Adapting 60's Democracy to the Internet
By Steve Lohr 6.19.1995
For all its growth in recent years, the personal computer industry has a dominant culture—a curious blend of frontier capitalism and the social values of the 1960's.
Perhaps no one personifies that culture as much as David Bunnell, a veteran both of Students for a Democratic Society, the radical organization of the 60's, and of the New Mexico company that developed the first personal computer in 1975.
Today, he is scheduled to announce his bid to make money from the Internet with an on-line service called Content.com Inc., for lovers of books and book publishing.
Mr. Bunnell thinks the time is right to start an Internet information business, and this planned gathering place for bibliophiles is a first step, with a nine-month pilot program for publishers to begin in September.
Plenty of book publishers have their own World Wide Web sites. The appeal of Content.com, says Robert Miller, publisher at Hyperion, the adult trade book division of Disney, is that it will "allow consumers to ignore publishers, which they don't care about, and browse on line by interest, like mysteries or whatever."
Under Mr. Bunnell's plan, publishers would pay to have their books, authors and forums on Content.com.
The service will also seek ads. American Express, for example, Mr. Bunnell said, might be interested in sponsoring discussion forums in the travel book section. Subscribers will need access to the Internet, though they will not be charged for the basic service.
His venture has created a stir among Internet enthusiasts even before it begins, largely because of his track record. The 47-year-old editor and publisher has founded some of the most successful computer magazines, starting with PC magazine in 1981, followed by PC World and Macworld.
"It's the early 80's again," remarked Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth catalogues and the Well, an on-line service based in San Francisco. "There is the feeling again that computers are going to change the world, but this time it's on the Net.
"That's what David Bunnell recognizes," Mr. Brand added. "And his name is golden because he has delivered so often in the past."
With his graying hair, drooping mustache, steel-rimmed glasses and soft-spoken manner, Mr. Bunnell seems more like a college English professor than the multimillionaire entrepreneur he is. In many ways, his life seems a world apart from his days before he knew a microprocessor from a mousetrap.
In the 1960's, Mr. Bunnell headed a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Nebraska, leading antiwar marches. He took a shipment of food to militant Indians at Wounded Knee, S.D., and stayed on for two years, teaching at the reservation.
Later, he moved to Albuquerque, N.M., scoured the want ads, and talked his way into a technical writing job at an electronics start-up firm called MITS. The fledgling company made the first personal computer, the MITS Altair, in 1975. Soon, a couple of now-famous college dropouts, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, were at MITS writing software for the machine. They went on to found Microsoft, and Mr. Bunnell went on to found PC magazine and others.
Today, Mr. Bunnell sees common threads between the values of his student days and the promise of personal computers. "A core belief of the S.D.S. was in participatory democracy," he said, "that people should be really involved in the decisions that affect their lives. Another value from those days was the virtue of diversity. I still believe in those values, and personal computer technology enables society to advance those values."
And he views the increasing use of computers as tools of communication as a big step in that direction.
Mr. Bunnell has recently been critical of personal computer makers and enthusiasts for not doing more to spread the technology beyond the industry's traditional core of users—affluent white males.
Five years ago, he put up $100,000 to start "Computers and You," a computer job-skills program in the sleazy Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and he continues to support the program. Drug addicts, ex-convicts, homeless people and welfare families are among the program's thousands of graduates.
"What impresses me most about David Bunnell is that he's kept his eye on the ball socially—much more so than a lot of people in the personal computer industry who just went after the money," said Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit organization in Menlo Park, Calif.
Yet Mr. Bunnell's new venture, Content.com, whose company name resembles an Internet e-mail address, is attracting attention because of his reputation for having a sure touch with start-ups, like PC magazine. His most recent magazine, New Media, begun in 1992, is also a solid performer, a practical, how-to publication for the makers of multimedia software.
"He hasn't always hit major home runs, but he always makes contact—more often than anybody else I know," said John C. Dvorak, a columnist for PC magazine, who is on Content.com's board of advisers.
Mr. Bunnell will be president and chief executive of the company, while John Brockman, an author and literary agent who represents many technology and science writers, will be chairman. The company's first offering will be a service of on-line forums, discussion and information for readers and book publishers, Book Channel.
Content.com, Mr. Brockman said, will be market driven. "The people who use the Net today," he said, "are readers."
And in Mr. Bunnell's view, businesses on the Internet will be based on communities of people with a shared interest, attracting both consumers and corporate sponsors.
"Being on the Internet is a process of reading and writing, so books and publishing should be a real opportunity," he said. "And all the wonderful things about the Internet can come later, but if it's going to grow and spread further, it's got to be a money-making business." ■
First published by The New York Times, June 19, 1995.