Lloyd Borrett's Blog
Are we there yet?
New ways to implement the Melb PC vision
When we founded the Melbourne PC User Group (Melb PC) back in 1983, there were two phrases we regularly used to describe the group and our vision.
"Users helping users," was the first phrase. It was a basic, fundamental vision for what we do and how we do it. Sure it could be expanded as "computer users", "PC users" etc. but that was just extra padding. Everyone knew we weren't referring to drug users!
"Melb PC is the RACV for computer users," was the second phrase. That made the vision clearer to Melbourne people and put it into a context that more people could easily relate to.
Many computer user groups of that time were about users getting together and pirating software, or simple bulk discount buying schemes. Melb PC was not about any of that. Our vision was much greater, and that vision has been faithfully handed down to subsequent presidents and management committees for implementation. Thankfully those who followed believed in the vision and, I believe, that is why Melb PC is still around today.
Doubts Beginning to Surface
For some time now I have been concerned that the implementation of Melb PC's vision may have stagnated. Charles Wright, a former president and life member, in his "Bleeding Edge" column in "The Age Green Guide", 27 May 2004, page 12, made it obvious that I wasn't the only one having some doubts. (See his column online here.)
Now I'm not about to question what the present committee is doing about accommodation changes. Nor what they have recently done on the ADSL front. Charles raised some questions and I'm sure the committee has valid responses.
Having never personally visited the current offices of Melb PC, I'm not in a position to comment with any authority on the group's accommodation needs. I simply trust that a new facility is needed, and that the committee will make an excellent choice, as I am sure would do the majority of the membership. Hopefully there will be sufficient space to accommodate future member services, but more on that later.
I am also confident that the decision to become a WestNet reseller as the way to deliver ADSL to the membership is sound. Though I do have a few concerns about the implementation.
Melb PC members don't seem to get any better pricing from WestNet; they just keep access to a few additional Melb PC Internet services. Sure WestNet charge $30 extra per year for email virus checking and email spam filtering, and it is my understanding that Melb PC members will continue to get that for free via Melb PC, so that's a real benefit to members. (Though I notice on the ADSL Application Form in PC Update, Melb PC members are being asked if they want to sign up and pay for this.)
WestNet clients get 6 email addresses and 20 Mb of web space. Do Melb PC members get those facilities in addition to the 1 email address and 10 Mb of web space from Melb PC?
Interestingly, the arrangement with WestNet doesn't seem to be reciprocal on the marketing front. WestNet don't seem to be encouraging their existing and/or potential new customers to join Melb PC and access additional services and facilities.
I suspect now that the ADSL deal is done, someone will spend some time thinking such issues through and spelling out a more compelling value proposition for Melb PC members. My concerns about Melb PC's ADSL offering are probably just teething problems that will no doubt be resolved in due course.
Is Implementation of the Melb PC Vision Stagnant?
Earlier this year I again attended the annual event Melb PC has to thank its volunteers. It was a joy to talk to those actively contributing to the ongoing success of Melb PC and feel their enthusiasm.
One volunteer asked me, "You must be very proud of what Melb PC is today and where it is heading?"
My reply was that pride doesn't really come into it. The past is the past. I'm more concerned about trends I'm observing which are raising some doubts in my mind about Melb PC's future.
At age 47, I think I might have been one of the youngest people in the room at the volunteer's event. Yet in the early days of Melb PC, at age 27, I was one of the older active members. Now there are some obvious reasons for the change, and I am in no way knocking the great efforts of our older volunteers. However the age demographic of our membership is significantly older today than it once was. We should be asking ourselves the question, "Are we providing services to attract younger members?" And sadly, I think the answer is, no!
Why is the size of our membership base so stagnant? Let's face it, for a number of years now the membership size has been relatively stagnant in the 10,000 to 12,000 range. Why are we not continuing to grow at rates that match the growth of the PC marketplace? The RACV continues to grow at a rate that matches the increase in cars on our roads. What can be done to reverse this trend and see Melb PC increasing its relevance to the community and hence its membership numbers?
I think the above factors are strong indicators that the implementation of the Melb PC vision is stagnant. It's time for some serious questions to be asked, new opportunities looked in to, and for new paths forward to be found.
Putting People in Touch
Users helping users. That is what Melb PC is about. Yet we are not effectively using today's available collaborative solutions to help users to help each other.
Where are the online discussion forums on the Melb PC web site?
I'm sorry but newsgroups just don't cut it today. We should have online discussion forums for all of the active areas of Melb PC. Each SIG should have a discussion forum. The various committees should have discussion forums. Each Dial Help topic should have a discussion forum.
It would be so simple and cheap for Melb PC to set up discussion forums using an open source solution like phpBB, or a similar offering. So what is stopping us?
But don't stop there. Give each SIG, committee, dial help volunteer etc. a blog. Again, using an open source solution, this is simple and cheap to do. Then the various volunteers need have no knowledge of HTML to communicate about their activities to the rest of us. And the rest of us can stay informed via RSS feeds of the topics we are interested in.
