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A Memory Bank for Old Computers

Technology: Sure, ACP Superstore in Santa Ana sells modern PCs. But it also pays homage to cyberworld dinosaurs like Apple IIs that fill the store-museum.


Browse in the ACP Superstore in Santa Ana and you'll notice that for a giant computer retail outlet, a business known for cutthroat competition, the management sure keeps a lot of out-of-date product around. Not far from the factory-fresh IBMs, Epsons and Toshibas with their state-of-the-art Pentium processors, high-resolution monitors, flashing gee-whiz graphics and color laser printers sit some forlorn looking Apple IIs, a Commodore 64 and other digital dinosaurs whose brand names--IMSAI, Altair, Northstar--have long since vanished from the marketplace, not to mention the consumer's memory.

They are not for sale at any price. "We've been doing this for 21 years, and basically since Day One we've hung onto some of the stuff. I thought they would be worth keeping for the history," says Tom Freeman, the president and half of the team that has owned and operated ACP since 1976. His brother Dave is chief executive officer.

The computer, once synonymous with all things modern, has matured to the point where it has spawned a retro craze. There are Internet newsgroups and Web sites dedicated to old computers. Once every two months, the Freemans run a swap meet in the store parking lot, where wheeler-dealers in vintage equipment gather. A few computer museums--most notably the Computer History Center in Santa Clara, Calif.--have sprung up.

But the hundreds of relics of Silicon Valley's Jurassic Age that line shelves around the perimeter of their store and cram a locked display case constitute what the Freemans believe is the largest private collection in the world.

Besides holding onto earlier models after they're eclipsed by newer, faster products, the Freemans occasionally receive old computers from customers. "This machine here, the customer had it in his garage," Tom says, indicating an IMSAI 8080, a snazzy-looking, late '70s machine with a black faceplate covered with red toggle switches. "Ten years later, he brings it back and says 'Here, you probably want this more than I would.' "

ACP's ungainly boxes with their rows of toggles, switches and outdated software tell tales of triumph and folly in an industry in its infancy. Here is the large blue metallic Altair 8800, circa 1975, the jewel of the Freeman collection and one of the most sought-after machines among collectors. Even the Smithsonian has one.

"This is the first of the mass-market desktop microcomputers and a stepping stone for a whole series of stuff to follow," Tom says. "There may have been machines before, but this is the one that the guy at home decided, 'Hey, I could take this home and do something with it.' "

This computer, which originally retailed for $2,000 to $4,000, now fetches offers as high as $10,000--this for a unit that consumes many times more electricity than new home computers while delivering something like 1/2,000th of the memory. But then, it's not computing power that attracts people to these techno fossils.

"I think there are a lot of memories attached to who was running those companies and a lot of folklore," Dave says. Adding to Altair 8800's cachet is the fact that the BASIC program it ran on was developed by an upstart young Altair software programmer named Bill Gates.

"That's where Gates cut his teeth," Dave says. "He eventually created Microsoft based on the software he was trying to create for Altair."

The Freemans' early Osbourne I is also steeped in Silicon Valley lore. It was designed by industry guru Adam Osbourne, who made a fortune publishing computer books and sank it all into designing what was then known as the first "luggable" computer. That's right, before laptop, there was luggable--an apt label for a unit about the size and weight of a large, fully packed suitcase with a built-in 5-inch screen.

It was to be a few more years before the average business executive would have something that he could whip out onto his airline fold-down tray. Still, in 1980, Osbourne I was a hot seller. But, the fat times did not last.

"Osbourne didn't manage the transitions from product to product," Dave says. "They had a lot of Product B in production and they announced Product C too early, and it killed them and they went out of business."

Another flash-in-the-pan-turned relic is the Timex Sinclair 1000, also a way station on the way to true portability. "They were the first ones to sell a million computers," Tom says. "Then they were gone too."

Along with the computers, there are plenty of 8-inch floppy drives and even a few cassette tape drives (remember those?) to gawk at at the store. Digitized screens, from the period before video monitors became the norm, are also in abundance. And, for a bit of pathos, there are some early failures of the big companies, such as IBM's PC jr. and Lisa, the Macintosh's older and less popular sister. The Freemans even keep an old Pong machine in the office for the sentimental or those too young to remember the first video game--consisting of a line on the screen and a ball to "pong" over it.

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