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Subscribing to the Idea of Magazines on Floppy Disks

February 06, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

They are magazines that are virtually weightless, yet the pictures and drawings inside can dance. Or disappear at the push of a button.

Space-conscious consumers might also pop a hundred or so of these magazines published on floppy disks into a briefcase, although it might take a month to read all their contents.

But despite such less-is-more wonders, don't expect your weekly issue of Time to be sold on a floppy just yet.

There has indeed been new life in the computerized magazine world lately with the addition of two new disk magazines sporting advanced technologies: Big Blue Disk and PC Life, both for IBM machines or their clones.

Yet, according to many observers, the basic problems remain. People still look like Max Headroom's poorer relatives when their pictures appear in disk magazines. Perhaps more importantly, it's hard to curl up with a magazine that must be read on a computer.

Reading on the Screen

"One area where the technology still falls short is making it enjoyable to read things off the screen," commented James Fallows, the Washington editor of the Atlantic who writes occasionally on high-tech matters. "I like writing on a computer, but I hate reading something of any length on one."

Though some insist that periodicals on floppy disks could be the magazines of the future, Fallows and most others in the publishing industry are not yet convinced. As Fallows put it, "To me, computers still seem more likely to affect the writing and production of magazines than the reading of them."

Whether or not magazines on floppy disks become the magazines of the future, they are already the magazines of the present for several thousand computer screen readers. And these people pay relatively dearly, spending anywhere from $7.95 to $14.95 per individual issue, slightly less by subscription.

The most advanced of these "magazettes" (a combination of the words magazine and diskettes, techno-speak for floppy disks) offer animated graphics and working samples of sophisticated software programs. In addition, they contain standard text features typically found in paper magazines about computers.

Magazines on floppies, all of which currently cater to readers interested in computers, first appeared in 1981 with Softdisk Magazette, for Apple users. Today, it's estimated there are more than a dozen such magazines on the market, with readership growing as more people acquire computers.

But the medium appeared to be facing a most uncertain future for several years. According to Al Vekovius, a managing partner at Softdisk Inc., at least one-third of all the disk magazines ever published have failed.

In the early days, said Vekovius, both subscribers and magazines "dropped like flies." He suspects it was mainly because the cost of unprogrammed floppy disks was high: $5 wholesale. To cut costs, Vekovius recalled, subscribers had to send in old disks each month to have them reprogrammed with new issues; this continued until the price of disks dropped below the price of first-class mail.

Other initial problems faced by Vekovius and his partners Jim and Judi Mangham included disinterest from advertisers and software distributors.

Those circumstances improved and then last year, the field was revitalized with the debut of Big Blue Disk, published monthly by Softdisk Inc. in Shreveport, La., and PC Life, published bimonthly by Microstar Graphics in Syracuse, N.Y.

The two have similar circulations: about 15,000 readers. But PC Life seems to have won the hearts of critics. They've praised PC Life with such acclamations as "the first disk magazine worthy of the name," "graphically it's a beauty" and "The best disk magazine I've ever seen!"

Even so, reading a magazine on computer is still slow and tedious. Before PC Life can be read, for instance, a computer and a graphics board must be set up. Then the disk must be inserted and commands typed in before pictures and type show up. Because of the slowness of most machines, turning a page takes several seconds. And it may take 15 seconds or so for the graphics to stop cavorting and the reader to see what a page finally looks like.

According to Mike Sullivan, PC Life's editor/publisher, such speeds are improving with recent advances in hardware. But even at the turtle pace, Sullivan is excited about the possibilities of this technology.

He's particularly pleased that his magazine allows readers to use and see for themselves how various software products actually work. And he takes pride in offering ready-to-run computer programs. "A lot of computer magazines give you free utilities (programs)," he said, "but then you have to type the whole program onto a disk, whereas we give you the program already on a disk."

Enough Good Stuff

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