mac.column.ted: Ten Good Years: MacFixIt's 10th Anniversary

mac.column.ted: Ten Good Years: MacFixIt's 10th Anniversary

Ted Landau
March 2006

This month is the tenth (10th!) anniversary of MacFixIt. Hard to believe!! Ten years on the Web is a very long time. That's like 75 in human years, isn't it? MacFixIt was started back before the word blog was in our vocabulary, before podcasts and RSS feeds, when Java still meant a cup of coffee. The World Wide Web itself was still relatively new; Netscape was still the dominant browser and Internet Explorer was just in its infancy. Macs were running System 7 and Mac OS X was not yet even a dream. It was before Steve Jobs returned to Apple, before the iPod or the iMac or the i-anything.

If you had asked me 10 years ago, whether all that happened to MacFixIt would ever happen, I would have said: "No, no way, not a chance." It took me by surprise as much (perhaps more so) as anyone. It wasn't even what I set out to do. Here's how it all began [and yes, I have written and spoken about some of this before; consider this the definitive and final "director's cut" version]:

Sad Macs Update Site is born

MacFixIt's first posting was on March 20, 1996. Actually, that's not quite true. At the time of its debut, the site was called the Sad Macs Update Site. This rather odd name referred to a book I had written, called Sad Macs, Bombs and Other Disasters. A new edition of Sad Macs was coming out about every two years. In between, as a benefit to readers, I had been providing updated information via a document which I revised each month and uploaded to places such as AOL and CompuServe.

By the start of 1996, I began to take a closer look at the Web as an alternative way to distribute the document. I liked what I saw. Shifting to a Web site meant I could update the information as often as I wished and have the revisions be available as soon as I completed them.

But before I could launch a Web site, I first needed to learn how to create a Web site. At the time, I didn't have even a clue about how to go about this. So I got some books and began learning about http and html and all the rest. Eventually, I succeeded in creating a crude test page. Using my Mac as a Web server, I called a friend and asked him to try to load the page from his Mac. He could. The seed of MacFixIt had been planted!

Soon thereafter, the initial version of the Sad Macs Update Site was open to the public, using Web space provided by America Online to its members. Within a few months, I had moved the site to a professional web hosting service, using Unix-based servers.

Here are some key firsts from the Sad Macs Update Site days:

First postings. The very first posting on the site (beyond the initial online version of the Update document itself) offered advice on using Apple's Drive Setup vs. the prior disk formatting utility, Apple HD SC Setup. Neither program is still in use today.

The first bug report, posted the same day, offered these comments:

"The current version of CompuServe Information Manager (2.4.3), which never much liked PCI-based Macs or Open Transport in System 7.5.2, seems only to have gotten more annoyed with System 7.5.3. Expect frequent hangs if you use it on PCI-based Macs."

Vacation. During this early period, I was only updating the site around three days a week. And, as I was the entire staff, the site remained stagnant if and when I took a vacation. The very first such break was from June 25 to July 20 (almost a month!). In subsequent years, an annual vacation was shifted to the period between Christmas and New Year's?and eventually eliminated altogether. Looking back, from the lens of today's daily updates, "never take a break" perspective, it's hard to believe that the site managed to survive such interruptions. But somehow it did.

System Software coverage. In July of 1996, I reported on an as-yet-unreleased version of the Mac system software, code-named "Son of Buster." This was the first time the site mentioned pre-release software. Such mentions were uncommon anywhere on the Web at the time; Mac rumor sites did not yet even exist. The name of the released version of the update was confusingly called System 7.5.3 Revision 3. The site's coverage of the system software continued after the software's release?with numerous troubleshooting items collected into a special report. This would evolve into MacFixIt's "Troubleshooting Mac OS" Reports, which remain among the site's most popular features.

Macworld Expo coverage. In August of 1996, I posted daily updates from the Boston Macworld Expo. Today, almost every Mac news site has near real-time coverage of the Keynote, with full reports often within minutes of the Expo opening. Back then, Sad Macs Update Site was one of the very few (maybe the only) one doing "live" coverage from the Expo, even if "live" really meant one day delayed.

Sad Macs Update Site: August 1996

From Sad Macs to MacFixIt

During these initial months, I was assisted by other early pioneers in the Mac Web site world, most notably Ric Ford of MacInTouch and Eric Belsley of the Mac Resource Page. They provided advice, encouragement and a welcome sense of community.

