drift toward the bland. (Its “Peopleware” articles are notorious for their vacuous “Cook Until Done” recipes: “Create a well-formed plan before you start coding, and don't forget to select the best-possible team for your project...”) Similarly, following the trend set by Clemens Szyperski's Component Software—Beyond Object-Oriented Programming (Addison-Wesley/ACM Press, 1998) [Reference 1], SIGS's Object Magazine traveled “beyond” to become Component Strategies. This advance was cut short by another popular name-changing influence: the publishing trade's agglutinative propensity. Following one of those hard-to-keep-up-with takeovers (not to be confused with those equally baffling “strategic alliances”), Component Strategies has been newly “folded” into Application Development Trends. Presumably, this title allows the tracking of SE (Software Engineering) fashions beyond mere components. An interesting counter-example, where the content has been fashionably “enhanced” without a title change, is C/C++ Users Journal that now carries a regular column and even detached supplements on...shock-horror...drum-roll...Java! Recall that the earlier post-incremental title update from C Users Journal still triggers irate reader mail. Likewise, for complex “space-precludes” reasons, we've seen the long-going (1983) UNIX Review, outliving all its UNIX rivals [Reference 2], moved by market forces to (1998) UNIX Review's Performance Computing and now, as I write, to simply Performance Computing.

Meanwhile, Linux revives the old UNIX “Live Free or Die” spirit of the 1970s. The only Open Road beckons. Linux Journal leads the way. And lest we become too hyper-serious, browse http://www.gnu.org/fun/ and my next column!

References

Stan Kelly-Bootle (skb@crl.com) has been computing on and off since his EDSAC I (Cambridge University, UK) days in the 1950s. He has commented on the unchanging DP scene in many columns (“More than the effin' Parthenon”--Meilir Page-Jones) and books, including The Computer Contradictionary (MIT Press) and UNIX Complete (Sybex).

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