Bolder, edgier, more tabloid

Computerworld thrived in a fragmented and competitive IT market. Long-time publisher Martin Taylor looks back

When Computerworld started a thousand issues ago, the computing world was straddled between the closing days of mainframes and minicomputers and the energetic early days of the personal computer.

We could talk about the BUNCH and the average computer guy (and just a few girls) would know what we meant. PCs were infiltrating companies, often through the back door rather than the IT manager’s door. And we were still a decade away from Windows 95 which really kicked the PC’s domination into high gear. The internet, while more than just a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, was still a long way from business and public consciousness.

If you missed the BUNCH, it was computing’s old guard of Burroughs, Univac (Sperry), NCR, Control Data and Honeywell, the original challengers to IBM’s early decades of dominance. In 1986 they were all — barely — still in existence as computer companies. A story ran in Computerworld’s first issue speculating on the likely name for the recent merger of Burroughs with Sperry Univac. Stephen Bell got that early public speculation right for Computerworld. Stephen was my fellow reporter on that first issue of Computerworld, along with Nobilangelo Ceramalus and founding editor Don Hill.

The previous decade’s upstarts, such as DEC (or Digital Equipment as it liked to be called), Wang, and Data General, still looked important and IBM was still king of the heap. And telecommunications in New Zealand was quaintly supplied by a division of the Post Office which ran the telephone network.

Despite, or because, the PC industry was still young, buyers were spoilt for choice and in its first few years Computerworld saw an explosion of PC hardware, software and companies. If you wanted a word processor, there was genuine choice and you’d study the comparative tests of Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, AmiPro, Q&A, and WordStar. A desktop database application? Try dBase, FoxPro, Paradox, Access or that 3-in-1 wonder Lotus 1-2-3, to name a few.

A PC buyer was confronted with an enormous choice of brands, both locally made and international. The biggest was Exzel from the brash Ellis brothers who built their homegrown “IBM clone” into a 20% market share leader before collapsing sensationally. This wide choice made personal computing exciting but quickly began driving IT managers to despair as they struggled to support all this variety.

The plethora of products and the jostling for market share was just the tonic for a publication like Computerworld, though. It provided the constant stream of competitive advertising that sustained it in its early years, something that has notably thinned out in recent times as battles have been won and market segments consolidated.

The market that Computerworld launched into in 1986 was already modestly served by local computing publications. The Computer Society’s Interface magazine, Bits and Bytes magazine, and the computing pages in Wellington’s Monday Dominion were the main local sources of computer news. Computerworld brought New Zealand’s computer community weekly access to a global, professional news service combined with local news and personalities. Users got market intelligence early and vendors could no longer set local releases to suit their own timetables, such as clearing unsold old model stock, when reporters were looking for weekly scoops.

From the first issue, Computerworld had a very strong news culture rooted in traditional newspaper journalism with its high standards of independence and drive to break big stories first. Even compared to its siblings in other parts of the world, the New Zealand edition was bolder, edgier and, yes, more ‘tabloid’ in its style than typical trade publications. But it was read and talked about and quickly became an important focus for the local computer community.

As a dedicated weekly newspaper in a small, distant computer market, Computerworld seemed a brave investment for its Boston-based publisher, International Data Group (IDG), but IDG was often in markets earlier than rivals.

A Computerworld news weekly typically spearheaded IDG’s entry into new markets and by the time New Zealand’s turn came, it was already in two dozen countries. Founder and chairman Pat McGovern would insist the early days in a market were the cheapest time to buy market share so IDG was often active earlier than prudence might have dictated.

But “cheap” was a relative term. I recall Computerworld’s first year here posted a substantial loss which would be a decent seven-figure sum in today’s money. But McGovern’s Kiwi bet paid off as it has in scores of other countries and in New Zealand it paid off particularly well.

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