It’s Time By Steve Bass, Pasadena IBM Users Group A little fanfare please: I’m retiring and closing down PIBMUG. I started the users group 22 years ago and for a whole host of reasons, it’s time to let it go. PIBMUG began in November, 1982 when I called Neil Zackery, the leader of the L.A. Users Club. After three tries, I had no response. I was calling him because I had just bought an IBM PC from the IBM/Sears store on Lake Avenue (in Pasadena), and the computer was sitting on the kitchen table accumulating a fine layer of cooking grease. I was so desperate for help from other computer users, I attempted to start a support group. I posted a 3- by 5-card (―I don’t know what I’m doing with my PC. Do you? Let’s get together‖) at Software Central, a software store on Lake Avenue near California. A week later there were five of us meeting in my office; a few weeks later ten people crammed into the room. Despite my best efforts to keep the group small, too many people were in the same boat, so we outgrew my office. For about a year we met at friend’s conference room, also in Pasadena. The group didn’t have a name yet—it was just a bunch of people, maybe 15 of us, getting together, and talking about computers. And we were quickly running out of room. I thought we’d either have to limit membership or look for another place to meet. Eyes to the Floor One of the guys, an attorney, perked up when he heard ―membership‖ and suggested we ought to incorporate as a 501(c) 3, a non-profit organization. There must have been a good reason for it, but it didn’t matter. Once he mentioned filing fees, everyone stared at the floor, searching for pencils, checking to make sure shoelaces were tied, and zippers were zipped—anything but make eye contact with him. We scratched the non-profit idea—this was critical to the evolution of PIBMUG, but it was too early to know why just yet.
Word continued to spread through Pasadena about a bunch of computer nerds who met every month. People continued to ―join,‖ and two things happened at about the same time. First, as with any small group, we began having organizational issues. Some people wanted a bulletin (hello, Prompt>?) yet no one was willing to do it. As I was the guy who had brought everyone together, I felt the need to volunteer. I started collecting street addresses and phone numbers, sending meeting notices, and deciding on topics. We also reached critical mass—with 25 or so in the room, we had absolutely reached our limit and were again forced to move to larger digs. So I suspect it was at this moment that PIBMUG was born. Dan Aranovich, part of the early group, suggested we migrate over to Caltech. He was an alumnus, and was able to get us into a basement classroom in Jorgensen Hall. It was here that we saw Alan Ashton and Pete Peterson, from SSI, a small Utah firm, show us WordPerfect, the word processor directly competing with Wordstar. We also had the president of Quarterdeck, Terry Myers, show DESQ (but when IBM released TopView, it was reengineered and renamed DESQView), a revolutionary product that let your DOS machine quickly switch among various programs. A Brief History and a Few Highlights November, 1982: First meeting in Bass’s office at 711 East Walnut, in Pasadena. Jan, 1983: Cal Tech, Jorgensen Hall Basement Someone, probably Dan, lugged a PC and 15-inch monitor to the hot and stuffy 40-seat classroom each month. February, 1985: Steele Building, first floor. We were in a large auditorium that held 100 people. The projection device was as high-tech as I could afford. We used an awful little flat panel projector (a blue roses and pink sky sort of thing), as well as a feed from the PC to six small
monitors hanging in two rows from the ceiling on the sides of the room. March, 1986: Ben Crocker asked for (actually demanded) elections and was booed out of the room. January, 1987: Bridge Building, Room 201. The best room, though we soon started to feel a little crowded. Caltech’s Grady Campbell supplied all the equipment. I attempted to over clock a PC and both the computer and a monitor exploded. Well, yes, it was rigged, but we also got a call from the lab upstairs asking if they should call the fire department. This is also where we tossed a brand new HP laser printer at the winner. It was actually a realistic cardboard store display. More than a few people in the audience booed. The next meeting, a real HP laser printer was the giveaway (and won by Don Rogers). April, 1988: Bill Gates meeting at Pasadena Convention Center. There must have been 1800 people at the event; a half dozen of the PIBMUG staffers went to a restaurant afterward with Bill Gates and the MS user group guy. Bill had a coke and spent most