Chris Espinosa on Macintosh User Groups

Source: Interview with Chris Espinosa, 13 June 2000.

Espinosa: So at Berkeley my faculty advisor for my first self-paced computer course in the first quarter of my freshman year was Andy Hertzfeld, who [Pang laughs] was a graduate student at Berkeley. He and Barney Stone had started a local Apple user group, and they had some relationships with Bruce Tognazzini and the Apple Core, over in San Francisco.


My first real encounters with user groups were not good. It was the mid- and late-1970s, and the leftover social rebellion of the 1960s that turned into a personal independence movement in the 1970s got conjoined with technology, with the result that there were some people who now sought personal independence through technology. A lot of the impetus for this came out of the Whole Earth Catalog and Stewart Brand's work. There were people thinking that if they could master personal computing technology, they could fight back against the Machine. And so while there were lawyers who just wanted to use them to automate their offices, a lot of people in the users' groups were really using personal computers as a tool against The Man.


And at that point, people in user groups were-- well, a little odd, and a little antisocial, and didn't necessarily have good social or even ethical skills. That's a sweeping generalization, but you just found it in a lot of places. And so there were a lot of people had bad human interfaces.

In the summer of 1978-- before I went to school, and after we'd moved from the Good Earth building into Bandley One, and when I was working for Jef Raskin--we had a guy who was from a user group in Southern California, who drove his family up in a motor home to come visit the Mecca of Apple Computer. This guy, named--it must be in the books, because I made him famous--he was associated with a user group and computer store in Southern California. Several people I know ended working for him as programmers, and complained about broken promises, promises to pay for computer programs that they wrote and he sold and never compensated them for, and generally slimy things like that.

He came up to Apple in the summer of 1978; he parked the motor home in the middle of the parking lot in Bandley One, in the middle of a summer day, for six hours; and, with his family sitting inside and sweltering in the heat, he meticulously and ravenously copied every single cassette tape of Apple software that was on the premises. The first hour, he was a loyal user and a fan, and we thought we should give him some of our software; but by the sixth hour, when he wasn't only copying our software and using our time and equipment to do it, but was asking us for blank tapes-- it was just a little bit beyond the pale!

And so that sort of flavored my experience with user groups. Homebrew was much different, because it seemed professional. Homebrew seemed like it wasn't hobbyists, but it was really smart people who wanted to do something. It wasn't a fan club, and most of the user groups that I had experience with after that were sort of fan clubs. Apple Core was in many ways like a fan club. They had the basic characteristics of-- yes, they were there to teach other people about computers, which was a great social purpose, and it was a great place to share knowledge and get your questions answered.

Software Copying

It was also a great place to pick up copied software, which in many ways changed the dynamics of software distribution. With copying so rife, you had to either go copy-protected, in which case people said, "Ooh, he's copy-protected; we won't buy that software;" or you really had to supply added value-- a box, a manual, backup disks, telephone support, a whole package. So it really bifurcated the software industry into the packaged software industry and everything else, because everything else was going to get copied and distributed on user group software disks.


Apple Core was also a place to swap rumors, sometimes accurate, sometimes inaccurate, about what the company was doing next. Later on, when I was a marketing manager and spoke to user groups formally, I had to be very careful with them, because user groups wielded an immense amount of purchasing power through their rumor dissemination; and if word in the user groups was, "Don't by product X, because product Y is coming out at time Z and it's going to be better," sales would suffer. Everybody at that point was paranoid of the Osborne syndrome. Adam Osborne announced his even better computer before he had completed sales and gotten rid of inventory of his old one; and when the project was delayed, as projects inevitably are, he faced a little cash flow problem, because nobody would buy his old computers because he told them something better was coming along. And with the Apple III and follow-on products to the Apple II, and software products, and the many models of the Macintosh, we were very fearful of the same thing.

Balancing Interests

We had a very delicate relationship with user groups, in that we wanted them to get information from the source, but we didn't want them to spread information that would be detrimental to our sales. That was always a tough relationship to have with them. The fan club user groups love getting inside information, and having a scoop or a secret, and many of them didn't understand how that could be detrimental to the company that they were a fan club of.

So that was pretty much my relationship with user groups early on: Homebrew, Apple Core, which I went to only two or three meetings of, and a small Berkeley Apple user group-- not even a predecessor to BMUG--that Andy and Barney Stone and I put together. That pretty much broke apart when Andy got a job at Apple and moved south, and I kept working for Apple. One of the interesting things about using groups is that if knowledgeable people in the user groups get jobs with the company, they can really no longer go to the user groups, because you can't talk-- you can't share anything. So once I really started working at Apple and being in on new products, I couldn't spend much time at user group meetings.


Document created on 6 July 2000;