Should a blog not prove to be a sufficient solution for some of the larger SIGs, let them use an open source content management system, like Mambo Open Source or similar, to manageme their web site. Again, all of the communication facilities you could want for in the hands of our volunteers without the barriers of having to learn about HTML etc.
Today I get more of a sense of community from many company and private individual web sites using such tools than I get from Melb PC. And yet Melb PC truly is a huge, self-help community.
Even Microsoft has incorporated collaboration facilities into their standard software offerings. That's how mainstream this stuff has become. Yet Melb PC has done little in the way of enhancing channels for collaboration for quite some time. It's time for us to get with the programme and put more people in touch with each other online.
New Member Service Ideas
Are the services we are providing today enough? What more could Melb PC be doing?
Think about how the whole Internet Cafe concept has caught on. You can even go into many small rural and regional towns and find one. Yet Melb PC doesn't provide a single Internet Cafe facility anywhere in Melbourne, let alone Victoria. I would have thought that was a natural thing for Melb PC to have got involved in. Perhaps that opportunity has passed us by, but maybe, just maybe, it hasn't. Could our new office accommodate an Internet Cafe?
The youth of today are flocking to gaming events, and other such group gatherings, taking along their PCs. Has Melb PC ever considered getting involved? Would the new office location be able to accommodate such events?
Why does our Internet service not include gaming servers?
Though I only got there the once, I loved the annual SeaMist weekend, started by Tom Coleman. Why not take some of the essential ingredients of that event and host two-day sessions at the Melb PC office on say a quarterly basis?
It would seem Melb PC has chosen to maintain the existing dial-up access service and contract out the provision of broadband access services. But is it just status quo from here? What can Melb PC do to further enhance its Internet Service offerings?
Only a small percentage of Melb PC members using our Internet Service have active member web sites. Yet I'm certain that many would like to have one, it's just that they aren't interested in becoming web site designers and programmers. So why not provide them with the ability to run a selected open source content management system so that they can have a web site without the hassles. Making a content management system part of the standard Melb PC Internet service offering would put Melb PC way ahead of most of today's ISPs.
A friend of mine came to me seeking a better solution than HotMail. For $30 every two years he can register a .id.au domain name. For $20 per year he can get an email hosting package. So for $35 per year my friend, his wife, his two kids, and other extended family members can each have a unique email address that relates to their surname. They can all change ISPs as much as they like without changing their email addresses. Wouldn't it be nice if Melb PC offered such a simple email hosting option as part of its Internet Service?
Wouldn't it also be nice if Melb PC's Internet Service enabled users to use have their own domain name? I'm sure there are quite a few people that might prefer this option and become/stay a Melb PC member because of it.
Should Melb PC move into offering more advanced hosting solutions? We don't have to be the hosting provider, simply a reseller of one, just as we now are a reseller of WestNet's ADSL service. We just have to come up with attractive value-added offerings that our current and potential members would desire.
Should Melb PC get involved in providing Wireless Internet Access to its membership? Now that Melb PC members have broadband access, why not use that to extend their Internet access? If each member with broadband access were to install the same secure WiFi hardware, and we were to put in place the right access and control services and protocols back at Melb PC, we could gradually cover Melbourne with our own standardised WiFi network. With the right advertising or vendor assistance, we might even be able to get those access points extremely cheap. For free even! Think about that. Being a Melb PC member with broadband access at home could give you WiFi access throughout much of Melbourne.
It's time for Melb PC to catch up in some areas we have let pass us by. It's time for us to also look around at new and emerging areas and embrace them.
"It's Time," as most of you reading this would recall, was the catch phrase that saw Gough Whitlam coming into power as Prime Minister in the early 1970s. Most of the population under 30 years of age probably wouldn't know that, which I think highlights my point about the age demographics of our membership. They simply weren't around at the time. It's modern Australian history to them.
I believe "it's time" for Melb PC to become more active in seeking out new ways to benefit its membership. We have let too many opportunities pass us by.
There was a time in the history of Melb PC where we were extremely active when it came to new opportunities. We introduced lots of new services. Some were great successes. Others were dismal failures. But it's hard to have the great successes without having a few failures.
I believe today's Melb PC is stagnating because it has become too risk adverse. That Melb PC is sitting on the large cash reserves it has is a symptom of the problem. Think about what could be achieved if Melb PC were to make just 20% of that cash reserve available to fund new services over the coming 12 to 24 months.
There is little risk and cost in actually going ahead with most of the ideas I have raised here. And I'm sure there are plenty of members who would have other more valuable ideas that are just as cheap and risk adverse, which could be easily implemented. I'm also sure that we could come up with some interesting ideas that might be a tad risky and/or costly, and yet agree that they are worth the risk/cost for the benefits achievable. But sadly we don't have an online discussion forum for such ideas. No wonder we seem to be stagnating.
It's time for some fresh new ways to implement the Melb PC vision.
(Lloyd Borrett is the Melb-PC founder, inaugural president and life member.)