The Demise of PC Magazine

November 20th, 2008

I just read the news that PC Magazine is being canceled. It’s not exactly a shock, given the state of technical magazines right now. I haven’t read one of those in years, since they turned to be more of a consumer than a technical publication.

But I hope I am not the only one out there that remembers PC Magazine from the mid to late 1980s. I had two favorite parts in each issue: the programming example, and the “Abort, Retry, Fail” page at the back of the magazine.

The programming example was usually some sort of DOS (or, on occasion, OS/2) utility. It was usually written in assembly, and would be accompanied by a BASIC program you could type in to get the resulting binary, as assemblers weren’t readily available. The BASIC program was line after line of decimal numbers that would decode them and write out the resulting binary — sort of a primitive uuencode for paper. Trying to type those in gave me some serious eyestrain on more than one occasion. By now, I forget what most of those utilities did, but I remember one: BatchMan. It was a collection of tools for use in DOS batch files, and could do things like display output in color or even — yes — play monophonic music. It came with an example that displayed some lyrics about batch programming on-screen, set to what I later realized was the Batman theme. Geek nirvana, right?

But Batchman was too big to publish the source code, or the BASIC decoder, in print. It might have been one of those things that eventually led me to a CompuServe account. PC Magazine had some deal with CompuServe that you could get their utilities for free, or reduced cost — I forget. CompuServe was probably where I sent my first email, from my account which was 71510,1421 — comma and all. In later years, you could pay a small fee to send email to the Internet, and I had the amazingly attractive email address of 71510.1421@cis.compuserve.com. Take that, gmail.

PC Magazine eventually stopped running utilities that taught people about assembly or batch programming and shifted more to the genre of Windows screensavers. They stopped their articles about how hard disks work and what SCSI is all about, and instead have cover stories like “Vista made easy!” I am, sadly, not making this up. Gone are the days of investigating alternative operating systems like OS/2.

It appears that “Abort, Retry, Fail” is gone, too. It was a one-page thing at the back of each magazine that featured braindead error messages and funny stories about people that did things like FAX an image of a floppy disk to a remote office — before such stories were cliche. Sort of like DailyWTF these days. The sad truth is that the people that would FAX an image of a floppy are probably the ones that are reading PC Magazine today.

I still have a bunch of PC Magazine issues — the good ones — in my parents’ basement. I also still have my floppies with the utilities on them somewhere. One day, when I get some time — I’m estimating this will be about when Jacob goes to college — I’ll go back and take another look at them.

Categories: Software

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  1. Omari

    Agreed. I also reacted with a shrug when I saw that PC Mag is going online only. There’s been nothing in there that’s been worth reading for years now. It’s always “20 Vista Speed Tricks” and “20 Must Have Free Downloads.” The Windows tricks are always “Defrag!” and “Clean out the registry!” and “Stop programs from running at startup!” and the free downloads are always registry cleaners and startup program cops.

    After I stopped reading the magazine I did read the columns online for awhile, but even stopped that after I got tired of Dvorak trolling.

    I doubt there are many that will miss PC Magazine.

    Reply

  2. Russ Allbery

    The comma was a TOPS-20 thing. All of CompuServe ran on TOPS-20 under the hood. You could even escape out to a shell prompt under some circumstances.

    Stanford used to run TOPS-20 as well, but of course we haven’t for many years. It was pretty common in educational institutions, though.

    Reply

  3. Gunnar

    I wrote during 2007 the Linux section of the Spanish PC Magazine. It’s funny to me to realize that this would have been my childhood dream (I had collected over four years of PCMag USA issues)… While at the same time, I am now embarassed to even list it on my academic CV – I took the opportunity to write in PCMag because it is a magazine distributed all over Latin America, and I’d rather take the microphone than to leave it there for any other non-Free-Software-loving person! Of course, after a long year trying to come up with sales-like articles pushing Free Software being rebranded and sometimes rewritten (and stupidly! Once I got an ad for NERO inserted in an article I wrote about firewall configuration helpers!), Ziff Davis told me they were no longer interested in a Linux section… Well, what can I say? Their loss…
    Sigh… Neither I feel strongly about this demise. What is a real shame is that they let a great magazine sink to that abysal depths.
    …Of course, then again think about my beloved 1980s BYTE, and…
    Sigh.

    Reply

  4. Adrian von Bidder

    Could you fax me those floppies, please?

    Reply

  5. Kadish « Simple Country Physicist

    […] the student newspaper of the campus of the Boneyard, and now a blot of the demise of PC magazine. [Link] (I regret not having a link-citation for the DI article; at the time it did not seem worth […]

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