It’s clear most user groups wouldn’t exist without the support — financial and otherwise — of the vendors whose products they’re built around. That raises an important question: How independent are those groups — and how much does it matter?Leaders of Canadian user groups say that for the most part the help they get from vendors comes with few strings attached, but some of them acknowledge that there are lines they avoid crossing. That does not stop them providing valuable services to their members, but it may mean there are roles that users shouldn’t expect these groups to play.
Through its Technet program, Microsoft Canada Co. provides
financial support and other
resources to a number of user groups across the country, such as the Toronto Windows Server User Group. Jean-Luc David, president of that group, says it would be very hard for his organization to exist without such support.
Even groups that are not built around a single vendor’s product, such as the Calgary Linux Users’ Group (CLUG), depend on businesses to provide meeting space and sponsor events. Without that, notes Shawn Grover, president of CLUG, “You’d end up meeting in somebody’s house.”
Some groups charge fees for membership or for attending events, but this is rarely if ever the sole source of their income — and Graham Jones, president of the Vancouver Technology User Group (VANTUG) says he would prefer to see those fees play less of a role rather than more. Jones says accessibility to all — including for instance students for whom membership fees may be a burden — should be “one of the principal tenets of a user group.”
But Jones also admits that vendors’ support may come at a price. Like most user groups, VANTUG invites speakers from various technology vendors to make presentations at its meetings. With Microsoft as a principal sponsor, would the group feel comfortable bringing in a speaker from a direct Microsoft competitor? “We do have to exercise some care in terms of how Microsoft might or might not view that,” Jones admits.
Jones says in his view, Microsoft has become more accepting of such things in recent years.
“They’re becoming more liberal about it than they used to be,” he says. “There was a time when if you mentioned the word Linux, they went into a sort of apoplectic shock.” Today, Jones believes alarm bells probably wouldn’t go off at Microsoft if his group had a speaker talk about, say, getting Windows and Linux servers to communicate.
But VANTUG would probably hesitate to invite a direct Microsoft competitor to one of its meetings. The same goes for the Eastern Canada Regional User Group (ECRUG), an Oracle user group. Marie Sargent, ECRUG’s president, says companies such as Microsoft that compete with Oracle in some areas but co-operate with it in others — Oracle’s software runs on Windows, after all — might be invited to ECRUG conferences. But “we wouldn’t invite SAP. I mean, let’s get real.” 
Fair enough, one might say — ECRUG is an Oracle user group, VANTUG is a Microsoft user group, and those interested in rival products should seek out appropriate counterparts. “It’s a constraint,” says VANTUG’s Jones, “but I don’t find it to be an unreasonable constraint.”
Jones also says VANTUG wouldn’t likely get involved in a dispute between users and a vendor, though it might discuss such a matter at one of its meetings “if it’s a widespread issue and we think it’s topical.”
Even Linux groups, whose ties are less likely to be to a single vendor, often perform balancing acts. Grover says CLUG is careful not to show favouritism towards Linux distribution vendors, trying for instance to invite Novell speakers to its meetings as often as it invites those from Red Hat.
Vendors are an obvious and useful source of speakers for user groups. Joanne Pomalis, president of the Ottawa Oracle User Group (OOUG), says Oracle is always ready to provide a speaker, as well as book meeting rooms for the group and provide other support.

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