As the PC World Turned
The year 2008 marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of the first issue of PC World. That means we've seen more history than nearly any other magazine or Web site that covers personal technology. As with history of any sort, much of the most interesting stuff happened in the early years. In the course of its first decade or so, PC World went from idea to successful product to globe-spanning enterprise with editions in most of the world's major countries.
So we asked a few folks who there when we were young to share their thoughts on the making of PC World. Consider this an oral history of our origins, even though paricipants actually contributed their memories via e-mail.
For those who were part of the startup team, those memories are downright dramatic, since our beginning was a fascinating story that made headlines in tech publications at the time. Short version: PC Magazine is founded in San Francisco in 1982 and becomes wildly successful. Its financial backer sells it to Ziff-Davis later that year--whereupon nearly the entire staff walks out with founders David Bunnell and Cheryl Woodard, who have struck a deal with tech publishing pioneer Pat McGovern to launch PC World. Lawsuits that go on for years follow. (Former Editorial Director Kevin McKean's 20th anniversary editorial tells the story in more detail.)
Harry Miller (PC World employee #9 and later the magazine's editor):
Many of the PCW staffers had been working on PC Magazine in its pre-Ziff-Davis incarnation in a series of offices (above a vacuum cleaner store, behind a tax preparer, above a Japanese restaurant) on Irving Street in the Sunset district of San Francisco. Just before Thanksgiving, the whole staff was summoned to a meeting in a Thai restaurant down the block (the nearest place that would accommodate the whole staff), where Ziff-Davis emissaries announced that they had just acquired the magazine. The details of why that was untenable at the time was the subject of a lawsuit, and beyond the scope of this missive. But the ironic thing was that once the idea of PC World was a reality, the first meeting of the new team took place in the very same Thai restaurant.
Probably the most important memory is the inspiration of the founding Editor and a great friend, the late Andrew Fluegelman. Once Pat McGovern decided to fund our startup to compete with Ziff-Davis' PC Magazine, Andrew set out to define how we would make ours better. The answer, which may seem trite now, but wasn't then, was to aim the book at people who use computers, rather than "computer users" or "hobbyists." The innovation, then, was the extent to which we cared about making the technical information we were providing readable and literate. We started talking about this at the first editorial meeting at Andrew's office in Tiburon, overlooking Raccoon Strait and Angel Island.
PC World was started a couple of days before the winter Comdex trade show in Las Vegas in November 1982. Once the magazine was announced, it was the talk of the show, and we spent a whirlwind week talking it up. That whirlwind didn't slow down until the first issue was out the door.
One big highlight of the early days was the magazine's launch party, concurrent with the West Coast Computer Faire in March 1983, where we rocked the elegant St. Francis hotel. It was the culmination of four months of extraordinary effort and incredible teamwork, racing against time constraints, legal injunctions, inadequate office facilities, and the usual startup problems to get that first issue out the door. We got compliments about that party from all quarters for years to come.
The party did stand in stark relief to our first offices: a converted apartment above a fruit stand on Taraval Street. It was immediately obvious that it was much too small. We had to time-share desks and computers. On the upside: a healthy snack was never more than a flight of stairs away.
At left, from a 1983 ad, key editorial players from the early PC World. Front row: founder David Bunnell and editor Andrew Fluegelman. Second row: Larry Magid, Katie Seger, Jeremy Joan Hewes. Back row: Robert Luhn, Eric Brown, Harry Miller, Danny Goodman.
When the first issue of the magazine appeared in early 1983, it made publishing history as the most successful first issue ever from an ad standpoint.
David Bunnell (founder, PC Magazine, PC World, and Macworld):
In the early days we thought there would be dozens of word processors. One for doctors, another for students, another for mathematicians, and so on. The idea of one encompassing do-everything-for-everybody word processor (Microsoft Word) would have seemed ludicrous to us. For one thing, memory was precious and expensive, and for another, there were thousands of application software companies. In a way I think it is a shame how consolidation has really limited the choices we have, but on the other hand, we didn't see the Internet coming either.
