Digital Memories: From Starting a Magazine Website to the Wisdom of Bill Gates

By Jack Limpert

In 1995, The Washingtonian magazine created a website——and we saw it as a wonderful chance to reach a broader audience. The digital business plan? The computer screen will be just like pages in a magazine—we’ll put editorial content on the screen and sell ads next to it.

Could people look at the website without paying for it? Sure, we weren’t going to put all that much editorial content on the website—just enough to lure people into buying the magazine. Sort of like digital direct mail.

It wasn’t as if people were going to spend all that much time on the web. Dialing up AOL was a pain, and there were frequent computer crashes.

Not long after we created the website, we rounded up six Washingtonians who were using the site, took them to dinner, and asked what they liked and didn’t like about it. The most memorable comments had to do with where they accessed the site. They all said they went on at work to check out local restaurants but they saw their computers as work stations and they had no interest in looking at a computer after they got off work.

As the months went on, we put more and more editorial content up on the site. Our first success at getting revenue from it was a deal with AOL: They paid us to get access to our restaurant coverage, which they used to lure in more AOL subscribers. The most memorable comment from our meetings with them was from one of their top executives: “There’s no church and state at AOL.”

So there we were—pretty clueless—as the 1990s went on. Not, though, as clueless as Time Warner, which bought AOL in 2000, burning up several hundred billion dollars in equity in the process. Who knew that broadband, portability, and Google would change everything?

And who knew that ads on a computer screen wouldn’t  work nearly as well as ads in a magazine? We didn’t understand that reading a magazine was a more leisurely activity than surfing the web. We didn’t understand that readers would spend 96 minutes reading an issue of the magazine but only about a minute on a website visit.
Bill Gates was the very smart founder of Microsoft: How good was his crystal ball? In 1996 he came and spoke to the American Society of Magazine Editors about “How New Information Technology and the Internet Is Changing the Way We Work and Communicate.” It was on November 25, a few weeks after Bill Clinton won a second term as President, and Gates talked some about computers and election night. Here are excerpts from an ASME summary of his speech:

The way people think of PCs has changed, Gates said. “People have switched from thinking of them as simply productive tools for creating spreadsheets and documents. Now they’re thinking of them as communication tools. It’s a breakthrough in communications in your ability to reach out and find what you’re interested in, find other people with common interests.”

Gates pointed out that there’s a lot of “crazy” talk about the Internet. “There are people who think it’s a dead end. There are people who think that overnight it’s going to change the world. There are a lot of challenges to overcome, such as getting more speed on the Internet, getting the security to be there, getting it easy to use and making it a lot more inexpensive than it is today. Only as those problems are solved will we see this as a mainstream device. I think that electronic mail is something that people will do every day. It will be more common than fax machines are today.

“We can already see some neat examples of where it’s being used. On election night, millions of people connected to the site we’re involved in and many of the other sites, and it wasn’t just for top stories. We had more hits on local elections and issues than up on the main page. Election night is a wonderful example of where a medium like this can come into play.”

Magazine writers and editors need to be involved, he said. “If there’s one sure thing I’ll say today, I think any writer or editor should have a personal computer with an electronic mail connection, be out on the Internet gathering information to help them do their job better, collaborate with people, and see what the latest developments are. If a company doesn’t have pervasive electronic mail that people use every day and can count on, they are not at the starting line for the information age. This comes way before they should think about having a cool website or trying to make a business out of being in the electronic world.”

To make access easier, the big focus for the next year is ease of use, added Gates. “This means when you buy a computer, you click a single button, you give your phone number, it will show you all the local people who can connect you, you pick one of those and boom you’re up on the Internet, ready to send electronic mail, ready to browse.”

High-resolution flat-panel screens will make a huge difference, said Gates. “Within ten years you’ll have something that’s the weight, size, and thickness of a tablet of paper that you can carry around and get very high quality web information. You’ll likewise have a screen that’s smaller that you can carry in your pocket and get messages and your news ticker.”

“I talk about a scenario in the book [an updated edition of his book, The Road Ahead] where instead of an advertiser paying for the content, the ad money would go directly to the person reading the ad. You would put in your in-box a threshold, like ‘I don’t like to read ads unless they pay me ten cents.’ Advertisers would look at my profile. Let’s say it’s Porsche. They’ll scan my profile and see I bought one three years ago, and I’m the right demographic. For them it’s worth ten cents to put a message in my mailbox.”

Gates says that within five years computers will be able to be driven by voice commands or we’ll have tablet-based computers that recognize handwriting. “We will teach a computer to see,” he said. “It will notice if you’re happy or sad or confused when you use the machine.”

“The world will change a lot in the next decade.”

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