Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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Gosh, I Thought “PC Magazine” Died Years Ago

November 19, 2008
New York, N.Y.

I see from my friend Sheryl Canter's blog that the print edition of PC Magazine is being euthanized. I'm not sure I would have noticed otherwise.

In January 1984 I sent PC Magazine an unsolicited article about the new DOS command PROMPT and the neat things you could do with it. They sent me a check for $600. It was the first time I was paid for my writing.

Several months later I got a call from John Dickinson. He had been hired by the magazine to put together an issue reviewing every printer available for the PC. They needed writers who lived in the New York City area to come into the PC Magazine offices and review printers. That was lots of fun and I met all the editors and other writers. One day I showed John some assembly language programs I had written for the PC and he steered me into Paul Somerson's office.

At that time, both programmers and regular users read PC Magazine, and the “back of the book” (Somerson's bailiwick) had a bunch of columns for programmers. I started writing little assembly language programs for the magazine as well as hardware and software reviews. I had a “real” job at New York Life Insurance Company, so I would often take vacation days to go into the PC Magazine offices. (New York City's a small town: The two offices were only about 500 yards apart.)

By June 1985 I had used up all my New York Life vacation days that were supposed to last through the following March. This didn't bother me too much because I was making enough money writing for PC Magazine to quit that job and write full time, which I've been doing ever since except for some consulting work this year to compensate for a (ahem) temporary slump in book sales. For two years I did the PC Tutor column, which answered reader's technical questions. (One question got me thinking about writing a book that later became Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software.) Then for 8 years or so I did a column called Environments, about OS/2 and Windows programming.

I never counted the number of articles and columns I wrote for PC Magazine, but considering that it was published 22 times a year (unbelievable now) and I had at least one article in almost every issue for 10 years, I usually just say I wrote "hundreds" of articles for the magazine.

The glory days of PC Magazine were under the editorship of Bill Machrone. I thought then — and I still think now — that Bill Machrone was one of the true geniuses of magazine publishing. He was able to make that magazine target a sweet spot of comprehensiveness and integrity. Bill Machrone's PC Magazine was required reading. That Bill doesn't even have a Wikipedia article is a gross injustice and characteristic of the short memories of this industry.

My last work for PC Magazine (ending in 2002) were some utilities for Windows. But I always thought the little free utilities we wrote for the magazine were primarily for pedagogical purposes. The magazine instead used them for promotions and eventually began charging money for them. Yuck!

So I guess PC Magazine and I parted out of creative differences. By that time I hadn't actually read the magazine for many years, and I guess I wasn't the only one.


PCMag was one of the vanguards of the PC revolution, wasn't it? I remember, way back then, when I was in graduate school, buying just about every edition of PCMag. I read it for your articles as well as those of other writers, including a little known writer by the name of Peter Norton.

PCMag and Turbo Pascal were the main tools of that era (that and MASM).

Now that we're all "growed up", perhaps there isn't the same need for PCMag in print.

The entire industry has changed. Personally, I don't find the same level of excitement and novelty that there was in the early days. Which is kind of ironic, given all the advances that are occurring, and the perpetual competition between Microsoft and the rest of the world. I guess its the difference between being a pioneer and a settler.

kmontgom, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 07:51:56 -0500 (EST)

PC Magazine was doomed by the internet, whether they stayed with their roots and maintained integrity or not. If anything, I would have to guess that the editors did something right, insofar as keep a dead horse moving is concerned, as I'm surprised the magazine didn't disappear early this century.

Even by the late 90s it had started to seem a little ridiculous how the magazine had gotten smaller, and smaller, and smaller (actual content following an even more dramatic decline curve), and the information (and importance) it held so much more dated and irrelevant.

Where once it was a critical conduit of industry information, instead it was relegated to being a Consumers Report of products as they were several months ago. The information circumventing it, coming to the community not only faster, but without the often biased and sometimes corrupt filter.

Dennis Forbes, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 11:44:45 -0500 (EST)

I read PC Mag religiously during its glory days; it was the bible of the industry. Bill Machrone's leadership of the book was superb; after he handed over the reigns, the magazine was never the same.

PC Magazine's coverage launched our product back in 1984 (PathMinder). It was a utility program from an unknown company, but thanks to PC Mag's coverage, we were on the map. The editorial staff was always thorough and fair, and their suggestions really helped improve the product.

There were two writers whose words I never missed; Charles Petzold and Jim Seymour. As a programmer, I always learned the latest tricks and tips from your technical articles, and as a product designer, I learned about the needs of the customers from Jim.

Thank you, to everyone involved with PC Magazine, for everything. There'll never be another one like it.

Albert Nurick, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 11:52:42 -0500 (EST)

PC Magazine will be missed.

— John Woods, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 11:57:15 -0500 (EST)

I used to even key all the Petzold code from the magazine for I didn't have patience to wait for a free disk. They used to mail a free disk with all the code on it to anyone who asked. This was before they had a BBS and, later, a web presence. Years later when I tried to download DirMatch program (by Mefford), PC Mag insisted on charging. In protest, I stopped buying or reading the magazine, resurrected an old PC I knew had DirMatch with my modifications. PC Mag died for me then. I knew it was only a matter of time before its irrelevance. I'm afraid it's no better for its online incarnation. When even the online version dies I doubt if anyone will even reminisce.

