STEWART BRAND: In all our years doing Whole Earth Catalogs (18 years and counting) we've never dealt with a subject so ephemeral and expensive, so in need of subsequent editions and all the apparatus of routine updating. Happily, updating also means refining, and that's not the only reason for increased confidence in this book's recommendations.
- Where the first edition reflected 1 1/2 years of research, this one reflects 2 1/2 years.
- The judgments of the first edition have been massively public for a year. Howlers have been howled at, solid recommendations quietly affirmed, updates updated, and everything in this edition adjusted accordingly. The book itself got the kind of encouragement immodestly quoted on the back cover.
- The computer marketplace has settled down considerably since 1984. There are fewer new products per season and fewer technological "new generations" being promised every minute. It's still a volatile industry, but less punishingly so for the customer. For the computer biz it's a "shakeout"; for the rest of us it is dramatically increasing value at decreasing price.
- Standards have become more entrenched - machine standards, operating system standards, popular program standards. Most of our recommendations cluster conservatively around those standards.
- Computer and software shoppers are far more savvy than they used to be, and that experience is reflected here.
- Perhaps because of its conspicuous hysterias of boom and bust, the personal computer marketplace has developed a core cautiousness that keeps popular machines and programs at the top of the best seller lists for years. We challenge that cautiousness only when we dispute its judgment on particulars.
This year, as last, the impossible (and unachieved) task of the Whole Earth Software Catalog is to Identify and comparatively describe all of the best personal computer products - especially software, where the most confusion reigns. Part of the impossibility is that those who know a program well don't have sufficient comparative experience; at the same time, the professional wide-comparers don't have the deeper use experience. The only relief from the paradox is sustained discussion, gossip, and argument among the enraptured deeps and the cynical wides, and that's what this book is made of. It came to greater convergence of opinion than we expected, and the convergence grew during the second year's research.
Personal computers are skill machines. We took that as the organizing principle of the research and the book. Playing, Writing, Analyzing, Organizing, Accounting, Managing, Drawing, Telecommunicating, Learning, and that profoundest of skills. Etcetera. For each. Editor and Research Director Barbara Robertson found and directed a Domain Editor to be responsible for all that appeared and failed to appear in that section, and to collaborate fully with the other Domain Editors.
Everything recommended has been at least tried and usually lived with by its recommender(s). Many of the reviews are "multi-voiced" to reflect the variety of opinion on a given product (liking and disliking software is intensely personal, i.e. variable) and to convey the passionate advocacy that clusters around good stuff. Since shoppers are by necessity comparison shoppers, we are much as possible comparison reviewers, asserting which is better than which for what and for whom.
A feature that is new this year, and still unique in the field so far as we know, is our showing of "street price" as well as list price with most of the items recommended. Because EVERYTHING in the computer business is available at discount, usually 30 to 50 percent, and the savings are measured in hundreds and thousands of dollars, we realized it would be a disservice if we didn't research and proclaim the discount prices. They'll shift, of course, but almost always to your advantage with the passage of time. (I'll be interested to see if computer magazines adopt the practice of showing discount prices in their articles and reviews; it's somewhat at odds with the interests of advertisers.)
Next to every review of an item that is new to the 2.0 edition you'll find a O. Two reasons for that. One is to show off how radically New and Improved this edition is (of the 473 items recommended, 207 are new). The other reason is to indicate which products (the unstirred veterans) have held their own at the top of their area. Golden oldies stay golden either because they are too pure to tarnish or because they are constantly republished with new versions. Each product that appears again was re-evaluated, re-accessed (new price, version number, machines it runs on, etc.) and frequently re-reviewed. Then re-cross-referenced, re-indexed, sometimes re-illustrated, oh the joy.
Many computer books age quickly. That's one reason, heh, heh, heh, there's fewer of them this year. We've taken a number of steps to help keep this one fresh. One is the rapid six-week turnaround with Doubleday's printer, so there's only a couple of months between research and reader. The main body of the Software Catalog for 1986 was completed in May and June, 1985. Still that cut us off from some major hardware news in Summer '85, so we arranged for a 16-page "Last-Minute Supplement" (p. 209) to be added.
And we have a magazine. Every three months Whole Earth Review, which is about everything but also about computers, takes a number of pages to update the Whole Earth Software Catalog. That's where many of the new reviews in this edition first appeared.