Saturday 17 October 2015

A little something about Finnish computer magazine scene

MikroBITTI, the Finnish general computer magazine published from 1984 and discontinued in early 2015, has now fused with another magazine, born again with the original logo and a promise to focus on computer technology. Published monthly, the new mag concentrates on reviews and commentary of computing products, spiced with more speculative futurist articles, tutorials and opinion pieces. This is very much in line with the original magazine which inherited the review-orientation from the long-running Tekniikan Maailma ("The World of Technics").

MikroBITTI and Skrolli head-to-head. WHICH ONE WILL WIN
This is not the only new paper-based computer magazine that uses the 1980s recipe to attract new old customers. Skrolli, published from since 2013, 4 times a year, instead focuses on non-commercial, hacker, DIY, development, programming and demoscene cultures and rarely if ever includes consumer reviews. Skrolli was the first to tap into this new niche of catering for the, let's say, 40-somethings who grew up with Commodore 64, Amiga and early PCs.

It's a bit too early to compare the two magazines, as there's only one issue of the new MikroBITTI. Based on that I have to say the reborn MikroBITTI succeeds in re-orienting the magazine to a better direction, but it remains to be seen if it can be as interesting experiment as Skrolli. The reviews are surely extensive and include many devices that might otherwise be missed, now that there's an abundance of technical computer gadgets for different markets. I'm just wondering if there will be any product category left to review for the next issue! As a quarterly, Skrolli perhaps has to rely less on immediate topicality, striving towards more "deep" content on current themes.

It is arguable the new MikroBITTI has followed the example of Skrolli, but I have to say at the moment the two publications are quite different. The nostalgic logo and the graphic design were attractive enough for me to buy MikroBITTI, and I suppose many people felt the same way. The journalism, although maybe more evenly professional than in Skrolli, is also a bit generic and conventional. Although Skrolli in contrast has a more generic graphic layout, the inclusion of "amateur" images, drawings, photographs and an unapologetic use of crude screenshots helps give a friendly DIY-tone to the magazine.

Example of the stylish graphic design in the insides of the born-again MikroBITTI
Why paper now?

It's interesting that there would now be a market for paper magazines. In the UK, the number of magazines has been constantly dwindling, and only some very niche "retro" oriented publications could enter the market. Even this is already a fairly old phenomenon. Skrolli and the new MikroBITTI are not at least decidedly retro- or games-oriented. It's more like if someone in the UK thought that Your Spectrum (ca. 1984) had a great concept and ought to be seriously (and not only as a nostalgic one-off) re-wired for today's audiences.

Especially one has to wonder how some of the most techno-enthusiastic people would now clamor for an old-fashioned paper publication, even if they may have been one of the first to move away from them. (Consider disk magazines, 1990s BBS scene, internet etc.) One reason may be that there is a whole generation of computer users who grew up with magazines like BITTI and Printti, even if they may have abandoned them later. These people long lamented the lack of good computer journalism, which the 2000s magazines allegedly failed to deliver. Or I'll take that back - the old journalism wasn't that good necessarily - it's just that there was a specific mixture of elements that sort of disappeared from the market as internet began to make it unnecessary.

So there might be a market but what do they want? The cliché "audiences want well-curated content" is somewhat valid, but there's no reason why it would not work on the internet too. Yet I suppose over-abundance of daily-updated information and the effort that goes in searching the web can reduce attractiveness of specialist websites. Tired of constant feeds, audiences might want to return to the occasional bundle of information and entertainment. It is nice to browse magazines that have made choices for the reader and don't appear too often. The paper magazines may also better function as kind of banners under which the readers can show allegiance and support to a culture of computing they wish to foster.

What for?

The home computer technology has long become separated into two directions: On one hand, the earlier "pure computer" hardware, and on the other hand, all the commercial gadgets that achieve specific tasks (facebooking, messaging, camera, calendar etc). The computers in the first case are not "for" anything. Skrolli embraces this fully. Skrolli is more about the "cultures" of technology, digging the areas that commercial computer journalism and academia don't quite cover. I fondly remember the Issue 3/2014 which featured articles on Forth, Emacs, soundtrackers, fixing old pinball machines, Amiga... All simply because this is interesting now and by itself, and not just as a historical overview. An inspiring mess.

MikroBITTI seems to believe in the usefulness of the computing technology in every day life. The reviews in BITTI are a powerful means to collect at-a-glance overviews of latest computer technology that reside in the periphery of your interest, whereas Skrolli at it's best is able to probe into a rich thematic variety that inspires the reader even when the topics are not directly relevant to me. Both are fun to browse.

In any case, the paper magazine trend may turn out to be a fad only related to a particular generation of Finnish computer enthusiasts, feeding on nostalgia of something disappeared. Nerds-turned-busy dads may want their nostalgia/news arrive at their doorstep rather than spend active time to find it. Yet this generation may also prove to be a loyal customer, if the magazines can continue to deliver interesting content.

Edit: The second issue of MikroBITTI just arrived. It has roughly 50% of reviews, spearheaded by a meticulous wifi-router comparison. The appeasing of "retro" fans has ceased, no more posing with an MSX or talk about Amigas. The cover seems to have reverted a bit towards the consumer-style magazine, promising mobile phone reviews and the wifi-router article. The general interest articles are pretty nice, one about the anatomy of silicon chips, and another about the history of Finnish on-line discussion cultures. There's also a little piece about Habitat. I'd say we're still heading a pretty good direction, a bit worried the reviews take so much space.

Pathetic trolling! Everyone knows Atari ST was better.