Computer user groups have been around since the 1950s when therdware support. Sean Hallahan looks at how it will affect face-to-face user groups. relatively small number of mainframe computer users decided that they needed a forum to exchange information about products, prices and suppliers.
The spread of the minicomputer to departments and to medium sized businesses in the early 1970s meant that the user groups once again flourished and attracted new members. The advent of the business PC in the early 1980s further extended the scope of the user associations bringing in even wider numbers of members. Today, with the advent of the Internet, intranet, extranet and specialised bulletin boards on the Web the necessity for user groups has come into question.
Every user group is a product of its time. The IBM Computer Users Association (IBM CUA), which has been going since the 1950s, was originally composed of mainframe customers. As IBM expanded its product range and the issues of computing became more complex the IBM CUA began to divide itself into Special Interest Groups (SIG) covering, for example the old IBM distributed processing systems - the 8100 - and the minicomputers - System 34, System 36 and System 38 and their successor, the AS/400. IBM CUA SIGs also existed, covering software communications and other areas.
The mid-range and minicomputer CUAs, such as DECUS, the Digital Equipment user group, had less complex structures but performed in a similar manner to their mainframe counterparts, representing the membership when pricing, performance, product shortages and other issues arose.
The rise of the CUA
The PC-based user groups recalled a very different tradition. The mainframe and mid-range CUAs arose from the business world where the price/performance, product shortages, reliability and other issues represented commercial necessity rather than individual enthusiasm.
The failure to deliver a product on time can cause a business to suffer a loss of market share. The PC-based user groups arose out of the tradition of what used to be regarded as the hobbyist microcomputer clubs where individuals who were interested in exchanging ideas and learning from one another met monthly or more frequently to discuss their passions.
The arrival of the IBM PC and the recognition that it could change the pattern of business led, in 1984, to the establishment in the UK of the PC User Group by Ian Fraser. Fraser correctly realised that PC users had needs very different in many respects from their larger system counterparts but that in many ways were exactly the same. The difference between the IBM CUA, which numbered among its members users of plug-compatible systems and only a nominal commitment to IBM boxes, and the PC User Group was that the former was recognised by IBM and taken seriously while the latter was regarded as little more than a body of enthusiastic amateurs.
A wealth of information
Despite the fact that the Internet contains a wealth of information that is extremely valuable to users, it can never replace the user associations, according to Simon Moores, chairman of the Windows NT Forum and the Lotus User Group. Moores was one of the first people from the PC end of the IT business to recognise the need for a user group specifically devoted to one piece of software, the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. If any single product can be said to have been responsible for the spread of the PCs into the corporate computing environment it is 1-2-3. In 1985 Moores set up the Lotus User Group in order to assist users when they encountered difficulties and could not get satisfactory assistance from Lotus. He acknowledges the importance of the Internet as a means of communication but believes that his members still want to come together at meetings and conferences.
"What the Internet has done is to change the nature of user groups and the requirements of users but it is no substitute for people getting together and discovering that they often have common problems and can exchange ideas more easily if they are in the same room," Moores says.
A similar view is taken by the Oracle User Group (OUG) which has 1,400 corporate members in the UK consisting of about 8,000 individuals. "The reason why the Oracle User Group is so successful is that it encourages contact between users and between users and Oracle," says an OUG spokesman.
Far from the Internet decreasing interest in the OUG its membership has actually increased over the last two years, partially because it has its own Web site which brings it to the attention of users who might otherwise not have known of its existence. Membership of the OUG costs #390 per year which entitles members to attend one or all of the 13 Special Interest Groups (SIG) which form part of the OUG, attendance at the annual conference and a subscription to the group's Magazine, Relate.
The Windows NT Forum has between 3,500 and 4,000 members and the Lotus User Group 1,000 members. Membership costs #750 per annum but this entitles the company to nominate up to seven employees to act as their representative at conferences and seminars. The #750 also gives the user the right to use the organisations' help line service. "We take 3,000 support calls every month and paying #750 is a much cheaper option than taking out a support contract with Microsoft or Lotus," Moores says.
Ronan Miles, deputy chairman of the Oracle User Group, says that the Internet is a useful adjunct but not a replacement for the user associations.
"The Internet does make a difference but we have to remember that at the end of the day it is only a tool. In some ways it makes the work of the user group easier because it is simple to use and makes life easier. The wheel improved transport but it did not do away with the requirement for skills in certain conditions," Miles says.
