Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Homebrew Computer Club: A role model for communities of practice

Homebrew Computer Club, a role model: When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak writes “Without computer clubs there would probably be no Apple computers” he is actually referring to Homebrew Computer Club. The Homebrew Computer Club was an early computer hobbyist club in Silicon Valley, which met from March 1975 to roughly 1977. From the ranks of this club came the founders of many microcomputer companies, including Bob Marsh, George Morrow, Adam Osborne, Lee Felsenstein, and Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

How did Homebrew Computer Club operate? Homebrew members were hobbyists, most of them had an electronic engineering or programming background. They came to the meetings to talk about the Altair 8800 and other technical topics and to exchange schematics and programming tips. According to Steve, each session began with a "mapping period," when people would get up one by one and speak about some item of interest, a rumor, and have a discussion. Somebody would say, "I've got a new part," or somebody else would say he had some new data or ask if anybody had a certain kind of teletype. This would be followed by “Random Access Period” during which members would wander outside and find people trading devices or information and helping each other. Steve would bring Apple I and II to the club and demo the progress as the designs evolved. In fact, Apple’s first major order came from a retail shopkeeper who was a member of the club as well.

What made Homebrew Computer Club special? Well, I have been part of various Communities of practice myself. And I have not seen anything like Homebrew. I find Homebrew special because it created an amazing innovation platform from which a whole new (PC) industry was born. Here are a few characteristics of Homebrew that I find interesting:
  • Homebrew members were all passionate about one thing: making home computer (which was an unmet customer need at that point of time).
  • Many of them were expert hackers and playing with circuits by hand themselves (Steve would go visit some of them and fix their circuit problems)
  • Members also included component traders and people who ran businesses (and some who closed them) and it gives an interesting business perspective to this geeky game (Steve writes, occasionally somebody would show up and say “"Is there anyone here from Intel? No? Well, I've got some Intel chips we want to raffle off”)
My takeaway: (a) Having a common binding vision which is linked with unmet customer need (b) having expert and passionate practitioners as members and; (c) having members with business perspective (like component traders) looks to me an ideal combination of an innovation platform.

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