The Eventual Death of Developer Magazines
I enjoy predicting the death of companies. Everybody needs
a hobby. I suppose mine is more cynical than some, so scratch me off the list
of good role models for your kids.
I'm pretty good at it, too. Nine years of running a
business has given me a certain amount of intuition about whether something is
going to "make it" or not.
Heck, if I could get my accuracy rate a bit higher and
improve my timing, I could make a business out of predicting the death of other
businesses. I'm not sure exactly what the revenue model is, but it seems
obvious that if I could accurately tell people if and when a company is going
to fail, I could charge a lot of money for that service.
Unfortunately, I'm not always right. For example, a nearby
restaurant has been defying my predictions for years. I really like the place,
but it's basically always empty. I can't imagine how they pay the rent. On
more than one occasion I have wondered if the place is a front for something
illegal, but I'm pretty sure my conjectures are not enough for anybody to get a
Accuracy in my projections is hard. Timing is much harder.
Even when it is obvious that a business will fail, it can be incredibly
difficult to know just when it will happen. Sometimes my guesses are pretty
good, but in other cases, I've missed by months or even years. If the company
doesn't have much debt, it can cut costs and lay around on life support for an
absurdly long time.
There's a camera shop here in Champaign. It's doomed.
Nature has selected this kind of camera shop for extinction, but the owner of
this particular store is fighting back. The newspaper recently reported that he
has laid off everyone but himself. That will help keep his doors open, but it
doesn't help me at all. Now I don't know what date to choose for my prediction!
He could close up shop tomorrow or he could keep going for years. It's hard to
New companies, old companies
Suppose my hobby were a game and we needed a way to keep
score. For correctly predicting the death of a specific company, you can get a
maximum score of say 10 points. But timing is critical, so you have to specify
a date. If you get the date pretty close, then you get the full 10 points. If
you miss, a penalty will be deducted. The worse you miss, the fewer points you
The eventual rules of scoring will end up incredibly
complicated. For example, all else equal, public companies need to be worth a
lot less than ones which are privately held. Plus we need ways of resolving
disputes over whether a company really died or not.
Here's another scoring problem: New businesses die
quickly. Old businesses die slowly.
Predicting the death of a new company is a relatively simple
matter. If they're going to fail, they're probably going to do it soon. Many
such businesses never develop a reasonable revenue model of any kind. Others
die in the chasm, taking
all the money they can from the early adopters but never crossing over into the
land of the pragmatists where all the big bucks are.
But old businesses are much trickier, and the timing can be
nearly impossible. After 150 years of operation, Western Union's telegram
business was shut down on 27 January 2006. It wasn't too hard to see this
coming, but how would I have gotten even close to the right date?
So if new companies are worth 10 points, old companies
should be worth maybe a 100 or so. This is especially true now that we've got
dozens of ridiculous "Web 2.0" companies sprouting up like crabgrass. If I
correctly predict the death of something really tricky like Sun Microsystems,
while you correctly predict the death of five startups doing web calendaring, I
should still have the higher score.
One specific situation that has kept me stumped is figuring
out exactly when the software development magazines are going to die.
I correctly resisted the temptation to predict their
imminent death back when the Web was starting to become ubiquitous. For a
while it was fashionable to predict that the Web would eliminate publishing, or
at least that it would eliminate magazine publishing. Ten years later, most of
these pubs are still around.
But there is obviously some truth here. Today's
developer-focused magazines are looking very sickly indeed. The health of a
magazine is very closely correlated with its page count. Note the following:
Two days ago I stopped in at my local Borders bookstore and
noticed that not one of these magazines was available for sale. They carry
hundreds of periodicals. They have an entire shelf of magazines for
scrapbookers. They have niche titles like Biblical Archaeology Review. But
I couldn't find a single pub which was focused at software developers. What's
up with that?
The unavoidable truth is that these magazines have largely
ceased to be relevant. More and more, software developers get their
information on the Web, not from a magazine. As just one example, compare the
quality of the technical content in any developer magazine against Raymond Chen's blog. It's not
even close, and Chen's blog is pure content, as opposed to "tidbits of
content squeezed in between the ads".
Speaking of ads, people are going to start noticing that
SourceGear is currently not advertising in any developer magazine. This is a
big change for us. I'm pretty sure that at least one SourceGear magazine ad
has been printed every month for the last 8 years. Next month, there will be none.
When I show up at Tech-Ed in June, I will no doubt encounter
several sales guys from these magazines. Each of them will try to convince me
that by choosing to stop advertising, I am giving their readers the impression
that SourceGear is dying. The irony seems very thick. My company is not the
one that is languishing here.
For the record, SourceGear is quite healthy. We don't share
our financials, but 2005 was our best year ever, and 2006 is probably going to
It's not that we can't afford the ads. I'm just tired of
playing the game, so I'm taking a break. After Vault 4.0 comes out, maybe we'll
run some more ads to spread the word.
Or maybe we won't. Vault 4.0 is still probably 6-9 months
away. All these magazines might be gone by then. :-)
OK, probably not. Like I said, old businesses die slowly. Developer
magazines still have their place. Their market is shrinking, but it's not
gone, and I wouldn't be surprised if these pubs are still hanging on five years
But although I can't get the timing right, the signs are
clear. Developer magazines are dying.