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 email@example.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.