The Golden Age of computer user groups

The Golden Age of computer user groups

Enlarge / Programmer energy, certainly. (Here’s a Tufts computer group someday within the mid to late 1970. Getty caption explicitly states, “Note equipment and 1970s fashions.”)

Spencer Grant/Getty Images

The Homebrew Computer Club the place the Apple I received its begin is deservedly well-known—nevertheless it’s removed from tech historical past’s solely group gathering centered on CPUs. Throughout the 70s and into the 90s, teams world wide helped hapless customers work out their computer methods, find out about know-how traits, and uncover the newest whiz-bang functions. And these teams did not persist with Slacks, e-mail threads, or boards; the conferences usually occurred IRL.

But to my dismay, many younger technically-inclined whippersnappers are fully unaware of computer consumer teams’ existence and their significance within the private computer’s growth. That’s a damned disgrace. Our present actuality might largely be remoted to screens, however these organizations helped numerous lovers discover group as a result of of them. Computer teams celebrated the business’s elementary values: a enjoyment of know-how’s capabilities, a willingness to share data, and a tacit understanding that we’re all right here to assist each other. 

And gosh, they had been enjoyable.

For instance, David Intersimone started attending the Southern California Computer Society in 1975. At one assembly, he purchased an early IMSAI 8080 kit and soldered it collectively at dwelling. “The lights lit but the processor would not reset and stop,” Intersimone remembers.

So on the subsequent assembly, he launched himself to “the computer doctor,” who was really useful as somebody keen to assist equipment newbies. The “doctor” was capable of repair Intersimone’s soldering errors, and he additionally recommended that Intersimone purchase a Godbout Electronics S-100 bus terminator card to quiet the non-solder-masked motherboard. “Finally, my IMSAI 8080 was working,” Intersimone says, “and it still works today!”

Old-school programmers might recall Intersimone’s lengthy profession at Borland; today, he’s VP of Developer Communities at Evans Data Corporation. And the computer physician? He was George Tate—of Ashton Tate and dBase fame.

This collegial expertise, usually resulting in careers within the rising PC business, was typical through the heyday of computer consumer teams. So take a wander into the wayback machine with me to revisit what made them so particular.

So what was a consumer group?

Once upon a time, utilizing a computer was troublesome. The documentation was obscure (if any existed), nothing was pre-assembled, and when you had an issue you had been by yourself. You may discover some solutions by dialing into an early digital bulletin board system (BBS), however nothing beats having somebody look over your shoulder and say, “You plugged it in upside down!”

Computer consumer teams had been (and to some tiny diploma nonetheless are) all-volunteer organizations, often non-profits. They had been organized in small cities and in huge cities, with 25 members or 2,500. Services different, however early consumer teams largely had two important components: a month-to-month normal assembly and a printed publication.

Some user group magazines were of professional caliber. This 32-page newsletter attracted subscribers from 28 countries.
Enlarge / Some consumer group magazines had been {of professional} caliber. This 32-page publication attracted subscribers from 28 nations.

Esther Schindler

For small teams, the assembly presentation is perhaps a member’s show-and-tell. Larger and better-connected consumer teams attracted distributors, who (rightly) noticed them as early adopters price courting. For instance, a typical Phoenix PC User Group assembly within the early 90s had 300 folks in a resort convention room. A vendor may spend an hour exhibiting the newest model of their software program, akin to WordPerfect or Photoshop. The demonstrations had been extra well-crafted tutorials than gross sales pitches; in each case, I discovered the right way to do one thing new. The demos had been adopted with a product raffle, a significant prize when industrial software program bought for $495 per copy.

Newsletter high quality different by consumer group, as you’ll be able to see from this archive and covers from a choose few proven above. Some newsletters had been barely greater than “come to the next meeting!” reminders; others (ahem, together with mine) had been shiny magazines that justified consumer group membership only for the subscription. 

Beyond this, there have been all types of advantages that different by group. Some teams additionally particular curiosity teams (SIGs), a BBS, or shareware libraries. And a couple of teams sponsored conferences, swap meets, or different occasions, such because the Trenton, New Jersey group’s annual “computer faire.” The greatest consumer teams even had useful resource facilities with coaching and different advantages. But principally, the teams introduced folks collectively—and launched them to new tech.

The newest whiz-bang know-how

Back when the microcomputer business was smaller, it was straightforward to get access to the movers-and-shakers—usually earlier than they moved or shook something. User teams gave everybody the chance to find out about know-how, usually from the individuals who invented it. 

Harry McCracken attended Boston Computer Society conferences starting in 1979, and he remembers its Q&A periods with fondness. “The questions were so tough,” the longtime tech journalist reminisces. “There was no hero worship, just smart computer users asking sensible questions.” (You can watch among the BCS periods online, such because the 1981 Forum on the Future of Personal Computers under.)

