Tangles in the Mac Web

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, there are plenty of other excellent Mac sites I visit often, eachwith similar financial woes. But who can afford to regularly send checks tonumerous Web sites? It presents an unsettling dilemma for Mac users fond ofgetting 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 otherwithout expecting remuneration; the Mac community historically has been anextremely 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 topay the rent and feed their families.

"Producing a popular, high-quality Mac site is a tremendous amount of workand 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 thesite running. Ford said after a high initial response, donations have slowedto a "still-welcome trickle."

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

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

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

Before long, sites that had been thriving and expanding were cutting backand 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 payhimself enough to make a living from the site, and so took a part-time jobat a camera shop.

Ironically, as ad revenue dropped, traffic to most Mac Web sites increaseddramatically. For example, Low End Mac was generating 475,000 page hits permonth in January 2000, but more than doubled that number by January 2002.While welcoming the increase in visitors, the additional traffic spelledhigher 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 steadilyeroded the third-party vendor base that once advertised liberally on the MacWeb.

"Apple application software (e.g., Final Cut, iCal, iPhoto, iTunes)eliminated or dampened third-party applications; Apple's storefront andonline 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 byslashing expenses to the bone, making self-imposed pay cuts and requestingdonations, in addition to a few more creative endeavors.

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

The MacFixit Web site, long considered the best repository of knowledgefor how to deal with almost any Mac-related problem, created asubscription service that allows full access to its archives whilecontinuing to allow free access to current topics (anything posted with themost recent two weeks).

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

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

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

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

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

Soliciting money from readers has proven mildly successful for many sites,but response rates tend to be low. Knight estimated that the approximately200 readers who responded to his August appeal represent only one half ofone percent of regular visitors to Low End Mac and only one tenth of apercent of the total number of visitors.

MacSurfer's Pearson said that his request for donations had done "prettywell," 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 therebound.

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

Ford said he was determined to find ways to survive.

"I'd like to keep doing this, but the business environment has changeddramatically since 2000, and it's far more challenging to make things workout 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 aremillions of Mac users out there. It's something that I'm passionate about, ahobby-turned-business that's very fulfilling."

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