Personal Computing

A Special Report

Resources --- User Friendliness

By William M. Bulkeley
The Wall Street Journal

June 16, 1986

Back in 1980, when Apple Computer Inc. co-founder Steven Jobs visited the Boston Computer Society, he predicted it wouldn't be around in five years.

The group's founder and president, Jonathan Rotenberg, recalls Mr. Jobs saying: "People won't need user groups. We're making computers as easy to use as Xerox machines."

Today, however, computers still aren't easy to use. "Steve Jobs is out of Apple, and the Boston Computer Society is doing fine," Mr. Rotenberg adds.

Computer user groups across the country, in fact, are bigger than ever, and increasingly even computer companies acknowledge their importance. Last fall, Apple assigned an employee to improve relations with such groups, giving her the title of "user group evangelist."

User groups are popular partly because computer companies often do a lousy job. The groups are a haven for frustrated owners who find computers inscrutable, printers unconnectable, instruction manuals incomprehensible and dealers inept.

"There is, I observe, no Maytag users group," says computer designer Jef Raskin, an advocate of simplifying computers. "We will have a true information appliance . . . when it doesn't force people to band together for mutual support and help in using it."

Apparently, lots of people need help. And some are evangelistic about sharing their knowledge. "We're going after a new frontier," says Gale Rhoades, executive director of FOG (formerly First Osborne Group), a Daly City, Calif.-based organization that boasts affiliated groups around the world. American pioneers "did it with quilting bees and barn raisings," she says. "There's no difference. We make advances by working together."

Alfred Glossbrenner, a Yardley, Pa., author of computer books, says, "You find this wonderful, almost tribal procedure where the experienced users take the new users under their wing and kind of bring them along." Like other fans, he recommends that people join a user group before buying a computer in order to find cheap software, reliable dealers and ways to avoid mistakes.

User groups come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The biggest is the Boston Computer Society, with 20,000 members, eight full-time employees, a $1 million annual budget and plans to build a $1.5 million Computer Discovery Center at Boston's Computer Museum. Most big cities have well-organized groups for owners of specific machines such as Apples and International Business Machines Corp. Personal Computers.

Other groups bring together computer-owning doctors or lawyers or investors or disabled people. Many companies establish internal user groups where employees can share gripes or swap suggestions. And there are electronic user groups where people can dial in and leave questions to be answered by volunteer workers.

But the nation's most exclusive user group may be the Corporate Micro User Group in Westchester County, N.Y. It is limited to 30 members (there is a long waiting list to join), and each member is a person responsible for buying personal computers at a locally based company such as Merrill Lynch & Co., American Telephone & Telegraph Co., Texaco Inc. or PepsiCo Inc.

"My phone is usually ringing with (software companies) asking to speak" at the group's quarterly meetings, says the group's organizer, Matthew Fitzsimmons, a local ComputerLand Inc. dealer.

Finding user groups can be a problem, as most don't have telephone listings, and there is no comprehensive directory. But searchers can ask computer dealers (some even give discounts to local group members) or scan electronic bulletin boards. Apple and Commodore International Ltd., among others, try to keep track of groups of owners of their machines. FOG lists hundreds of computer groups. Computer Shopper, a tabloid sold at some newsstands, publishes a listing of user groups.

In the personal-computer industry's early days, most groups were made up of hobbyists who banded together to show off their electronic gizmos. It was the Home Brew Computer Club in Palo Alto, Calif., for instance, that spawned the first Apple. Boston Computer Society members invented VisiCalc, the first popular business program. And although "techies" still form the core of some user groups -- and some groups may be too technical for novice users -- most are dominated by small-business owners, professionals and corporate employees.

User group meetings often feature speakers from computer or software companies as their main event. Groups may break into subgroups for discussing data bases or communications, members offer used equipment for sale, and they try out software programs. (Most groups have policies against illegally copying commercial software, although software companies say it occurs frequently).

There are lots of good reasons to join user groups, but the most important for most users is to get help from others. "I try to make it to meetings every month," says Steven E. Locke, a Boston psychiatrist, author and Apple Macintosh owner. "Most questions other people ask are questions I have, too." Some groups keep lists of volunteers who will answer questions about programs by phone.

Because computer courses are time-consuming and consultants are expensive, most users start out wading through manuals and asking their dealers for advice. But manuals are notoriously difficult to use. And dealers seldom make enough money on a software package sale to provide advice, even if they understand the product.

David Babin, an orthopedic surgeon in Falmouth, Mass., started relying on a Macintosh user group for advice after concluding that "now that there are computer salesmen, used-car salesmen can hold their heads high." User group members often recommend reliable mail-order suppliers because retailer support is so poor.

Owners of "orphan" computers -- those made by companies that leave the business -- generally have nowhere to turn but to user groups. Ms. Rhoades says FOG has helped owners of Otrona, Zorba and Pied Piper computers, among others.

User groups are generally the best sources of free software. Groups exchange useful programs developed by people who don't want to go to the trouble of marketing a product and then make them available to members for little more than the cost of a floppy disk. Unlike electronic bulletin boards, which also provide free software, user groups often test the "freeware," providing some assurance that it won't sabotage other work in a computer.

Most groups put out newsletters containing product reviews, rumors and tips. A Macintosh newsletter warns that there is a powerful magnet inside the Imagewriter I printer that may erase disks left on top of it. Another describes a freeware program and says it "reportedly crashes a Mac Plus spectacularly, although it works fine on a Mac 512."

These newsletters often cover minor programs that are ignored by advertising-supported magazines. "Their viewpoints are often much closer to the average reader than someone who frequently reviews software," says Mr. Glossbrenner, the author. And they frequently slam products. On the other hand, because the reviewers are volunteers, reviews aren't as consistent in style or coverage.

Most group members see their groups as beacons providing guidance in the thickets of computer cables and computerese. At a recent meeting of 27 medical researchers in a basement room at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital, computer owners listened to a consultant explaining a "relational data base."

After 40 minutes, one researcher stood up and said, "I just want to know if I can use my File program to record a patient's name and diagnosis, then sort out all the people with pseudo-tumors, and then sort it again for women -- or do I need to buy a relational data base?" The program, File, will work fine, he was told. He thanked the group and left.


Mr. Bulkeley reports on computers and technology from The Wall Street Journal's Boston bureau.


Copyright (c) 1986, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.