As an IT industry analyst, I’m always looking for patterns: (1) early signals of an inflection point and (2) the later markers that characterize an era. The patterns can come from anywhere: from vocabulary (e.g., “dot.com,” “to Google something”), from airline routes (during the dot.com era, there were so many VCs and tech company presidents commuting between Boston and San Jose that airlines ran multiple direct flights a day between Boston and San Jose to deal with the load), and from the newsstand.
Let’s talk about the newsstand. My thesis is that popular thud-factor magazines (those half an inch thick or so) characterize an era due to two dynamics. They not only have good-size circulation numbers, but they attract many advertisers (due to the large circulation numbers and desired demographics). In other words, a thick magazine is a physical instantiaton of a perfect storm of reader interest and advertiser sales pitches–each one amplifies the other.
So let’s look at three thud-factor magazines and their eras:
- PC Magazine (mid 1980′s/early 1990′s): At one point, PC Magazine was one of the major magazines for techies; now it’s no longer physically published. In its heyday, PC Magazine was bursting at the seams with ads; Wikipedia notes that it moved to biweekly publication in 1983 after a monthly issue contained more than 800 pages. Readers bought the magazine as much for the ads as for the articles. It’s how you found out what new software was out and what Gateway 2000 was charging for its 386-based PCs. This was the era of gadgets–readers weren’t interested in the big picture, they were interested in speeds and feeds.
- Fast Company (around 2000): Although the magazine is still around, Fast Company‘s heyday was in the dot.com era. Giving a sense of the magazine’s buzz at the time, Wikipedia notes, “In 2000, Fast Company was sold to Gruner + Jahr, majority owned by media giant Bertelsmann, for $350 million. At the time this was the second largest amount for any US magazine in history.” This was a magazine that you lugged around as a trophy–when you got on the Boston-San Jose flight with the 42 other VCs making the trip, conspicuously carrying Fast Company and Wired made it clear that you were one of the dot.com movers and shakers. This was the era of aspiration and the Internet big picture–readers wanted to know about inter-mediation, clicks and bricks, and e-Commerce, and how they could become millionaires in nine months via a hot idea and stock options.
- Real Simple (today): Real Simple is a consumer magazine–appropriate in an era of “the consumerization of IT.” Rather than longing to be overwhelmed with gadgets or “the big picture,” readers now just want to get tasks done with a minimum of fuss and a certain amount of style. This is the era of simplification, ease-of-use, and a Zen outlook. It’s no accident that streamlined Web applications that workers can begin using with no instructions are now popular. Forward-thinking IT departments are feverishly working to move to a hybrid delivery model–being able to run an application both behind the firewall and in the cloud–because they realize that their business users could care less about the techie details of where an application runs: they just want to get their work done.
So there you have it–three different eras, three different magazines. If you work in IT or for a vendor, dump the PC Magazine or Fast Company outlook and go with the Real Simple style….