SunWorld's second anniversary: Does that make us 14 in Web years?
The first full-fledged, Web-only computer magazine takes a moment to remember its baptism by fire
Two years ago, a group of us produced one of the very first computer magazines to be published entirely on the Web: SunWorld Online, we called it, and it was a pretty amazing experiment, in retrospect.
We didn't actually know the first thing about publishing on the Web, and what little we did know, we decided to ignore. Good thing, too, because we gradually figured out that most of it was wrong anyway.
What we did know something about was producing a quality magazine for Unix professionals. Our print predecessor, SunWorld/Advanced Systems, had fallen on hard times. Our readers loved us, but the advertising market in Unix was, like Unix itself, going mainstream. That same year, three of the five magazines in the Unix market folded from lack of ad revenue.
That was in May 1995. Fortunately for us, and for our readers, Sun Microsystems held lots of fans of SunWorld who hated to see it go away. It so happened that Sun was redesigning its own Web site, and wanted to ensure it attracted lots of Unix people to help bolster its growing reputation as the premier provider of servers for the Web. Some visionaries in the Sun marketing department (a tip of the hat here to Colleen Choy, and to her successors, Anil Gadre, John Loiacono, and Tracy Stout) offered to provide the seed money if we'd relaunch SunWorld as a Web-only magazine. With luck, and lower cost of operations, we'd eventually learn how to sell Web advertising to support the magazine on its own.
That took a considerable act of faith on their part. We didn't have a Web site nor any Web experience at that time. Sun offered to host the magazine on its own site, but the rest was up to us. That was mid-May.
We had three, maybe four, things going for us. We were experienced Unix journalists, so we knew the market and the readers -- fortunately for us, most of these readers were already heavy users of the Internet. We had some stories left over from the collapse of the print edition, and a good stable of contributors to call on. And, ironically, we had the advantage of not knowing too much about publishing on the Web, and a healthy skepticism about what we did know.
5,000 readers tested our first issue
Best of all, we had a reader database of 100,000 names -- and for 15,000 of those names, we had e-mail addresses. We immediately put together a test issue, modeled on our print magazine. It was short on bells and whistles, had a design the publishing equivalent of a pug-nosed terrier, and almost no art. But it also had a collection of some pretty darned good articles. We e-mailed our 15,000 former subscribers, invited them to look at our test issue and fill out a long, detailed questionnaire about how they liked it.
An amazing 5,000 hardy souls showed up and filled out the form, adding in many cases detailed critiques. Net reaction: They loved it.
That was mid-June. On July 1, 1995, the first issue of SunWorld Online, the first full-fledged, Web-only computer magazine, hit the Internet. It had a funny-looking logo, five news stories and a new products listing, four long features, and six columns. You can still see that first primitive issue in our archives. (http://www.sun.com/sunworldonline/swol-07-1995/swol-07-toc.html)
It holds up pretty well, I think. OK, we hadn't figured out how to do a cover yet. And you'll find a few blasts from the past -- the SunPC and a revised Wabi, and a news story on the still-to-come UltraSPARC.
But you'll also find Michael O'Connell's "Java: The inside story," which was our most popular story that issue and, in archives, for several issues to come. Java had just been added to Netscape Navigator, and everyone wanted to know all about it. That story is today, cumulatively, the all-time, most-read story in SunWorld, and still gets good readership (last month more than 6,000 people read the story). The author of that story became the founding editor of our sister publication, JavaWorld, six months later.
You'll find stories from stalwart contributors whose names you'll still recognize: Peter Galvin on security; Hal Stern on systems administration; Bill Rosenblatt, Harris Kern and Randy Johnson, Edgar Saadi on careers, and a PC connectivity column by Rawn Shah -- who went on to become a regular contributor to JavaWorld, and then talked us into launching NC World last December, where he is ensconced with the title Founding Editor.
On the Web, your archives never die
One of the satisfying things about publishing on the Internet is that you can keep your archives open as long as they hold value. Edgar Saadi's advice on career planning of two years ago will likely still be useful two years from now. Kaitlin Duck Sherwood's amusing, insightful piece on women in engineering hasn't lost an ounce of its pointed humor.
You'll also find in the archive entries and items that are not from the original, but that we keep up to date on an ongoing basis. Mark Cappel launched SunWHERE in that first issue, but it's the current edition you'll see there now. The advertising is also current: We didn't actually sell our first ad until October 1995. The anchor tenant/pioneering advertiser/bold explorer: Globetrotter, makers of FLEXlm, has been a steady advertiser in every issue since. (Thanks, Rich! How about a round of applause for Rich Mirabella, a great guy. Send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him how much you appreciate his support.)
The masthead entry is also current. The original holders of that turf have spread themselves a bit. I was editor-in-chief (now president); Mark Cappel was executive editor, now editor-in-chief of NetscapeWorld; Michael O'Connell was associate editor, now editor-in-chief of JavaWorld. But Carl Strolle is still running the production department he founded, Barbara McDonald is managing the administration, and David Burnette is still chief science officer/Webmaster.
How we broke all the rules -- and why
I said we didn't know what we were doing, and it turned out lucky we didn't. We had no time to produce elaborate graphics, so we didn't. Our magazine was filled with long articles of text, text, text. Worse, all we had were long articles -- at a time when every Web guru explained patiently that Web surfers wouldn't sit still for any article over two screens long.
Fortunately, we had no Web surfers reading SunWorld -- just Unix programmers, developers, and systems administrators who wanted all the information we could shove at them. Our lead news story was 3,500 words long -- longer than the longest feature story we had ever run in the print magazine. Our four features were 2,800 words, 4,000 words, 3,500 words, and 3,800 words. Even the columns were long. Hal Stern was always cut to 1200 words in print; his first online column ran a full 3,700 words -- and they were great words, too!
The readers ate it up. The most common comment in those little questionnaires at the end of every story -- a SunWorld Online innovation -- was that the article length was Just Right; the second most common comment was TOO SHORT!
The editors were in heaven: No more editing copy to fit space -- now they could edit for quality and content -- and print it all! Paper is expensive, electrons cheap! Ecstasy!
A growing fan club agreed. We got 114,000 page views to that first issue; today we generate well over 300,000 page views per month. It took us six months to sign up our first 10,000 subscribers; today we've passed the 50,000 mark. And we don't even have a circulation department!
And into the future we go -- ulp!
Last month we weaned ourselves from the Sun sponsorship and, with this issue, are on our own. As we projected to Sun, we are nearing breakeven in advertising and list revenues. We expect to become profitable entirely on our own this fall. If we make it, we owe it to Sun's act of faith, and to the best readers in the world -- readers who have to go to the trouble to seek us out, to visit our Web site, to put up with Internet bad-hair days, to forgo the undeniable conveniences of paper, all for the pleasures of long, involved, detailed articles on things they care about most.
We also owe real thanks to our advertisers. They spend money on a medium that is still considered risky by some. They've had to go to extra work to create their ads and run their own Web sites to take advantage of them. You should thank them too. I know the ads can be annoying sometimes -- they are in print, and at least we don't have those darned cards fluttering out into your lap when you open the magazine. But they are paying good coin because they value you as a Unix professional. Tell them you saw them in SunWorld. Tell them how much you value SunWorld, and how much you depend on it for useful information. If you work for someone who should be advertising in SunWorld, go bug them.
We want to be here two years from now, with more and better articles to help you in your job, and in your first love: Unix.
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