Logging off: Boston Computer Society to fold

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 09/12/96

The Boston Computer Society, once one of the world's largest and most
influential organizations of personal-computer users, has voted to dissolve
after almost 20 years of operating.

Embroiled in financial problems and management disputes, and facing a new era
in which the community of technical support it provided has been largely
supplanted by magazines and the Internet, the society board late Tuesday
declared ``mission accomplished'' and unanimously voted to disband the
18,000-member organization.

While citing desperate financial problems, board members and executives said
the ultimate reason for the group's demise was that it had succeeded in its
original mission - educating the public about personal computers.

``What happened,'' said board member Louise Sacco, ``is that the BCS did its
job. When I joined the BCS, the mission was to demystify computers. Computers
are demystified.''

Members contacted by the Globe were taken aback by news of the shutdown.

``If it is true, it is somewhat of a surprise that it happened so quickly,''
said Charles Schwartz, a member who had attended the annual meeting Tuesday,
before the vote.

When Jonathan Rotenberg founded BCS in 1977 at age 13, he was hoping to start
a club to provide guidance for people like himself - owners of the earliest
personal computers. Back then, there were few computer magazines for
non-technical users, and on-line computer networks were just beginning.

Computer-user groups sprang up all over the country, but none matched the
success of BCS, which at its peak in the early 1990s boasted 32,000 members in
50 states and 40 countries. The BCS offered dozens of classes and meetings,
published three magazines and ran a computer bulletin board.

The society had the reputation as the place to go to see the latest in
computer software and hardware. Major computer corporations and their top
executives, most notably from Apple Computer Corp., Lotus Development Corp.
and IBM, courted BCS members and used the society's gatherings to make major
product announcements. The Apple Macintosh made its East Coast debut at a
packed BCS meeting in a Boston auditorium in 1984.

When Rotenberg left BCS in 1990, the group was still growing, but its founder
said he already sensed that the organization's days were numbered. By then, a
user could find technical help from dozens of computer magazines, as well as
from such on-line services as CompuServe and America Online and the burgeoning
Internet. Millions of people had grown accustomed to using computers in daily

Rotenberg believed then that BCS needed a new mission, but he couldn't think of one.

``I had spent a long time puzzling through what a redesigned BCS might look
like,'' he said, ``and I wasn't able to come up with an answer.''

Similar problems have afflicted other user groups. Rotenberg estimated there
were as many as 3,000 of them during the 1980s, but most of them are now gone,
having failed to meet users' changing needs.

The same problem afflicted the BCS. Activist members of the organization
clashed with executives and members of the board over possible strategies.
Membership began to fall to its current level of 18,000, as fewer newcomers
joined and members declined to renew.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, 1995, the BCS lost $125,000 and had a net
balance of zero, said interim executive director Frank Smith.

``It's losing money because of a large drop in membership,'' Smith said
yesterday. ``Membership is dropping because fewer and fewer people are finding
the BCS relevant.''

Now the organization will concentrate on winding up its affairs. All
operations at the BCS offices in Cambridge and Waltham have been halted; all
classes have been canceled. Arrangements for compensating people for tuition
and membership fees have not yet been made. Smith said the BCS hopes to work
with other user groups and computer companies to offer members alternative
services and programs.

Smith said tonight's BCS-sponsored debate at Aquinas College in Newton
between supporters and opponents of the federal Communications Decency Act
will proceed as planned.

The BCS sponsored about 100 subgroups that catered to the specialized
interests of members. Smith suggested that some of these groups could continue
on their own or form the nucleus of some new organization. Charles Miller,
who headed a Macintosh database software subgroup, said his members will
continue as before.

``The BCS needed us more than we needed it,'' Miller said.