While Miles acknowledges the value of the Internet in enabling members to keep in touch and exchange ideas electronically, he also recognises its limitations. "It is true that you can hold a teleconference over the Web but only if you are prepared to put up with pictures the size of postage stamps. I am not sure that we have grown up to the extent that people will express themselves over the Net in the way that they do in meetings.
You get a synergy by bringing people together," Miles says.
A changing climate
The attitude of the suppliers to the user associations varies depending on the climate at the time from cordiality to near trade union militancy.
Currently the OUG is protesting to the company about its software licensing policy. "It would be too strong to say that we are mounting a campaign on software licences but we do think that the whole issue has become very complex. We acknowledge that Oracle has to make a profit but we think that revenue generation should be spread more evenly across the user base," Miles says. One of the major problems is that the smaller customers simply do not have the clout of their larger counterparts. The big corporate users have the muscle to pressurise their supplier direct, forcing them to make concessions on price, delivery times and improvements in the product.
The smaller users do not have that power and rely on the strength of their user group to represent them. Often the user group is effective in making these representations. The OUG is currently taking up cudgels on behalf of users looking to Oracle not to withdraw support for the older versions of some products. The withdrawal of support for an earlier generation of products is one way that suppliers increase their sales. Invariably it is the smaller users who suffer the most for a number of reasons. Firstly, they often do not have the cash to upgrade their hardware and software as each new version is released and so tend to stick with the older version.
Secondly, many of the features incorporated in new versions of software are valuable only to a small percentage of users, usually those with the most powerful machines, the greater numbers of users and the most money.
Oracle boosts product support
The OUG has met Oracle over the issues of both software licences and continued support for older versions of products. On the latter issue it has had some effect and Oracle has said that it will continue to support products longer than it originally intended. Oracle has yet to decide what to do about simplifying the software licence structure, but according to sources close to the company the issue is being widely debated internally although no public statement has been made. The issue of price is often uppermost in the mind of users and hence of their associations. During the 1980s a group of Midland users, part of the IBM CUA, took unofficial action over the issue of pricing. The CUA itself was negotiating with IBM about price increases well ahead of inflation but not making much headway. The Midland users, without the official support of the IBM CUA, decided to refuse to pay their bills until the issue was sorted out. Nobody from either side officially acknowledged that this was taking place or what effect it had but a settlement satisfactory to all was reached in a very short time. The reason the issue was reported in the press at all was because it was being openly discussed in the restaurants and bars of the CUA's annual conference.
The annual conference of the user group is the most important event of the year, but there are other events at which customers get to meet each other and their suppliers. The NT Windows Forum, for example, holds a series of seminars to which interested manufacturers contribute funds.
"A vendor will pay us #5,000 a year and for that he will get a stand at our conferences and seminars and his logo on our promotional material," says Moores. For example, the organisation is sponsoring, together with IBM, Citrix and Microsoft, a seminar on thin client computing.
The suppliers also use the annual conference to show products which have been announced but not yet seen by the public or their users. Sometimes considerable sleight of hand is used at these events in order to keep the users guessing until the last possible moment. At one IBM CUA annual conference in the 1980s news had leaked out that there was to be a new, more powerful version of the 4300 low-end mainframe. The announcement coincided with the CUA annual conference but on the appointed day of the announcement there was no sign of any new machine, merely the older version.
That is, until at precisely the same time that the announcement was being made in New York, an IBM engineer wandered up to the machine, removed the badge reading 4351 and replaced it with one reading 4361. Users were then free to examine the system.
At most events, and certainly the annual conference, the vendors are invited to participate and to answer questions on future directions and products and to hear first-hand the complaints of their customers. This sharing of information between customer and vendor and customer and customer is seen by both Moores and Miles as being one of the reasons why the Internet cannot replace the user groups.
"Often you find that the guy in front of you in the lunch queue is talking to the chap in front of him about a problem which you yourself are experiencing and one of them may even have a solution," Miles says. All too often he believes that a customer complaining directly and alone to a supplier will be fobbed off with excuses on the basis that he is the only person to experience that particular problem.
There is no doubt that the Internet is an extremely valuable tool for users wishing to exchange ideas. It aids problem solving, assists companies in finding new products that meet their requirements and facilitates discussion and debate. But at the end of the day, as Miles points out: "The Internet is only a bunch of wires running TCP/IP."
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