As the PC World Turned

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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.

Cheryl Woodard:
My first thought is how slow and puny the personal computers were back then. Embryonic compared with now. We wanted to produce the magazine completely on PCs, but it wasn't really possible yet, and we used a bevy of prepress and fulfillment services that don't exist anymore, now that everything is digital.

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 plus a batch file that automated the whole thing.

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 lot of our tips were about how to maximize the megabyte of RAM that most of these computers had. DOS could use only up to 640KB for running programs, so the trick was to use third-party memory manager utilities to load device drivers into unused memory slots between 640KB and 1MB.
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.

Eric Bender:
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.

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