Out of production for five years, the Model 100 laptop remains in vogue The appeal: 'It's cheap and it works'

August 16, 1993|By Rebecca Smith | Rebecca Smith,Knight-Ridder News Service

The Model 100 laptop computer isn't impressive to look at. It has a tiny, faded black-and-white screen that lies flat across the top -- no fancy flip-up, color display. It has no more memory than a gnat and kinda pokes along.

Nevertheless, the Radio Shack-Tandy Model 100 endures -- out of production for five years but still in demand on the used-computer market because of its cheapness, simplicity and, perhaps, as an act of resistance to the endlessly upgrading world of computers.

The story of the Model 100 is a testimonial to the ingenious die-hards who damn its shortcomings but who can't seem to let go and move on.

"It's kinda stupid. But it's cheap and it works," says Bill May of San Ramon, manager of a store that copies documents.

"The screen is small, but it has big letters and I have glasses," says Carroll Lewis of Saugus, Calif.

More than 2 million Model 100s, 102s and 200s were sold from 1983 through 1989. Originally retailing for $999, the machines were closed out at about $225 a pop around 1990. Today, used machines sell for $50 to $400, depending on add-ons.

Nobody knows how many of the 2-pound machines still are in use, but Rick Hanson of Pleasant Hill, Calif., has made a business out of catering to "Model T" users, as he calls them.

In 1989, Mr. Hanson bought the rights to manufacture and sell nearly all the after-market parts designed for the laptops. He sells around $100,000 worth annually.

In addition, he runs Club 100, a free user group with 20,000 members around the world.

They consult with Mr. Hanson, figuring out how to make their toy-like computers do grown-up tasks. The uses are surprisingly varied for a machine basically designed for text editing.

Tracy Allen, founder of Electronically Monitored Ecosystems in Berkeley, Calif., owns 100 of the laptops. He uses them for data collection at agricultural stations.

Because the machines run for hours on four standard AA batteries, data collectors can gather information in the field, then find a phone and use the built-in modem to move data to a bigger computer. There the data is analyzed, helping Mr. Allen predict, for example, when coddling moths will attack pears and apples.

In Canada and Australia, the laptops control irrigation systems.

Cabinetmaker Carroll Lewis has three Model 100s that he has programmed to handle his financial records, estimate work bids, and calculate how much time he spends on each job.

"I think about getting a bigger computer from time to time," hesays. "But I've got a setup that works, and I can't afford to spend the extra money it would cost to upgrade."

It's no wonder the machine still is being used, Mr. Hanson says. The Model 100 has an illustrious lineage.

The computer language it uses -- BASIC -- was written by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and was customized to the Model 100 by Mr. Gates in 1983. It was the last Microsoft product for which he actually wrote code.

Its brain -- the Intel 4004 chip -- was the world's first microprocessor. Invented by an Intel team headed by Federico Faggin in 1971, the 4004 was a $25 part intended for the calculator market.

The 4004 has only 2,300 transistors, compared to the 1.2 million transistors in an Intel 486 chip commonly used in laptops today. Combined with limited memory, that means the Model 100 can hold only 10 pages of text, compared with thousands of pages of text in an advanced laptop.

"OK, so it has a few shortcomings," Mr. Hanson says.

A former college computer instructor, he has made a living off the Radio Shack machines since 1989. He's realistic about the long-term career prospects.

"Just for spite, I wonder how long we can keep this thing going," Mr. Hanson says. "We're in the second decade now. I expect to have Club 100 going through the year 2003. Of course, I don't expect the phone to ring in 2003."

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