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VerticalThe first issue of PC Magazine back in the summer of 1981 was a thrill to read and it was sad news this week that Ziff Davis Media has decided to cease publishing the magazine. “The viability for us to continue to publish in print just isn’t there anymore,” Jason Young, chief executive of Ziff Davis, said in an interview. This was not unexpected as all of us know that the print media business has been in a ten-degree nose-down dive for a number of years now. The more significant aspect of PC Magazine has been the early and innovative focus on “vertical”.
I got to know Bill Machrone in the early 1990’s. Bill had been the founder and editor-in-chief of PC Magazine. I also had the pleasure of meeting Bill Ziff on a few occasions. Both “Bills” were early believers in “vertical”. Ziff Davis had the approach of publishing magazines such as Car and Driver, Popular Electronics, PC Magazine, and Computer Shopper that entertained the “enthusiasts” — people who cared a great deal about specific technologies and products — not generalists but those who were passionate about a particular topic and wanted to go "deep". Today we would call such market segments “vertical”.
You might say that much of the evolution of the web in the early years of the new millennium has focused on “horizontal” applications and content. Many millions of users swarm to sites that are a foot deep and miles wide — Google search where you can find anything, eBay and Amazon where you can buy or sell anything, music and photo sites where you can enjoy any kind of media, and Facebook or MySpace where you can meet anyone. Enter Tony Tjan, CEO of Cue Ball Group, a venture and growth equity firm based in Boston.
Tony has put forth a perspective blog post in a posting (now on the home page at Harvard Business Publishing) that the generation of the web now evolving will certainly be more "verticalized and editorialized". Tony says that current behavior will continue as we use use large, incumbent, generalist (horizontal) sites like Google and eBay, but at the same time, there will be a strong movement toward more specialized sites. He hypothesizes that this will allow a better balance between "authoritative, expert-endorsed content and broad, less bounded user-generated information". He adds that the advertisers will follow this trend as they sharpen their focus. See Tony’s full story here.
One of the best examples of a truly vertical site I can think of is what has been developed by Knovel Corporation. When I entered engineering school more than forty years ago (is that possible?), I used a slide rule and engineering reference manuals. I think of them as the first of four generations of using engineering and scientific data. The second generation was web-based data with PC’s for standalone and separate analysis. Knovel Corporation (pronounced nah-vil) introduced the third generation about five years ago — “Knovelized” data with deep search and a high degree of interactivity. Knovel brings boring reference manuals to life and in the process saves engineers and scientists many hours of effort. It is a good example of an information service that is available “on demand”. The fourth generation of Knovel’s vertical site currently being launched includes Ajax-based interactive graphs built with Mathematica. With no software on the PC other than a standards-based browser, the new generation of tools allows the engineer and scientist to dive deep, find the most arcane of formulas and then interact with them deeply and graphically to solve a design challenge or fulfill a research project. For millions of engineers and scientists around the world, this will be the next generation of the web — information and tools at their fingertips — reliable, relevant, and fast.

Disclosure: Tony and I are both investors in Knovel Corporation and members of the board of directors.