Cheryl Woodard (founder, PC Magazine, PC World, and Macworld):
It's hard to remember how different things were in 1983. There was no World Wide Web, no Windows, no eBay or Amazon or Google and no i..well, no iAnything! Microsoft was just one software publisher among many, and people bought computers in computer stores (not from Gateway, Best Buy, or Sears).
There were hundreds of companies talking to our editors and ad sales people about thousands of products. One 1983 PC World issue had nearly 400 pages of ads and product reviews, and most of those companies have since been acquired or forgotten.
Pat McGovern (founder and chairman of International Data Group, PC World's parent company):
When there was word that PC World was about to be launched, I visited the office and asked the three-person sales team how well they were coming along in selling ad pages. They said that they had already sold 120 pages for the first issue in one week. I was astonished, since that many pages often took a month of effort by ten or twelve people. I asked them what their "secret sauce" was that allowed them to be so successful in selling. They told me that all they did was try to answer the telephone by the third ring! It was clear that there was such excitement about the availability of a PC World in the marketplace that advertisers were rushing to have the opportunity to be in the first and subsequent issues of PC World! And the rest is history...
Larry Magid (original contributing editor, current contributor to CBS News and other media outlets):
The early days of PC World magazine were an exciting time. There was an energy level that I had not experienced before or have since--even during my short reign as editor of PC World's predecessor, PC Magazine. PC World, like its predecessor, was the result of David Bunnell's vision and entrepreneurial guts. I didn't always agree with David, but I couldn't help admire his ability to dream up publications. David and I have kept in touch over the years, and I still admire him and consider him a friend.
As far as PC World was concerned, David's most brilliant move was to hire my friend Andrew Fluegelman as editor-in-chief.
(The picture at left shows Bill Gates, Microsoft's Tandy Trower, and Fluegelman at a Microsoft briefing for PC World in late 1982 or early 1983.)
I worked with Andrew at PC World and worked closely with him as he tweaked his groundbreaking piece of "freeware" called PC-Talk, the first communications program for the IBM PC and the forerunner of what we now call "shareware." Andrew was as smart and diligent at his work as he was charming--and he was very charming. He brought to the magazine a wit and a literary flair never before found on the pages of a technology publication. It set a high standard for all of us who wrote for the magazine and influences tech journalism to this day.
With Andrew at the editorial helm, the magazine attracted a diverse and interesting group of writers--many of them fellow refugees from PC Magazine. For me, those early days were punctuated with frequent phone calls from fellow contributors Stuart Schwartz, Danny Goodman, and Jeremy Joan Hewes. Andrew and David also set an ethical standard that helped cement the bond of trust between editors, writers, and readers. PC World, like most publications, is a business that depends on advertisers for financial survival, but its core--what makes it worth reading-- is its editorial that depends on the trust of readers. PC World maintains that trust to this day.
Although the magazine survived and continues to thrive, that Camelot-like early atmosphere came to an end in July of 1985 when Andrew's abandoned car was found near the North end of the Golden Gate bridge--only a few miles from his home in Tiburon, California. His body was never found, but and it was impossible to fathom why someone like Andrew might take his own life. The best guess of medical experts (Stuart Schwartz, one of our regular contributors, was also a practicing psychiatrist) was that it was a reaction to a prescription drug he was taking for colitis whose side effects can include depression and confusion. There have also been reports that he was diagnosed with cancer, but even his friends had no idea he was sick.
Although I'd be delighted to write for PC World in the future, it's been years since my byline has appeared in the magazine. Yet, it helped launch my career as a contributor to general interest newspapers and media companies beginning with a column in the Los Angeles Times and now as technology analyst for CBS News and frequent contributor to the New York Times. Technology is now a mainstream story, but when PC World started it was still a niche market. PC World helped nurture that story and continues to lead the way. Looking back, I remain proud of PC World's contribution in the early days and proud of what it has become.
Jeremy Joan Hewes (founding associate editor; currently a photographer):
In those early days of PCs and the real beginning of ubiquitous personal computing, the group of PC Magazine founders and initial staff--and essentially the same folks who left PC and started PC World--felt like late-20th-century pioneers of a sort. One clear memory I have is of seeing the original PageMaker, shown to us by its creator Paul Brainerd, at the PC World offices.