During this same time, the emphasis of site began to subtly shift. Rather than being primarily a place to provide the latest version of the Sad Macs Update document, complete with references to pages in the book, it was becoming a place for posting current troubleshooting-related Macintosh news (which I dubbed "Late-Breakers"), independent of any reference to my book. Using a blog-like format, these items were posted to the home page, rather than added to the Online Update document.

Similarly, the focus started to tilt from items based on my personal knowledge to one where readers provided the essence of the content. My job was becoming more one of sifting through (an ever-escalating amount of) email, deciding what was worth posting and then interpreting and editing the content. This was a different function that I had initially intended for the site, but one that I was finding both more challenging and more rewarding.

As this all became clear, I made the decision to change the name of the site, freeing it from any ties to Sad Macs and thus more accurately describing its new focus. And that is how, on October 10 1996, MacFixIt was launched.

MacFixIt: January 1998

A MacFixIt Timeline

Here are the events that I remember as most significant from the next several years:

Advertising begins. MaFixIt began accepting advertising on December 30, 1996. The idea of making money from the site, other than indirectly by increasing sales of my book, had never occurred to me. But it had reached the point that I needed to bring in at least some cash, just to justify the amount of my time MacFixIt was now taking. Still, I was reluctant to do so. Cold-calling vendors and asking them to pay for putting their banner on MacFixIt was not something I looked forward to doing (to put it mildly). Eric Belsley, who had already begun running ads on his site, gave me the push I needed. Somehow, I managed to get this off the ground. Within a few months, I had as many as two dozen ads running on the site. Suddenly I was managing a business as well as a Web site!

One million hits. With counting started from October 10, 1996, MacFixIt got its 1,000,000th hit in March of 1997. The growth of the site began to increase at an ever-accelerating rate. The three millionth hit was reached in July of the same year.

First anniversary. Here is a quote from an item posted on October 10 1997, noting the first anniversary of MacFixIt:

"I am confident what number one on the list [of top MacFixIt stories of the past year] would be: the discovery that installing the OpenTptRemote file from the OT/PPP Installer would fix persistent Type 11 errors...This item generated more letters of thanks (from users grateful to be rid of the problem) than any other item I have posted. Readers were all but promising to write me into their wills."

A special Special Report. In February of 1998, MacFixIt, MacInTouch, and the Mac Resource Page joined forces to produce a jointly-written Troubleshooting Mac OS 8.1 Special Report. It was the first and last time for this sort of combined effort. Our growing competitiveness exceeded our willingness to cooperate.

Search MacFixIt. By 1997, it had become clear that MacFixIt needed a search capability, so as to make its back content meaningfully accessible. Initially, I accomplished this via a canned freeware search program. Fairly soon, this too became inadequate. Finally, in September 1998, I hired a programmer, Ladd Van Tol, to write a search tool specifically for MacFixIt. This was the first time I ever paid someone to work on MacFixIt.

The search software was later replaced after MacFixIt was purchased by TechTracker (see below). In the meantime, Ladd moved on to become one of TechTracker's first employees.

MacFixIt Toolbox Awards. These awards (for best troubleshooting-related software) were first given in December of 1998, and intermittently thereafter. The big winners in this first year were Conflict Catcher and Data Rescue.

MacFixIt: December 1998

April Fools. For several years, I ran April Fools items. My favorites were the collection posted on April 1 1999. One item in particular, regarding StuffIt, resulted in an email from Aladdin half-seriously telling me that they almost notified their lawyers to go after MacFixIt, until they realized the item was a joke:

"Stung by criticism that its StuffIt 5.x utilities have more bugs than new features, Aladdin announced today that it will soon be releasing StuffIt 6.0. According to the press release, Aladdin has decided that, given today's larger hard drives and fast Internet connections, compression utilities are not really needed anymore. As a result, StuffIt 6.0 will not actually do anything. After running it, so-called compressed files remain unchanged except that a .sit, .bin, .sea or .hqx suffix is added to the file name. This allows other programs that expect to see these suffixes to continue to work properly with the files. Aladdin says that 6.0 will be a free upgrade, available online. However, as the upgrade will be only in StuffIt 6.0 format, users are predicting a 'Catch-22' where you need to somehow get a copy of the program before you can download it. Aladdin responded that this will not be necessary because, since StuffIt 6.0 files are not really compressed anyway, you can just run them directly."

MacFixIt staff. Sometime in the first quarter of 1999 (I don't recall the exact date), I hired the first "permanent" MacFixIt employee (other than myself!). Shawn Platkus was hired to help go through all the email MacFixIt was receiving. He would eventually be joined by several other employees, most notably Robert DeLaurentis (who worked with me on the home page content). Their work quickly became essential to the functioning of the site.

