In order to appreciate and understand fully the significant role of LUGs in the Linux Movement, it is important to understand what makes Linux unique among computer operating systems.
Linux as an operating system is very efficient and very powerful. But, Linux as an idea about how software ought to be developed is even more powerful. Linux is a free operating system: it is licensed under the GNU Public License. The source code is freely available to anyone who wants it and always will be. It is developed by a unstructured group of programmers from around the world, under the technical direction of Linus Torvalds and other key developers. Linux is a world-wide movement without any central structure, bureaucracy, or entity to control, coordinate, or otherwise direct its affairs. While this situation is a powerful part of the appeal and technical quality of Linux as an computer operating system, it can make for inefficient allocation of human resources, ineffective and even detrimental advocacy, public relations, user education and training.
This loose structure is not likely to change with regard to Linux as a software project. And it's a good thing, too. Linux works precisely because people are free to come and go as they please: free programmers are happy programmers are effective programmers.
But this loose structure can make the average Linux user's life a little complicated--especially if that user isn't a programmer by profession or by vocation. Who does she call for support, training, or education? How does she know the kinds of uses for which Linux is well-suited?
In large part local LUGs provide the answers to these kinds of question. This is why LUGs are a crucial part of the Linux Movement. Because there is no ``regional office'' of the Linux Corporation in your town or village or metropolis, the local LUG takes on many of the same roles that a regional office does for a large multi-national corporation..
Linux is unique because it does not have, nor is it burdened by, a central structure or bureaucracy to allocate its resources, train its users, or provide support for its products. These jobs get done in a variety of ways: the Internet, consultants, VARs, support companies, colleges and universities. But, increasingly, in many places around the globe, they get done by a local LUG.
Computer user groups, at least in the United States, are not a new phenomenon; in fact, they played an important role in the history of the personal computer. The personal computer arose in large part to satisfy the demand of electronics, Ham Radio, and other hobbyist user groups, as well as trade shows and swap meets, for affordable, personal access to computing resources. Of course eventually giants like IBM discovered that the PC was a good and profitable thing, but the impetus for the PC came from the people, by the people, and for the people.
In the United States, user groups have changed, and many for the worse, with the times. The financial woes of the largest user group ever, the Boston Computer Society have been well-reported; but all over the U.S. most of the big PC user groups have seen a decline in real membership. American user groups in their heyday concentrated on the production of newsletters, the maintenance of shareware and diskette libraries, meetings, social events, and, sometimes, even Bulletin Board Systems. With the advent of the Internet, however, many of the services that user groups once provided were transferred to things like CompuServe, AOL, and the Web.
The rise of Linux, however, coincided with and was intensified by general public's ``discovery'' of the Internet. As the Internet grew more popular, so did Linux: the Internet brought new users, developers, and vendors to the Linux Movement.
So just when traditional PC user groups were declining because of the Internet's popularity, this popularity propelled Linux forward, creating new demand for new user groups dedicated exclusively to Linux. To give just one indication of the ways in which a LUG is different than a traditional user group, I call the reader's attention to a curious fact: traditional user groups have had to maintain a fairly tight control over the kinds of software that its users copy and trade at its meetings. While illegal copying of commercial software certainly occurred at these meetings, it was officially discouraged and for good reason.
At a LUG meeting, however, this entire mindset simply does not apply. Far from being the kind of thing that a LUG ought to discourage, the free copying of Linux itself ought to be one of the primary activities of a LUG. In fact there is anecdotal evidence that traditional user groups sometimes have a difficult time adapting to the fact that Linux can be freely copied as many times as one needs or wants.
In order for the Linux Movement to continue to flourish, the proliferation and success of local LUGs, along with other factors, is an absolute requirement. Because of the unique status of Linux, the local LUG must provide some of the same functions that a ``regional office'' provides for large computer corporations like IBM, Microsoft, or Sun. LUGs can and must train, support, and educate Linux users, coordinate Linux consultants, advocate Linux as a computing solution, and even serve as a liason to local media outlets like newspapers and television.