Mac Musings

Low End Mac: Six Years on the Web

Dan Knight - 2003.04.07 - Tip Jar

Low End Mac got its start six years ago when I posted about two dozen Mac profiles on my personal Web space under the heading The New Low End User Site. (Low End User was a defunct ezine dedicated to old Macs.) I soon added Mac to the name, making it The New Low End Mac User Site - way too long. Soon I removed four of the seven words, and the site became Low End Mac.

I had no idea what I was getting into, but I couldn't find the kind of resource I wanted on the Web. Apple had some info. Macworld and MacUser had some info. MacKiDo and MacInTouch had some info. And my library of books and my archive of magazines had a lot of info.

So I began to compile the information about each pre-68040 desktop Mac with at least 1 MB of RAM into a standard format, along with some personal comments on the models covered. Looking back at our April 1997 archive, it was very primitive, yet anyone familiar with Low End Mac's profiles today would recognize these as the infant version of today's website.

By June we had already evolved the design and begun to add pictures to some of our profiles. We were also including additional content about accelerators along with a few outside links on some of the profiles. We had also expanded to cover Quadras and PowerBooks. Over time, Power Macs joined the mix.

Up, Up, and Away

The Web itself was only four years old (Mosaic, the first graphical browser, was released on March 14, 1993), and I didn't have a clue what I was getting myself into. I was sharing my knowledge, people were somehow finding my pages, and we served 20,000 pages in June 1997, the first month for which I have statistics.

We joined the MacTimes Network, which promised free hosting for our pages and the possibility of some ad income. We moved during November and served over 30,000 pages that month, 125,000 in April 1998 (our first anniversary), and we zoomed past the 250,000 page per month mark that August.

We moved to our own domain in February 1998 and separated from the MacTimes Network at the end of March. Until September 1998, we operated without banner ads, dependent on income generated from our handful of email lists. A huge thanks to Small Dog Electronics and MacResQ for keeping us going in those days.

We signed on with infiniMedia in September 1998 and later teamed up with BackBeat Media. This "little site" had grown to a half million pages per month, and the future looked bright.

I attended my first and only Macworld San Francisco in January 2001, gave two weeks notice at my IT job upon my return, and dedicated myself to publishing Low End Mac full time at the end of the month. Over the course of that first year as an incorporated business, we grew site traffic to the 1 million page mark. We've had our ups and downs since then; today we average almost a million pages a month.

Down and Out

Of course, Murphy's Law had to get involved, and the very month I quit my day job marked the end of the dot-com bubble. Ad rates fell through the floor, and doubling site traffic wasn't enough to maintain the level of income needed to meet our budget. Over the summer of 2001 readers donated thousands of dollars to keep Low End Mac afloat, allowing me to attend my second (and quite possibly last) Macworld New York.

I've been holding down a part-time job since September 2001, starting at about 12 hours a week and now up to half time. I work in a local camera shop, love the opportunity to help customers become better photographers, and come home exhausted after 5-8 hours on my feet. It's good work, but it really cuts into the time I can dedicate to Low End Mac.

Over six years, Low End Mac has grown beyond my wildest expectation. From a few dozen computer profiles we now cover every Mac, most of the clones, the Lisas, the NeXT computers, and most of the clones. But the bulk of our content is editorial - Mac Daniel advice columns, geek stuff in the Online Tech Journal, personal reflections from about a dozen different contributors, and the occasional product review.

Lotsa Pages

I downloaded the entire website from our server in late March so I could burn a couple of copies to CD-R just in case. Graphics and all, we've got 17-18,000 files on the server taking up 120 MB of space. Of that space, 47 MB is a mirror of the old DayStar Digital website, including huge software files and PDF manuals.

The original content on Low End Mac occupies about 70 MB of space on our server. Between the four versions of our more recent editorial content (printer friendly, WebTV, and mobile in addition to the regular version), we have over 10,000 HTML pages on the site. Of those, over 5,000 are unique articles.

That's a lot of content generated in six years, far more than I anticipated when I put up those first profiles or wrote my first editorials. This averages out to almost three new pages a day for the six years that Low End Mac has been around. No wonder we had to add a search box to the site!

Our Readers

In a typical month we serve nearly a million pages to a quarter million visitors. Some have our home page as their home page and visit daily. Others come just once, read an article linked on MacSurfer, and leave. More people visit Low End Mac using Winnows than Macs, although over 60% of those visiting our home page are using Macs. Excluding spiders, about 2% of our visitors are using some form of Linux or Unix.

