David Bunnell, Whose Magazines Were Tech World Must-Reads, Dies at 69


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Bill Gates, left, demonstrating software on a personal computer for the magazine publisher David Bunnell.

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‘Fire in the Valley: The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer’

David Bunnell, a journalist and publisher who helped create PC Magazine, Macworld and other consumer publications that chronicled and contributed to the explosive growth of the personal computer industry, died on Tuesday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 69.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his wife, Jacqueline Poitier, said.

The power and influence of the PC industry press has largely been forgotten in the internet era, but at the time, in the 1970s and ’80s, the magazines Mr. Bunnell published were as authoritative and read as eagerly as Vogue or Women’s Wear Daily were in the fashion world.

Mr. Bunnell was riding a rocket ship. The first issue of PC Magazine was 100 pages, substantial enough by any measure. But the second issue weighed in like a phone book, at 400 pages.

“Getting ads was so easy,” Mr. Bunnell told Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine in the book “Fire in the Valley: The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer.” “All you had to do was answer the phone.”

Mr. Bunnell charted the growth of the personal computer from its hobbyist roots to its becoming the engine of what the venture capitalist John Doerr later described as the “largest legal accumulation of wealth in history.”

The business was shaped by self-taught computer hackers and young men like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who early on saw that personal computers would become ubiquitous. They were passionate about PCs and intensely competitive.

At a conference in 1976, Mr. Bunnell, a brash young technical writer at Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, or MITS, the maker of the first popular PC, stormed into the lobby of a hotel and tore down a sign posted by a rival manufacturer.

It was a portent. Dozens of larger-than-life rivalries would develop as the personal computer industry went on to transcend its hobbyist roots and transform the world, with giants like IBM, Compaq and Apple sweeping away small companies like MITS.

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Mr. Bunnell started Personal Computing magazine and was a co-founder of PC World, PC Magazine and Macworld. He also worked on liberal causes.

Mr. Bunnell arrived at MITS in 1973 without a technical background. But his ability to write clearly and accessibly about the industry and its wares earned him a job, and he began chronicling what would become known as the “PC revolution” — one of the first to do so for a mass readership.

Mr. Bunnell had been at MITS several years when two other ambitious young men, Paul Allen and Mr. Gates, arrived there with a version of the Basic programming language. Mr. Allen and Mr. Gates would soon leave MITS to found Microsoft.

Mr. Bunnell started a company newsletter, Computer Notes, focusing on the pioneering Altair personal computer. It was in that newsletter, in February 1976, that Mr. Gates first complained publicly about software piracy, firing the opening shots in a war that would divide the industry and its users for decades.

Mr. Bunnell played a founding role in a string of magazines. He started Personal Computing and was a co-founder of PC Magazine, PC World and Macworld, and in doing so became a kingmaker in his own right. His magazines would shape the perceptions of millions about a continuing tide of ever more sophisticated machines that were spreading to homes and businesses around the world.

“At a time when a lot of people still doubted the potential of personal computers, David Bunnell gave voice to the PC revolution,” Mr. Allen said in an email.

Yet Mr. Bunnell’s role in shaping the industry was relatively unsung, said John C. Dvorak, a computer columnist who worked for Mr. Bunnell at PC World.

“I believe that David never got the credit he deserved for inventing the computer magazine industry, the first personal computer trade show and much of the landscape of the industry,” he said.

The computer trade publishing business proved to be a brutal one. Mr. Bunnell left Personal Computing when the publisher refused to give him an ownership share. Later, when PC Magazine was sold to Ziff-Davis without his knowledge, he departed with most of the staff to form PC World for a rival publisher, the International Data Group.

A number of his ventures were not successful. Upside magazine, which chronicled the rise of the internet, succumbed to the dot-com bubble collapse of the late 1990s and early 2000s, going into bankruptcy. Mr. Bunnell was forced out of the company.

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PC World

Through it all, he worked as an editor, publisher and writer at the leading edge of the computing world. Mr. Jobs, one of Apple’s founders, chose Mr. Bunnell over a variety of competitors when he sought a consumer magazine to help propel the Macintosh computer in 1984.

David Hugh Bunnell was born in Alliance, Neb., on July 25, 1947. His father, Hugh, was the editor of the local paper, The Alliance Daily Times-Herald. David began working at the paper when he was 12. At 16, he was sports editor.

He attended the University of Nebraska, where he studied history and was active in the New Left group Students for a Democratic Society. After graduating, he taught school in Chicago and then at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

In 1973, during the occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., by members of the American Indian Movement, Mr. Bunnell delivered food to the protesters.

His cancer diagnosis last year prompted him to finish a memoir from that period, Ms. Poitier, his wife, said. The book, “Good Friday on the Rez: A Pine Ridge Odyssey,” will be published in April by St. Martin’s Press.

Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Mara Vander Veur, Buffy De Luna and Jennifer Poitier, and a brother, Roger Bunnell.

John Brockman, a literary agent and a business partner of Mr. Bunnell’s, said Mr. Bunnell had retained his commitment to social justice throughout his life. Mr. Brockman remembered once complaining to him about the panhandlers in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco.

Mr. Bunnell asked him to meet him at Glide Memorial Church, where he was active, on a Sunday morning.

“At the church,” Mr. Brockman said, “we went to the kitchen, where, instead of the usual kitchen workers, it was staffed by David and successful people like him — professionals, lawyers, doctors, etc. — serving the same panhandlers I had encountered on the street.”

Correction: October 25, 2016

An obituary in some copies on Sunday about David Bunnell, who helped create several magazines devoted to personal computers, misidentified the magazine of his where the computer columnist John C. Dvorak worked. It was PC World, not PC Magazine.

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