Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 06/91 - scanned

AS RARE AS HENS' TEETH (column) - buying used computers

[There are thousands of secondhand car dealers, but no-one offers secondhand PCs. David Tebbutt asks why. Would you buy a secondhand computer from this man?]

If you're looking to buy a car, there are many choices of where to buy it. The country is littered with new and used car showrooms, not to mention private sellers and dodgy backstreet traders. Then there are all the middlemen: the papers, magazines and computer matching services which exist solely to bring together buyer and seller.

But if you're buying a computer, you're far more restricted. There are fewer computer dealers than car dealers, and many are reluctant to sell just the hardware. They would much rather you bought some software and a maintenance contract at the same time.

And they're definitely not interested in selling secondhand stuff. If you want a used computer, you have to scour magazines on the off-chance you might find something suitable, or get hold of Micro Computer Mart - a sort of computer Exchange and Mart which has editorial, and ads from dealers and private sellers.

This dearth for used computers is probably because, unlike the motor car, the computer has not yet reached the 'one per family' stage. Families with two or three computers are as rare as hens' teeth, and few companies yet think in terms of fleets of computers, although there are moving in that direction. I suppose there aren't enough computer buyers to justify the huge infrastructure of the car business.

But I can't see why this should be. The personal computer business has grown at about 30% a year for the past few years. This has slowed to about 6% thanks to the recession, but I still reckon over a million machines will be shipped in the UK this year, recession or not.

I also reckon that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of existing machines will be displaced by the newest, sexiest, piece of hardware, which begs the question: what happens to last year's model?

I only have to look around the (admittedly unusual) Tebbutt household to see computing history - from a Sinclair spectrum and a Toshiba MSX machine in my youngest's cupboard, to a 386 PC, a Macintosh SE and a Toshiba T100XE.

Of the 10 computers we have, five are more or less redundant, and although I know I ought to try to sell some of the disused machines before they lose what little value they have, I simply can't find the motivation.

And, if I can't make the effort, what must it be like for companies which have storerooms full of old machines? I know that many companies have a 'hand-me-down' policy in which computers drift over lower in the pecking order, and so haven't for a disposal problem - yet.

Some people even persuade their companies to allow them to take the old computers home, saying they could do lots of extra work. The truth is they secretly want to play Golf or Leisure Suit Larry.

So if there are lots of used computers out there, why isn't the computer industry more like the car industry? With the car, the most usual route is to trade in the old model for a new one, but it's certainly uncommon for computer dealers to offer you a trade-in price on your old machine.

Perhaps it's time the computer dealers started to take responsibility for the old machines they flooded the market with. They won't do it for ideological reasons like saving the customer money or saving the environment by reducing the number of machines that have to be manufactured - but they'll do it for profit. All it needs is a computer equivalent of Glass' Guide - which car dealers use to estimate how much they should pay for a car - and they'll be away.

They would only need to clean the machines up a bit, and they would be ready to sell. They wouldn't have to deal with smoky engines, scrubbed tyres or gearbox rumbles, because the worst thing for a computer is that the hard disk could be dodgy. The dealer could fit a new drive, slightly increase the resale price, and still make a good profit.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm tempted to become a second-hand computer dealer myself. Does anyone know where there's any empty plot of land? Nothing too flash. Space to park around 20 computers would be fine.