Boston — When interviewing the president of the widely respected, rapidly growing, phenomenally successful Boston Computer Society, it seems almost impudent to ask him point-blank: ''How old are you?''
The way Jonathan Rotenberg responds is a measure of his savvy as an editor and publisher: ''When are you going to press? In April? I'll be 19.'' Others put his age differently: ''Eighteen, going on 45.''
Ever since grammar school, success has dogged Jonathan's footsteps. Today there probably isn't a personal-computer fan in the world who hasn't heard of the Boston Computer Society, for which he is mainly responsible.
There are about 2,000 personal-computer groups scattered around the country -- all relatively small clubs of enthusiasts organized around a particular make of computer or video game or such. The Boston Computer Society (BCS), an umbrella organization, is the largest independent personal-computer association in the United States. It's a nonprofit organization, and its goal is not to promote any particular brand of computer but to help users and ordinary people understand what a personal computer might do for them.
Personal computers are not small versions of the electronic monsters that crunch millions of numbers and words for banks and other businesses. Nor are they the tiny calculators that fit into the palm.
These small computers consist of an electronic display screen, a keyboard, and various peripherals (attachments). You can take them right out of the box, plug them in, and they are ready for your commands. They are limited only by a user's skill in programming them (telling them what to do) or the availability of ready-to-wear programming (software) -- just as a record player's versatility is limited only by the types of records available.
A personal computer can cheer a secretary's life by giving her an electronic word processor, add exciting new dimensions to a teacher's classroom, order a jumble of recipes, balance a checkbook, and enable businesses to make financial and budgetary projections.
''A computer is unlike everything,'' Jonathan declares. ''Discovering them is exciting for most people, regardless of whether they think of themselves as technically or mathematically oriented, because it is a whole new medium.''
The Boston Computer Society's first meetings were held around a table in the library of Jonathan's school. Commonwealth, a 9th-through-12th-grade private school in Boston, is noted for its education of brilliant students. At 13, Jonathan and another computer fan organized the group.
But when Jonathan, who even in childhood was some kind of organizational genius, suggested memberships, the threat went up around the table: ''If you charge dues, then I'm not going to come anymore.'' Five years later BCS boasts 3 ,500 members here and abroad. (Dues range from $18 for an individual to $95 for a corporation.)
''Officially, the BCS started in my bedroom,'' the president explains, as a subtle smile creeps across his face and the blue eyes twinkle behind horn-rimmed spectacles. ''That is where my office was for quite a while until there was not much room left for me. That provided part of the motivation to move here.''
''Here'' is a street-level office at Three Center Plaza, a stylish address next to Boston's Government Center where the tall, lean teen-ager with a mop of neatly combed brown hair heads a full-time staff of one. A sophomore at Brown University in Providence, R.I., he commutes to Boston and puts in 30 to 40 hours a week to keep the place going.
Operating from this downtown Boston headquarters on a budget of about $120, 000 a year, BCS schedules such things as:
* Monthly meetings at public halls which attract hundreds of BCS members who have heard virtually every major authority on personal computers from around the world.
* Saturday clinics at the office where, by appointment and for a small fee, resource consultants answer questions and help members and nonmembers learn how to use the society's bank of various computer brands (all donated by manufacturers). A Computer Resource Center is also available, a library of personal computer publications, products, and information.
* Meetings around town of special-user groups, held practically every other day. These small groups of members owning the same brand of computer, such as Apple, Atari, IBM, Radio Shack, Sinclair, etc., meet monthly to keep themselves abreast of up-to-the-minute developments concerning their product.
An indication of its growing status is that BCS has become an independent forum for the personal-computer industry.
Last October Jonathan and his helpers organized the first of a new annual event: a forum on ''The Future of Personal Computers.'' It brought together seven of the industry's leading authorities.
''People were absolutely blown away by the whole thing,'' Jonathan exclaims. Often quoted in the press, these hard-to-get speakers rarely make public appearances.
The personal-computer industry is a young person's game. Like the Boston Computer Society, it, too, started from zero a few years ago. Apple Computer Inc., for instance, sprang from a garage in California's Silicon Valley, where electronic tinkerers Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak pooled their talents. This year the company's sales are expected to reach $600 million.
The most visible part of the popular computer revolution so far may be video games, the craze that has caught up millions of people from coast to coast. ''What makes people like Jonathan so interesting,'' says Dane Morgan, who taught him at Commonwealth School, ''is that rather than the arcane entertainment aspect of computers, they have more a vision of these machines as intellectually and socially exciting for the possibilities they have for making society a better place.''
How did Jonathan get so savvy so soon? However brief, his life story makes others look like they are standing still. A born promoter, even as a child he was a mover and shaker. He shook up his sixth-grade teacher at Cambridge Friends School by proposing that he and the other students put on a carnival to raise funds for the school.
However novel the notion of children under 10 rolling up their sleeves to help solve the high cost of private education, school officials were so taken by the logic of Jonathan's reasoned presentation that they bought the idea. The carnival was a resounding success.
Cambridge Friends had its own computer, which accounts for Jonathan's interest from fifth grade on.
Jonathan insists he never became a computer ''wombat,'' someone whose whole life centers on computers. Nevertheless, it was frustrating to discover that by the time he reached Commonwealth, the school had abandoned its computer tie-in because of the expense.
