BugNet -- 
The World's First Successful Electronic Publication

BUGNET WAS a one of the most innovative New Media publishing ventures of the '90s. 

The world's first successful paid-circulation electronic publication, BugNet came out of nowhere -- specifically, Sumas, WA -- to become the global arbiter of PC software quality and "the world's largest supplier of PC bug fixes" before being acquired by a Fortune 500 company at the height of the dot com boom.

The man behind BugNet was Bruce Brown. He came up with the idea, the design, the editorial voice, the business plan and the startup capital. Then for BugNet's first five years -- September 1994 through September 1999 -- he was BugNet's CEO, guiding it from raw startup to global dominance of its market.

Here are his recollections from the wild and wooly days when the Web was young...

The Gospel According to Bruce...

I LAUNCHED BugNet a few weeks after Netscape 1.0 launched in late 1994. 

At the time, there was no such thing as a paid-circulation electronic publication, and no publication of any sort that focused on PC software problems, but I believed the time was ripe for both. 

I realized that the latest PC bug fix info could be collected free on CompuServe and the Web, bundled together, and then sold to users as the contents of a magazine. I also thought this information could be collected into a database, which would have lasting value beyond the monthly issues of the magazine.

From partying in Seattle with friends who worked at Microsoft, I also knew that Microsoft's soon to be released Windows 95 was going to flood PC users with a tidal wave of bug problems. Once they'd gotten a few beers in them, Microsofties called Windows 95 "The Mother of All Bugs." 

Bugs -- or coding defects -- in PC software were already a big issue for PC users, but for the computer industry, they weren't an issue at all. The industry was focused instead on accelerating product development cycles (which has the real world effect of increasing bugs in software) because the software companies were desperate for the kick of cash that came with each new version's release.

SENSING a huge opportunity here, I ponied up all the startup capital myself and launched BugNet as a subscription service combining a traditional print newsletter with an electronic database (which was produced in Adobe Acrobat format and sent out by U.S. Mail). 

In April 1995, I turned down an offer from CompuServe -- a co-marketing deal plus a dedicated BugNet forum -- and instead moved BugNet to the Web at bugnet.com. A few months later, in December 1995, I killed the traditional print version of BugNet and started publishing exclusively to the Web. 

CompuServe was the 800 pound gorilla of online services in those days, but I bet all of BugNet's chips on the Web because I believed the publishing potential of the Internet was unlimited in the halcyon days of '95. I remember thinking -- this is what the Americas must have looked like to the first Indians when they crossed over the land bridge from Asia and the whole hemisphere was untouched and spread out before them from pole to pole.

In those days, virtually any Web domain name you could think of was available, and clickable image maps were the height of Web sophistication. There weren't many people of the Web yet, but their numbers were growing at a cancerous rate and they were hungry for interesting and useful Web sites. BugNet never had to cater to the Web search engines because people beat a wide path to our door before Yahoo and Google ever existed. 

I coded all the HTML for BugNet by hand for the first year, and did just about everything else too. I licked stamps and negotiated deals and wrote bug reports and assembled the staff -- the BugNeteers -- who were crucial to BugNet's later success, particularly Senior Editor Bruce Kratofil (in Cleveland), Director of Operations Christel Bronsema (in Sumas) and Licensing Director Anne Depew (in Seattle). 

To bring the far flung BugNeteers together, I created a global virtual office for BugNet with a private, internal Web -- an Intranet -- to enable close collaboration between people separated by thousands of miles. We handled all aspects of our business electronically at a time -- 1996 -- when most executives at traditional media companies had never even heard the terms "virtual office" or "Intranet," and were barely aware of email.

As with so many early dot com startups, it was an almost hallucinogenic time, but from the very beginning, BugNet flew. It made money from the first issue and within a year it was a force in the PC industry. My plan was to set out corner stakes and claim the entire arena of PC software quality for BugNet -- essentially make BugNet something like the Consumer Reports for PC software -- and that's what we did. 

Syndication deals with MSNBC, InfoWorld and tech savvy newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News, Denver Post, Houston Chronicle and Seattle Times gave BugNet a combined circulation reach of 5 million readers a month by 1997. This meant that we never had to advertise. We enjoyed the best kind of media exposure you can possibly get -- consistent, high quality editorial exposure -- and the media paid BugNet for it, rather than the other way around.

