Obituary for InfoWorld (1978-2007)

The Thinker by Rodin

While the publication InfoWorld was certainly not responsible for my success in the information technology (IT) business, it was arguably the jet fuel that pushed my career into the IT stratosphere. I needed InfoWorld, or something similar, to bridge the gap between IT neophyte and IT guru. I still do not consider myself an IT guru but assuming it could be objectively measured, I am confident that I am in the top 10% of IT talent. InfoWorld was instrumental in helping me get there. That is why I always looked forward to my weekly copy. I never equated reading InfoWorld with a chore. I viewed it as fun. From the irreverent Notes from the Field column by Robert X. Cringely (who is not an actual person, just a trademark) to top notch columnists like Brian Livingston, for much of the last couple decades InfoWorld was my essential publication for staying ahead of the IT curve.

I say “was” about InfoWorld but its staff would say, “is”. InfoWorld is still around. What has changed is that it is now available only online. Its last issue, with “Final Print Issue” all over it, arrived in my mailbox early last week. Dated April 2, 2007, I at first assumed it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. After all, InfoWorld has been around since 1978, when it was known as Intelligent Machines Journal. When it was sold to the IDG Group (which offers a plethora of IT publications with the “world” in it) a year later, it became InfoWorld.

I stumbled upon my first copy of InfoWorld around 1987. Someone had one lying around the office. Whenever I found upon a copy, I would read it cover to cover. It was not long before I decided I needed to get a subscription, which was free. There was only one problem: it was free only if you qualified. I was a poor computer programmer making $25,000 a year, an IT nobody. Consequently, InfoWorld was not interested in giving me a subscription. They wanted people who made decisions and exercised budget authority. For years, I tried without success to get a subscription. One year I suddenly qualified. I do not know if it was because of the progression in my career or, like many subscribers, I stretched the truth a bit in order to qualify. InfoWorld became a precious gift that kept on giving. It was the best bargain out there for a knowledge craving IT person like me.

Aside from its fabulous columnists, what was special about InfoWorld was that it was always just ahead of the curve. It was a gloriously nerdy magazine, full of detailed product test reviews, IT news, and writers firmly grounded in toughest IT trenches. While it would occasionally flirt with the fanciful, it almost always it kept its focus right where it belonged: on the business enterprise. That is where people like me made our living. We had to succeed in the business sphere to advance our IT career. It was a nuts and bolts sort of publication that told me what I needed to know right now to stay on the pragmatic leading edge of IT. While it could occasionally wax poetic on the virtues of the Mac or the Amiga, most of the time, it was focused on wherever the market was at. That was typically the Microsoft Windows universe. Consequently, reading columns like Brian Livingston’s on InfoWorld was a rush. Brian is the author of many of the Windows Secrets books. I never needed to buy his book though. I learned all sorts of secrets about Windows from his weekly column in InfoWorld. However, Brian was just one of a cadre of top tier IT columnists that InfoWorld hosted. These included luminaries like Bob Metcalfe, the founder of the Ethernet frame-based network. If you are reading this, the data arrived through an Ethernet card attached to your PC. You can thank Bob for his invention. I can thank him for sharing his wisdom in InfoWorld for many years.

In the 1990s, InfoWorld was in its prime. It was a frantic head rush of a publication, stuffed to the gills with incredibly relevant IT material. It overflowed with IT information from a boots on the ground perspective. I held on to my subscription as a lamprey holds onto a ship. When I was required to renew, I never dallied. I could not afford to miss an issue. I needed it to stay on the technology edge. There were many computer magazines out there, but InfoWorld was special. I felt it was in a class by itself. I occasionally flipped through other IT journals, but all of them left me feeling they were missing something. However, InfoWorld was always focused on precisely what I needed to know right now to thrive in my IT career.

When necessary I could read InfoWorld and feel like I was keeping up with IT. There were only so many hours in a day. I simply did not have the time to read everything. The virtue of InfoWorld was that I did not have to. InfoWorld was easy and fun to read. I have to don my academic hat to work my way through the dense verbiage and illustrations in publications like IEEE Computer. You did not have to be a rocket scientist to understand InfoWorld, just an IT enthusiast. All you had to do was keep reading it regularly. Eventually you picked up all the acronyms and buzzwords and could put them into an applied context. That was when you felt you had arrived.

Unfortunately, the real world hit InfoWorld. Two events coincided: the Internet and the end of the technology boom. The Internet pushed more content online. The collapse of the tech boom and the consequential dip in ad revenue pulled out its financial pillars. I was shocked when they let go Brian Livingston. Yet he was one of many columnists like Nicholas Petreley who were unceremoniously shown the door. Some of the new columnists were very good, but most could not replace the shoes they tried to fill. Readers expressed their disgruntlement by letting their subscriptions lapse. Still, I held on, hoping that the InfoWorld I used to know would return. Yet the size of the magazine kept shrinking along with the advertising revenue. I should have suspected something was amiss because InfoWorld was becoming more of a brochure than a magazine.

Now its print version is gone for good. The same content is online, but I am not sure I will make it a habit. The virtue of the print publication, as one of its columnists pointed out some months ago, is that it is finite. The problem with the Internet is also its virtue: it is infinite, as well as constantly changing. It was not that InfoWorld has a bad web site; it is that (a) like most human beings I have trouble absorbing lengthy articles online (b) a laptop computer is too big to retire to bed with (this is where I do most of my technical reading) and (c) I need IT distilled down for me. That is why magazines and newspapers exist. That is how they add value. However, by being required to read it online InfoWorld’s hassle factor increased substantially. Yes, I can search the site easily enough, but I cannot efficiently browse it. I still need to have a surface understanding of IT issues, but the way it is formatted online leaves me with zero interest to dig to get the details.

I should at least be glad that forests are no longer being cleared to make sure I get my print copy of InfoWorld. However, InfoWorld would have ended up in my recycling bin anyhow. The best InfoWorld columnists moved on long ago, not of choice, but because InfoWorld sent them packing. I still track some of them. For example, I subscribe to Brian Livingston’s Windows Secret’s email newsletter. Brian recovered nicely from his firing. Indeed, he got the last laugh. He now has more subscribers to his email newsletter than InfoWorld had subscribers when he was writing for their magazine.

I hope that some other company will pick up where InfoWorld left off. I am sure advertisers still want to target me. Give me its equivalent in print form and I will subscribe, as will many others. I suspect that the reason InfoWorld’s subscriber base shrunk in half was because during the last recession they got pennywise and pound-foolish. In effect, they chopped the legs off their own publication. It would have made much more sense to spend money to get back the fabulous staff and columnists they used to have and rebuild their base. Instead, they looked at their balance sheet, instead of their long-term profitability. As a result InfoWorld, for many years arguably the premier computer magazine is a sad shriveled imitation of itself.

Thanks in part to all those years of reading InfoWorld, I am now precisely the kind of reader that they should crave the most. In effect, they abandoned people like me by discounting my need for a quality printed publication in favor of the cheap production costs of publishing only online. Getting rid of their print publication was a foolish decision. If the InfoWorld website is still around in a year, its content is likely to be of marginal value. Unfortunately, it appears the money managers at IDG are still missing the big picture. I thank InfoWorld for all those years of insight and detail. However, they have lost me as a customer.

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