Publisher's Note: What follows is an important "debate" or, better, a series of opinions on what UniForum is or should be. Industry observer, Michael Dortch, leads off and provides us with a highly critical commentary from a UniForum member, followed by a statement from Tom Mace, UniForum's president. Please read these with care and share your thoughts with us. RRS

UniForum: Effective Voice or Expiring Anachronism?

Opinion by Michael Dortch

The last time I was invited to opine in this space, I proposed UniForum as perhaps the final, strongest voice for users and vendors still committed to and interested in UNIX System solutions. Well, I got a response from someone I respect a great deal but have chosen not to identify here, because what's said is more important than who said it. My comments follow along with those of Tom Mace, as a voice of another long time member, and UniForum's current president.

But first, the flame.
"Users and vendors need such a voice, but UniForum ain't it. Never will be. UNIX needs "advocacy" (original writer's emphasis), and UniForum, as part of The Open Group, can no longer provide such advocacy. When Microsoft has large booths at UniForum shows and purports to be part of "Open Systems," then the group is a sham, and has allowed the supposed main target of its advocacy to get in on the action. (Publisher's note: While we'd welcome Microsoft's "large booth" participation in our tradeshow this has never been the case. Microsoft has always declined to have a significant presence at the UniForum show).

"UniForum coddles Microsoft but leaves the real UNIX System fighters in the lurch. It just recently came out with a CD-ROM version of its products directory, using software that rejects open viewing standards such as HTML in favor of proprietary methods. Not only that, but the single most-popular UNIX System version on earth (SCO UNIX) is not supported.

"Yeah, that's UniForum providing a voice for [UNIX System vendors and users] -- not!

"Simply, UniForum has done a masterful job of self-castration. It speaks for nobody because it pretends to speak for everybody. It hasn't has reasonable focus as a user group since it withdrew from the POSIX process, and renamed itself from "/usr/group" to become known by the name of its trade show."

Michael Dortch continues:
While I sense a bit of despair, if not bitterness, in the above comments, they amply demonstrate UniForum's biggest problems and its greatest opportunities. It was these opportunities I tried to emphasize in my last UniNews outing.

Simply put, UniForum has to take advantage of The Open Group affiliation to go back to its roots and provide platforms, megaphones and support for the users and vendors in the trenches of the UNIX System and open-systems markets. And despite the above comments, I don't think this is mutually exclusive with recognizing that, for better or worse, what a lot of networks users define as "open" also includes proprietary solutions from a number of vendors, most notably the Colossus of Redmond.

Now let's review quickly. Who has the most experience and success integrating diverse technologies and offerings into solutions that work? And who has the best track record integrating networking and computing successfully? UNIX System vendors, users and experts, that's who. And what group purports to represent these people? UniForum.

So, UniForum as an organization and you, its members, face a choice. You can work together to improve UNIX System solutions, positive awareness of them and their integration with other computing and communications systems, or you can wait quietly while proprietary solutions wearing "open" mantles or promising greater economies or ease of use render UniForum, if not The Open Group, irrelevant to the majority of mainstream computing users and vendors.

Comments from Tom Mace, a long time member of UniForum nee /usr/group:
UniForum has to change if it is going to continue to be a useful organization. I agree that we started losing the handle sometime way back in the mid-1980's, probably when the "giants" got involved in 1987-1989. That paradigm shift to open systems, as a de facto marketing cachet, brought the formerly "proprietary" companies in to the Unix fold and took the locus of attention away from UniForum while indirectly (through the annual trade show) and artificially bribing us with riches. This is not a knock on these companies--commerce is what it is, and the process was not deliberate. In fact, many of these companies continue to be strong supporters, and the only reason (financial) UniForum is still in business.

More than anything, the market has changed dramatically. All (not just UniForum) Unix related groups are struggling from what is simply lack of interest, and all Unix trade shows, have crashed. Only conferences and solid technical information delivery seem to work, but for limited numbers of people. In the meantime, UniForum's membership has fragmented into 25 different interest groups.

What is perhaps most disturbing to those of us who believe in the "advocacy" aspect of Uniforum is the continued neuroticism of the Unix adherents. First, it was the very companies who are wholly dependent on Unix who were the first to not participate in the annual UniForum show. Their loss reduced the interest of others, and so on. Second, while the CD-ROM reader software we chose for the Directory did not run cleanly on SCO's Unix, it ran on seven other Unix's just fine--where is our collective commitment to standard interfaces? (The lack of SCO support by the CD-ROM reader vendor was due to negotiations not succeeding between the parties--why should we still have to negotiate special software deals for each vendor's system!) Our next version will be HTML and up on the web shortly. Third, The Open Group has been trying to encourage the companies that form the Unix group to speak out strongly and put joint promotion projects in place--where are they? Anarchy is not a good offense against a well armed opponent, as much as we might protest our moral superiority. If we prefer anarchy/freedom, we have to be content/happy to live with the result.

Against this backdrop, Uniforum's biggest failing over the years has been to lose the "Forum" component of our association. The reason that our local affiliates continue to exist is that they offer a chance to get together and to hear and share information. They are inexpensive, and they don't take much time. Most don't have regular newsletters. All offer friendship and sources of help (and jobs for consultants). With few exceptions, they are poor in dollars, but continue to be useful.

Thus, a new UniForum will have to rekindle that kind of interaction on a cross-local boundaries basis. That means on-line discussions, get togethers, other means of sharing between us, and providing connections. Funding--now that we can no longer count on a golden goose trade show--will have to come from a combination of member dues, training and conference profits. Getting back to basics, we will need to get back to volunteerism.
Anyone want to take the lead in monitoring focused discussion groups?

We also need to find a home for UniForum--a home of like minds that will allow us, in fact encourage us, to build these kinds of individual programs. The Board has chosen The Open Group as a good candidate, and our agreement with them supports our independence and individual voice. They are also struggling with the same industry issues we are, which in an interesting way is also useful; but they share our commitment to open systems, choice, and Unix in particular. We can also bring your individual voice to The Open Group, while giving us some bulk and staying power. It's a good choice.

Comments welcome, as always.

Tom Mace
President, UniForum Association
tel: 408-986-8840 x 28
fax: 408-986-1645

Michael Dortch is former Vice President and Chief Evangelist for UTG, and former Director of Special Projects for CMP Media's NetGuide Magazine. To subscribe to his free "Information Superhighway Vista Points" newsletter or respond to this column, feel free to e-mail Michael at



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