History of the Macintosh Digital Press: TidBITS
The beginnings of the Macintosh Digital Press is not an easy one to nail down. Perhaps it started when an old BBS’er put together a text file in which he had written some reviews on some of the freeware programs he enjoyed. Or perhaps it was someone writing up a helpful text file on a floppy disk that she distributed free at a Macworld Expo. As it is, it’s hard to say where and when it started, but since all stories must have a beginning, I’ll begin with what I consider to be the starting point.
TidBITS is widely considered the father of the modern Macintosh Digital Press. Created in 1990 by Adam C. Engst and his wife, Tonya Engst, it is by far the longest running Macintosh publication on the Internet today. And for a very good reason: TidBITS is a wonderful publication. While it remains free, as it did when it was first started, they now rely on advertising to maintain the cost of such a popular and well-visited website.
Adam Engst is a terrific guy, and I had the chance to speak with him about TidBITS. The first question I had to ask, of course, was why he started TidBITS, and how was it distributed.
TidBITS was actually Tonya’s idea initially. She’d been working at the Cornell computer store and found that her colleagues weren’t particularly up on the latest news and events. She had also been regretting not having anything to keep her layout skills sharp, so she came up with the idea of writing a short summary of the main news in the trade magazines that we got. I immediately thought it was a great idea, but also wanted to distribute it in HyperCard over the Net. I think the printed version lasted a week or two, whereas the HyperCard version lasted for 99 issues and TidBITS itself is closing in on 500 issues.
I handled distribution at first via a personal mailing list run from my account on Cornell’s mainframe. That worked for about three weeks, after which a bug in a Unix sendmail program caused a mail loop with a Navy machine in San Diego (the Unix program couldn’t handle email with more than 300 addresses). This happened shortly after the Robert Morris Internet worm, so we got a panicked call from the mainframe operators, who said “Something with your name on it is crashing Navy computers.” Eventually we straightened out the fact that it was just a HyperCard stack that was stuffed and binhexed and not another Internet worm.
After that, we started distributing in the comp.sys.mac.digest newsgroup, with the approval of the net heavies of the time. Readers redistributed issues to places like CompuServe, GEnie, Delphi, BIX, and numerous bulletin boards. Eventually, a man named Alvin Khoo offered to host an Internet mailing list at Simon Fraser University, although that was somewhat shortlived because the administrators there didn’t realize how many people would be interested. Mark Williamson at Rice University then offered to host our list on their LISTSERV, and we stuck with that until Rice eventually shut down the LISTSERV machine. At that point, we started running the list ourselves, using StarNine’s ListSTAR program, now running on an Apple Workgroup Server 6150 (basically a Power Mac 6100).
TidBITS is the longest running digital Macintosh publication. It outlasted MacWeek (in print) MacUser, and others. What do you contribute this success to? And what do you enjoy most about TidBITS?
Dogged determination and the need to do things right. To be realistic, the main reason we’ve survived, I believe, is that we’re careful to stay small and stick with what we know. We never spend money we don’t have and anyone on our small staff can do almost everything.
The most enjoyable aspect of it is interacting with people. Sometimes I become overwhelmed with the hundreds of email messages I receive, but we’ve made a lot of good friends because of TidBITS over the years as well.
Adam, has the popularity and the recent proliferation of Macintosh help and news websites hurt or helped in the success of TidBITS?
We get depressed about it sometimes, but in reality, I don’t think it’s made much difference. We’re not a news site, and we’re not a support site, and although we have had and will continue to publish some news and support information, what sets us apart is our depth and analysis. We put a lot of effort into editing and fact-checking and we think that shows. Plus, we’re quite conscious of the effect an article in TidBITS can have, and if something doesn’t meet our overall goal of helping the Macintosh Internet community, we won’t publish it (or will edit it appropriately).
How many people now actively work on TidBITS?
It varies a bit. Geoff Duncan, our technical editor, and I work on it seriously, perhaps half to three-quarters time. Jeff Carlson, our managing editor, works perhaps half time on TidBITS, and of course Tonya
Adam, you have written not a few Macintosh books as well, such as the Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh, Simply Amazing Internet for MacIntosh , Eudora for Windows and Macintosh (Visual Quickstart Guide Series) ,and others. Do you credit this to TidBITS, or are you a writer by trade?
Yes, although somewhat indirect, TidBITS is responsible for my books (there are quite a few, in fact). Here’s what happened. Because of TidBITS, I went to Macworld Expo in SF in 1993, and when there, was introduced to Karen Whitehouse of Hayden by a mutual friend, Craig O’Donnell (who wrote Cool Mac Sounds for Hayden), and who I’d met through TidBITS as well. I didn’t think much of it, but several months later, she called and asked if I wanted to write a book about the Internet for Mac users. I said I’d have to make sure I wasn’t covering redundant ground, went out and bought the three other Internet books out at the time, read them, and called Karen back the next day to agree. Thus was born Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
You have kept TidBITS free all these years. Do you ever wish you had charged even a menial fee to help offset the cost of a weekly digital publication?
We like the idea of micropayments. I don’t think people would pay much for Internet content, and most every experiment into that has proven me right (the Wall St. Journal is perhaps the only exception). So, it seems to me that people would be happy to pay 1 cent per issue, as long as it were essentially automatic. If everyone on our subscription list had done that, we would have had much less trouble funding TidBITS over the years. Unfortunately, as you know, the infrastructure just isn’t there for micropayments and it may be some time before it appears. As unfortunate as that is, we have managed to support TidBITS through sponsorships, which we were doing as far back as 1992, well before almost anyone else.
While I know as well as anyone just how difficult it is to put your readers in any demographic context, who do you think your core readers are.
As you say, it’s hard to know without doing a real survey. My feeling is that the core readers are relatively sophisticated Macintosh users who have used a variety of computers over time, are completely comfortable with the Internet, and who are always interested in learning more. People like consultants and network administrators make up a large proportion of our readership, I’d guess, although we certainly have lots of novice users and plenty of high-end programmer types as well.
Many thanks to Adam for taking the time to answer a few questions.