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July 20, 2015

The Weekend a User Group Went Lights-out

Light switchTen years ago this week, the Interex user group went dark in both a digital and literal way. The organization that was launched 30 years earlier to serve HP 3000 customers took down its website, shuttered its servers, and shut out the lights to lock up its Sunnyvale, Calif. offices. A bankruptcy went into its opening days, one that would take more than two years to make its way into Federal Court. But the immediate impact was the loss of the tent-pole gathering for the 3000 community, that year's annual HP World conference.

Millions of dollars in hotel guarantees, prepaid advertising, and booth exhibitor rents went unpaid or unreturned. It was more than the loss of an event that had a 28-year history of joining experts with customers. The Interex blackout turned off a notable light that might've led to a brighter future for a 3000 community still looking for answers and contact with vendors and expertise.

Looking back from a decade later, signs were already evident for the sudden demise of a multi-million dollar organization with 100,000 members of some pedigree. Tens of thousands of those members were names in a database and not much more, places where the Interex tabloid HP World could be mailed to generate advertising revenues. A core group of users, devoted to volunteering and rich with tribal, contributed knowledge about HP's servers, was far smaller.

HP World 2005 webpageInterex was all-in on support and cooperation with the Hewlett-Packard of 2005, but only up to a point on a crucial user group mission. The group was glad to re-label its annual conference after the vendor, as well as that monthly tabloid. HP held the rights to both of those names once the group made that transition. There was an HP liaison to the group's board for decades. The key managers in the 3000 division made their first-person 2002 articles explaining HP's 3000 exit available to the Interex publications. Winston Prather wrote "it was my decision" on pages published by Interex.

But in 2004, HP sowed the seeds of change that Interex watered with a no-collaboration decision. User groups from the Digital VMS community agreed to cooperation with HP on a new user conference, one to be funded by HP. Interex's directors polled the member base and chose to follow an independent route. The Interex board would stick to its plans to exclusively produce the next HP World. Advocacy was at stake, they said, and Interex's leaders believed the group would need its own annual meeting to keep asking HP to do better.

HP began to sell exhibitor space for an HP Technology Forum against the Interex HP World booths. Just before the HP World San Francisco Moscone Center wanted its final payment — and a couple of weeks after exhibitors' payments were in hand — the tune the 3000 world heard was Boom-boom, out go the lights.

The user group struggled to maintain a financial balance in the years following the Y2K ramp-up, according to one of its directors, an era when attendance at the group's annual shows fell steadily. Membership figures for the group, inflated to six figures in press releases during 2004, included a very broad definition of members. Hotels were reserved for two years in advance, with payments made by the group and still outstanding for millions of dollars.

One conference sponsor, Acucorp, was told by an Interex ad rep that the staff was led to the door. A user community labored mightily to recover contributed white papers, articles, and software from a company that was selling conference memberships right up to July 17.

Ten years ago on this very date, HP was already at work gathering up the orphaned attendees who held prepaid tickets and registrations as well as exhibitors with no show to attend. HP offered a complimentary, comparable registration to the Technology Forum for paid, registered attendees of HP World 2005. HP also offered discounted exhibition space at its Forum to "non-HP competitors" exhibiting at or sponsoring HP World 2005. If you were IBM, or EMC, and bought a booth at the Interex show, you had no recourse but to write off the loss.

The shutdown was not orchestrated with the cleanest of messages. Interex.org, a website archived hundreds of times by the Internet Wayback Machine since 1996, posted a report that was the equivalent of a busy signal.

Dear members:

It is with great sadness, that after 31 years, we have found it financially necessary to close the doors at Interex. Unfortunately our publications, newsletters, services and conference (HPWorld 2005) will be terminated immediately. We are grateful to the 100,000 members and volunteers of Interex for their contributions, advocacy and support. We dearly wish that we could have continued supporting your needs but it was unavoidable.

Interex

Within a week, planning from the 3000 user community was underway to gather together any customers who were going to the HP World venue of San Francisco anyway -- since they were holding those nonrefundable tickets, or had already paid for hotel rooms.

Companies go broke every day, victims of poor management, bad luck, or unavoidable catastrophe. Few organizations can avoid closing, given enough time. But for a founding constituency that based its careers on a server that rarely died, the sudden death of the group that'd been alive as long as the 3000 was striking, sad — and a mark of upcoming struggles for any group built to serve a single vendor's customer base. Even a decade earlier, according to former Interex chair Jane Copeland, a proposal to wrap up the group's mission was offered in an ever-growing heterogenous computing world.

“When I left, I said they ought to have a dissolution plan,” said Copeland, owner of API International. “The former Executive Director of Interex Chuck Piercey and I tried to get the board to do it — because we didn’t see the purpose of a vendor-specific group in an open systems market.”

A change in HP’s CEO post sealed the user group’s fate, she added. The arrival of Carly Fiorina shifted the vendor’s focus away from midrange computer users such as HP 3000 and HP 9000 customers.

“I think HP is probably the cause of this more than anything,” Copeland said. “As soon as [CEO] Lew Platt left HP, that was the end of Interex. Carly Fiorina wasn’t interested in a user group. She just wasn’t user-oriented. Before Fiorina, HP had one of the most loyal customer bases in the industry. She did more to kill the HP brand than anyone. She killed it in such a way that the user group’s demise was guaranteed as soon as her reorganization was in place. She didn’t want midrange systems. All she was interested in was PCs.”

Another HP 3000 community member saw HP's declining interest in the server as a signal the user group was living on borrowed time. Olav Kappert, whose IOMIT International firm has served 3000 customers for nearly 30 years, said HP looked eager to stop spending on 3000-related user group events.

"HP would rather not spend another dime on something that has no future with them,” he said. “It will first be SIG-IMAGE, then other HP 3000 SIGs will follow. Somewhere in-between, maybe even Interex will disappear." 

08:04 PM in History, News Outta HP, Newsmakers | Permalink

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