Reese Jones on the Birth of BMUG

Source: Interview with Reese Jones, 22 May 2000.

Networking and Connectivity

Jones: In the first year of the Macintosh, of prime importance for the users who bought the early machines were the ability to get their data from their other computers or other environments into the Macintosh. So most of the shareware of the time was initially developed so you could copy your data from one machine to the next. The Macintosh had different kinds of physical plugs on the back which on the surface looked radically and mysteriously different from the serial port as you would find on other terminal equipment and CP/M equipment; but underneath it was the same, but with some extra capabilities. So much of the discussion in the earliest days of the user group was about how to make a cable that would get from the Macintosh to a daisy wheel printer or from the Macintosh to a CP/M computer, and the relevant operating system calls or pieces of software needed to run on either side so that the data could be moved.

I myself had several different kinds of computer I needed to connect the Macintosh to in order to transfer data, and several kinds of printers, including daisy wheel printers, that I had to attach the Macintosh to print out what at the time was called letter-quality documents. The Imagewriter was fantastic for creating charts, graphs, and other graphics, it wasn't considered acceptable for final drafts of academic publications. So as result I needed the ability to print nice things on a daisy wheel printer, into which I would paste in the middle the graph that came from the Imagewriter.

Sharing Information

So these things I had to figure out to a large extent myself, and through talking with friends who were quite experienced at hooking the Osborne to DEC and laboratory computers and PCs; so the Macintosh was just a variation on this same theme. But it was a problem that most of the other people who had Macintosh at the national laboratories where I was doing my research, and at the university where the Macintosh was more early consumed by faculty and staff and some graduate students, and people who had considerably more resources than the average student. So I ended up getting into a lot of discussions with people to talk about these issues, and began also through the BBSes finding other people locally who were dealing with little utilities to perform some of these functions, and we began trading information.

At the time, Microsoft Basic interpreter for the Macintosh was the principal way that all of the original shareware was written-- though it wasn't even called shareware at the time, it was called groupware, because user groups tended to distribute it. So the different terminal programs and data transfer programs and little utilities for doing different things were written primarily in Microsoft Basic and executed in the Basic interpreter. And this interpreter was available in the Mac, and in the CP/M and DOS machines, but it was useful for communications between the machines. It was a bit later that compiled applications that average end users could write came into the shareware area.

The Macintosh was publicly introduced in January or so of 1984, but it wasn't generally accessible-- so that you could buy the machine and printer and all the pieces you needed-- until early spring of that year. At the time, there was a program Apple had announced to give a better price to people in the university, but the machines at the university pricing wouldn't be available until later in the year. So myself and some others broke down, went to Businessland and bought a machine and printer and so forth at the high price, which I recall was about $2500-- quite a lot for a graduate student, but not that much compared to an S100 or Sol or other machines that would have comparable capabilities. It's interesting that it remains the price point that people who use any machine in a serious way gravitate around: not a lot higher, not a lot lower. But of course $2500 in today's dollars is probably $10,000 in those dollars.

BMUG Organizes

The first meeting I think we had of BMUG was in the summer of 1984. There were some informal meetings-- just people getting together, coming over to each other's house-- prior to that, but when we decided we should have a little bit more structure to things, the informal group collected together all the utilities they had downloaded or had written themselves from the various BBSes where they could be found, put them on a floppy disk, and wrote up a page or two of documentation that related the function of each of the utilities on the floppy disk. I started writing a newsletter, which wasn't really a newsletter at the time, it was help files that would come on the floppy disk about how to make tables to get from the Mac to other computers.

BMUG Newsletter

There was a great discovery around that same time. Atari had a game machine that used the same 9-pin DIN connector that was on the serial ports of the Macintosh. Radio Shack had available an inexpensive plastic extension cord for the controller for the game machine that had two of these DB9s-- meaning 9 pins on the connectors, as opposed to DB25 ,which was the common standard for RS232s-- which could be cut in half, exposing all the different wired, and those wires could be soldered onto more traditional RS232 plugs or other plugs as necessary, and the appropriate pins connected to the appropriate pins for connecting to various kinds of devices. Since there were many kinds of combinations of machines, there were various kinds of cables to be made, and different utilities necessary, both on the Macintosh and on the other computers to move the data. On most of the other computers, be they UNIX or PDP computers from DEC, or VAX, or the PC or Apple II or CP/M, most of the other computers had operating system-level commands that let you send data out of the serial port. The Macintosh needed a little help for doing that, because that wasn't an operating systems command, it required Basic programs to do that, if not serial communication programs.

