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

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: Part social clubs and part volunteer tech-support staffs, they disseminated tips, troubleshooting advice, news, and arguments about the Mac. They distributed loads of early Mac shareware and became important stops for vendors promoting new Mac products (including one Steve Jobs when he was trying to get Next Computer off the ground).

And in that early Mac age, no user group was bigger or more important than the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group, known to all as BMUG. Founded in 1986 and lasting for 14 contentious years, it at one point reportedly boasted more than 13,000 users, with satellite groups in Boston and Japan. While the original group formally dissolved in 2000, a smaller group (BMUGWest) still meets. And so, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Mac, Macworld joined the group for dinner after one of its meetings and asked a few of the more senior members to look back over their three decades with the Mac.

How they got started with the Mac

Raines Cohen(1984: Student, UC Berkeley; 2014: Regional organizer, Cohousing California): I had been using an Apple II since 1979. I saw my first Mac at the Boston Computer Society meeting in January 1984, the week after Apple's announcement. I got my first Mac--a 128K original--while working for a developer that summer. I helped start the BCS Mac group before going off to school.

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I came out to Cal [the University of California, Berkeley] in the fall of 1984, and I went to the Access Computer Store in Berkeley, which had just started selling the Mac. And I mentioned I'd been doing user groups back in the Boston area before, and they told me about some other guys who'd had the same idea, and so in the fall of '84, the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group got started.

It was life changing. After dropping out of Cal to help run BMUG, I reenrolled as a geography major, but dropped out again. I ended up working at MacWeek magazine and then editing NetProfessional magazine.

David Morgenstern(1984: Student, San Francisco State College; 2014: Blogger, ZDNet; cantorial soloist): When I went to university in the 1970s, I was a music major, studying to be a classical singer. But I never became the singer I wanted to be. At the same time, I got married, had a child, so I got a job in the acquisitions department of an academic library. It was in the library that I started using computers. That's what I was doing during my BMUG years.

My first Mac? I do remember watching the Super Bowl ad, but the first one I got was the "Fat Mac"--the 512K Mac. I first went to a BMUG meeting in 1985, and I joined the group. There were weekly meetings back then. I worked as the librarian of the group, then I joined the organizing committee, and then I became chairman of the board in 1990.

Anyone who used MacPaint and MacWrite had their minds blown. The Mac GUI was so direct and understandable, it made a joke of the PC and Apple II platforms.

I still remember the thrill I felt when I saw the first demo of HyperCard. I spent $1000 on a 512K memory-upgrade card just so I could run HyperCard; that was a huge amount of money for me.

Ron Hipschman(1984: Exhibit developer, Exploratorium, San Francisco; 2014: Staff scientist, Exploratorium, San Francisco): I was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, the original computer club, along with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. They were pretty quiet in the meetings, I have to say. Jobs never said anything, but Wozniak participated a little bit here and there.

There was that one night where [Wozniak] held up his Radio Shack prototype board with a 6502 [8-bit microprocessor] and said, "Hey, I just built this. Anyone want the schematics? Oh, and here is the source-code listing for the BASIC that I wrote for it as well." I wish I still had those.

We met at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center auditorium (which I think has since been torn down--a real crime). People did demos out in the lobby. If you wanted to buy something, you would have to go down to the gas station; Stanford wouldn't let us buy or sell anything on campus, so we'd go down to the Sharon Park 76 station and do our deals there.

My first Mac was a Mac Plus. That wasn't my first computer. I had a CompuPro, running CP/M, before then. I waited until the Mac got a SCSI interface, so I could have a hard disk. My first hard disk was a 60MB drive, which was pretty big back then. You could not possibly fill a 60MB hard drive. I probably paid $500 or $600 for it.

Since then I've had a Mac Plus, a Mac IIcx, a [Quadra] 840AV, a G4 tower, and eventually a Mac Pro.

I went to original BMUG meetings in Berkeley, but since I lived in San Francisco, I was getting tired of going over to Berkeley. So some of us decided that we should have a meeting in San Francisco, since I worked at the Exploratorium; we called the group BMUGWest. We had a nice venue there at the time, called the McBean Theater, in the Exploratorium's original location at the Palace of Fine Arts. So we started meeting there around February of 1989. And we've been meeting there since then.