Just then, however, personal computers were becoming available. It took him and another student nearly a year to persuade the school to buy one. First on the market was the $500 Altair that came in a kit that had to be soldered together.
''That was a big breakthrough,'' Jonathan explains, ''because, up until then, you couldn't buy anything closely resembling a computer for less than $20,000. You still needed to know a lot about electronics to put it together and get it working. And its practical application was very limited.''
It was while searching for a computer for his school that Jonathan discovered there was no place in Boston to get information about personal computers and only a couple of very technical magazines on the subject.
Computer clubs had begun springing up all over the country. So in February 1977, Jonathan and another computer fan started the Boston Computer Society. Five meetings later, the fledgling BCS faced disaster. Jonathan's fellow venturer left.
At that point Jonathan looked anything but the president of an organization. He was 13. Had braces on his teeth. His voice was changing. ''It seemed kind of pathetic to me,'' he remembers. ''But I knew that if I gave up at that point, the whole thing would disappear.''
At this crucial point late in 1977, something important happened that gave him incentive to keep going: Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack brought out the first ready-to-plug-in personal computers.
''That was an incredible breakthrough for the industry,'' Jonathan says. ''Now, all of a sudden you didn't need to be a technical wizard to use a computer. Anybody could buy this thing and use it.'' But manufacturers didn't provide any help beyond their operating manuals -- all the more reason for existence of computer clubs.
One day Jonathan got the idea to invite local computer stores to come to BCS meetings and sell their books and magazines. The stores responded positively. From that tiny germ, the idea snowballed into ''Home/Business Computers '78,'' a full-blown exposition at a Boston University conference center to show the public what personal computers were and could do. Seven hundred people came. In the seven hours, BCS membership grew from 70 to 225.
Accompanying Rotenberg's vision of a big future for small computers was his desire to share his enthusiasm and knowledge of them with the public at large. What bothered him about the BCS was that many of its original members wanted to keep it an elite little club. The exposition, which attracted new members from a broad spectrum of ages and interests, exploded that barrier, and BCS headed for blue water.
At 15, Jonathan's next brainstorm was The First New England Microcomputer Resource Handbook, a complete guide to personal computer resources in New England to help newcomers learn where to buy computers, software, etc. He compiled the information, sold the ads, set the type, and sold 5,000 copies.
Outstripping all previous accomplishments, however, is Boston Computer Update , a magazine of computers for home, business, and education. It, too, blasted into orbit. Its progression from a one-page mimeographed monthly newsletter four years ago to a snappy full-color slick magazine with a circulation of 10,000 today is as mind-boggling as everything else about Jonathan and the BCS.
Until recently, Jonathan wrote about 40 percent of the copy, as well as doing editing. With the May issue, however, he steps down to executive editor (though he maintains editorial control), since he has talked Stewart Alsop II, son of the famous national columnist and formerly executive editor of Inc. magazine, into being Update's new editor.
Despite Jonathan's enthusiasm for personal computers, he is not blind to their antisocial liabilities. People can get so engrossed in computers, he says, that they start talking like them, which only alienates the uninitiated.
''Especially for kids,'' he warns, ''a computer is a very attractive thing to talk to when you don't feel like talking to people, or when you are having trouble communicating with them. The computer does not insult you. It does everything you tell it to do. It is sort of the ultimate friend or companion.''
He thinks the answer is to educate society to these pitfalls as well as to the computer's assets, the role he sees the Boston Computer Society fulfilling. Hence his plans for a membership drive this year to boost its numbers to 10,000 and turn it into a national organization.
Jonathan says heading up BCS has been a tremendously educational experience. It would have been a heady trip for any teen-ager. He and BCS have been written up in the national news media. Steve Jobs flew him out to California to discuss employment possibilities.
So far, Jonathan is not for sale. ''It sounds like I am showing off,'' he says, ''but if I wanted to sell myself to something, it would be for a tremendous amount of money. I could probably become a millionaire within a year. Well, say two years.''
Has the limelight spoiled him? It appears to have had an opposite effect. He dresses modestly in quiet business suits, is soft-spoken. Under the serious tone is a self-effacing wit -- not the image of a stuck-up kid.
Those who know Jonathan best say he has a genuine sense of social obligation and fairness, plus an extraordinary ability to focus on what interests him without letting unessential trivia clutter up his world.
A Boston journalist who joined BCS in 1978 and wrote its first newsletters confesses to be a Rotenberg admirer:
''My impression of Jonathan is of a young man who is interested in computers but who is more interested in running things. He may not stay in the computer field, but I see him becoming an entrepreneur, a manager, a president of something, because he just loves planning strategy and parceling out assignments of work.''
Dane Morgan at Commonwealth School is not worried about Jonathan's sense of values, which he says his parents have done much to instill in him.
''He has shared with many others the real vision he has of what marvelous things these machines can do to help people cope with their activities.
''He has the sense that he is doing something really important. He has done his homework. He knows the machines very well, what they can do, what programs have been and are being written for them. He has clarity and drive. It's only that sort of package that can begin to make the rest of society aware of the personal computer's exciting potential.''
Youngsters have a lot of intelligence and ability and it doesn't spoil them to be successful, Mr. Morgan believes. ''There was a time in America when young people weren't considered such a nuisance, when a young man of 18 or 20, if he was good enough, was captain of a fishing schooner, doing real things in the real world. It should happen more often. There are so many things that need doing in this society.''