July 26, 2017
Wayback Wed: User groups, past and future
Twelve years ago this week, the Interex user group became fully retired. Most of the community called the shutdown of the 31-year-old HP users group a bankruptcy, since millions of dollars of invoices went unpaid, while hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits and membership fees vanished. In its own way, though, Interex was stepping aside for user groups better built for IT of the 21st Century. The groups that have taken over during those years are better focused, streamlined, and understand their constituents better.
One of those groups is seeking directors this week. Connect, the latest generation of a group that was called Encompass on the day Interex retired, is searching for nominees to serve in three seats on its board. Members of a user group board have important duties, even while they're working for no pay. They oversee fiscal decisions, like the group on the Interex board was charged with doing at its demise. Directors propose advocacy, like the dozens of volunteers who served on the OpenMPE group in its eight years of existence. A board at its best looks forward toward how its organization should evolve. The ecosystem for IT is always changing.
That International Group for Hewlett-Packard Computer Users became Interex in 1984 and had mixed missions right from its beginnings. Built in an era without Internet or fax machines, Interex had to serve the needs of HP 3000, HP 9000, and even HP 1000 community members. The latter often didn't know they owned a 1000, since it was embedded deep in other devices. When I began covering HP in 1984, the HP 1000 group still was holding its own annual conference, even as it operated under the Interex banner.
Things got more complicated when PCs moved into datacenters and offices for good. By the time Interex locked its doors on Borregas Avenue in Sunnyvale, Calif., the HP 9000 members had overtaken the mission of the 3000, riding that pre-Internet wave of Unix passions. HP had announced its exit scheme for MPE/iX. Windows became the dominant environment for IT computing, a community too diverse for a vendor-centric group to impact.
The last executive director who left his job with the group still intact, Chuck Piercey asked repeatedly in the years before the bankruptcy what a user group built around one vendor might do in a homogenous landscape. Interex was built when the silos of vendors could stand distinct, and managers could run an all-HP shop and remain competitive within their industries.Encompass was built upon the same model, but the group evolved to maintain a foothold and became Connect. Since 2016 the membership has been free. Interex membership added a free level in the years before the group folded, a facet that made the group's rolls swell but added little to the value proposition for membership.
At the end, HP said in 2004 it had enough of the strident Interex activists who fought for customers. It was a matter of tone, HP said, not so much content that sent HP out to establish its own conference. In just a few years the Technology Forum, which had a heavy HP corporate attendance, became HP Discover. A new breed of conference was born, something not steered by a user group.
In 2005, Encompass reached out to the stranded Interex members as Interex founder Doug Mecham said the group hadn't died off — it simply retired.
Rather than any negative or derogatory term used to describe the situation, perhaps we should just refer to the “change” as “retirement” of Interex, just as we would an old friend. This situation does open up possibilities – opportunities for new lives in different directions, each person taking the spirit and success knowledge elsewhere in the world. Interex will not long be forgotten, for it represented an organization of professionals that made a mark in the computer world, second to none.
The bedrock of Connect, Encompass, saw its president Kristi Browder say the departure of Interex was no barometer of the user group concept.
As a former partner and colleague of Encompass in serving HP technology users, Interex has shared similar goals, passions and dedication to the HP user base. I want you as an Encompass community member to know this is no indication of the downturn in the value of Encompass or user groups in general.
The HP world was left with technical papers in 2005 that were undelivered, because the conference they were written for was cancelled. Later in the year HP mounted the first HP Technology Forum and Expo with significant help from Encompass and the Tandem users group, planning content. HP handled the expo duties as Interex had while running shows.
Browder could be excused for seeing the sunny side of the street where user groups lived. Few groups ever had such a bellwether conference like the Interex show. At the finish of the Interex run, the user group was riding on reserves all year that were banked off the commerce from its show floor booths. When the user group died, it left its shadow of red ink, because mid-summer was no time to feel cheery about the Interex balance sheet.
The 3000 community never duplicated networking which made such conference travel worthwhile. I still miss the face-to-face contact guaranteed each year by going to HP World and Interex before that conference. I was lucky to have 20 years of shows to attend. 3000 veterans, cut adrift from their annual meeting, put together a lunch of around 30 members who had nonrefundable tickets to San Francisco, and later there were reunions in 2007, 2009 and 2011.
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