Another moment that sticks with me is borrowing the first version of Windows from the office to try on my PC at home. But I never got to use it, because the PC Magazine-Ziff Davis lawsuit against former staff (I was among those sued) meant that everything I'd had from the old PC offices was held in "escrow" by lawyers. I never saw that Windows box again.
My primary recollections of those first days of the magazine are of lots of fun, a couple hectic trips to Comdex, and staying up late to meet deadlines. I suspect that's not too different from what happens at PC World today.
An Asimovian Adventure
Robert Luhn (editorial staffer, 1983-1990; contributing editor, 1990-1994):
Back in mists of PCW time (also known as 1985), we decided to do a special section in the magazine devoted to the future of the PC. My bright idea? Let's hire famous writers to contribute to the issue! With PCW's checkbook in hand, I quickly signed up Isaac Asimov (to write about the future of the PC), former California Governor Jerry Brown (to share his thoughts on PCs and education), and a personal god, Jim Fallows, then an editor at the Atlantic Monthly, to write about something I can't quite remember right now.
At last, I thought, real writers! Real writing! Not the dreck I had to resuscitate from engineers and software geeks and accountants. But real writers who knew all about verbs and nouns and...dare I say, content.
The large manila envelope landed on my desk two weeks later, return address, New York City. Asimov's piece had arrived! The man who coined the Laws of Robotics, the creator of the Foundation books, had written something for me!
Then I opened the envelope and a long, cold chill gripped my spine. The article was typed. On onionskin. And as I began to read, I realized my head started to tilt 20 degrees starboard, then 20 degrees port. Asimov kept talking, vaguely, about the "electronic calculating machine" doing this, and the "electronic calculating machine" doing that. What the hell was he talking about--ENIAC? Then I realized...this is what he called the PC! As I read further, I realized Izzy didn't know a damn thing about computing in general, about PCs in particular, or the future in any way, sense, or shape.
Nonplussed, I called up an editor at Omni magazine who had been editing Asimov for years. Did he get this kind of copy? "Let me guess," he chortled. "It looks like something he wrote on his way to the bathroom, right?" Right, I sighed. "Welcome to the club!"
I rewrote the piece from scratch, holding on to a sentence or two, and the byline. That was it. I faxed the edit back to Asimov and waited for the tantrum. In vain. The next day, he faxed me back a very charming note thanking me for the edit, and would I please send him his cool $2000 fee (roughly $4000 in today's money)?
Lesson learned? Think twice before hiring a world-famous writer. The other lesson learned? Never give a politician (Jerry Brown) an article assignment, unless you're looking for enough bloviating to inflate the Goodyear Blimp.
As for Jim Fallows, as the pages poured from the department fax machine, tears formed in our eyes. Here were verbs and nouns and, dare I say, content. It was a fabulous piece that delivered everything we asked for and then some. The final lesson learned: hire world-class writers--famous or not--and you'll never be sorry.
From the start, PC World was shaped by the technological revolution it chronicled. Breakthroughs such as desktop publishing and the Web had a huge impact on how PCW was created and delivered to readers--but our ambitions were sometimes ahead of reality.
My first thought is how slow and puny the personal computers were back then. Embryonic compared
Eric Bender (editorial staffer from 1986-2000, including tenures as east coast editor and as executive editor of PC World Lotus Edition; seen at left in 1980s staff photo):
When I joined PC World as east coast editor, Ronald Reagan was president. PCW headquarters were on De Haro Street in a converted soap factory, and two of the offices had been converted from giant rendering vats. The magazine was The Comprehensive Guide to IBM Personal Computers and Compatibles. Back home, I worked on a dual-floppy (no hard drive) PC with a 1200-bps modem, total cost about $3000. PCW's e-mail system was MCI Mail, which didn't take file attachments. America Online was one year old. If memory serves, the Internet was still called Darpanet, and I knew about three people who used it.
As time went on, PCs did become increasingly important in the production of PC World.