of the evening fiddling with his napkin. June, 1990: PCTV visits Bridge Building and videotapes a meeting. Aubrey Pilgram built a 486 in front of us and for the first time, I ―accidentally‖ bounced a big hard drive onto his brand-new systemboard. Dropping things became a running gag that lasted for years. July, 1991: Philippe Kahn at the Pasadena Convention Center. About 1200 people in the audience. It was getting close to 10:00 pm and Philippe Kahn was still talking. From a podium across the stage, I grabbed a microphone and, concerned for his well-being, asked him what time was his flight home? He turned and stared at me for a second. ―Anytime I want,‖ he said, as if talking to a five-year old. ―I have my own jet.‖ (Those were the glory days, all right…)
April, 1991: Eaton Canyon Conference Center. We were booted from Caltech because someone had broken into a lab on the floor above the auditorium. We were blamed even though it happened a week after our meeting. Parking at Eaton Canyon was awful—someone smashed my car window—and the room felt cramped and was very hot. June 1991: Huntington Junior High School, San Marino. Bill Hyland got us into the auditorium and we actually had a contract from the school. Several months later I held the contract in my hand while the principal politely said it didn’t quite matter what it said. She had booked a play on our meeting night—and planned on rehearsals for the next two years. I got the message. April, 1992: Pasadena Hilton courtesy Microsoft. The Microsoft user group rep, Tanya Dressler, came through in PIBMUG’s time of need. (This was when I was still on good terms with Microsoft.) They picked up the tab for the meeting room. May, 1992: Eliot Middle School. Sean Thakker, a long-time member, introduced me to the principal at Eliot. It’s been a good home, one that’s been the most stable and rewarding. Why it’s Time I’m shutting down PIBMUG for a lot of reasons. I think we’ve had a great run—22 years worth—and it’s been a hoot. But it’s time for me to redirect my energy into other projects. Believe it or not, PIBMUG is an energy, time, and, at times, a financial drain. Yes, I know, I have great volunteers, people who have been with PIBMUG almost from the start, and I couldn’t run the group without them. Yet the bulk of it was on me–-finding vendors, making sure they know what kind of presentation we want, hustling products for giveaways, doing the newsletter, answering calls and emails from vendors and members, maintaining the membership list and database—there’s a lot that happens behind the scenes.
Pulling Back the Curtain Many people asked how I could be the president of the users group without a board of directors and hey, wait-just-aminute…what about elections? Well, it was a sole proprietorship, often referred to by the staff as a dictatorship. I ran PIBMUG as a business, part of the other businesses I owned through the 80’s and 90’s—doing psychotherapy, and running a counseling group and seminar company. I think that’s why PIBMUG was successful and maintained itself so well for 22 years—I operated it with the iron fist of a czar, without bowing to reason or, at times, even logic. Another reason why the PIBMUG business model worked well was because there were no committees, bureaucracy, or red tape, and you never had to sit through a ―business‖ report at the meeting. Not only that, you may not have noticed, but you never had to feel concerned that you might be asked to volunteer; the PIBMUG staffers graciously consented to help and they were beneficiaries of fringe benefits, such as a free trip to ATI’s video card launch in Toronto a few years ago. The fact that I’d been around so long didn’t hurt, either. It meant I had long-time relationships with vendors; they knew me and knew PIBMUG’s track record of bringing in decentsized crowds. And while I definitely hassled the vendors, they got lots from PIBMUG. For instance, vendors typically received between 50 and 75 messages with direct-to-thepoint feedback you supplied, something they loved. Vendors who sold products at the meeting couldn’t wait for a return visit; a successful night often meant $3000 or $4000 in sales (the record was $9000). Of course, some vendors thought that my affiliation with PC World would help them get a review. Nope, it didn’t work that way. When I talked with a vendor, I used my PIBMUG e-mail address and warned them that I had two hats, and my user group hat (and pocket protector) was on my head. In fact, I instituted a buffer zone—I wouldn’t write about a product demoed at the users group for at least six months; conversely, if I wrote about a product, they couldn’t come to PIBMUG for six months after the column was in print.
