Behind the News
Analysis of Industry Events
The mainstreaming of open systems technology is making it difficult for
magazines that cover it to succeed.
The Internet proves to be an effective medium for IT executives to handle
As Technology Matures, Publications Wither
If historians should designate 1995 as the year open systems joined the
computing mainstream, journalists may remember that coming of age for some
painful moments, particularly the demises of three widely circulated and
respected periodicals:Open Systems Today, Advanced Systems and the
latest, Open Computing. All three began the year with at least a
healthy readership. At year's end, only one survived in any form, Advanced
Systems having become SunWorld Online on the World Wide Web.
What happened to them has little to do with demand for Unix and open systems-related
information and much to do with the dynamics of the publishing business
and the perceptions of IT vendors about where to spend their advertising
dollars. In an ironic sense, it demonstrates how a venture can become the
victim of its own success and ambition.
Although the exact circumstances differed with each of the defunct publications,
there were strong common threads. In each case, the publisher had decided
to move out of a Unix or product-specific niche into the broader but less
clearly defined realm of open systems, covering topics such as client/server
computing, Windows NT and the Internet. Unix Today, started by CMP
Publications in 1985, became Open Systems Today in 1993. Unix
World, a McGraw-Hill magazine that began in 1983, became Open Computing,
also in 1993. SunWorld, a magazine started in 1988 and bought by
International Data Group in 1989, became Advanced Systems in 1994.
Publishers told themselves that the industry was changing and they would
have to change with it. But once into the computing mainstream, these publications
found themselves subject to forces they couldn't control.
In the view of some observers, the clearest case of overreaching was Open
Computing, which published its last issue in December. The monthly changed
its focus along with its name, moving more technical articles and columns
to an electronic-only version called Unix World Online. Another strategic
move was to broaden circulation from a paid subscriber base of 80,000 to
a controlled (mostly unpaid) base of 110,000. Having cut off its revenue
stream from subscriptions and newsstand sales, Open Computing found
itself competing for advertising dollars with Computerworld, InformationWeek
"It was a mistake they never recovered from," says Andrew Binstock,
editor-in-chief of Unix Review, one of the few surviving publications
in this field. "They expected that by broadening their franchise, they
would be able to bring on board more advertisers. What happened is that
they lost their identity."
For a while, the strategy looked like it would work, according to Michela
O'Connor Abrams, publisher of Open Computing. During its first year
as Open Computing, ending in late 1994, the magazine had its best
year ever for revenue. "We had every reason to believe it would be
smashingly successful," Abrams says.
In 1995, the environment changed. Vendors began to see open systems not
as a distinct segment of readers, as they had with Unix, but as a concept
that had become accepted and almost totally absorbed by the general computing
industry. "It seems to me that, from the advertiser's perspective,
it wasn't worth it to buy into that audience versus the audience that was
reading Computerworld; for them it was the same audience," says
Michael Goulde, an Open Computing columnist and executive editor
of the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston.
Abrams admits, "To maintain that an advertiser could not reach that
information space anywhere else was the problem. I'm not sure we anticipated
that it would be this difficult." In addition, the economics of publishing
were exacerbated by a general flattening of total advertising dollars, a
postage rate increase in February, and a 60 percent increase in paper costs
last spring. "If you're an $80 million operation like Computerworld,
you can take a down time," Abrams says. "You can't when you're
a $15 million publication."
As open systems is no longer an issue, advertisers are no longer attracted
by it, says Rikki Kirzner, Open Computing's technology editor. "The
media buyer wants to be where it's hot, and open systems isn't hot anymore,"
she says. "It's time now to go on with what's hot, which is primarily
networking and the Internet."
Other observers are more caustic. "It's bad karma," says Maureen
O'Gara, editor of the industry newsletter Unigram X. "The public
doesn't identify with something as wishy-washy as open systems."
O'Gara and others say Open Computing abandoned its readership. "They
adopted a mantra that nobody else actually related to, and so people would
feel lost," Binstock says. "It was difficult to look at three
or four issues in a row and figure out whom these folks were appealing to."
David Smith, research director for Gartner Group in Stamford, CT, says,
"The publication wasn't what it used to be. It didn't have the depth
or as much interesting material as in the past."
Abrams disputes this kind of assessment. The magazine had spent a month
talking to readers in focus groups before the name change and found that
readers were interested primarily in reading about multivendor, multiplatform
environments, not about Unix itself, she says, adding that after the change,
"Editorial got an incredible amount of mail and kudos from the reader
In the case of Open Systems Today, the advertising dynamic worked
in much the same way, to the detriment of the biweekly's profitability,
although its editorial content was always respected. CMP decided to fold
the tabloid OST into its glossy computer weekly, InformationWeek.