David Schwartz(1984: Radio telephone operator, Pacific Bell; 2014: Campus Shared Service IT department, UC Berkeley): In '89 I was selling home-stereo gear at a high-end audio store in Berkeley and decided I'd go back to school. And I thought, "Well, this time I should have a computer for school." So I bought a Mac SE and an ImageWriter.

I believe I called the BMUG Helpline to get help with making mailing labels in Microsoft Word. The guy who answered the phone said, "Why do you want to make mailing labels in Word? You should be using FileMaker. Come on down, I'll show you how." So that was the start of a long love affair with FileMaker and Macintosh.

I ended up hanging out at BMUG all the time. I was on the board of directors--went all the way through until the very end. I'm still doing BMUG West and enjoying every minute of it.

Duane Straub(1984: IT department, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; 2014: Campus Shared Service IT department, UC Berkeley): In 1984, I saw my first Mac 128K at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. At that time, they cost about $3500, I believe, and I thought, "That's really neat, but I will never buy one myself." Eventually, Livermore became the world's largest Macintosh site with over 15,000 Macs.

A couple of years later, I went back to college, got an information systems management degree, and got into the ranks of doing computer support at Livermore. Within a couple of years at that, many of my coworkers considered me the top tech at the world's largest Macintosh site. I really liked that. I was living high.

The first computer that I owned personally was a Mac Plus. I still have that computer today. It has a 33MHz 68030 processor with 8MB of RAM.

Cal Simone(1984: Record producer; 2014: Jungian coach, writer, public speaker): I go way back. I operated a UNIVAC 1 and then went to mainframes. I saw the Super Bowl ad in 1984--it said that on January 24, something-something-something would happen, something about the Macintosh, and I said, "What the hell is a Macintosh?"

A year later I was in a recording studio in New York called Unique Recording, which was the world's largest MIDI studio at the time, with 60 different synthesizers. And they had a Mac 512Ke--the extended Fat Mac--that I got to use.

Later that year, a guy wanted me to set up a little studio for him, wanted me to figure out what kind of computer, PC or Mac, to put in it, and which one was better for music. I could never understand from that point why anybody would ever use a PC again. I never understood that.

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 notoArious, but there was no support. There was no Genius Bar. There was just BMUG.

There was no formal training program: People just talked and shared information. The help was professional in spirit, though. What a volunteer helper was able to do was what they were able to do, if that makes any sense. Sometimes, the help was good and other times not so good. Many BMUG volunteers went on to professional support jobs in local Mac companies and consultancies.

Steve Jobs: In and out at Apple

Raines Cohen: I recall seeing a letter from Steve Jobs's assistant thanking us for sending the first BMUG newsletter, which was the size of a book--120 pages long--and one of the first examples of laser printing. We didn't know it, but by then Steve was already on the way out.

David Morgenstern: I certainly didn't feel that the sky was falling when Steve Jobs left that first time. He came to a BMUG meeting after he'd been in the desert for a while making the Next computer. He came and showed us the NextCube and a laser printer that worked off of the Display PostScript [that was] built into the Next software and the megapixel display. I remember we had this guy Harvey who wanted to crack open the laser printer to see what controller it used, to see if you could hack it, and Steve was really concerned about that: "Stop that man!"

Raines Cohen: Mostly it was interesting to see over the years, as Apple's leadership changed, how they lost the discipline of message control. You remember the infamous Gil Amelio keynote [at Macworld Expo] that lasted forever; that was just an example of how things were out of control. When Jobs came back, they refocused.

Ron Hipschman: You could tell things were off track by some of the T-shirts that came out of Apple at the time. I have one that was given to me by an Apple employee--if they wore it they'd be fired--so they gave it to me. It's the Jurassic Park logo but with an Apple in the middle, and it says "Jurapple Park"--because so many people had evolved out of Apple at that point.

David Morgenstern: I was at the party launching System 7.5, I think it was, and they gave out T-shirts that said something along the lines of "Sucks Less." They were a little defensive.

Cal Simone: After Steve came back, I went to the Flint Center [in Cupertino] to watch the unveiling of the iMac, where he said, "We've got 27 different products, now we're going to have four"--and they only had three of them available! He simplified the product line and gave names to things instead of the numbers. And that was basically it. Apple just came alive.

This story, "The Mac at 30: Tales from the Berkeley Mac Users Group" was originally published by Macworld .

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