Meanwhile, licensing deals with purveyors of software to automatically fix PC bug problems like SystemSoft, TuneUp and Aveo provided BugNet with the capital to grow the business without ever relying on venture capitalists or an IPO. Under my leadership, I believe BugNet was the only significant New Media startup of the '90s that (1) made money in every year of its existence, (2) entirely self-financed its growth with its own revenue and (3) remained a closely held corporation. 

By 1998, all the numbers were big for BugNet. In January 1998, BugNet set a World Record by publishing more than 500 bugs in popular off-the-shelf PC software in one month. By then, BugNet was dishing several hundred thousand page views a month through its own free and paid Web sites (in addition to millions in syndication circulation), and its big ticket subscribers included Boeing, Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Sprint, John Deere, Nissan, Eli Lilly, Bayer, Chevron, Shell Oil, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Kimberly-Clark, Coca-Cola, Sara Lee, Los Alamos National Laboratory, U.S. Geological Survey, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, World Bank, Blue Cross of Florida, City of Calgary and the University of Washington, to mention only a few.

BugNet also counted some of the biggest PC software and hardware companies like Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard among its subscribers. By a wonderful alchemy that I devised, BugNet got information free from Microsoft and others about bugs in their products, and then sold it back to them mixed with the problems in other vendors' products, which we also got free. It was certainly a nifty trick for BugNet, but the software vendors got good value too. 

Because BugNet functioned as an alternative tech support channel, Microsoft and the others made money every time we helped one of their customers before they had to call Redmond or Mountain View. BugNet also provided its PC industry subscribers with information on their competitors' problems in the marketplace that couldn't be legally obtained anywhere else.

Bruce Brown in Rome, July 1998EDITORIALLY, BugNet's aim was always to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

And the suffers came to us in an endless river of sorrow. Their word processor wouldn't work with their new printer; their online software wouldn't work with their modem; their spreadsheet wouldn't work with their mouse. 

BugNet offered the best help available anywhere  -- even better than what you could get from the big vendors like Microsoft and Adobe -- because BugNet covered all the products and saw the whole forest, not just Microsoft or Adobe's individual tree.

But more than that, BugNet offered attitude. Seriously. I wanted BugNet to have an intelligent and witty voice that entertained with word play without sacrificing the accuracy of the technical writing. I figured that the fact that everything was screwed up didn't mean we couldn't laugh every now and then.

To stress this, I created an antique-looking insect logo for BugNet and made 19th century steel engravings the centerpiece of BugNet's graphic design. The effect was something like New York Review of Books meets Byte, but BugNet's retro insect ultimately became one of the most recognizable logos on the Web before the turn of the century.

Certainly, the PC software and hardware companies came to know BugNet very well. We were constantly hassling them about problems in their products and praising them when they provided fixes, which we also publicized at a brisk clip. By the time Windows 98 appeared on the horizon, BugNet was providing its subscribers with as many as 500 bug fixes a month for problems in popular off-the-shelf PC software, along with the BugNet Database, analysis and BugNet Alerts. 

BugNet tallied the figures on thousands of PC bugs -- whether they were fixed or not, how severe they were, what they affected -- and then used this data to give the industry its software quality report card. Sometimes it got pretty ugly, but every year we also gave the BugNet Award to the PC software company with the best bug/fix rate.

BugNet was the only entity on the planet that had industry-wide figures on the subject of bugs and PC software quality, and so we became the undisputed authority on the subject (another corner stake). It was national news when BugNet declined to give anyone the BugNet Award for 1998 because "frankly, the PC software industry's performance has been abysmal."

All the major software and hardware vendors felt ButNet's bite, but none more than Microsoft. I remember in 1998 when we discovered one of the most destructive bugs ever. It was a problem in Microsoft FrontPage 97 and 98 which allowed the user to delete everything on their hard drive, including the FrontPage program and Windows itself. Microsoft's response was that it wasn't a bug, it was a feature! 

When I heard about this, I went ballistic -- a program simply can NOT be allowed to delete the OS it is running under. This led to a heated telephone conversation with a Microsoft product manager in which BugNet dictated to Microsoft what needed to happen to resolve this situation. They eventually chose one of our options, and I left for vacation with my family in Italy. It was a heady time!

AS THE YEAR 2000 (and the fabled Y2K Bug) approached, BugNet seemed better positioned than ever in the PC universe.

BugNet was featured in a special edition of Business Week and The Windows 95 Bug Collection (Addison-Wesley), a book I wrote with BugNeteers Bruce Kratofil and Nigel R.M. Smith, was put on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, as the first book in history to deal with computer bugs.

