ZiffNet: 'Project Athena' and the moment of conception

Summary:ZDNet's 20th anniversary: former Ziff-Davis Interactive Michael Kolowich takes us back to experience the birth pangs of ZiffNet, ZDNet's predecessor.

I remember the conversation as if it was yesterday, and as I remember so many conversations with Bill Ziff over my six years at Ziff-Davis.

It was January, 1991, and the setting was a fishbowl-like conference room at One Park Avenue in New York. We’d just made a final decision to move the magazine I founded, PC/Computing, from Massachusetts to Foster City, California. (The company needed to raise its profile on the west coast, and as a 3-year-old upstart publication PC/C was much more portable than its more well-established brethren, PC Week and PC Magazine.)

As I was deeply rooted with a young family in Boston, I would not be moving with the rest of the PC/C team. Bill had a question for me: “What’s next?”

“Online,” I answered, with more bravado than confidence. And then, the leap: “Mark my words, in 10 years you’ll have an online business that’s just as valuable as the print business.”

January, 1991: The State of Play

Before 1991, there had been some early experiments in online services at Ziff-Davis, centered mostly at individual publications. The most mature of these was PCMagNet, a series of online forums and downloadable utilities hosted on CompuServe. Other forums were hosted by PC Week, MacUser, and PC/Computing, and the recently-acquired Computer Shopper was starting to experiment with online publishing.

By early 1991, CompuServe was still an all-text service for MS-DOS. Its interface consisted largely of multiple-choice text menus, most often viewed in white-on-black text displayed in teletype-style, a character at a time, across the screen. Most online access was by telephone modem at the time, and 9600 baud (9.6kbps) was considered blinding, top-of-the-line speed, and the rumors of 19.2kbps modems to come from Hayes were causing a stir.

By January of 1991, the World Wide Web was nothing more than a demo in Tim Berners-Lee’s lab. He’d coined the term in a paper two months earlier, and by January 1991 he was still five months from its first public showing. The mindset of the online business was around proprietary networks.

To be sure, there were stirrings in the online world. A CBS/IBM/Sears joint venture called Prodigy had launched nationally in September, 1990, with a primitive but proprietary graphical interface. In fact, Prodigy had built a huge editorial operation around its platform, occupying a massive building in Westchester County that at one time had nearly 1,000 writers, editors, and graphic artists. Meanwhile, America Online had recently been spun out of Quantum Computer Services with its own GUI, based on the GeoWorks operating system. Nobody had yet tried to use Windows for an online service.

ZiffNet: Bringing it All Together

We believed that at Ziff-Davis we had a unique view into the online services world. Unlike Prodigy, we would take advantage of Ziff-Davis' special-interest focus to build deep, engaging content for computer professionals and enthusiasts. We would use the power of publications like PC Magazine and PC/Computing (with combined circulation close to 1.5 million) to lower the cost of customer acquisition. And the fact that we were serving an early-adopter market would give us a three- to four-year head start before other special-interest strongholds like automobiles, airplanes, and photography would get involved with online services.

The vision I presented for Ziff-Davis’ online services had two parts to it:

  • First, the online resources of all of Ziff-Davis’ publications would be consolidated into an entirely new entity with a personality and editorial staff of its own; and
  • Second, we would start to build our own online information platform that would take full advantage of Windows’ graphical interface capabilities.

Sitting back in his chair, Bill Ziff was intrigued. He green-lighted the first idea on the spot, and asked for a complete plan on the second within five months. We settled on Flag Day -- June 14, 1991 -- as the deadline for a comprehensive plan.

David Shnaider had been working at Ziff-Davis corporate to help the magazines with their individual online initiatives, and joined what would become the Ziff-Davis Interactive team, along with Craig Kerwein, a young online editor. To build our content set, we also consolidated Computer Library, a CD-ROM-based archive of computer publications, into the unit. We initiated discussions that led to the acquisition of the leading shareware catalog, Public Brand Software, to create an instant library of downloadable files. And we started work on an umbrella service called ZiffNet that would be multiplatform -- while we’d start with ZiffNet for CompuServe, we also created ZiffNet for Prodigy and ZiffNet for AOL.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Early on, the individual publications fought hard for their independence in the online world. With a push from Bill Ziff, though, everyone fell into line and ZiffNet was born by summer, 1991, and the online unit secured space near MIT in Cambridge, in a fabulous old brick building complex that once housed the Davenport sofa factory.

Project Sequoia: A Breakthrough Graphical Online Platform

By Flag Day, 1991, David and I had created a comprehensive content and technology plan for the next generation of ZiffNet. (For the record, the filename was FlagDay.doc, and the initial codename was “Project Athena.”) We would continue to develop a robust interactive content set and a loyal customer base through ZiffNet, while at the same time building a graphical technology platform that would leapfrog CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy. The final codename would be “Sequoia”, and eventually it would be called the Interchange Online Network.

Interchange was a remarkable platform in its day. Beautiful in design and rich in function, it broke massive new ground in function and design. A remarkable design team led by Dave Rollert (recruited from Citibank, where he was working on the bank's first online products, on Prodigy) and a software team led by Mike Kraley and Ed Belove complemented a content team led by Rob Lippincott. It debuted at the DEMO conference early in 1994 and was the talk of the show.

Later in 1994, though, two things happened to dramatically change the picture for Interchange and ZiffNet: the sale of Ziff-Davis and the advent of Mosaic (later Netscape), which would become the first mass-adoption web browser.

Bill Ziff had retired in 1993, and gave his three sons a choice: run the company as hands-on managers or sell it. After a time in management, the Ziff brothers decided to sell the company, and Ziff-Davis and its parent, Ziff Communications, were broken up into four pieces. Even more significantly, Ziff-Davis Interactive was split in two: ZiffNet would be combined with the magazines into Ziff-Davis Publishing Company and sold to Forstmann-Little, and eventually Softbank, where it became ZDNet, while Interchange would go to AT&T Corporation and become the core of AT&T New Media Services. Faced with competition from free browsers and almost-free internet access, Interchange was folded into AT&T’s WorldNet service, and a content service called the AT&T Business Network.

The ZiffNet Legacy

Everywhere you look around the web today, you can see traces of the people and concepts that first surfaced at ZiffNet and the Interchange Online Network. Many of the design elements -- particularly menu structures -- that debuted in Interchange have become an everyday sight on the web, as the diaspora of ZiffNet and Interchange veterans have spread across the web. And of course, the engaging, addictive content that was an early staple of ZiffNet has evolved into a website that is still a key source of information

In my home, I still have the gigantic Sequoia slice that once lived on the wall at 25 First Street in Cambridge, signed by everyone on the team on Day One -- Interchange’s ship date in 1994. And the stained glass window that once looked out on the Ziff-Davis Interactive atrium is still in my office. They are both reminders of a remarkable three-and-a-half years that launched ZDNet on its way, and equipped nearly 200 pioneering software developers, artists, and editors to help build the web...and change the world.

Michael Kolowich was the president of Ziff-Davis Interactive from 1991 to 1994.

» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special

Topics: Hardware, CXO, IT Employment

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