by Josh Martin
Josh Martin is a New York-based writer specializing in economics and technology. He types his stories on a 1904 Underwood.
Contrary to popular myth, computer users are very social folk. Every month they gather by the thousands in local clubs to share their experience and avail themselves of software libraries and other services.
If you're in the market for a computer, a good club can help you select the system with the widest range of applications for the best price. And you can benefit from strength in numbers: if several members are buying a particular piece of equipment or software, you can obtain group discount prices. If you already have a computer, a club can bring you into contact with members using the same equipment. Many user groups also offer resource centers with programs and information about your particular computer system.
A Club for Your Computer
Most home users turn to their local computer store or to the computer manufacturer for information about computer clubs. These sources tend to recommend product-related user groups, which might not be the optimum choice for you but which do offer ready information about your computer. Many computer makers sponsor groups that provide service while functioning as market forums for new product introductions. For example, there are over three hundred Apple-oriented groups serving home computer users in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. There is a certain bonhomie to the Apple clubs, as revealed in chapter names like the Adam & Eve Apple Group of Madison, Wisconsin, and Crabapples of Carbondale, Illinois. (Consider, too, the Wabash Valley Apple Byters in Indiana and Green Apples in Greensboro, North Carolina.) Atari, Commodore, IBM, Texas Instruments and other manufacturers have product-oriented user groups across the country, but with less creative names.
Before the product-specific computer clubs came professional or technical clubs. The forerunners of today's user groups emerged ten years ago, with the large-scale introduction of word processing into offices. Professional groups such as the Association of Computer Users (ACU) and the Association of Information Systems Professionals (AISP) were formed as educational and information networks. Independent of any particular computer manufacturer, they serve workers as well as professionals in automated offices. The ACU, founded in 1974, now has a national membership of three thousand. Annual dues are $65. By paying this fee, members get ACU's monthly newsletter, Computer Fitness, and two books: How to Select Your Small Computer Without Frustration and How to Manage Your Small Computer Without Frustration.
Meanwhile, the older and larger AISP, founded in 1972 as the International Word Processing Association, boasts twelve thousand members, with more than eighty-five chapters in twenty-five countries. In fact, the AISP is the world's largest professional word processing association. Annual dues of $50 entitle members to free subscriptions for any of the organization's periodicals as well as substantial discounts on books and surveys. For home computer users, the AISP offers a wide variety of services relating to equipment, services, industry issues or any relevant topic. It also has an excellent monthly, Information Industry Review, which profiles new products, and an up-to-date Information/Word Processing Glossary to keep you on top of the latest computer terminology.
Hackers and hard-core computer hobbyists also founded their share of early computer clubs. The most legendary of these was the Homebrew Computer Club. Many of personal computing's early advances, including the first Apple computer, resulted from the sharing of information by Homebrew members. The club still meets once a month at the Stanford Medical Center, and its mailing list comprises over seven hundred names-many of them now prominent in the industry.
"Computers are available to everyone, but information is still very limited," says Jonathan Rotenberg, who founded the Boston Computer Society in 1977 when he was thirteen years old. Rotenberg's efforts have helped make his regional club the nation's largest home computer user group. The BCS now has seven thousand paying members, who can attend any of the society's twenty-five monthly events, participate in any of twenty-three special-interest subgroups or simply read the society's slick bimonthly, Computer Update.
The BCS is organized so that subordinate groups cover all major brands and the most common areas of computer activity, including business, classroom, family, entertainment and entrepreneurial uses. In addition, most of these subgroups publish newsletters providing members with programs, tips and interviews with professionals. There is also a BCS software exchange, where members can get software in the public domain for a nominal fee.
Rotenberg is developing the network concept for his computer club. With a wide-ranging membership in forty states and fifteen countries, the BCS is the nucleus of a national home computer user group launched in early 1984. Unlike the ACU and the AISP, which serve business users, the BCS national group caters to consumers and the general public.
Other regional clubs offer similar services, though on a reduced scale. For example, the New York Amateur Computer Club, founded in 1978, features a monthly newsletter and discounts on user group disks (the copy fee is $1) as well as on catalogs of public-domain software. In addition, there are monthly general meetings and product-oriented user group sessions. General meetings of the club begin with a "non-commercial period," in which members trade information. This is followed by a "commercial period," during which entrepreneurs can announce products or services.
Jonathan Rotenberg organized the Boston Computer Society at age thirteen and took it national at twenty.
Smaller user groups can offer more personalized rapport. The Lincoln (Nebraska) Microcomputers Club has forty-five members who meet once a month to exchange information. Like the larger user groups, it offers advice and a "disk-of-the-month" software exchange ($3 per diskette if you have no software to swap). Unlike many larger clubs, it rarely gets visits from company representatives; instead, club members have show-and-tell sessions to display new machines.
Among the attractions of the computer clubs is their free or low-cost "public-domain" software (i.e., non-copyrighted computer programs donated by the authors). Public-domain software includes hundreds of programs for games and graphics, business and education. Many clubs offer a combination of such programs on a "disk-of-the-month" basis, for which members pay a nominal fee of $1 to $5.
Public-domain software may not always be the easiest, slickest or smoothest. In fact, such software often represents the rough-cut versions of commercial products being sold through computer stores and vendors. On the other hand, certain programs, like Ward Christiansen's public-domain Modem communications software for CP/M computers, have helped set standards of features and performance.
Some of the larger computer clubs maintain extensive software collections with thousands of programs on file. New York's Big Apple Users Group is a case in point. Among other things, BAUG maintains a library of about 100 commercial games for demonstration purposes, as well as 100 public-access (publicdomain) games ranging from simple word association to fairly sophisticated graphics. A recent BAUG diskof-the-month had four games, five utilities, five art/ graphics programs and one educational program. The titles of some of the games indicate the variety available: Marooned in Space, Adventure Slice, Dragon Maze, Minotaur's Lair, Automatic Bingo, Battle of Numbers and Tic Tac Toe, the oldest computer game.
While your local club might not have as big a selection in its own files, many groups have swap agreements so that a wide range of software and information is available through networking. Unfortunately, this involves the problem of how to prevent users from illegally copying the games. Public-access/ public-domain material is no problem. But software pirates have created tensions between clubs that maintain demonstration libraries (where games can be tried but cannot be copied) and computer companies and software designers. The software designers feel the clubs have allowed members to pirate their work.
With such incentives as pooled information, buying power and freeware, computer clubs will continue to grow to meet public demand. They represent the organized arrival of America's newest consumer culture: home computer users.
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