January 2012

Volume 27 Number 01

Editor's Note - A Quarter Century and Counting

By Michael Desmond | January 2012

Michael Desmond since this publication launched in 1986.

Petzold’s contributions to the magazine stretch back to the inaugural issue of MSJ in October 1986, and in December of that year he wrote the first-ever magazine article on Windows programming, “A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your First Windows Application.” He then wrote one of the first books on Windows development—“Programming Windows” (Microsoft Press, 1988)—which became a definitive resource for Windows programmers. Yeah, you could say Petzold got in on the ground floor of that whole Windows thing.

What’s truly remarkable is that, after all these years, Petzold is still here. From Win16 to Win32, through four-plus iterations of the Microsoft .NET Framework, and most recently the emergence of the Windows Runtime, the two constants at MSDN Magazine have been: change and Charles Petzold.

The success of MSDN Magazine might seem obvious today, but at the time it was hardly a sure thing. No one had ever published a magazine quite like this before. The whole thing got rolling when Jon Lazarus, a former executive at Ziff-Davis, left the company to publish MSJ under contract. As Petzold tells it, Lazarus knew him as a writer at PC Magazine who was “doing silly stuff with Windows.” And despite a late change of strategy, that was exactly what the fledgling publication needed.

“Originally the magazine was supposed to be exclusively about Windows programming, but they chickened out because there was no indication that Windows would be successful,” Petzold recalls. “They took a safer route that it would be about programming for all Microsoft operating systems. And because Microsoft was always rather enamored of IBM, and IBM published IBM Systems Journal, they called it Microsoft Systems Journal.”

The first issues were produced in the Manhattan office that Lazarus shared with a TV talent agent. The space, Petzold says, was “filled with stacks of videotapes,” and was located not too far from the offices of Ziff-Davis’ PC Magazine. That proximity enabled a robust back-and-forth between PC Magazine and MSJ that helped keep the publication vital.

“That social connection continued for years: PC Magazine people and MSJ people would frequently hang out together at industry events such as Comdex, and get together for parties and dinners in New York City,” Petzold says, adding, “And sometimes editors would hop from one of the magazines to the other. Tony Rizzo went from MSJ to PC Magazine, and Sharon Terdeman, who works for MSDN Magazine now, I originally knew when she was at PC Magazine.”

By the mid-1990s, Petzold says, that social interaction had “pretty much disintegrated. Or maybe these dinners are still happening and they just stopped inviting me!”

A lot more than dinner has changed since Petzold came on board. “Gosh, in 1986 there were still people arguing that the personal computer didn’t need graphics,” Petzold says. “Twenty-five rows of 80 characters of text were just fine for those folks.”

How times change. Today, Petzold describes the emergence of hand-held touch devices as “a third revolution” of personal computing (after the GUI and the Internet). It’s an area Petzold has dedicated himself to in his UI Frontiers column, which has focused largely on Windows Phone development since the mobile platform debuted. In fact, this month his column gets a new name—Touch and Go—reflecting the unique challenges and opportunities of these emergent devices.

But even as he heralds a new revolution, Petzold worries that developers, increasingly, have less and less in common with one another.

“Everybody seems to be working on something different, and it’s impossible for any one person to be familiar with all these different technologies,” Petzold says. “We’ve all become specialists. There’s no longer an industry event like Comdex that virtually everybody attends, no longer books that everybody reads, no longer languages that everyone speaks.

“It’s a problem, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” Petzold continues. “But the extreme biodiversity that exists now is perhaps an indication that the art and engineering of computer programming is still in its infancy. And that suggests we need to keep our minds open—to evaluate new frameworks and programming languages, with the thought that they may actually be better than what we’re using now.”

Michael Desmond is editor-in-chief of MSDN Magazine.