Scott Spanbauer (editorial staffer from 1984-1989 and 1997-1998; contributing editor today):
We did pasteup on boards that had to be shipped to Brown Printing, our printer. When we switched to desktop publishing, we went with Macs, partly because Apple was way ahead of the PC in that area and also because that's what Brown used.
Around the office, circa 1986/7, editors were equipped with 8086- and 286-based Compaq desktops. I think we mostly had CGA monitors, but some people had the newfangled EGA displays that allowed them to run Windows 286 or Desqview on top of DOS. Before that we had a smattering of IBM PCs (the first ones, with one or two floppy drives) and XTs (the first IBM PC with a hard disk). To do word processing, you booted with a DOS floppy, then removed it (if you had only one drive) and inserted the word processor's floppy. If you had the technical finesse, you made a floppy that contained both
One of my first jobs was repairing the PCs, which had 64KB of often flaky memory chips. The floppy drives were flaky too, but fascinating to watch as they did seeks on a floppy disk. One of our slickest-looking covers back then was a well-lit photo of a floppy drive mechanism. It looked like something out of Alien.
By the time I moved to the editorial department in 1986 or 1987, a
The magazine dedicated a lot of review and how-to coverage to these products.
Most editors worked in the DOS version of Microsoft Word or in WordPerfect. WordStar was popular earlier on, but the other two were slicker, somehow. If you used a spreadsheet it was probably Lotus 1-2-3, and for databases, either Ashton-Tate's dBase III or Borland's Paradox. Throughout the 80s, the magazine regularly covered programming tools and techniques, including C (C++ barely existed), Basic, Pascal, assembly (Karl Koessel often added little assembly programs to my how-to columns), and of course lots of batch files for optimizing memory at boot-up, copying and backing up files, and creating menus for launching programs.
Then the 386 came along and changed everything within a few years. For a while there, it wasn't clear whether Windows 3.0/3.1 would really succeed against IBM's OS/2 and other multitasking environments like Desqview. Windows NT appeared in late 1992 (I think), but nobody really used it because existing 16-bit DOS and Windows programs didn't run under it. In the late 80s, I remember we had a lab that contained a couple of PS/2s running OS/2 and the occasional loaner machine running NT. Of course, there was no lab staff.
Celebrating the long-delayed release of the OS/2 operating system in 1988, IBM and its bosom buddy Microsoft held a press event in Winchester, England, and I spent some time hanging out in a pub with Steve Ballmer. I flew back on a Pan Am 103, and a week later the same plane blew up over Lockerbie. (The friend I flew with reminds me that the terrorists were planning to hit any Pan Am 103 flight that month--and that on the same trip, we just missed taking a London-bound train that was in a wreck that killed dozens of people; and a bomb exploded in a store attached to our hotel.)
Lincoln Spector (member of editorial staff, 1989-1997; current contributing editor and Answer Line columnist):
I'd been on staff only a few months, and in a few days I'd be going to my very first Comdex. I had a lot to do, but I couldn't work five minutes before another vendor would call me asking for an appointment at the overbloated convention. When the phone rang one too many times, I turned to it, yelled "No! I don't want to see you at Comdex!"
Then I took a deep breath, calmed down, and answered the phone with "Lincoln Spector here" in my best professional voice.
My blood froze when the voice on the phone said, "So, you don't want to see me at Comdex."
It was Technical Editor Karl Koessel, a few cubicles down from me.
In 1989, the staff accomplished something that, with luck, will remain a singular achievement: They produced PC World in the wake of a major earthquake .
Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On
Robert Kanes (art department staffer, 1985-2007; Art Director/Creative Director, 1993-2007):
I don't know whether there's really such a thing as earthquake weather, but if there is, October 17th, 1989, was a decent example: odd skies, unusually still air, and a slight feeling of static electricity wherever you went. At 5:04 pm, I was at my desk on the east side of the sixth floor of 501 Second Street. When the shaking began, the first thing I thought was, "no problem, just another average quake." But as the shaking continued, and continued, and continued, it was clear this was no ordinary event. After a few seconds, file drawers and cabinets started moving, and small-to-medium-sized objects were jumping around. At 10 seconds, everyone started looking for doorways to stand in, or simply crouched under any convenient table. At 15 seconds (which is a really long time at this magnitude), all the window seals were popping around our side of the building. Luckily no one was hurt.
