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2006-03-10 15:46:41

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 search warrant.

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 tell.

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 get.

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.

Developer magazines

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 beat it. 

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 from now.

But although I can't get the timing right, the signs are clear.  Developer magazines are dying.