But I’m digressing. The Doors are Closing Here are some other reasons why it’s time to close PIBMUG’s doors. Membership Is Down. It’s been dwindling at PIBMUG and, from the 60 or so user group newsletters I receive monthly, it’s slow across the country. I think that’s because PCs are now easy-to-use commodities—appliances—and most people aren’t interesting in tinkering with them. Many of us use PCs for business but also consider them a hobby. (Right, like collecting and installing Microsoft’s dumb-ass hotfixes and patches—some hobby.) An interesting observation is that the majority of UG members are over 60, many of whom started with DOS—and love tinkering. The Industry Has Changed. We used to have great meetings with shootouts between Ami Pro and Word, and Excel vs. 12-3. Unfortunately, there’s no one around to do that. Does anyone really want to see a shootout between Paint Shop Pro and Ulead’s image program? I sure don’t. How many times can you see Zone Alarm or Partition Magic presented? And you’ve seen practically every photo and video editing program on the market. Want to watch another few years worth? Besides—and I think this is a central point of every user group’s demise—so much of what you see here you can get by downloading the trial version of product. The other problem is that vendors are difficult to find; good vendors even more difficult. And even fewer vendors were able to give a good presentation. For instance, I’ll never forget the woman who used a 10 point Word document for her presentation. I’ve always tried providing three vendors per meeting. The rationale was you’d find at least one that caught your interest. But behind the scenes, I have to tell you, getting three vendors—or even two—makes each meeting a killer. Okay, I’ll grant you that when Steve Gibson’s on stage, it can be a spectacular meeting. Realistically, though, Steve’s a once-a-year guy, as is Jim Louderback, and several other computing greats.
The Newsletter is Toast. Writing the newsletter’s been a tremendous chore and, as you can see from the last few months, it’s become very difficult for me to produce. Think about it—I write 650 words for PC World, it takes me a day, and I’m handsomely paid. The column in the newsletter also takes a day, and then another day, or day and a half to build, process, and mail. It’s a labor of love, but I’ve stopped loving it. Besides, everything in the newsletter’s available on a user group web site. I mean, folks, where do you think I get the articles from? The Last Eight Months. I have to say that the last eight months—since that dreadful time at Pasadena High School and the last minute cancellation—well, it took lots out of me. The construction at Eliot has also contributed to the energy drain. What I’m Going to Miss Your Loyalty Through the Years. Through thick and thin, a core membership provided me with support and encouragement, through continued membership. I’ll miss the times I was able to repay that devotion with things such as Symantec bags and, in earlier days, good seats at special events. The Big Hustle for PIBMUG Members. I don’t think any user group anywhere received as many freebies as PIBMUG members. I’m proud to say I arm-twisted everyone in the computer industry, everywhere I could, scrounging up software and tchotckes. Coercing vendors to hand over 400 copies of software for distribution to the group was a big kick for me. I remember one December meeting where we handed everyone a copy of Linux, two Mijenix products, and a T-shirt. I can remember free copies of Magellan, Office Accelerator, fans, beer openers, and mouse pads. Boy, but those were cool times. On the other hand, I certainly won’t miss the small handful of complainers, the members who never seemed happy with whatever I was able to do. Some examples? At one meeting, we handed out three boxes of free software and T-shirts to members: one man actually said he was annoyed because we only had extra large T-shirts. Another complained that we
were stingy because ―if we had so many leftover T-shirts, why couldn’t we give him a few extras for his wife and kids.‖ Little known fact: all the products we didn’t hand out were shared with other groups in southern California.) The December Meeting. (a.k.a.—The Grand Giveaway Meeting.) Man, while it lasted, it was a fun part of my time at PIBMUG (except maybe when I tipped over the table and spilled all the products off the stage and onto the floor…) Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen again before the doors close. In this soft economy, vendors aren’t willing to send out boxes full of hardware and software on request. (If it does happen, it will be a surprise.) The Kibbitzing. The harassment from you, the catcalls, whistles, and wise-ass remarks. And we were so often in synch, especially with so-so vendors (of which there were oh, so very many). Of course I’ll also miss harassing the vendors, another one of my greatest PIBMUG pleasures.