So as a result, there was the floppy disk that had the Macintosh serial communication programs and other ways to get to BBSes and such on this floppy disk, and what started out as the documentation for how to get the parts for and make all these different cables and the operating system commands on the different computers became longer and longer as I started adding more stuff into it. Then other people had more bits of information that they thought should be added to it. It started to become a precursor the newsletter.

From Electronic to Print

We had the preconception that this would be BBS material at the beginning, and it would just save people a lot of time-- in the day of 300 baud modems-- to have downloaded all the software onto the floppy disk, put the Newsletter on the floppy disk, and then duplicate the floppy disks, which was sort of one of the tasks to be done for one of the large group meetings. Most everyone who bought a Macintosh at the time also got an Imagewriter, and all the Macintoshes came with Macwrite, so we thought it would be clever to distribute the Newsletter for the group on the same disk that the shareware came on.

The downside was that the Newsletter wasn't that long, but it would take approximately 8 hours to print it out if people wanted to read it on the paper-- which it turned out most people did, as opposed to reading it on screen. The concept had been that you'd only want to read the paragraphs of interest to you, rather than the whole Newsletter from beginning to end, but it evolved into a more traditional newsletter format. So at the first meeting all we had was the floppy disks and a computer, and anyone who bought their own floppy disk-- which was expensive at the time-- could take a copy of the group's floppy disk. Over time it emerged that it was cheaper for the group to buy a number of floppy disks and duplicate them at meetings, and it became essentially a service product of the group. We also got feedback quickly that the Newsletter took too long to print out, so by the second meeting we had printed out and photocopied some.

The philosophy behind the BMUG Newsletter was that of a Berkeleyesque, socialist, economically unbiased entity, untainted, and not just quantitative, but opinionated and qualitative about the technology and the problems, like The Absolute Sound. No advertising, nonprofit corporate status.

The reason BMUG was affiliated with the university-- we registered as a student group-- was that in order to get regularly scheduled lecture halls at Berkeley you have to be a student group, you can't just be a community group. So BMUG was formed as a 501-C(3) nonprofit, and also a student group; and as a result we could get free space from the university to hold our meetings.

Product Reviews

Early in the Newsletters we also started publishing product reviews. I had a lot of data I had to deal with in my research, and so I needed in my laboratory computers I had hard drives, and I could store and manipulate lots of data for the time at the lab, but when I went home I either had to dial into the lab to deal with the data, or I couldn't work at home. So I needed a hard drive I could attach to the Macintosh. When the Macintosh was first introduced, there weren't any hard drives available, but some were announced. So I called up each of the hard drive manufacturers, both to be a beta tester-- as a frugal graduate student it's useful to exchange your effort for helping test equipment-- but also to do a competitive, comparative, qualititative review of the different hard drives for the BMUG Newsletter, which would be posted on the BBS, the national laboratory networks, and elsewhere, so it would reach a lot of people who might buy a lot of these things. As a result I got three different hard drives from three different manufacturers to review, and that's more or less how our hardware reviews got started. And I took care to do a quality review, similar to those in the audiophile magazines.

With software it was the same idea. The software manufacturers particularly needed technical people to be outside beta testers, and I had done this for CP/M software and some other computer platforms. So I was familiar with how you get much better software much earlier by being a beta tester for the new things, and in exchange for which you'd answer questions and report all the bugs. But, particularly in those days, to have buggy software early was better than having nothing at all. Plus it was just interesting and exciting have the newest stuff, which attracted more people to the user's group. So that was how the user group got started in the business of reviewing related products, and explaining how to hook things together, and distributing that information.

There were one or two introductory meetings, but very quickly since most of the people were university people, and very accustomed to a weekly class schedule, the group started meeting on a weekly basis, and very quickly grew as the interest in the Macintosh grew. The number of people from the community accelerated in 1985, after the introduction of the Apple LaserWriter and the network to connect it to the Macintosh. Again, we got early versions of the LaserWriter and Draw, which allowed you to do high-resolution graphics-- unlike MacPaint at that time-- and did circuit diagrams and other parts of it in Draw.


Document created on 10 June 2000;