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Tangles in the Mac Web

As a veteran surfer of the Mac Web, I've grown accustomed to the almost ubiquitous requests for donations and/or subscriptions.

And like many who peruse the Mac Web heavily, I had grown just as accustomed to ignoring these requests. Until one appeared on the site I depend on the most, MacSurfer.

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Of all the sites on the Mac Web, MacSurfer stands out because it offers absolutely no original content. In fact, it has no content whatsoever, but rather consists entirely of links to Mac- and technology-related articles elsewhere on the Internet. It's a service I can't do without.

In July, Phil Pearson, the editor and publisher of MacSurfer, posted a plea for subscriptions near the top of the page, a plea that continues to appear daily, though for the past few weeks in an abbreviated form.

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Shocked by the realization that the site I rely on for fresh Mac news and commentary was struggling, I quickly dispatched a check to Mr. Pearson.

Of course, there are plenty of other excellent Mac sites I visit often, each with similar financial woes. But who can afford to regularly send checks to numerous Web sites? It presents an unsettling dilemma for Mac users fond of getting a boatload of news, rumors and tips for free on a daily basis.

On one hand, there is the tradition of Mac users helping each other without expecting remuneration; the Mac community historically has been an extremely supportive one.

On the other hand, operating a heavily visited Web site is still a business, regardless of the level of devotion of those who run it. They still need to pay the rent and feed their families.

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"Producing a popular, high-quality Mac site is a tremendous amount of work and incurs serious expenses for Internet bandwidth," said Ric Ford, founder, editor and publisher of MacInTouch, one of the oldest Mac news sites.

Like most sites, MacInTouch has asked for reader donations to help keep the site running. Ford said after a high initial response, donations have slowed to a "still-welcome trickle."

Over the past two years or so, the Mac Web has fallen victim to the same forces that have wreaked havoc on small Web operators everywhere.

The single biggest factor was the dot-com bust that started in 2000. During the boom time many Mac Web operators took their sites commercial; that is, they started selling ads. Most did very well, earning enough money for the operators to quit their regular jobs and even hire staff.

But after the Internet investment bubble burst, many of the advertising dollars that the Mac Web sites had grown dependent upon dried up. Some advertisers disappeared, others would only advertise at lower rates.

Before long, sites that had been thriving and expanding were cutting back and struggling.

Dan Knight, in an August appeal for donations to the Low End Mac Web site, described some steps he has taken: "We reduced the amount we pay writers, which also reduced the number of people willing to write for LEM."

Despite that and other budget cuts, Knight found he could no longer pay himself enough to make a living from the site, and so took a part-time job at a camera shop.

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Ironically, as ad revenue dropped, traffic to most Mac Web sites increased dramatically. For example, Low End Mac was generating 475,000 page hits per month in January 2000, but more than doubled that number by January 2002. While welcoming the increase in visitors, the additional traffic spelled higher support costs to handle the extra bandwidth.

Other forces specific to the Mac universe have exacerbated the sites' financial woes.

MacInTouch's Ford points out that a number of Apple moves have steadily eroded the third-party vendor base that once advertised liberally on the Mac Web.

"Apple application software (e.g., Final Cut, iCal, iPhoto, iTunes) eliminated or dampened third-party applications; Apple's storefront and online stores eliminated resellers; iPods took the MP3 player market; and .Mac collected online clients," Ford said.

Despite the grim situation, most Mac sites have persevered, surviving by slashing expenses to the bone, making self-imposed pay cuts and requesting donations, in addition to a few more creative endeavors.

Applelinks, for example, started selling merchandise such as T-shirts, mugs and the iClock (a clock shaped like the original iMac) as well as an assortment of Mac-related gear, such as iPod accessories. Low End Mac sells e-mail accounts and other Web services.

The MacFixit Web site, long considered the best repository of knowledge for how to deal with almost any Mac-related problem, created a subscription service that allows full access to its archives while continuing to allow free access to current topics (anything posted with the most recent two weeks).

The subscription approach is fraught with risk because Web surfers are accustomed to getting information for free. Though a few sites such as the Wall Street Journal and Salon have done well, the majority has found it difficult to sell large numbers of subscriptions.

MacSurfer offers an ad-free version to subscribers, but as a reader I prefer the non-subscriber version with its Mac-specific ads in place, as I often see products of interest.

Another approach, micropayments, was considered very promising several years ago. Micropayments permit visitors to pay pennies for the site content they wish to view. The idea had fallen out of favor until this summer when several companies, such as BitPass, revived it.

Several of these newer micropayment services work by having users create an account into which they pre-pay a set amount, such as $3. The user can spend the banked money at sites enabled to use the service, which for now is limited to a handful.

Though critics say micropayments won't work because people will feel they're literally being "nickel and dimed to death," it could be an option for some Mac sites, many of which already sport PayPal buttons to facilitate donations.

Soliciting money from readers has proven mildly successful for many sites, but response rates tend to be low. Knight estimated that the approximately 200 readers who responded to his August appeal represent only one half of one percent of regular visitors to Low End Mac and only one tenth of a percent of the total number of visitors.

MacSurfer's Pearson said that his request for donations had done "pretty well," but had slowed after the first few weeks. He was encouraged enough, however, to pursue the subscription option further.

Despite the money worries, long hours and other headaches, the Mac Web shows no sign of giving up.

Knight, for instance, said that Web advertising might finally be on the rebound.

"We're seeing more badge ads than ever before on Low End Mac, and non-Mac businesses are starting to see the value of reaching the mass market," Knight. He added that the Mac demographic in particular should appeal to Web advertisers because they "are willing to spend more for a better product."

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Ford said he was determined to find ways to survive.

"I'd like to keep doing this, but the business environment has changed dramatically since 2000, and it's far more challenging to make things work out today," he said. "In the spirit of the original Macintosh revolution, however, I'm trying to come up with creative new solutions to the problem."

Said Knight: "I hope to keep publishing Low End Mac as long as there are millions of Mac users out there. It's something that I'm passionate about, a hobby-turned-business that's very fulfilling."

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