Bostonian runs exchange to buy and sell used PCs


October 07, 1991|By Rick Ratliff | Rick Ratliff,Knight-Ridder News Service

Boston -- A couple of blocks from the Old South Meeting House, where the colonists met to plan the Boston Tea Party, Alex Randall is spreading another revolution to those who thought they couldn't afford to join.

Bearded and beefy, Alex Randall may be an anthropologist by training -- he was Margaret Mead's last student -- but he is a businessman by trade. Today he is the king of the used-computer business. His monthly price lists on various models of used computers have become a Blue Book for the industry.

"I am in the recycling business," he said. "I am here to ensure that every computer has a home."

He helps set prices for all sorts of used computers, especially IBM, Apple, Toshiba and Compaq machines. According to his figures, the value of an IBM PC has declined from $2,300 in 1983 to about $200 today, a drop of 91 percent.

Mr. Randall boasts he turned 30 on the day the IBM PC was introduced in 1981. His first computer was an IBM PC, which he bought for $7,000 -- including a printer and one program. Before long, Mr. Randall, a Princeton and Columbia alumnus, realized that some day there would be a resale market for such machines.

Mr. Randall chose not to pattern his business after a used-car dealership. Instead, it's modeled on a stock exchange. People with computers to sell fill out forms describing their machines and asking price. Those looking for used computers fill out forms that list what they want and how much they are willing to pay.

By matching buyers and sellers, then taking a percentage of the sale as a commission, the exchange has become so profitable it fills six floors of two old buildings jammed along an old Boston street. Mr. Randall has 20 employees and 125 licensed affiliates nationwide, and processes sales of about 100 computers a day.

High technology is a relative concept, he said. "The day a machine becomes obsolete for me, it became a door-opener for somebody else."

There are two types of folks who don't own computers, he said. "The majority can't afford the technology but want it. These are smart, savvy people. Then, there is a second crowd that is scared of the computer."

Because many of those who want but can't afford computers live in the former Soviet bloc, Mr. Randall helped create and is executive director of the East-West Foundation, which tries to get computers into the hands of university students in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The need for such devices is obvious there, he said. On a recent trip to Moscow's famed GUM department store, Mr. Randall was shocked to see clerks figuring customer bills on abacuses. "If we don't do something, they will be blown out of the marketplace," he said. "And their sinking economies will pull ours down with them."

He said his foundation has just concluded a deal to give 1,300 new NEC laptops to journalism students at universities in Eastern Europe. "With these," he said, "we can plant the seeds of freedom of speech all over Eastern Europe."

Here and abroad, it is vital to spread computer literacy, Mr. Randall said, before computer illiterates fall too far behind. Computers are raising minimum standards in many areas, he said.

"Nowadays, anyone can word process and use a spell-checking program," he said. "So there is no room for spelling errors. Everyone can use a desktop publishing program to make it look nice. That means smudged-up documents won't be tolerated."

So, too, the minimum requirement for content is raised. More than ever, your document can't get by on looks alone. "The world is awash," he said, "in tons of good-looking mediocrity."

For the moment, however, computers make it easier for lazy people to slide. "Computers have made it possible to think less and do more. Where you are doesn't matter any more, as long as you're where you want to be," Mr. Randall said.

But Mr. Randall is convinced the computer is the most important tool of modern humanity.

"This," he said, patting one of the computers surrounding his desk, "is the last great hope for mankind. What we're doing is we are building the planet's brain. We screw this up, and we starve."

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