“Microsoft, WordPerfect, and Adobe were the headliners,” remembers a 1980s member of the Oklahoma City PC User Group. “They gave presentations that drew hundreds and provided wonderful giveaways of full versions of their software. You could always expect that the introduction of new versions of their products would be a big event, much like the way Samsung and Apple launch new hardware today.”

In 1981, the Boston Computer Society satisfied a younger Bill Gates to return communicate at considered one of its conferences. Thanks, YouTube.

Happy to assist

For most members, consumer teams had been additionally a supply of technical info. Someone educated (or at the very least extra educated than you) may clarify how modems labored, present a nifty function in Corel Draw, or advocate a dot-matrix printer.

“Back when running Linux on the desktop was a full-time job,” remembers one member of the Triangle Linux User Group, “it was really cool to have an in-person network to talk to when your latest kernel compilation bricked your system.”

General conferences provided serendipitous data, with ongoing introductions to totally different sorts of know-how. You may not know what CAD software program was till somebody demonstrated what it may accomplish. The consumer group presentation is perhaps a graphics software one month (Arts & Letters); a software program utility the subsequent (Norton Backup); and a 3rd assembly through which a member defined exhausting disk partitioning.

In distinction, particular curiosity teams had been dedicated to a single matter or product. For occasion, the Phoenix PC User Group had a couple of dozen energetic SIGs, which met month-to-month. A downtown computer retailer gave the group a free place to fulfill, the place a couple of dozen folks may present as much as share experiences and recommendations on Corel Draw, Lotus 1-2-3, or webmaster instruments. The OS/2 SIG scheduled Install Days, throughout which consumer group members helped anybody in the neighborhood discover machine drivers and troubleshoot the working system set up. Several members volunteered at CompUSA shops to show off their favorite operating system.

Some SIGs ultimately turned standalone consumer teams. In the 90s, Robert, who now runs the YouTube channel RetroCAD, was co-chair of the Southeastern Wisconsin AutoCAD consumer’s group (CADDIES), which had 500 members, 50 common assembly attendees, and a bodily publication.

“The meetings were pretty structured,” he remembers. “There would be an intro and update regarding happenings in the CAD world (keep in mind that there was no Internet so this was how most of our members found out this info). We would often demo tools, hardware (such as digitizers, video cards, and modems), or drawing techniques. A few times a year we would have guests from different companies such as Autodesk.”

User group officers conferred regularly (here in 1990) to develop leadership skills.
Enlarge / User group officers conferred often (right here in 1990) to develop management expertise.

Ash Nallawalla

Launching careers

In the early days of private computing, consumer teams had been the perfect place to be taught new expertise. If you cared about computing, all you needed to do was present up and pay attention. Many folks received expertise doing issues that influenced them professionally.

“I enjoyed the social aspects of each group, but they also had a huge impact on my career,” says Gerald Combs. “This is particularly true for the Kansas City UNIX User’s Group, where I served for a short time as president.” After Combs spoke at a gathering about managing NNTP servers, an attendee requested him to seek the advice of at an area Internet service supplier. “They ended up hiring me however could not afford a Sniffer, which led me to start out writing a protocol analyzer for Solaris and Linux. That analyzer (Wireshark) now has its personal energetic online group.”

The “everyone is welcome” perspective created private networking alternatives well-suited for introverts. 

“These groups were an essential way to keep my skill levels up,” says Tony Allan, who joined a capacity planning user group within the 1990s. He stayed in contact with IT professionals he met by the consumer group who labored throughout mainframe, mid-range, and now cloud environments. “Presenting at user conferences was a great way to share experiences and maintain a profile in the industry,” he provides.

I’m a hit story, too. I wrote often for my small-town consumer group publication, which helped me uncover my expertise for explaining technical subjects in English. See the place that led?

Vendors received access to actual customers

The computer business acknowledged the ability of consumer group endorsements. Vendors had been beneficiant with evaluation {hardware} and software program; the volunteer-written publication articles had been the precursor to Amazon evaluations. Vendors knew {that a} scruffy-looking assembly attendee is perhaps the tech purchaser at a big native agency—and that she may advocate a bulk buy. 

In the 90s, Brenda Christensen was accountable for User Group Relations at GoldMine Software. “The best part was the genuine enthusiasm and incredible honest feedback,” she says. “They had been sincere and had no agenda. The suggestions we received from them was very similar to an unbiased buyer focus group—however a well-informed and technical one. And they had been so pleasant!”

It labored each methods. Members appreciated the chance to inform distributors what they needed. Nearly each firm exec was accessible, with few PR filters. Want to ask Peter Norton what he thought of the way forward for computing? Have a grievance a couple of Quicken function? Raise your hand through the Q&A session to ask the corporate CEO.

Listing picture by Nathan Mattise /

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