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Four years on, dust of Interex demise suggests virtual meetings

Interex Four years ago this week, the Interex HP user group slammed its doors shut in a stunning implosion. The organization that grew out of the HP3000 Users Group in the 3000's earliest days declared bankruptcy after 31 years. The anniversary of the demise is a reminder that no amount of legacy or laurels can permit any institution to rest comfortably.

When Interex went down it didn't close up like HP 3000 customer Circuit City, lingering and selling off assets in months of public auction. Instead, in mid-July of '05 it was as if someone kicked out the user group's power cord. A Web site went dark overnight, millions in conference sponsor deposits vanished, and thousands of members learned their conference fees were worthless.

This teardown of a portion of the 3000 community is more than a history lesson, however. Four years ago one suggestion for a virtual conference got a few days of consideration, and it's worth reviewing in the light of 2009's better networking bandwidth and tighter travel budgets.

HP teased out a first few steps for a virtual conference a few months ago. It put up a series of talks on the G6 models of the ProLiant systems, using a fresh interface and offering a way to collect information from fellow attendees. Perhaps the vendor will see more need to push its investments into video and networked data.

Author-registerThe venerable Wirt Atmar stepped up in 2005 with a concept for a virtual conference, one that could replace the annual meeting which kept Interex afloat for decades. Atmar's $249 QCShow software (free 30-day trial available) from his AICS Research company could bring speakers who have PowerPoint or PDF slides to any user's desktop, complete with audio. It's an idea that might appeal to 3000 customers who don't need to research a migration platform at a conference and need training for homesteading systems. Atmar said:

Given the technology we have at hand, it would be entirely possible with QCShow to create a virtual Interex meeting -- but even better, at a substantially reduced cost as compared to Interex’s traditional fees. AICS Research would manage and host the process.

The way that I envision the process is that for the “meeting,” 30 talks would be selected. The talks would range in length from 30 to 45 minutes, at the speaker’s discretion (there is no one standing by with a hook to pull you off-stage in this medium).

The process of selecting the 30 talks from those submitted would be highly selective, but that selection process wouldn’t be done by us. Rather, after a submission deadline has passed, all of the submitted talks would be posted on a web page so that everyone could vote on their top ten choices. After all the votes were tallied, the top 30 vote-getters would be announced.

The speakers would then narrate their talks at their respective locations. We’ll provide the recording software and substantial hints on how to create a quality recording. Once the recordings were done, the speakers would send us their PowerPoint or Adobe PDF slides and their WAV files on a CD (the raw files will generally be in the 100-150 MB range). We would then synchronize their audio tracks to their slides and prepare their presentation for low-bandwidth delivery over the Internet, at no charge to the speakers.

Speakers would also receive a complimentary pass to freely access all of the talks presented in this year’s conference. Non-speakers (ordinary registrants) would be charged $250.

In order for us to break even, at least 50 people would have to register for the conference. If that “attendance level” could not be achieved, we wouldn’t go forward with the process. But if it could, it would seem like an excellent way, given the technology that now exists, to continue the original idea of the HP 3000 user group from 30 years ago, where the motto was, “Users helping users,” while allowing a much broader reach than ever before.

A few customers at the time said they'd participate, some even after they'd invested in Interex attendance. Gilles Schipper of the support company GSA said "Too bad for me that this option wasn't available before I shelled out $1,700 to Interex." The next generation of a user group conference, in Atmar's view, would have some downsides to go along with more affordable costs. Representation would be direct rather than elected, but give customers more control over content.

In the model I imagine, we would change from a representative democracy, with elected board members, to a direct democracy, where everyone has a direct vote and there would be no necessity for an elected set of board members.

The upsides to the model that I imagine are these:

     o Everyone would have a say in selecting the content of the meeting.

     o The cost of the meeting would be enormously reduced.

     o Travel expenses would disappear, nor would you even have to be there on a particular day. The meetings would be permanently recorded, so you could view them at your leisure.

     o You would be able to attend every “session.” Conflicts would be eliminated.

The downsides to this format are:

     o Interactions with the speakers would be greatly to somewhat diminished.

     o The capacity to ask HP managers the hard-hitting questions characteristic of past management roundtables, and the capacity to get immediate, definitive, straight-shooting answers, would be reduced.

     o HP would lose its capacity to control the content of the meeting or suggest who the speakers might be.

Atmar passed away early this year, but AICS Research marches on with products and services as always. What has also died is the concept of a confrontational meeting of users and vendor reps. Whatever friction that sparked creative heat has been smoothed off by HP's goals for a meeting. Management roundtables don't air grievances or identify opportunity to improve product. Since that's already missing from a 2009 conference -- and reducing HP's control of content looks like an upside -- the virtual meeting would seem to only restrict interaction with speakers.

And there are plenty of new technologies, four years later, to let attendees interact online with speakers. One 3000 software developer, Tom Brandt, joked in 2005 that in a virtual meeting HP would also "lose the ability to toss accredited journalists out of sessions, depriving attendees of yet another reason to bash the vendor."

As a journalist who's been challenged at a couple of user conference doorways in 2002, and again last year, I wouldn't miss that part of the user conference experience.