MacFixIt Forums. For some time, I had been looking for a way to allow readers to provide more interactive feedback than via email. I eventually decided to add a set of forums to the site. The MacFixIt Forums were born on June 16, 1999. Ilene Hoffman was the administrator of the Forums and she did a great job of running them for the next several years. [In 2003, MacFixIt would begin using blogging software, which added the ability for readers to post comments directly to news items.]

Yahoo! Internet Life award. In its January 1999 issue, Yahoo! Internet Life (a monthly print magazine, now no longer in publication) listed MacFixIt in its Top 100 Best of the Best Sites for 1998. This was one of numerous such awards and recognition that MacFixIt was receiving at the time. For example, Macworld, MacAddict, and Mac Today magazines would all name MacFixIt as one of the best Mac sites on the Web. The Internet Life award stands out for me, however, because the magazine was not a Macintosh-only publication, meaning the competition was that much greater.

MacFixIt joins TechTracker. On July 14, 2000, I sold MacFixIt (which was now officially MacFixIt Inc.) to TechTracker. This was the company that already owned VersionTracker. It was an exciting moment for me. Much like a proud parent, I was witnessing my "offspring" grow up and go out on its own. As a bonus, I was getting a significant amount of money. But there was also a tinge of regret: Even though I was continuing as editor of MacFixIt, I was no longer the owner of the site; things would never quite be the same again.

MacFixIt: January 2001

Dual home pages. Recognizing the growing importance of Mac OS X, MacFixIt began having two daily updated home pages in March of 2001: one page for Mac OS 9 and a second home page for Mac OS X coverage. Happily (for the weary MacFixIt staff!), on July 5 2002, MacFixIt returned to a single home page, as coverage of Mac OS 9 dropped off the radar entirely.

9/11. September 11, 2001. I would later write about this day in an end-of-the-year MacFixIt Year in Review column:

"It is the only time in the history of MacFixIt where our lead story had nothing to do with technology. We still remember trying to put together a page that morning, with the news of the crashes at the Word Trade Center - and later at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania - playing on the television in the background. We would stop to hear the latest updates, stare at the screen in disbelief, and then try to get back to work. Never were we so relieved to be done with a day's updates."

Cease and desist. On November 28 2001, MacFixIt found itself at the center of a controversy. As part of a larger article on troubleshooting Mac OS X 10.1.1, we included information on how to convert an OS X 10.1 Update CD into a full install CD. It was not meant to promote piracy but to solve a valid troubleshooting hassle (as documented at the time). But Apple didn't see it that way and soon notified us that they would take legal action if we did not remove the content. We immediately conceded to their request. Still, the story was out and it briefly received national attention?even the New York Times ran an article about it.

MacFixIt Pro. On January 22, 2002, MacFixIt launched MacFixIt Pro, its subscription-based service. While the home page and certain other content remained free, accessing and searching most older content required a subscription. While this is an increasingly accepted practice, it was very rare at the time. But it was deemed a necessary move to maintain the revenue required to keep the site going (this was at a time when Internet advertising was dropping like a bag of cement off a tall building). Some readers inevitably complained; I had some doubts myself. It was a difficult period of transition?but ultimately a successful one.

The torch is passed. On June 28, 2002, I stepped down as Editor of MacFixIt. Ben Wilson took over the job. It was a welcome change for me. As much as I sometimes miss being at the center of the MacFixIt vortex, six years was long enough for me to deal with the grind of daily updates. I still don't know how I found the time to do it all. I have no idea how Ben continues to do it.

Given the continual influx of new readers to the site, many visitors are probably unaware that I ever was the editor of MacFixIt. Surprisingly (at least to me), many long-time readers remain unaware that I am not still the editor. I continue to get email from people who believe I am still doing the home page. I am not. My role in MacFixIt now is only as a columnist (for the mac.column.ted column you are now reading) and for occasional other items (such as tutorials). Coincidentally, my very first column was posted in 2003 on October 10 (the MacFixIt anniversary date).

Behind the success of MacFixIt is a good deal of hard work. But there is also a significant element of luck: I was very much in the right place at the right time. I am almost certain that if I started a site such as MacFixIt today, it would never come close to attaining the same level of success. Regardless, here I am with the pleasant task of looking back at the history of MacFixIt on its tenth anniversary. Time to celebrate! Cheers!

This is the latest in a series of mac.column.ted columns by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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