BugNet had a new book in the works for the millennia too. Bruce Kratofil and I co-authored Windows 2000 Secrets with Brian Livingston, the InfoWorld columnist, for IDG Books, which was translated into just about every language under the sun.

But just as I felt the Internet wind stirring early, I now felt the wind shift again. For one thing, The PC software world had changed dramatically. When BugNet started, there were a dozen or more major software vendors in the market. Now there was really only Microsoft.

Few users were going to subscribe to a dozen different tech support knowledge bases, but if there was only Microsoft, they would probably subscribe to the Microsoft Knowledge Base, and maybe they would drop BugNet along the way.

I also realized that BugNet's increasingly fat, Fortune 500 subscriber base brought increasingly high expectations. I could see, for instance, that BugNet was on the verge of having to establish its own testing lab, which would cost millions at a time when I thought the profitability of Internet publishing was diminishing.

I hurt my foot badly in a mountain biking accident in the spring of 1999, and while I was lying around on the couch for a couple weeks I thought about the Dutch tulipmania bubble of 1634-37. Suddenly I knew it was time to get out. So in September 1999 I sold BugNet to KeyLabs, the world's largest independent PC testing facility.

I had been approached by Ziff Davis as well, but I went with KeyLabs because I thought the combination of KeyLabs and BugNet was a marvelous fit. KeyLabs generated information on bugs in PC software during the every day course of its testing work. Adding BugNet to KeyLabs gave KeyLabs another source of revenue from work it had already done, AND it allowed BugNet to increase both the number and quality of its bug fix reports. 

I also liked the president of KeyLabs, J.D. Brisk, who was formerly head of testing at Novell. Unfortunately, the KeyLabs / BugNet script got changed before the ink was dry. Shortly after acquiring BugNet, Brisk sold the combined KeyLabs / BugNet to Exodus Communications Inc., the telecommunications giant. 

This too promised good things for BugNet, since it put the resources of a Fortune 500 company behind it, but the marriage didn't work. I was gone by then, but BugNet employees reported that Exodus had an almost palpable hostility toward BugNet from the start, perhaps because of Exodus CEO Ellen Hancock. 

Before Exodus, Hancock had been chief technology officer at Apple Computer until she was forced out in July 1997. In the year leading up to her unhappy ouster from Apple, BugNet had published a series of articles mocking Apple's self-proclaimed leadership in PC technology.

The BugNet cover stories and lead columns, "Does Apple Deserve To Die?" (July 1996), "The Untold Story of Apple's Demise" (February 1997) and "The Worst Windows Software Designer Is... Apple" (March 1997), were the most pointed attacks on Apple, its corporate culture and technology, published in the computer press during this period, and they caused Hancock professional grief. 

But whatever Hancock's feelings about BugNet, Exodus had massive problems of its own due to poor decisions by Exodus founder and former CEO K.B. Chandrasekhar, and Hancock herself, who were playing the highly leveraged debt game to the max. A few weeks after Hancock resigned under fire as Exodus CEO in September 2001, Exodus filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. 

But wait! Just before Exodus went bankrupt it sold KeyLabs and BugNet back to a group headed by Brisk. So KeyLabs and BugNet outlived Exodus, which slipped beneath the waves forever when its remaining assets were acquired by Cable & Wireless in 2002!

But the BugNet that J.D. Brisk got back was a shadow of its former self. At the height of what Bruce Kratofil called its "Titanic imitation," Exodus stopped paying all BugNet staff and freelancers, stopped billing accounts payable, and stopped publication for nearly a quarter. 

KeyLabs too had been severely weakened by its time in the embrace of the dying Exodus, and in the increasingly hostile high tech business environment, Brisk decided to put his limited resources into rebuilding what he saw as the core business -- KeyLabs.

Finally, in early 2003, KeyLabs announced it was mothballing BugNet. "It's still a buggy world out there and the need for BugNet is as real as ever," said Brisk, but he added that it was hard to get paying subscribers as the High Tech Ice Age entered its fourth year. 

SO THERE you have it. BugNet had a wonderful eight year run. It dove out of the sun to become the leading force for PC software quality during the glory days of the PC / Internet boom, was garroted by Ellen Hancock and the Exodus Communications management team during their last months in the bunker, and finally perished two years later in the cold, clear air of Utah. 

Looking back, I'm proud of BugNet as a business venture for the way it got nothing but Net, so to speak. It was a clean shot, delivering global dominance of the market it created with minimum effort, if you can call five years of 12 hour days "minimum effort."

