A 'private online service' for the masses

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: David Schnaider describes how the business model for ZiffNet, and ultimately ZDNet, was conceived.

I arrived at Ziff-Davis in 1988 as the company's online guy. PCMag.net already existed on a server on CompuServe, and they had rolled out online versions of other magazines as well.

Ziff had a stable of online companions: two Mac publications, PC Week and PC Computing.

ZiffNet started as a service for the Mac market, but it wasn't big enough. Macweek was deployed online as a single service aimed at Mac users called ZMac. It was based on the concept of aggregated stories from the stable of Ziff-Davis publications.

ZiffNet aggregated all of Ziff-Davis' publications under a single brand. The thinking was that this would be better for users than trying to follow individual publications on CompuServe. The company saw an opportunity to generate revenue on CompuServe, and so tried to create a separate brand -- users had to pay a charge to CompuServe, and then to the brand. This would give users access to more information than was simply aggregated by interest and platform.

We began charging for access later, in the 1990s. It was a very successful opportunity -- CompuServe had many millions of users online.

ZiffNet was essentially aggregated content. In 1990, David [DeJean] wrote a proposal for a Ziff-Davis opportunity for a "private online service." It would be independent, but not expensive. It would compete with CompuServe.

A group then traveled to Bill Ziff's Florida residence in 1991 and got his blessing for the project. Mike Kolowich moved publishing for PC Computing to the West Coast, but he was not able to move, so he was a free agent floating around for a bit. Bill Ziff put him in charge of electronic development of a computer library on CD-ROM targeted to tech professionals.

There was a new business unit created to do online, as well as our CD-ROM efforts. So Mike was soon put in charge of ZIffNet and all its aggregated content.

In the summer of 1991, the team was trying to figure out how to roll the project out and how to market it. In 1991, ZiffNet was still on CompuServe, and they were exploring simultaneously:

  1. An independent online service called Interchange, on a stealth basis; and
  2. expanding ZiffNet into other online services, like Prodigy, around 1992.

During all of this, Bill Ziff decided to sell the company. All of the balls were in the air while they were trying to sell the company.

New York investment firm Forstmann Little & Co. purchased Ziff-Davis Publishing -- which included the business and consumer computer magazines, the international magazine group, a market research division, and ZiffNet -- for $1.4 billion.

ZiffNet was soon split off and bought by Interchange, which was in turn acquired by AT&T. The magazine unit was free, and they could explore any platform, including on the Internet. At the time, it was pretty clear that Interchange was not an option -- it was too complicated.

The team began developing a service for the World Wide Web, along with services on Interchange, CompuServe and Prodigy. This continued until the other private services started to fade away.

Suddenly, ZDNet was on the Web. ZiffNet had been the only part that was retained from the former company, and so they decided to rename it ZDNet in 1995. The name was changed on CompuServe and Prodigy first, which was easy enough.

Putting ZDNet together to launch on the World Wide Web took longer.

The team started coding from scratch. Back then, there were no packages, no content management systems, no ad tracking -- coding was daunting. It took awhile, and the team hired an entire staff to start from scratch.

The rest, as they say, is history.

As told to Julie McCracken.

David Shnaider was vice president and general manager of ZiffNet and ZDNet.

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