Pang: I want to begin by asking about your experience with computers and education prior to founding BMUG. You'd been a graduate student in biophysics and Berkeley, and I understand you'd been involved in user groups before founding BMUG?
Jones: I was in graduate school in Berkeley in biophysics, and doing research at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. My academic work involved a lot of use of many different kinds of computers, with laboratory instruments in analytical chemistry, mainly for medical imaging. I was using some specialized computers to analyze the data, make simulations and calculations on, and write things up. I had quite a bit of experience hooking different kinds of computers together, and using them for different tasks; and making use of them in personal life as well.
Pang: Had there been any user groups or other organizations like that that you'd been involved in?
Jones: There were of course DEC user groups, and Unix user groups, and ARPANET-related groups, and other computer-related societies, where the purpose of the group was to share information about the needs of the users in the group, whether it's how to connect computers in different cities together, or how to move files or deal with routing problems, or translation problems, whatever.
The first computer I was actively involved in using was the HP 65 programmable calculator with the mag card reader. At the time, I was very involved in competitive sailing, and would write programs for the HP programmable for calculating speed made good to windward in a sailboat race, that type of thing. As different kinds of computers came into the market, like the Sol, or various things coming out of the Homebrew Computing Club, I followed that a bit, and had some connection with a variety of different kinds of computers.
This was in the days before the Apple II. I considered getting an Apple II. My dad, who is a computer enthusiast, had gotten one at home-- he's a university professor at UCSF, and was using a lot of computers in his lab, and had gotten an Apple II for home use-- and the day of the West Coast Computer Faire, when the Osborne I computer was introduced, we got two of those, I think serial numbers 277 and 278. The interest around that computer in particular was that it was portable, suitcase-sized; and for me, taking it back to Berkeley-- this was when I was still an undergrad-- taking it various places where I might be using a computer, it was important for it to be portable. And it was an all-in-one computer that had a lot of stuff included with it, like Basic. It was in many ways actually better than the Apple II, in terms of portability and so forth. BBS areas started developing for sharing information about CP/M programs, Basic programs, and other things as they related to the Osborne. Doing things like setting it up to communicate with other computers required software hacks written to perform those tasks.
Another related area that I was involved with a bit, was what's come to be known as the telephone hacker community. As touch-tone and Signaling System 7 were introduced into the telephone system, there was a crowd of people, some of them centered around Berkeley, who were interested in how that system worked, in poking at it, which has come to be known as hacking. They wanted to see how they could manipulate the system-- with no ill intent in mind, just as a curiosity.
That group would design different kinds of signaling boxes. The earliest was a whistle that came free in Captain Crunch, which, if you blew, put out the 2600 Hz note that switched the phone system over to maintenance mode, so you could not be charged for calls. Subsequently, the telephone company changed its signaling scheme, and various blue boxes, black boxes, and various other colors of boxes were developed by the same crowd to perform the same function. This essentially was a user group: it was sharing information about designs of technology products and how to deal with a complex system. So I had some experience in that.
Also at the time, I was very involved in the audiophile industry, and of particular relevance to BMUG was that I for many years was reading a magazine called The Absolute Sound. It was sort of a technical magazine talking about high end audiophile musical equipment, but it took the philosophical stance of talking about it in nontechnical words-- more in terms of its feel, its aesthetic, human senses, rather than harmonic distortion numbers and so forth. It gave qualitative opinions about which piece of equipment was better than others, and discussed all the issues of putting together a complex system to make the result be creating good music, as opposed to random assemblies of technologies with good specifications. They had put out a little quarterly magazine for several years.
There were also around the Bay Area various user groups which were centered around high end audiophile stores-- some of which became computer stores and some of which stayed in the audiophile music market-- and they would have gatherings when new equipment would come out, where the designers of the equipment would come and talk about the philosophy of the design, and everybody would sit around and test listen to it. There's also a set of trade shows related to this, similar to the computer trade shows.
All of this activity, with equal amounts of fanaticism, predated the computer and computer user groups. Since I'd been involved in that, I found a lot of value and use in the newsletter, and the concept of creating a newsletter that gave qualitative, objective, opinionated reviews of the technology and the various choices and uses of it, and combinations. I also thought the concept of organizing regular get-together where the designers or marketeers of the latest technologies would come out and talk about their latest inventions was useful.
A variation on that developed in the Homebrew Computing Club. It was more a hobbyist group that was more focused on the details of the designs of the inner workings of the computers; but it was still informal, and still getting together to share ideas and compare tricks. In the Homebrew, there would be regular meetings where people would get together and exchange designs, exchange ideas, and talk and socialize. There was some considerable overlap between the Homebrew crowd and the telephone box crowd: in fact, many of the original Homebrew products were actually telephone hacking devices in various forms.
Occasionally the ideas and designs that people had come up with for this club, they would go away and turn them into essentially kits. I had some familiarity with kits, having built Heathkit products as a teenager, where basically you would build a shortwave radio from baggies filled with lots of parts and some modest amount of instruction. You could build computers the same way, and telephone products the same way. In the Homebrew Computing Club, the ideas-- about what the kits should do and how they should be built-- were put together through discussion in the club and among friends. Eventually they would turn into baggies full of parts with minimal instruction, assuming lots of knowledge about how to turn it into something functional. Some of the early days of BMUG were related to this both in hardware and in software. So I had a fair amount of experience with different kinds of groups getting together to share ideas about technical systems.
Between the Osborne coming out and the Macintosh coming out, there were several other prominent enthusiast computers that appeared. One was the S-100 BUS computers, which appealed to a more hardware-centric group of people who wanted to have special cards for the computer to perform special tasks, such as measuring things, or graphical functions. The CP/M people tended to be related to those who favored the Osborne and variants early on, but were looking for newer, better, faster, more complete things. And then there was the Apple II crowd, which still at the time was dealing with the computer on a television screen, and had a different, more entertainment-centric interest than some of the other personal computers of the time. And then there was the IBM PC crowd, which started developing user groups as well. So there were a lot of different architectures all being introduced at the time.
In and around Berkeley there was another slick-at-the-time new computer called the Micromate, which was essentially a brick that was a CP/M computer that you plugged in a terminal, and would run more along the lines of a personal minicomputer than a personal computer as you would see in the IBM PC or the Apple II.
This computer sort of generated a user group a little bit overlapping with ham radio type user groups. Shortwave radio/ham radio enthusiasts were quite interested in the online world, and early on they started doing BBSes to share information about that. These computers were particularly well suited, along with the S-100 computers, for doing primitive BBSes-- though they weren't considered primitive at the time. The group of people who got this type of computer and would hook to the larger online BBSes, which had evolved out of the ham radio area, began more and more communicating essentially online, and exchanging software utilities and other things.