What we didn't immediately grasp was that everything that was down at our offices at 501 Second St. (power, networks, computers) was going to stay down for awhile, because no one knew whether the building was safe to occupy. And unfortunately, we were just heading into the cycle of shipping magazine pages to our printer. In a bold move to head off a second disaster, our director of manufacturing, Linda Manes, called our prepress house, located in a different part of the city, and ascertained that they were still up and functioning. She asked if we could possibly do some emergency work there, and the owner, Orlan DiMario, immediately offered us his shop. A long-time supplier and friend of the company, he moved quickly to prepare a "PCW" work area, setting up tables and computers and
PC World jumped on the offer and assembled an emergency team consisting of core editorial, design, and production people, who all worked around the clock to make sure that the magazine never missed a single press deadline. This is how Lithographic Consultants became PC World's second home for a week, and how an entire issue was recreated from bits and pieces, to be reassembled, proofed, and shipped, from straight out of the Bayview District!
Eric Knorr (member of editorial staff, 1985-1993 and current editor in chief of InfoWorld; seen below in 1980s staff photo):
When I was promoted to editor of PCW in 1990, I was without either a managing editor or an art director, as they called creative directors in those days. I hired Steve Fox as managing editor post haste, but the art director hire was tougher, so I had to rely on Bill, a freelance art director in New York
Pat, who with Bill had presided over the magazine's highly successful redesign a few months before, reviewed every cover before it went to the printer. If Pat didn't like the concept we came up with, he would send us back to the drawing board with extreme prejudice. One cover, the subject of which was a laptop roundup, proved particularly problematic.
We tried every possible way to make the laptop appear to be in motion, but Pat liked none of them. The sketches from Bill became increasingly desperate: a laptop in the hands of someone running down the hall, a laptop parachuting from the sky, a laptop on the back of a bicycle, and so on. Each rejection pushed us closer to the drop-dead date.
I remember sitting in my office beside myself with stress as I strained to come up with yet another idea. I had a bottle of organic fruit soda on my desk, which I proceeded to twist open. Apparently due to a lack of preservatives, the soda had fermented, and sprayed everywhere. At that moment I thought: What if we shot a laptop on a plane from outside the window?
Lo and behold, Pat liked the idea. Shooting through the window of an actual plane proved impractical, so Bill decided to set up a studio shot, and Steve took a red-eye to New York
Actually, it was a few panels of fuselage and a window, but for a brief while, I felt intoxicated that an idea in my head had become an expensive reality and a good cover shot so quickly. That high dissipated the moment I realized that the cover was so late, we had to start the cycle for the next one in just a few days.
The Making of a Signature Story
If you had to define a specific year as signaling the end of PC World's early period, 1994 would be a good bet. If nothing else, it was the final year in which PCW was simply a magazine--our Web site, PCWorld.com, launched in early 1995. And 1994 was the year that we launched the Reliability and Service study, a massive undertaking that continues to this day .
Dan Tynan (member of editorial staff, 1987-1991 and 1995-1999; current contributing editor and Gadget Freak columnist; seen at left in 1991 photograph):
It was an epic story, involving storms of Biblical proportions, earthquakes, near-homicides, encounters with cannibals, and frightening amounts of cheese. It was PC World's first Reliability and Service story, published in June 1994, and I was a part of it.
Like everything that goes into PC World, it began as an idea. We knew some computers were better made and better supported than others, but we couldn't prove it. Senior editor Roberta Furger had an idea: why not visit the top
There's a subtext to this. For years PC World had been running stories about how crappy Packard Bell computers were (and boy, were they crappy). For this we caught a lot of heat from PB's unctuously slippery PR folk. Finally, we'd have a chance to prove our theories right--that machines from Compaq, Dell, IBM, and Gateway were simply better (though at the time we weren't so sure about Gateway).
No technology magazine had ever attempted anything so ambitious. As writing assignments go, it was insane. Why they asked me to do it I'm still not sure. Had I known just how insane, I probably would have declined--and my life today would be utterly different.
