'Modem animals,' intelligence exams and the Texas-Sized Jelly Doughnut

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Former executive editor Craig Kerwein talks about milestones in ZDNet precursor ZiffNet's development.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

By the time I arrived at Ziff-Davis in 1990, PC Magazine was well established on CompuServe as "PC MagNet," having outgrown the in-house bulletin board system (BBS) serving up downloads of its popular utilities. MacUser and MacWeek had just jump-started their own forums.

One of my jobs was to help chaperone the other magazines in Ziff's portfolio into their CompuServe neighborhoods, working with the staffs at PC Week, PC Computing, Computer Shopper and Corporate Computing to forge deeper relationship with their readers. Although each magazine cultivated their own individual identities targeted at specific audiences, we knew that the Ziff name could be strong umbrella brand as an online service.

Thus, ZiffNet was born.

These were the peak days of DOS. Windows was still a couple of years away. Your online activity arrived via SmartCom and a 9600 BPS dial-up modem. We thought that was fast back then, as it was a 4X jump over the previous 2400 standard.

The in-house email system then was MCI Mail, where you had to dial-up to check your inbox or compose an e-mail. And since we regularly worked with CompuServe and its mail service, it required another modem session to sign in. As such, it was commonplace for each office to have two phones lines -- one for voice, the other for 'data' -- as well as a list of access phone numbers by your desk to call for each service, in order to have a dozen or more modem sessions a day.

At the Ziff-Davis office in New York City, corporate policy mandated that prospective hires had to take an intelligence exam before formal offers were made, which was an excruciating long test that supposedly identified smarts and personality traits. (We later dropped that requirement when we moved to Cambridge, Mass.)

The forum scene at PC MagNet was informative and frothy, having gained critical mass with tight integration with the magazine as well as an active and engaged staff. We would see great conversations about great software packages at the time: Sidekick, Magellan, WordStar, Lotus 1-2-3, as well as which 386 computer to buy.

Sysops were affectionately known as "modem animals" for being online so much. We had several dozen volunteer sysops at our peak period, enthusiastic ‘netizens’ who nurtured and patrolled the conversations. One of the sysops even put a ZiffNet vanity plate on his car.

New sysops were initiated into the fold via a TSJD -- Texas-Sized Jelly Doughnut -- courtesy of Orville Fudpucker, one of the resident sysop legends. A TSJD is an 8-inch pastry with a variety of flavors, and would always arrive with a "bite" taken out of it by the UPS.

The path from those early days in New York City to ZDNet essentially had three key tipping points in the early days:

Tipping point #1: ZiffNet's online growth saw an opportunity to create a next-generation online service, with a seductive user experience backed up by a robust data center based in Medford.

The code name for the service was "Athena," and prompted the staff move from NYC to Cambridge in 1992. We increased technical, marketing, and editorial staff from various Ziff publications over the course of two years.

Athena turned into "Interchange," and we signed up partners like Starwave (representing ESPN and Outside magazine), the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and acquired a shareware software house in Indianapolis for the download library.

We built up the ZiffNet brand on CompuServe and introduced a monthly fee to access the Ziff content. We had regular attendance at COMDEX and went to all the parties. One night was the [IT gossip writer] Spencer Katt party, one night was the PCMag Technical Excellence Awards, one night was the Ziff party at the Liberace house.

And then we repeated a similar schedule for the Mac audience at MacWorld conferences, all while preparing to launch Interchange.

Interchange was a beautiful service at the time, and we were confident that it would hold its own as a robust publishing environment with good media backing.

Tipping point #2: Alas, just as we shipped Interchange, the Internet just...happened. Mosaic burst out of Chicago and turned into Netscape. Web sites sprouted up everywhere. There was a newsgroup for any topical discussion you could think of.

The business model suddenly shifted: who was going to pay for content on a dial-up service when you could get it for free on the web? Bill Machrone wrote a great piece about the web when he first saw it and "immediately knew Interchange didn't stand a chance," despite the web's visual shortcomings.

Tipping point #3: Bill Ziff retired, and left the company to his sons, who had little interest in running a media company or an online interactive service.

The Ziff-Davis family of publications was sold to the investment company Forstmann Little. I landed on the Interchange side of the sale, which was sold to AT&T, where the business model revolved around pay-for-access. Eventually, that effort morphed into a web site for business professionals, and was later sold to Jim Manzi and Nets, Inc. to build a B2B service.

By that time, the staff exodus was in full force, and I followed suit.

Fast forward to the present. Truth be told, I had a great run at Ziff, and am proud of the work we did 20 years ago. I still have an old Interchange baseball jacket hanging in the closet that I pull out from time to time. People ask me what Interchange is, and their eyes glaze over when they hear the story. And that’s okay.

Though ZiffNet and Interchange are now footnotes in history, I’m happy to say I had a little hand in building that history, and I’m still around to make a little more.

Craig Kerwien was Manager of Online Services and Executive Editor at Ziff from 1990 to 1994. He is currently Director in the Office Product Management Group at Microsoft. You can find him on LinkedIn.

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