Makers of 'no-name' computer clones reprogram notion of cottage industry


DETROIT -- After five years of building and selling his own brand of personal computers in his two-story home on Detroit's east side, Howard Best became the victim of his own success.

Cardboard boxes jammed the hallways. Customers filled the living room. There was barely space for his wife to cook in the kitchen. And Mr. Best constantly had to tell his three kids upstairs to quiet down, so he could run his business in peace. Finally, last year, he made the decision: His family had to go.

Mr. Best bought the house next door, moved in with his family, then set about transforming their former home into the sole domain of the one-man computer firm. Mr. Best, in seriousness, had named the company Datatech International.

Mr. Best, 46, who estimates he sold half a million dollars worth of computers in 1990, belongs to a peculiar breed of often eccentric entrepreneurs created by the microchip revolution: the people who assemble personal computers in homes, garages and storefronts.

"This is the coming thing -- assembling and selling no-name computer equipment," Mr. Best says. "I sell no-name clones from Taiwan. People ask me what brands I handle. I say, 'No-name clones from Taiwan,' and they say, 'Yeah, I've heard of those.' "

So-called "home-brew" computer companies are a modern twist on an old tradition -- a cottage industry for the electronic cottage. Some computer experts warn consumers that buying computers from mom and pop manufacturers can be a risky business, with too many fly-by-night operators selling inferior goods.

Nevertheless, customers drawn by very personal service and low prices -- sometimes 50 percent to 60 percent of that charged for comparable name-brand machines at mainstream computer stores -- have helped dozens of tiny computer manufacturers sprout. Nobody knows how many there are nationwide.

The success of these home-based computer companies reflects the proliferation of the PC. Apparently, "home-brew" customers feel so comfortable with computers that they no longer need their hands held by the staff at a retail outlet.

In any case, along with their larger mail-order competitors, these tiny firms may be affecting the computer business the way cents-off coupons have affected supermarket goods -- driving down prices, eroding brand loyalties, threatening to turn the once-exotic microcomputer into a commodity, a mere appliance.

Like IBM or Compaq, these companies assemble their personal computers largely from parts they buy from suppliers. But there, the similarity ends. Big Blue was never this colorful:

* Four sisters -- three teen-agers and an 8-year-old -- run a computer assembly firm, Little Angels Computer Services, created by their father. Until recently, these girls worked out of their home in Taylor, Mich., juggling PC assembly duties with cheerleading practice and volleyball games. Recently, they moved the business to a weary storefront down the street.

* Hank Overkleeft Jr. now sells personal computers he assembles in his Ypsilanti, Mich., home. That's a welcome change for him from his work as a systems programmer in the buttoned-down, wing-tipped, spit-and-polish bureaucracy of EDS, General Motors' giant computer firm.

In many ways, computer assembly is an ideal business for the home. It doesn't smell. It doesn't pollute. It isn't noisy. And it doesn't require any special environment -- no antiseptically clean rooms or giant cranes.

Though computers seem impossibly complex to many people, they are remarkably simple to assemble. The typical PC consists of less than a dozen components designed to be snapped and bolted together in a couple of hours with tools no more exotic that a screwdriver and a pair of pliers.

"It is relatively easy to assemble a computer nowadays," says Oliver Strimpel, executive director of the Computer Museum in Boston. "It is not a very expensive process, and it is no longer a specialized task."

Few, if any, home-assembly operations build Apple compatible machines, partly because Apple has patented many of the components and is known to sue companies that copy its gear.

But the designs of components of IBM-compatibles are not patented. Myriad brands and models of these components can be mixed and matched and are readily available through special catalogs and ads in computer trade magazines.

But as Mr. Best's situation indicates, success in computer assembly does require one thing most families don't have enough of in the first place -- room.

"The original decision was the business would move out of the house," his wife, Edith Best, recalls. "But that didn't happen to be the most practical thing to do. I didn't like leaving too much, though we did move to a much nicer house."

Mr. Best converted the children's bedrooms into warehouse space, the dining room and kitchen into a shipping and receiving center, the living room into an assembly area, and the basement into a brightly lighted showroom.

Since Mr. Best moved his family into the house next door, a few brushes with street crime soured his wife and children on living in the city. A few weeks ago, they moved to Hillsborough, N.C. But Mr. Best remains in Detroit, building computers and visiting his family on weekends.

Like many computer makers, Mr. Best fits the iconoclastic profile of the typical entrepreneur. Mr. Best is not only a free agent, he's a fast one, too. He said he can fill an order in two days, "the same day if you're in a real hurry." He orders his parts from distributors in Asia, New Jersey and California.

Because few computer assemblers can afford to advertise much, many haunt computer swap meets. They spend weekends in booths at trade shows in social halls and high

school gyms. Their best advertising is word of mouth, recommendations on computer electronic bulletin boards and the occasional classified ad. And depending on whom you talk to, mom and pop computer companies are either a blessing or a scourge.

Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogs of the 1960s and '70s, says these home-based computer companies carry on traditions dating back to the early 1970s, when pioneers like Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple Computer after first building the machines at home.

But Averil Reisman, communications director for the Microcomputer Industry Association, a trade association for retailers, says tiny computer companies create a bad image for bigger players.

"Some components may not work 100 percent with each other," she says. "The machines could go along for a while, then for some reason software doesn't work. But the buyer may not see the problem until long after he bought the machine."

But Mr. Overkleeft of Ypsilanti, Mich., says he guarantees his work and insists he can offer far more personal service than any mainstream computer outlet. He says he often can make repairs while a customer waits -- by simply substituting one modular component for another.

"The advantage of buying from me instead of a computer store," he says, "is you're buying your computer from the guy who built it."

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