But I wouldn't be doing it alone. My editor and coauthor, Christina Wood, would be traveling with me. She would do all the advance work, including cajoling some very reluctant U.S. corporations into letting two young journalists in on all their dirty little secrets. She'd come with me to all the meetings, and we'd collaborate on the final manuscript. Might I add that Christina and I were dating at the time? And that we were determined to not let any of the vendors know this?
We started with IBM in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. For two days we toured the factory, saw the labs where they tortured laptops with extreme vibration and temperatures (known as "shake and bake" testing), crushed shipping boxes with enormous machines, and put together one of the first automated build-to-order systems in the industry. We were suitably impressed. We ate dinner with a dozen IBM engineers at a restaurant where the smallest thing they served was a 24-ounce T-bone (and I was a vegetarian at the time).
After our two-day tour of IBM, we traveled south to spend the weekend at a charming B&B in Wilmington, North Carolina. There we encountered fellow B&B guest Hannibal Lecter, aka Anthony Hopkins. Sir Tony was in town shooting The Road to Wellville. He was very polite and very short. We thought, what a cute little town, we should come back for a real visit one day.
The next day we flew to North Sioux City, South Dakota, where Gateway was headquartered. Now South Dakota isn't exactly a tropical paradise in January, but we arrived after midnight on the coldest day in 25 years. First we flew to Chicago and boarded the smallest commercial plane I've ever been on, along with four nuns and a priest. The plane was like the mini-school bus the "special kids" take to school, but with wings. It landed midway and let some guy off in the middle of a snowy field, then took off again. I was so sure these would be my last moments on earth that I began scribbling my last will and testament. I was glad the nuns and priest were with us.
The next morning it was 70 below with wind chill. Let me elaborate. The actual temperature was 30 below, plus a 40-miles-per-hour wind. They closed the schools that day for the first time in anyone's memory. The Missouri River was caked with ice, but there was steam coming off it, because it was still the warmest thing in town. My luggage didn't make the flight, so all I had to wear was jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers, and a thin winter coat. Walking the 10 feet from our hotel to the heated car, all the hairs in my nostrils froze.
Here's what I remember about Gateway: Endless meetings with executives who seemed scared to death of us--and refused to let us go to the bathroom. Meeting CEO Ted Waitt wearing my jeans and T-shirt, to find him wearing an identical outfit. And being unable to find anything on any restaurant menu that wasn't smothered in cheese.
We were scheduled to visit Packard Bell on January 18. On January 17, 1994, while we froze our assets off in South Dakota, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale ripped through Northridge, California, where PB's factory was located. Needless to say, we had to cancel our visit. To this day I am convinced that Packard Bell had something to do with the quake.
We spent most of the next three weeks in Texas. We endured an entire week at a Marriott Hotel in Austin, waiting for Michael Dell to clear time in his schedule for a 30-minute visit. (We found out later he rescheduled us to make time for BusinessWeek, which was doing a cover story on him.) We spent two days in Houston with Compaq, where we received nothing but one-word answers to most of our questions, along with "we're really not at liberty to discuss that." Also a hallway lined with so many Presario boxes it seemed to stretch on forever. We spent another day in Fort Worth, touring AST (a last-minute substitution for PB). That tour is mostly a blur.
It was at the Fort Worth Holiday Inn on Valentine's Day 1994 that Christina and I very nearly committed a double homicide... on each other. We'd spent 22 out of the past 30 days constantly in each other's company--on planes, in cars, in meetings, in hotels--and it was only a matter of time. Fortunately, the deadliest thing in the room was a Bible, or I'd be writing this from beyond the grave. We broke up after that, but we still had to complete the story.
A year later the article won a Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Feature and a Grand Neal Award for Best Overall Story, the most coveted awards available to the trade press.
Christina and I eventually did reconnect. We figured if we could survive doing that story, marriage would be a snap. At press time, some 14 years later, we are still married. (We live in Wilmington, that cute little town we said we'd revisit one day, with our two adorable kids.)
But I still think the story was an insane idea.