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September 29, 1996

Boston user group disbands,
stranding R.I. subgroups

By Timothy C. Barmann

"Mission accomplished."

That's the word from the Boston Computer Society, which announced this month it was closing for good.

It was an abrupt ending for the nearly 20-year-old organization, which was once one of the largest and most prestigious computer-user groups in the country.

The BCS folded on Sept. 11 after a unanimous vote by its board of directors. The reason they gave: It had achieved its goal.

"The Boston Computer Society has succeeded in its original mission of helping thousands of early adopters and new users understand and use computers," said Arthur Nelson, chairman of the board, in a statement posted on the society's Web site (http://www.bcs.org).

The closing has left more than 100 smaller "subgroups," which are affiliated with the BCS, scrambling to figure out their own status. There are four such groups in Rhode Island: an IBM PC group based in Providence, another in Newport, a Macintosh group and a Paradox group, formed for a popular database language.

"I was shocked," said Mary Lynne Poole of Providence, who helps run the Paradox Users Forum of New England.

The satellite groups had access to the educational programs sponsored by the BCS, and some received financial help. In return, the subgroups encouraged their own members to sign up with the BCS at $49 a year.

The subgroups were also allowed to advertise themselves as being part of the BCS. That affiliation will be the benefit missed the most by the BCS's Macintosh group, according to its president, Bob Hazard. Being connected to the BCS brought with clout.

Far-reaching clout

There's no question that the BCS's clout was far-reaching. In 1984, Apple Computer chose to introduce its Macintosh to a BCS meeting for the product's East Coast roll-out. Its meetings have drawn the likes of Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, and other industry executives.

For local groups, it meant a willingness by big-name vendors, such as Adobe, to speak and show off its products at monthly meetings, said Hazard.

All four Rhode Island groups have since decided to continue operating without the BCS. But they are still trying to map out their futures.

Louis Stein, who heads one of the IBM PC groups, which has about 400 members, said they are looking for a less expensive place to meet (they have been meeting at CCRI in Warwick) and are considering charging dues for the first time. They may also form a relationship with other abandoned BCS subgroups, he said.

The severed groups must also address legal questions such as how to become a nonprofit organization, said Stein.

Though the closing was a surprise to most, it has been met with ambivalence by those who run Rhode Island BCS Macintosh group, according to Hazard.

Many of the group's board members had already believed they could do just as well alone, Hazard said. For the past four or five years, the group didn't receive any money from the BCS.

The BCS had money troubles. Its membership had declined since the early 1990s when it had 32,000 members, according to the Boston Globe. At its closing, it had 18,000. The organization was also losing money -- $125,000 in fiscal year 1995, the Globe reported.

The organization was also rife with internal political turmoil, according to press reports. But the BCS board said the ultimate blame for its financial straits and its decline in membership lay in its own success.

"When I joined the BCS," board member Louis Sacco told the Boston Globe, "the mission was to demystify computers. Computers are demystified."

That response doesn't make much sense to Hazard.

"I haven't talked to anybody that agrees with that," he said. "... that's patently ridiculous."

More puzzled than ever

The logic does seem odd. In fact, a Harris and Associates poll funded by Pioneer Electronics released a week before the BCS closing shows the contrary to be true.

The study found that Americans are more puzzled than ever about computers and technology. Sixty-two percent say they are "struggling" or "clueless" when it comes to buying or using computers, according to the study.

Regardless of the reasons behind BCS's closing, Hazard is optimistic about his group's future. After a meeting of its board on Sept. 18, he said they have emerged with a new sense of purpose.

"We're going to end up with a better group than before -- we'll put together a better program," he said.

Hazard said he wants to expand the seven-year-old group's mission to teach people how to cope with changing technology, such as the Internet.

"We're going to try to provide programs that are more in keeping with what members really need or want."

Mission impossible? We'll see.

How to get there

To reach the former BCS groups in Rhode Island:

The Providence IBM-PC chapter meets the third Tuesday of the month at the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick. Contact: Louis Stein, 739-2810 or for recorded announcements, 434-2395; e-mail louisstein@aol.com ; home page: http://ids.net/~louissn/ribcs.html.

Aquidneck Island PC Users Group, meets the second Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Salvation Army, 51 Memorial Blvd., Newport. Membership and meetings are free. Contact: George Ray, 847-1800.

Rhode Island Macintosh Group meets the fourth Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Brown University, CIT Building in Providence. Contact: Bob Hazard, 884-3050 or Gordon Lee 943-8498.

Paradox Users Forum of New England (Pufone), focuses on topics about the database program, Paradox. Meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at Roger Williams University in Bristol. Meetings are free; membership is $15. Contacts: Everett Lewis, 789-9189 or e-mail: ecl@loa.com or Mary Lynne Poole at: mlp@ids.net. The home page address is: http://www.loa.com/pufone/.

Little Compton's number

Little Compton once again has access to the Ocean State Free-Net. Users in that town have been unable to access the Free-Net with a local number since July, when the Free-Net changed its Internet provider. The modem number is 635-8050. The other modem numbers are: Providence -- 453-9698; Woonsocket -- 767-8319; Newport -- 845-2427; East Greenwich -- 886-6170; and South County -- 539-3344.

Computer calendar

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.