Although the change has improved InformationWeek, many still miss
OST. "I thought OST was the best of them," Smith
says. "I was really sad when that one closed."
SunWorld, in becoming Advanced Systems, had great hopes, says
former publisher Michael McCarthy, now president and publisher of SunWorld
Online, an IDG publication provided on the Web via servers owned by
Sun Microsystems. "We saw Unix growing into being more than just an
operating system and a series of engineering platforms and taking a more
important position in the enterprise," McCarthy says.
Although the magazine did get additional advertisers, it didn't get enough
of them. One problem was that what McCarthy calls "peripheral advertisers"--traditional
computer vendors moving into the open systems arena--wanted to focus their
message on their traditional customers, not on a readership they saw as
Unix-centric. Advanced Systems folded last May, and SunWorld Online
appeared on the Web in July.
Is this so-called maturation of open systems a time to rejoice or a time
to cry? Perhaps, like most graduations, it's a little of both. "Like
other things, technologies are absorbed and join the mainstream. It seems
like open systems is being absorbed, and in a way that's a reason to celebrate,"
says Norton Greenfeld, president of Implements, Inc., a consulting firm
in Wayland, MA.
Learning from Experience
"There is an emotional issue here," says Richard Jaross, executive
director of UniForum. "We like to see publications in our industry
go forward, and when they don't you lose a sense of community. When Unix
was new, there was that sense of a community of people helping each other
solve problems. But I think this is a sign of success. The companies selling
open systems solutions are growing like gangbusters, so the industry is
very healthy and has become mainstream."
No doubt you've noticed that the magazine in which you're reading this article
has changed its own name, as of this very issue. UniForum feels confident
that UniForum's IT Solutions can avoid the pitfalls that trapped
its former competitors. For one thing, the dynamic of this nonprofit industry
association differs from that of large commercial publishers.
More importantly, according to Jaross, the editorial focus of the magazine
will stay the Unix-centric course that has made it successful over the last
two years. "We believe that open systems, including Unix, TCP/IP, the
Internet and other technologies that have grown up together, is the best
solution for enterprise computing, and we will continue to say so,"
he says. "Based on that conviction, we are dedicated to helping our
readers meet the challenges they face in today's complex IT architectures.
There is clearly a need for practical articles that they can turn to for
sound advice. We won't lose our direction."
IT Executives Don't Work Without Net
Now that a strong breeze of skepticism has ruffled the banners of Internet
mania, it may be informative to scale back the rhetoric and look for humbler
signs of value. For example, how deeply has Internet use penetrated into
the executive suite, which is not known as a bastion of technology innovation?
Why not start with top management of some IT companies?
I asked six CEOs or senior vice presidents--via e-mail, of course--to what
extent they use the Internet (including the World Wide Web) to conduct daily
business. Even when we take into account the obvious vested interest in
advocating this technology, their responses show some plain ways of putting
the Net to practical purposes. (I also sat down with my boss, Richard Jaross,
in the UniForum offices. No sense in pushing this e-mail thing beyond reason,
Perhaps the first point to make is that, by taking this avenue of communications,
I got through to the executives. They were willing to respond when they
found time; I probably would have been out of luck trying to set up phone
interviews. This availability, as several of them noted, extends to others.
Bob Frankenberg, Novell CEO, said, "The entire executive staff is directly
accessible to Novell customers, Novell partners, and every Novell employee."
Even if the Net did nothing more than circumvent corporate bureaucracy,
it would be valuable.
Facing the Mail
This does not imply that merely sending e-mail to a CEO guarantees a response.
(It took me up to four tries to get results, and I get paid to be persistent.)
Sheer volume necessitates setting a policy. Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems,
said he gets from 125 to 200 e-mails a day, most of them from within his
Alok Mohan, CEO of the Santa Cruz Operation, receives "well over a
hundred messages a day." If you want to get his attention, you had
better have a precise, compelling phrase on your Subject line, he said;
this goes for his management team as much as anyone else. Most of Mohan's
mail filters down to managers according to the message's content.
Clearly, e-mail is an additional source of information vying for the executive's
time, but IT leaders at least take it seriously--unlike, perhaps, phone
calls, which seem to disappear into a black hole when the voice mail system
picks up. Of the daily 75 to 100 messages he receives, Frankenberg estimated
that "roughly 25 percent of these traverse the Net from outside Novell.
Dealing with the volume is difficult. My mail is screened for junk mail,
but I read and reply to all messages that arrive in my mailbox. I do a lot
of mail from home and on planes."
