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When PC users mattered: the Boston Computer Society

Steve Jobs, Nolan Bushnell, John Roach, and others tried their best to woo members of the largest organization for personal computer (PC) users.

Executives unveiling the latest gadget nowadays is a standard marketing tactic used by virtually every major computer brand. In the '80s, however, business leaders spoke in front of a well-organized crowd of computer users, not brand fans.

Enter: Boston Computer Society (BCS), the largest PC enthusiast organization, uniting over 30,000 members in its heyday.

Jonathan Rotenberg, a 13-year-old computer aficionado, established the company on February 11, 1977, a year that became a turning point in the history of personal computing.

Dubbed the ‘1977 trinity,' Commodore PET 2001, Apple II, and TRS-80 were released the same year, bringing computing to the masses.

It's no wonder that few non-technical communities for PC users existed at that time. Rotenberg himself later said that he set up the organization to 'demystify personal computers.'

In its very essence, the BCS was meant to be a resource for PC enthusiasts to exchange ideas, discuss devices and learn from each other about the novel device a PC was at the time.

One of the potential teachers was Bill Gates, one of the early members of the BCS.

Before the advent of the internet, however, word of mouth and specialized magazines were the best way to keep up to date about the fast-changing world of computers.

After the first three years of existence, the BCSs membership exceeded 1,000 members and incorporated various smaller groups. In 1981 BCS held 'Applefest,' the first Apple-only trade show ever.

It soon became apparent that BCS was far more than just a gathering of hobbyists. Several PC-focused magazines, electronic bulletin boards, frequent meetings, and discussions on pros and cons about specific PCs made the organization influential enough to catch the eye of business execs.

Image by Federica Galli, Unsplash.com.

After all, computer novices might seek advice from BCS members, which meant that impressing the company could affect sales. It's likely no coincidence that in 1982, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak delivered the keynote speech in a BCS-organised event.

With over 10,000 members, the organization got national attention and introduced the 'Buying Guide' for inexperienced users, further establishing its influence over prospective PC users.

In 1984, BCS users witnessed the very first 'Stevenote,' an encapsulating presentation by Steve Jobs, unveiling a new product. 1,200 BCS members were the first to witness the Macintosh computer, followed by a discussion with the organization members.

Others who tried to impress BCSs rank and file were not so lucky. Coleco, a major video game maker of the time, introduced its newly released Adam console to a lukewarm welcome.

Poor BCS-led reviews followed, and Coleco soon withdrew the console from the market.

Atari's Nolan Bushnell, Radio Shack's John Roach, HP's Bob Grenoble, and many others tried their luck with the BCS crowd over the years to varying success.

The organization reached its membership peak in 1989, with over 31,000 enthusiasts onboard.

Ironically, a group set up to discuss innovation eventually became a victim of the fast-moving tech. With the advent of internet forums, a trove of PC-user magazines, and many events dedicated to non-technical computer users, BCSs influence declined.

Sustained mainly by membership fees, the organization could not compete with commercial entities targeting the same audiences. Only a few years after its peak, BCS dissolved in 1996. For almost two decades, a non-profit held a grip on PC makers that is arguably unmatched to this very day.

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