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Getting a little help from your (Mac) friends

Macintosh machines may be easier to use compared with Windows PCs, but the complexities inherent to computer technology mean that there are times when, yes, even Mac users have problems that need solving or questions that need answering.

Some lucky Mac owners know an "expert" friend who they can call for help when their computer has them stumped, whether it's as serious as an application that keeps crashing or as basic as how to turn on a feature like "File Sharing."

Of course, most of the information they need can be found somewhere on a Mac-oriented Web site, but less-experienced users frequently lack the patience or simply aren't comfortable with hunting for answers online.

If only they knew about Mac User Groups.

A phenomenon that dates back to early days of computers in the late 1970s, when user groups were collections of mostly young male technologically savvy "geeks," the Mac User Groups (MUGs) of today span a cross section of average users seeking to educate themselves about the technology so they can make better use of it.

MUGs typically have regular meetings, usually monthly, at which members view presentations, share tips, help solve one another's problems and, of course, socialize.

"There are times when you, as a computer user, can't do it all on your own, when the manufacturer won't or can't help you, when you need to talk with folks who have been through what you've been through," said Dave Ottalini, the vice president of publicity for the Washington Apple Pi in D.C. "Those are the times you need a user group."

Preferably one can join a local MUG that meets close to their home, as face-to-face group meetings work the best. A "User Group Locator" search tool on Apple's Web site allows interested Mac users to look for a nearby group by U.S. state or nation (yes, MUGs are a global phenomenon).

For those who lack a group within driving distance, there are "online" MUGs -- groups of Mac users who don't physically meet but share information over the Internet.

Yet despite their longevity, obvious benefits and significant numbers -- Apple estimates that about 700 MUGs exist worldwide -- many Mac users remain unaware of them.

Perhaps it's that individual MUGs -- as relatively small, volunteer-run operations -- have a difficult time publicizing their existence. And, possibly, it's because of a lingering perception that MUGs are for geeks, though that hasn't been the case for years.

If anything, the reverse is true. MUGs represent exactly the kind of resource many non-expert Mac users need the most: informal tech support from a group of fellow Mac users whose knowledge base ranges from novice to expert.

Arno Drucker, president of the Maryland Apple Corps, said if he could add 25 to 50 people to his membership roster -- the group already has about 130 -- the group could add a special interest group (SIG) for "newbies" -- those new to the Mac who could use some help getting oriented to a new machine.

The Maryland Apple Corps originated in 1978, when a handful of Apple II owners, fascinated by their new machines and the company that built them, started meeting informally.

As a tribute to the impact of the original Apple II, both Washington Apple Pi and the Maryland Apple Corps mark their 25th anniversaries this year.

Washington Apple Pi also was born in 1978 in much the same fashion of just a small group of Apple II enthusiasts, but it experienced phenomenal growth. Today, with approximately 2,000 members, WAP is among the largest MUGs in the country.

Ottalini said that today's Mac users are "a different breed" from those early Apple II users, who don't fancy spending hours understanding how their hardware and software works; they want to "pull it out of the box, turn it on and have it work," he said.

MUGs are ideal for helping a practical user get more out of a Mac, Ottalini said, and particularly so now that Apple is in the process of migrating its user base to a significantly different operating system, from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X.

Curiously, both groups have had trouble getting the local Apple retail stores to assist them in making the MUGs' existence known to Mac users by displaying or distributing promotional materials. An Apple retail store is located in Towson.

Officials of the company, based in Cupertino, Calif., did not return telephone or e-mail requests seeking comment.

The stores' reluctance to promote the groups is particularly odd, as Apple's Web site devotes a substantial section to user groups. The site lists reasons to join a group, as well as provides detailed information for MUG leaders -- how to start a group, for instance, or how to run one successfully.

"They don't understand that by helping us, they're building their customer base," Ottalini said. "It's a symbiotic relationship."

Ottalini said MUGs in other areas have "had better luck building relationships with their local [Apple] stores," particularly if group members happen to work at the store.

Besides the two 25-year-old organzations, several other Mac user groups operate in the Baltimore-Washington region, including two institution-based MUGs (Johns Hopkins Medical Institution Mac User Group and the UMBC Mac Users Group), as well as several in the larger towns (Cumberland Valley Apple Users Group of Hagerstown, the Annapolis Apple Slice, the Columbia Apple Slice and the Frederick Apple Corps).

The groups in Annapolis, Columbia and Frederick are affiliated with WAP, but otherwise remain independent. Ottalini said several smaller groups affiliated with WAP offer more to their members.

As a large group, WAP can provide many resources, including a monthly magazine; CDs containing carefully chosen Mac shareware and freeware; an inexpensive dial-up Internet service; and SIGs with a more specific focus for teens, retired people and iMovie aficionados who meet separately from the primary group.

WAP's annual dues are $49; the CDs and the Internet service are separate expenses. It meets the fourth Saturday morning of every month in the Community and Cultural Center Auditorium of Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va.

Though smaller, the Maryland Apple Corps publishes a quarterly newsletter, "Seeds and Stems," and has a Hardware SIG in addition to its meetings, which take place at the Towson Library the second Tuesday evening of the month. Its annual dues are $30.

The Maryland Apple Corps celebrates its anniversary on June 1 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Baltimore Hebrew Center. Its slate of festivities includes a keynote address from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

WAP celebrates its anniversary officially this Saturday morning with a brunch at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va.

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