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The Mac at 30: Tales from the Berkeley Mac Users Group

Dan Miller,Christopher Breen | Jan. 27, 2014
Before the Genius Bar and before Apple's own online forums, when the Mac was young and its users needed help, there were user groups

The role of the user group

Raines Cohen: It was a love-hate thing with Apple. They set up a department to deal with user groups. At the time, the company didn't really have the capacity to directly support customers or to connect to them, so they said, "Oh, maybe we can work with these user groups, give them information, and they'll help spread it around." And that's what we did.

But we weren't under their control. We were independently looking for information, collaborating with journalists, hungry for data, and ready to get it and spread it every which way. So there were times of strain because of that.

For example, there was the time we showed off System 7 before it was actually released. I had a very tense call from an Apple PR person. Apple is very much about control, and here we were doing things that were out of their control and generating a lot of attention just by taking care of people.

They did invite user-group people down to Cupertino to get free products under nondisclosure. As part of the User Group Advisory Council, I got some early looks at the color Mac a couple of months before it came out. They continued that tradition with the Advisory Council for a long time after that.

Nowadays, Apple can do lots of outreach and training and support using the channels they've developed over the last decade. But in general the kind of detailed support and general training we gave away is still only available on a paid basis. Our motto was: "We're in the business of giving away information." We had an incentive to get our members educated, because if they weren't, we'd take more time helping them out.

This turned out not to be economically sustainable once the Internet came along and people could get more-direct access to information and support. Still, to this day, I bump into people who express their appreciation for the help they got at the BMUG Helpline. We were half in and half out of the industry, forming grassroots connections, helping people everyday.

David Morgenstern: You really can't imagine today the Apple back then — the whole situation with users, it was totally different. I mean all the users were so excited about the Macintosh because it was so different. People would say, "I have a huge mainframe but it can't do anything like this little box does." Everybody was just so excited. It was like being in a club, and if you were a Macintosh guy and you met some other Macintosh guy, you were, like, instantly sympathetic.

The fact is that things didn't always work. Macs could be really hard to use. That's why early BMUG meetings were weekly. There was no Internet to share information. These were weekly meetings that were attended by 200 to 300 people every week. I remember there was a thing that lasted for a whole year about how the LaserWriters sucked and what you had to do to get it to work. Same with the ImageWriter: They were really, really noto­rious, but there was no support. There was no Genius Bar. There was just BMUG.

 

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