Despite the potential for overload, e-mail streamlines many tasks that other
methods complicate. "I don't think I could operate without e-mail,"
said Jaross. "It allows you to communicate as if thousands of people
worked with you." He pointed out that one e-mail sent to the alias
for the UniForum board of directors, who are dispersed across the United
States and Canada, takes the place of nine faxes or phone calls.
Making a Difference
In the context of e-mail, the Internet basically supports personal and group
productivity--not enough to justify all the excitement. But the executives
polled asserted that using it contributes to their constant search for business
Some IT companies use the Internet as the basis of in-house communications
or to supplement their private networks. "I am convinced that the Internet
has made my organization more competitive," said Wim Roelandts, formerly
senior vice president of Hewlett-Packard and now CEO of Xilinx. "We
use it heavily to distribute information to people in the organization (e.g.,
all our sales literature is stored on Internet servers, and people can access
it via browsers). The ability to access information quickly and efficiently
and to communicate with people around the world sure makes a difference."
"The Internet is transforming our company in terms of how we conduct
business inside the company," said Ed McCracken, Silicon Graphics CEO.
"It is becoming the preferred information dissemination and communication
medium for the vast majority of employees. It allows them to easily gain
access to whatever info they need to do their jobs and provides the context
needed for fast decision-making." He listed a variety of other areas,
including personnel matters, training and software distribution, that SGI
handles over the network.
Alok Mohan stressed the global access capability of the Net. "I use
the Internet to conduct daily business, especially when I am away from the
office, but also when I am in the office and communicating with my senior
management team around the globe. I also use it to distribute corporate
messages to all our employees. I can be sure that they all have the opportunity
to be informed at the same time, no matter where they are."
Scott McNealy emphasized Sun's corporate network, which he called "'little
I' intranet communication. The Internet is great for maintaining contact
with friends, but the intranet is more important for my own day-to-day activities,"
he said. "I communicate with Sun employees via WSUN radio, a monthly
online audio e-mail, or via compressed video messages on subjects like quarterly
For UniForum, a nonprofit trade association with a small staff, the Internet
serves as a leveler of cost considerations. "We've used it for research,
and we can trace a large number of enrollments in our seminars, our training
sessions and our main event--the UniForum Conference--to Web postings and
newsgroups," Jaross said. "The Net also keeps us in touch with
our members." As an example, he cited the "Member Views"
column of our magazine (see page 18 in this issue). Magazine staff
sends out a question (often related to subjects covered in feature articles)
by e-mail and prints members' responses, adding to the range of opinion
on pressing issues that we're able to present to our readers.
CEOs Never Sleep
Like many people who work for them, top executives stay on the job outside
the office. Obviously, the Internet enables the virtual office, and those
polled here have made sure their home computing systems can support their
needs. McCracken, McNealy, Roelandts and Jaross have ISDN lines into their
homes. Frankenberg has, in addition to a 486 desktop PC, a dedicated NetWare
server, a high-speed hub/router and a frame relay connection. Mohan has
a more modest system, relying on a Windows PC with a fast modem and the
Netscape Web browser.
As well as catching up on work left over from the day, the executives use
the Net at home to educate themselves. Frankenberg and McCracken have their
own home pages linked to those of their companies. McCracken said he surfs
the Web often, with his main activities being "news gathering and information
In addition to keeping up with IT-related matters, Roelandts searches Web
sites for information about art and history, two of his hobbies. McNealy
uses the Net to check in with friends whom he hasn't time to contact otherwise.
More to Come
Not surprisingly, these IT company leaders waxed eloquent about the potential
of the Internet to extend their competitive advantage. Most highly touted
for emergence in the near term was video conferencing. "We will have
full desktop video conferencing over the intranet within two years,"
"When live video conferencing comes to the Internet, it may even eliminate
much of the time I have to spend traveling on airplanes," Mohan suggested.
"Our employees will have live interactions with video, voice and multiple
types of data, including 3-D graphics," McCracken promised. "This
more robust feature set will allow true collaborative work."
Frankenberg went so far as to say, "We see a fully networked economy
in the future. We will transact substantial business with our partners and
distribute a significant portion of our product offering over the Net."
Again, it makes sense that CEOs of IT firms recognize the value of the Internet
in running their companies. But not everyone in the industry has jumped
ahead with this strategy yet. At the time I conducted the poll, Klaus Besier,
CEO of software vendor SAP America, was attending the board meeting of the
German parent company SAP AG. He said, "One of the topics of discussion
is how SAP can better exploit the capabilities of the Internet from a business
perspective." He was in the process of setting up Web access from his
home as well as the office.
None of the executives expected Internet use to do away with the personal
touch that goes a long way toward making a leader effective. But some noted
that using the Net to automate tasks, such as those mentioned above, leaves
more time for them to focus on matters where their personal intervention
can make a difference for the enterprise.