I'm particularly proud of the way BugNet innovated in several areas simultaneously -- no one had ever done a paid-circulation electronic magazine before, and no one had ever done a magazine of any sort on PC software quality and bug fixes before. BugNet did both at the same time and made it work.

Finally, I'm proud of the way BugNet refused to let the PC industry establish the agenda or dominate the discussion of software quality issues. At a time when ad whoring in the computer media was truly outrageous, BugNet took its agenda from the users who had this strange idea that the computer products they bought ought to work as advertised.

And BugNet wasn't afraid to reveal how those slick, shrink-wrapped objects of desire measured up. "Fact is, PCs -- and the software products that animate them -- don't work very well," BugNet stated in awarding no BugNet Annual Award for 1998. 

"The average American would never buy an electric razor -- let alone a chain saw or a mountain bike -- that was as buggy and unreliable as a PC," quoth BugNet.

And if BugNet's candor ultimately contributed to its demise -- by antagonizing poor overwhelmed Ellen Hancock -- I'd say it was worth the price.

Oh yes, BugNet was also a lot of fun, maybe the most I've ever had in my life.  

-- Bruce Brown


BugNet Links...

* Here's what BugNet looked like when Bruce Brown sold it in 1999.

* Here's Bruce Kratofil's BugBlog, a very useful free site on bugs today in popular off-the-shelf PC software and hardware. Bruce Kratofil was the first BugNeteer and the last editor of BugNet, as well as the co-author of The Windows 95 Bug Collection (Addison-Wesley) and Windows 2000 Secrets (IDG Books). He is The Man today when it comes to bugs in PC software. 

* Here's www.MyPCWorks.com, the PC help site from Jim Aspinwall, another BugNet alumnus who is the author of Installing, Troubleshooting, and Repairing Wireless Networks and Troubleshooting Your PC Bible is one of the leading experts on PC hardware and hardware-related problems.bugnet_bugright.gif (4024 bytes)


The first issue of BugNet from November 1994 (top) revealed how a persistent user forced Corel to fix a major bug in Corel PHOTO-PAINT 5, while the second issue in December 1994 dubbed WordPerfect 6: "King of GPFs."

 From the outset, BugNet featured an electronic database. The BugNet Database cover and "floppy disk" (above) date from late 1996.

In the early days, BugNet published special reports on programs with particular thorny problems like this one from spring 1995 on Peachtree Accounting for Windows 3. Later, reports were all electronic, like BugNet's popular Special Report on Windows 4.1, AKA Windows 98.

Bruce Kratofil at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History in Washington, DC, with BugNet's "Windows 95 Bug Collection"

cover thumbnail for BugNet's "Windows 95 Bug Collection" by Bruce Brown, Bruce Kratofil and Nigel R.M. Smith

cover thumbnail for BugNet's "Windows 95 Bug Collection" by Bruce Brown, Bruce Kratofil and Nigel R.M. Smith (Czech Edition -- "Windows 95 hibak")

BugNet Senior Editor Bruce Kratofil at the Smithsonian Institution in 1998 with the BugNet book, The Windows 95 Bug Collection (U.S. edition above, Czech edition below), which was put on display in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in 1998.  At left, Bruce Brown in Rome, July 1998.

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When BugNet went on the Web in June 1995, the term "Online" had more cachet than the Internet, so BugNet's first logo read, "BugNet Online" (top). By December 1995, when BugNet began publishing exclusively to the Web, BugNet's URL was prominently featured in the logo (middle). The much more modern, minimalistic BugNet bug of the KeyLabs / Exodus era is shown at bottom. 

Every year BugNet gave an annual award to the PC software company that posted the best bug/fix ratio for the previous year. This is the BugNet Award for 1996, which was presented to Intuit. 

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Over the years, BugNet published a lot of fine insect art, including line drawings by Ed Solem (top), 19th century engravings (middle) and the exquisite glass insect sculptures of Seattle artist Roger Nachman (surrounded by his creations, bottom).

The American (top) and Polish editions of Windows 2000 Secrets (IDG Books), which BugNeteers Bruce Brown and Bruce Kratofil co-authored with Brian Livingston


BugNet as it appeared in the fall of 1999, when Bruce Brown sold it to KeyLabs.

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Some more  BugNeteers -- BugNet Technical Editor Wade Bobb with an iguana on his head (top), and Millicent Allison from the office staff with "The Dude" at BugNet World Headquarters.

Don't face them alone! This bug appeared at the bottom of every BugNet Web page.



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