Although we focus on the low end, half the visitors to our home page have a 1024 x 768 display. Next most common is 800 x 600 or Apple's older 832 x 624, which accounts for 17% of our home page traffic. Another 24% are using resolutions greater than 1024 x 768 (2% on 1152 x 768 TiBooks and 3% on 1280 x 858 TiBooks).

The old standard 640 x 480 display accounts for about 1.5%, and the old compact Mac resolutions of 512 x 342 and 512 x 384 hardly show up at all. Still, we try to accommodate them, as well as those using WebTV and Palms.

Although there is no Netscape Navigator 5, 41% of those hitting our home page use a browser that identifies itself as Netscape 5 (that includes Mozilla, Camino, and Safari). Internet Explorer 5.x accounts for 29%, and IE 6 (Windows only) makes up 19% of our home page traffic. Only 4% of you are using Netscape 4.x, and iCab 2.x comes in at just under 2%.

The Past Year and the Coming Year

Last summer we began automating the site by adding a little PHP here, a bit more there. Today most of the home page is generated by calling PHP scripts, as is our RSS news feed. My next goal is to complete the process and switch from an HTML page that calls several PHP scripts to making the bulk of each page a PHP script that calls HTML content.

This will allow us to create regular, printer friendly, mobile edition, and WebTV versions of our content from a single file - eliminating the need for four separate templates for each type of content. I will also investigate offering a second mobile edition optimized for the larger screens used on many of today's newer PDAs (our current mobile edition is specifically designed for the 160 x 160 pixel Palm screen).

Another feature we'll add is the ability for the reader to choose a default type size, store that information in a cookie on their computer, and view LEM content at their selected size. This is to address the handful of people who complain the Low End Mac text is "too big" - despite the fact that we're only displaying text in whatever size you have set as the default in your browser.

We're also slowly moving away from Claris Home Page. The new templates I'll be using with the PHP scripts will be as compliant with the HTML specification as possible, although we'll probably never make iCab smile. (iCab diverges from the HTML specification. Where HTML says quote marks are optional in certain cases, iCab flags that as an error. Since deleting unnecessary quote marks reduces our code base by 10%, iCab can go on frowning as far as I'm concerned.)

LEMlists.com

We are working on a new list management system for our 30-some email lists. These will all be hosted on the LEMlists.com domain. Specifications for the new service grew out of limitations of the system we're currently using:

  1. A single database with all subscriber addresses will eliminate the need for me to ask people which list(s) they are on.
  2. Support for multiple email addresses per subscriber will make it easier for someone to post from one address at home and another at work. It will also give us a better handle on the number of unique subscribers per list.
  3. Global handling of feed vs. digest setting, vacation mode, etc. - all done via email or a Web interface.
  4. Email addresses will be spamproofed in the archive, making it difficult (impossible would be nice, but spammers are so darned clever) to spider the archives for addresses.
  5. Ability to resend missed messages or digests.
  6. Smart handling of styled email by stripping out the style markers. (The lists are currently plain text only.)
  7. Automatic stripping of attachments. (The lists currently reject any messages with attachments.)
  8. Scan incoming messages for quoted list footers and automatically remove them.
  9. Provide online access to the archives.

It's going to be quite the setup when it's done, but at this point we're only at the most basic stage. We're very grateful to MacLaunch for providing free hosting for the current lists, but the sheer number of lists we run makes list management a real challenge.

LowEndMac.Net

We're officially launching LowEndMac.Net this month. We've owned the domain for years, but it used to point to Low End Mac. No longer. Now it will be an alternative to Apple's .mac service where users can sign up for just an email address or for a whole range of services.

The goal of LowEndMac.Net is to subsidize the financial needs of Low End Mac by offering online services at reasonable prices - and only charging users for the services they want.

Other Cobweb Publishing Sites

Low End PC never really took off. It's not a bad little site, but despite the presence of billions and billions of obsolete Intel PCs, there isn't nearly as much interest in keeping them going as there is for older Macs.

Digital-Views.com, a review site for DVDs and Video CDs, is something I haven't had the time to work on since taking a part-time job.

Digigraphica, on the other hand, is slowly coming into its own as more and more people want to marry photography and computing. The site looks at both digital cameras and film cameras, since a lot of people are now having their film burned to CD or scanning photos. This website probably has the most potential of any of our smaller projects.

ReformedNet grew out of some research projects during my brief time at seminary. The primary focus is the history of the Dutch Reformed religious denominations in North America with a special focus on church growth patterns.

Unlike Low End Mac, none of these sites has ever taken in enough to cover hosting costs - nor do any of these sites have paid staff, so domain registration fees and hosting are their only expenses.

Like Low End Mac, they are labors of love. Whether they grow or not, I hope they each offer useful information and helpful opinions freely to all comers.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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