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IMUG – The International Multilingual User Group

By: Joe Katz (IMUG)

15 May 2014

IMUG organizes GILT talks, networking nights, and more, in the unique concentration of translation and tech that is Silicon Valley. Some IMUG talks are also webcast and recorded. But where did that funny "user group" name come from? And is this unique to "the South Bay", or are there other groups like this elsewhere around the world? 

Have you heard of IMUG, the International Multilingual User Group?  If you will be in Silicon Valley on the third Thursday of almost any month, you can spend an evening listening to an interesting GILT talk, do some professional networking, and visit with old friends and colleagues at an event organized by a group unlike any other. In addition to a regular speaker series hosted by companies around Bay Area, the group also runs an online jobs board, offers industry news via several social networks, and organizes GALA local networking events. Some IMUG talks are webcast and recorded as well.

Recent IMUG topics have included localization at startups, the Gengo translation crowdsourcing platform, the localization process at Embarcadero Technologies, globalization at Netflix, cloud-based TMS products, Mozilla's L20n initiative, and managing your localization career. Alolita Sharma, Director of Internationalization and Localization Engineering at Wikimedia, gave a talk on Wikipedia's globalization tools, and Addison Phillips, Globalization Architect at Amazon Lab126 and Chair of the W3C Internationalization Working Group, spoke on the latest international standards for the web.

Upcoming IMUG talks include Renato Beninatto on the future of translation and localization, Jaap van der Meer of TAUS on machine translation, Lee Collins on Unicode, and Anna Schlegel on globalization strategy. Globalization architect Tex Texin, Asian font expert Ken Lunde, and other longtime friends and advisors are also likely to offer more IMUG talks again soon. There will also be a GALA local networking night, and of course the annual IMUG international potluck and holiday bash.

But you may be wondering: "Where did that funny 'User Group' name come from, and when did the 'M' change from 'Macintosh' to 'Multilingual'?" Now a professional group hosted on corporate campuses around the Bay Area, IMUG began over 25 years ago as a gathering of scruffy students and specialists at meetings of the international special interest group of the Stanford Macintosh User Group. For those of you who like initials, that would be the SMUG I-SIG. And for those of you who weren't around then, a "user group" is what we might today call a "meetup" for people interested in computers. In the 1980s, most users were also hobbyists and developers. Today most IMUG members are translators, localizers, internationalization engineers, and other professional users and developers of language technology.

It all began in 1987, when two customers at an Apple Computer dealership in Palo Alto began to chat, and agreed on the need for a group focused on multilingual Mac features. But from the beginning, the focus was more on "multilingual" than Macintosh. The group quickly expanded in scope to cover language features on all platforms, including DOS, Windows, Linux, and the Internet. Early topics of discussion were often about how to simply get more than one language to appear on your screen without crashing the whole system. Some of the first meetings included presentations on multilingual font design, early software localization efforts, and pioneering Asian language word processing applications like Ichitaro and TianMa.

One early IMUG talk, by Lee Collins in 1991, was about a strange new idea called "Unicode." At the time, it was probably hard to imagine many companies and countries agreeing on one internationalization standard. Perhaps it was the World Wide Web that gave everyone the final push. It will be interesting to hear what Lee has to say about this when he returns to offer a retrospective and a vision for the future of internationalization and Unicode, in an IMUG talk scheduled for September 18th, 2014.

One of the two original founders, Seth Schneider, went on to found Multilingual Computing and many other ventures. The other, Yuan Ho, remained at the helm for many years, transforming the group into an independent MUG, hosted at first mostly by Apple in Cupertino and a few times by Adobe in San Jose. In the early 1990s IMUG launched a "snail-mail" newsletter assembled by transporting floppy disks around via "sneakernet." The first issue was edited by Mimi Obinata, and featured work by Jim Loomis, Ken Lunde, and Roger Sherman.

Another early IMUG volunteer, Norbert Lindenberg, began posting IMUG event notices on Usenet in 1991, and a few years later Jim Turley and Andrew Kirk made a presentation on surfing the new and wondrous World Wide Web in Japanese and Chinese. Jim and Andrew launched the IMUG website in 1995, one of the first sites on the Internet. Later that year they led a "group surf" of the Asian Internet that drew over three hundred people to the largest auditorium on the Apple campus, featuring a demo by Bob Jung and Tony Xue of a Japanese-enabled Netscape browser beta release.

Yes, over three hundred people gathered to watch some guys surf the Web. Hard to believe now?  Also hard to imagine today, each and every attendee received a 50-page paper handout of slides, link lists, and web page printouts. A whole forest died that day for the Web.

Today, under a new generation of organizers and volunteers led by Roger Sherman and Joe Katz, IMUG serves about 1,000 participants, and has in recent years been hosted by Adobe, Box, Facebook, Google, PayPal, Twitter, and Yahoo. The handoff began in 2010, spurred by a decision to ban all user groups from the Apple campus.

Seizing the opportunity, IMUG's lead organizers and advisory board re-thought and re-launched the group, using Meetup as an organizing tool, and partnering with GALA and others to better serve an evolving membership. This led us to finally and officially change the legal meaning of IMUG's "M" to "Multilingual," reflecting what was in reality the group's broad focus from the beginning, and to begin offering announcements and industry news on Twitter (@i18n_mug), LinkedIn Groups, Facebook, Google+, and posting IMUG talks on YouTube and Adobe Connect.

The majority of today's IMUG members are professionals in globalization, internationalization, localization, and translation. But many students also participate, including quite a few from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which has a strong translation and localization management program, as well as our old home, Stanford, and other local universities.

Is this unique to Silicon Valley?  There is, of course, an unusual concentration of translation and tech in what we call the South Bay. But others are replicating some of these ideas elsewhere, inspired by IMUG's success, great tools like Meetup, and the growth of the GILT sector everywhere.

San Francisco, now farther away from the South Bay than ever – due not to earthquakes, but rather to the traffic jams of a booming Bay Area economy – is home to the SF Globalization Meetup, recently organized  by longtime IMUG member and volunteer Norbert Lindenberg. With the help of a great team of advisors, Norbert has been organizing occasional IMUG-style talks hosted at local companies there. 

But many Meetups are just informal gatherings to discuss a topic around a table, and that has been the approach taken so far by the monthly New York Tech Localization Meetup, organized by Fiona Spruill, head of global growth at Meetup. We've also been speaking with some folks in the Seattle area about doing something like that, and we hope to see more GILT Meetups out there soon. Meanwhile, we hope to see you at an IMUG Meetup soon!

Are you part of an multilingual meet-up group you’d like the world to know about? Tell us about it!

Joe Katz is an investor and business advisor focused on language software, language services, and communications technology companies, with a soft spot for startups and a strong commitment to impact investing.