— ufopp, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 13:51:15 -0500 (EST)

PC Mag used to have lots of really interesting columns. Then they went down the slippery slope of being a covert advertisers drop of the latest gadgets. PC Mag became a wall to wall smorgasborg of nothing but press releases disguised as reviews for the newest consumer goods. They stopped being a place where you could learn some new things and discover useful tip, tricks and shortcuts.

I wished I'd saved some of the programming columns from the older PC Mag. They would go well with several of Petzold's (and O'Reilly's) programming books that I have sitting on my desk.

— Mr.Bill, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 15:02:34 -0500 (EST)

Here's to hoping you might be able to throw together a wikipedia article for Bill Machrone. Gosh, I sure loved getting my PC Magazine back in the day, this was back when I had a Tandy 1000. Gosh I feel old.

Sir Mildred Pierce, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 15:11:50 -0500 (EST)

I grew up reading pcmag, before having internet or even a 486 computer.. anyone willing to write a wikipedia entry for bill machrone? :P

— Sergio, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 15:39:00 -0500 (EST)

I loved those utilities. I used to buy PC Magazine every month, back in those days. And I second what you say about Bill Machrone. The magazine was a powerhouse then. Its editorial authority now is diminished to the point that I think it only serves to show the lasting power of brand names in our industry. Like many, they've been trading on a name that was built in a better day, by brighter minds.

The torched passed long ago to other magazines and websites, when it comes to reviews, and benchmarking. I trust Ars Technica, and a few others, for hardware reviews.

Goodbye PC Magazine, I salute the magazine that once was, and I am only sorry that the name lived on much longer than the original qualities that made it great did.

— Warren Postma, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 16:11:13 -0500 (EST)

If you think "The glory days of PC Magazine were under the editorship of Bill Machrone" and he should have a Wikipedia page, let me update you to how things work "these days".

You are The One. You can and should write one for him. Who do you think does these pages? IT's those who know and also see valie and want to share.

That's you, Charles. That's you teaching us, for free, in an open environment. That's the stuff we all wanted, were fighting for and got. It's good when we put in the content.

Great going and thanks for the article.

daaltje, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 19:09:17 -0500 (EST)

PC Magazine was great until it became nothing but a promotional tool for Windows. Almost every issue would either be trumpeting an about-to-be-released version of Windows or be telling you what you should be doing about the fact that the just-released version still had a lot of bugs. After years of being a PC user and reading PC magazine, I finally switched to a Mac and let my subscription run out.

— Andy Marx, Thu, 20 Nov 2008 19:12:13 -0500 (EST)

Thank you for this article. PC Magazine was the bible at the pinnacle of the early computer advancement. I agree that they have become and have been under the wing of Microsoft not unlike too many other companies and publications. PCMag went RIP some years back so this is just a final burial of the paper version.

I like others have pretty much given up trying to constantly "fix" something that should just work and MS refuses to do anything about and switched to linux. If it were not for market penetration and need for specific software that is only available under Windows, I would be able to go 100% linux, not just 99%.

— Mike Kai, Fri, 21 Nov 2008 13:55:03 -0500 (EST)

Thank You Charles, Bill Ziff, Bill Machrone, and the many great people I worked with at PC Magazine for many great years. Your contributions to building the personal computer and IT industries - now ubiquitous and taken for granted - can not be overstated.

Your publications were formative for my work as a software developer, entrepreneur and founding member of the Washington Software Association (now the Washington Technology Industry Association, and preceded by the Microcomputer Marketing Forum). My product first received a PC Magazine's Editors Choice Award Winner in 1984.

The current dire situation for print media, both individual publications and publishing companies, has been predictable. Certain failure was assured by attempts to retain prior business models in the face of competition with the Internet. One persisting key failure has been the inability to adjust to the Internet's "many-to-many communications metaphor" - in addition to the inherent conflicts between print and the new world order based on instantaneous communications and a "flatter world".

Douglas Adams ("The Salmon of Doubt") wrote that the 4 generations of sand, science and culture are: telescope lens (we're in a big and mostly empty world), microscope lens (we're made of little unintelligent pieces), microchip (we can make intelligent things out of little unintelligent pieces) and fiber-optic cable (we can communicate many-to-many).

The unimaginably thick twice monthly industry "directory" that PC Magazine was in its hay-day provided the personal computer industry a foundation and a rudder for the 80s and 90s. PC Magazine in print may not be missed but the industries it enabled are just as dependent on technical and marketing communications - and even more dependent on timeliness. Is there a phoenix in the ashes of print publishing?

— Richard WA, Sat, 22 Nov 2008 15:14:06 -0500 (EST)

Thanks to the person who said he loved the Utilities column. That was my baby for 10 years - I was editor from the beginning of 1993 to the end of 2002.

So Charles... Is it a coincidence that the favicon for your site looks weirdly like the PC Magazine logo - CP versus PC in white on a red background? :)

Sheryl Canter, Wed, 26 Nov 2008 10:21:00 -0500 (EST)

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