The first Interex board chairman, Doug Mecham, served for the initial five years of the user group’s existence. In 1974 he first gathered the group at Ricky’s Hyatt House hotel in Palo Alto. When the 31-year-old group failed to host its annual lifeline conference and slammed its doors shut suddenly in July 2005, we wanted to talk to the founder of that feast, to hear his views on what makes a good user group serve both vendor and customer at once. Now retired to the Oregon coast, Mecham made himself available by phone within a few days of the Interex announcement.
How do you feel this week, now that Interex has closed its doors?
I knew there was contention for a while. I’m not necessarily surprised. I think it’s highly unfortunate that HP chose to be competitive; obviously Interex chose to terminate right before a major conference. Obviously they didn’t have the money. It’s very disappointing. I could handle it intellectually, but it’s like a child you’ve created. You see the child and then the death. It takes its toll, deep down in your psyche.
An era has really passed. People have changed, the situation’s changed, the world has moved on in many ways. Interex ran for so long that a lot of people marveled that it had done so well. It was a high tech company, and it had a long life with a lot of people passionately involved.
How essential was the HP 3000 to the existence of Interex?
It began with the 3000. That was the genesis. The 3000 had a couple of problems when it came out. It was a real new adventure for HP. They thought it was going into the engineering world. It had FORTRAN, no COBOL, and a 16-bit integer. You know how long that lasted in the engineering world? About two nanoseconds. The one small hitch was when it first came out it had some bugs and was crashing a lot. I sort of initiated communicating with a bunch of people around the world, saying, “Look, we’ve gotta talk, because we’ve got to find solutions to these problems.” So we developed a users group and called it the HP 3000 Users Group.
Was a computer user group a novel idea when Interex was first created?
There was SHARE, GUIDE and DECUS. They were all there already, but DECUS was company-owned, and SHARE and GUIDE were IBM captured. Our approach was going to be entirely different. We wanted to be very collaborative. We knew the relationship had to be A, independent, and B, very collaborative. We never beat up HP like DECUS, GUIDE and SHARE did with DEC and IBM and waste a lot of energy. In fact, our technical group headed by Ross Scroggs actually met with the HP lab quarterly over two or three years to sit down and work out the issues. Boy, did that make a difference to the HP 3000. HP pulled it off the market, redid some things and brought it back out as the Series I.
So do you mean the user group played a key role in the 3000 becoming a usable system?
I would like to think that’s true. But certainly there was a lot of technical expertise and software put into it. The users group grew users, and it grew vendors. There were a lot of contributions made in support of the users, who needed tools and software. I feel that over the 31 years that a great deal has been contributed. We got HP to perform the miracles that make the HP 3000 probably the most stable business machine on the face of the earth.
Do you believe the machine’s stability will allow it to outlast HP’s interest in it, or the lifespan of this user group?
Absolutely. The HP 3000 lasted a long time, because it kept getting upgraded, and it’s still a fine machine today.
Do you think the Interex shutdown is something that will reflect on HP and on the HP 3000?
Probably. It’s an older computer, so when the user group goes away, who’s going to get out there and support each other and swap stories? The 3000 users may form their own group. Remember, Interex expanded into Unix and all of the other HP computing platforms.
How will it affect HP? If you were a customer out there and they suddenly pulled the user group from you, and then the next day they said they were going to lay off more than 14,000 employees, what would you tend to think? It probably broaches the concept of trust in a vendor. It certainly doesn’t help it.
What’s at the heart of running a successful users group, well past 31 years?
Interex has never had the propensity to challenge the vendor, at least in terms of the old user groups. Collaborate with the vendor, yes. To confront them? Not in an adversarial way. They were advocates for HP, and probably facilitated billions of dollars of sales. In the early days, the salesmen used to bring customers by. Those customers saw the user group’s customers having great successes, and that was a great motivator for sales.
The essence of the user group was a collaborative process. One reason Interex was running so long was that the user group grew its members. People were programmers, then they became vendors. Many users helped other users. They pushed them up the ladder. That was essential to the success of Interex.
Do you think the HP 3000 needs a user group to replace Interex?
I think someone will step in and do something, and there will be some sort of meeting. There’s still a bunch of 3000 vendors out there. They may want to get together and discuss the 3000 because they want to make their investment last longer. That’s happened with other groups, like HP’s calculator group that kept on with a small cadre of interested users.
Should we have another users group like Interex? It would certainly take a different format, because it’s no longer super-technical, because the technical problems for the most part have been solved. You’re interested in applications now. The issues are how can you use the 3000 better and what software can I run on it.
Do you believe the Internet stepped in to do the work that the user group did for HP customers?
That’s pretty simplistic. There’s still a need for face-to-face meetings. Look at how big the conferences became. Some of them have topped 8,000, and they came from all around the world. They came for face-to-face integration with other users, as well as with the vendor.
I’m sure that over time the technical aspects began to diminish, because the systems became very stable. The application software became far more important. The 3000 had a lot of technical issues to begin with, but they were resolved, and it grew into a technically stable platform. There were some problems, but not like the early days, when it crashed every half hour.
So do in-person meetings still deliver special results?
They always have and they always will. With the advent of the Internet, it’s provided a wonderful means for communication. But it still does not take the place of the face-to-face, one-on-one, seeing the other person. There’s something about people meeting people. You don’t run a marriage 10,000 miles apart by the Internet. You can do a lot, but when it comes right down to it, then it’s much better to have your wife right next to you, right?
What kind of a substitute do you think HP’s Technical Forum will be for what Interex did with its conference?
It’s obviously going to be a vendor-driven affair, right? The downside is that the vendor is going to drive his own agenda. How open are they going to be? If they’re truly open and collaborative, then it may work out fine. But if you look at the core competencies, what’s HP’s? Engineering. Can they run a users group? Maybe if they get the right people. The core competencies of Interex were user groups and user advocacy and vendor advocacy.
We’ll be able to see, once HP’s conference is over, what things result from it. It will be interesting to see, that’s for sure.
Since collaboration remained popular at Interex right up to the end, do you think collaboration with user groups has become unpopular at HP?
HP’s changed a lot in the last five years, haven’t they? The HP Way is no more. I think Interex ran very much along the lines of the HP Way. When I met with David Packard, he assured me they supported our group. HP went for many years with lots of ups and downs, and they got through every one of them. You have to ask why.
So you think HP’s competing conference contributed to the Interex shutdown?
They tried to split the pot, and pot just wasn’t big enough to support both. What surprises me is that HP didn’t come to Interex and say, “We want to accomplish this — will you help us do it?” They always had before, but this time they wanted to do their own thing. That’s their call, and they have to accept the consequences.
The support of Interex depended on the Interex conference. Why didn’t HP throw in with Interex, when user conferences are not part of HP’s expertise?