Monday, February 23, 2009

Observations: The New (Online) PC Magazine

Observations: The New (Online) PC Magazine
Last month’s Observations column covered some recollections and, yes, nostalgia triggered by the delivery of the last print version of PC Magazine. I made the point in that column that the conversion of PC Magazine to an online-only but print-on-demand publication was an important milestone in the developing (though long-predicted) future of electronic distribution of content.

With fully enabled electronic communication, this information future (that we are well into by now) is based on efficiency of electronic distribution in terms of cost and timeliness. The predicted payoff for the printer and printing industries is that the information can still be consumed in printed form, at the reader’s discretion, by printing it locally. Theoretically, much of the content out there is best consumed in print form, so less central printing but far more local printing.

This month’s column is triggered by the arrival of an e-mail announcing the first fully online version of PC Magazine — the February 2009 edition. As a subscriber, it is available to me via the online reader site, which seemed new to me, but with a little investigation, I realized it is not new at all. As early as 2006, I used the site to take a look at the electronic version of eWeek, which began as PC Week (which is a whole separate set of memories and nostalgia that we do not have time for in this particular column).

PC Magazine looks like its old self in Zinio -- just virtual only starting in February 2009

PC Magazine has used Zinio for its digital distribution for a number of years, at least six according to my research. But remember, this is different than PC Magazine online that shares its content as part of ZDNet. Zinio features true digitized versions of real magazines, such as Popular Science, so PC Magazine is right at home and has been for a long time. Scrolling through the magazine online was a fairly positive experience, not much different than reading a large PDF in Acrobat, truthfully. It is the familiar linear construction and not the hyper-linked Web form we have come to know so well, and I hesitate to refer to it as a magazine metaphor, because it is a magazine, just in digital form.

Clever column title by Dan Costa -- page 27 of the February 2009 issue, read via Zinio

The surprise came when I wanted to print. First, the FAQ’s should have told me all I needed to know—“Q: Can I print? A: Yes. You can print from your digital issue of PC Magazine. The only limitation is that each print job is limited to the visible pages (one or two pages).” So in other words, recreating the print magazine was going to be a lot of trouble, many more steps than simply printing an entire PDF file. My bubble was burst—this is not a case of distribute-and-print nearly as much as a case of moving from print to online. I had pictured a print capability, based on the previous announcements or at least how my personal mindset interpreted those announcements, as sort of a “push one button and the whole magazine spits out” solution. Not the case.

Printed on an HP LaserJet -- two pages at a time (facing pages) maximum

So now the PC Magazine folks are in fact publishing in magazine format for online consumption. Some casual printing will continue, just as it does from Web browsers today, but it is the exception and not the rule. It will be interesting to see how long the magazine metaphor continues. It seems to me that once existing subscribers and advertisers trickle away, the Web version of the content will rule, even if the dream of a business model with two solid revenue streams from those two groups, may seem like a long-ago dream.

On the more positive side, as a PC Magazine subscriber for awhile longer, I will keep getting the digital issues, and I am hoping for quick delivery of the announced Zinio iPhone application, for reading PC Magazine on my trusty Apple iPhone.

Nostalgia For PC Mag Printer Issue

After the last column closed, I received e-mail responses from two PC Magazine insiders that I thought my readers would enjoy as well. Remember, it was the last column where I waxed nostalgic about the old PC Magazine Annual Printer edition.

The first response is from Michael Miller, who served for many years as PC Magazine’s Managing Editor.

“The printer issue was a big deal, for years the biggest single project in the labs until we started a similar project for PCs in the fall. The coordination required to make it work was immense, too—the labs folks and the editors would have these big spreadsheets to keep track of everything. All the vendors would come in and explain their products to us, but in the end, it was all about the lab tests.”

The second response is from M. David Stone, still with the magazine, and someone many of us in the printer business have known, or known of, seemingly forever. David is currently listed in PC Magazine’s masthead as a Lead Analyst for PC Labs, but he’s “the ultimate” when it comes to printer reviews and has been for a long, long time.

“As for memories: I could be wrong, but I think I’m the only writer who participated in every printer blockbuster issue—including one year when I was writing a book but snuck in one review just to maintain an unbroken record. All those years tend to blend into each other, but I clearly recall in the early years a core group of repeat offenders sitting in the labs every year, calling out—and answering— questions like, ‘What’s the Epson Escape code for compressed text?’ After two or three weeks of this, each of us had all the important codes for all the key languages memorized, only to half forget them before the next year’s project. After Windows took over from DOS, we stopped entering the printer commands manually, but a few of us still remember what a ^H means. (That’s a backspace, for those of you who never needed to know.)

“I also remember the early days of network printer testing, when setting up a printer to work on a network was a project by itself. To make sure we could achieve this, we asked vendors to send a technician to the labs during testing. In general, we first tried to set up the printers ourselves but gave up once we decided that the particular printer’s setup was beyond human ken. I remember a case when it took the vendor over two days to get the printer working. Fortunately, network printer setup has gotten a lot easier since then or I’d have time for far fewer printer reviews.”

Thanks for Michael and David for sharing those memories!

1 comment:

Jim Lyons said...

Please see the following day's post regarding PC Magazine's correction of some of the print issues mentioned in this post.

Jim Lyons