J. Rotenberg: young person in a young-person's game
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?''Skip to next paragraph
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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.