big blue disk

A disk magazine, colloquially known as a diskmag, is a magazine that is distributed in electronic form to be read using computers. These had some popularity in the 1980s and 1990s as periodicals distributed on floppy disk, hence their name. The rise of the Internet in the late 1990s caused them to be superseded almost entirely by online publications, which are sometimes still called ‘diskmags’ despite the lack of physical disks.

A unique and defining characteristic about a diskmag in contrast to a typical ASCII ‘zine’ is that a diskmag usually comes housed as an executable program file that will only run on a specific hardware platform. A diskmag tends to have an aesthetically appealing and custom graphical user interface (or even interfaces), background music and other features that take advantage of the hardware platform the diskmag was coded for. Diskmags have been written for many platforms, ranging from the C64 on up to the IBM PC and have even been created for video game consoles, like ‘scenedicate’ for the Dreamcast.

Early home and hobby users of personal computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s sometimes typed in programs, usually in the BASIC language, which were published in the computer magazines of the time. This was a lot of work, and prone to error, so the idea of publishing a magazine directly on a computer-readable medium so that the programs could be run directly without typing came independently to several people.

Some ideas of putting bar codes into paper magazines, which could be read into a computer with the appropriate peripheral, were floated at the time, but never caught on. Since the common data storage medium of the earliest home computers was the audio cassette, the first magazine published on a physical computer medium was actually a cassette magazine rather than a disk magazine; ‘CLOAD’ magazine, for the Radio Shack TRS-80 computer, began publication in 1978, named after the command to load a program from cassette on that computer system.

‘CLOAD’ was not the first electronic periodical, however, because various ARPANET digests had been published as text files sent around the network since the early 1970s. These, however, were pure ASCII text and hence were not diskmags by the current definition. Also, at the time, few people outside of academic institutions had access to this forerunner of the Internet.

In 1981, the first issue of ‘Softdisk’ was published for Apple II computers; coming out monthly on a 5¼” diskette, this was the first floppy-disk-based periodical. Softdisk Publishing which would later bring out similar periodicals for the Commodore 64, IBM PC, and Apple Macintosh. Other publishers produced a variety of competing publications, including ‘Diskazine,’ ‘Window,’ ‘I.B.Magazette,’ ‘UPTIME,’ and ‘PC Life.’ The Atari ST, in 1986, saw the first disk magazine in the shape of ‘ST News.’ This was an English-language on-disk magazine from the Netherlands. Some publishers of paper magazines published disk companions, either polybagged with the magazines or available as separate subscriptions.

In the early 1990s, id Software founders John Carmack and John Romero had some of their earliest works published on disk magazines while working for ‘Softdisk.’ A short-lived game subscription called ‘Gamer’s Edge’ published side-scrolling and 3D games written by the team that would later create ‘Commander Keen’ and ‘Doom.’

By the mid-1990s, CD-ROMs were taking over from floppy disks as the major data storage and transfer medium. Some of the existing disk magazines switched to this format while others, such as ‘Digital Culture Stream,’ were founded as CD-based magazines from the start. The higher capacity of this format, along with the faster speed of newer computers, allowed disk magazines to provide more of a multimedia experience, including music and animation. Such things as movie trailers and music samples could now be provided, allowing a disk magazine to target fans of the entertainment industry rather than the computer hobbyists of the earlier times.

Many disk magazines of the 1990s and later are connected with the demoscene (computer generated video and music), including ‘Grapevine,’ for the Amiga computer. Demoscene diskmags have been known to cross over into the closely neighboring underground computer art scene (computer generated still images) and warez scenes (pirated software) as well. Some of the more commonly well known English diskmags include: ‘Hugi,’ ‘Imphobia,’ ‘Pain,’ and ‘Jurassic Pack.’

In the late 1990s, the Internet became popular among the general public, which had the effect of killing the market for disk-based publications because people could now access the same sorts of material through the net. As a result, disk-based periodicals became uncommon, as publishers of electronic magazines preferred to use the Web or e-mail as their distribution medium.

Demoscene magazines based on executable program files are still commonly called diskmags, although they are seldom distributed on physical disks any more. Bulletin board systems and the Internet took over as major distribution channels for these magazines already in the 1990s.

Presently, with the popularity of tablet computers and portable e-book readers, some print publications are transitioning to electronic form, and other all-electronic publications are starting up.

The longest-lasting disk magazine is, surprisingly enough, for the long-obsolete Commodore 64 computer; ‘Loadstar,’ originally published by Softdisk starting in 1984, and later an independent company, has continued publishing well into the 2000s for a ‘cult following’ of Commodore buffs.

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