Where do old computers go?
If Recompute continues to grow, an
increasing number of them will go back into the market. The Austin, Texas-based manufacturer is creating a thriving business out of
refurbishing the technological discards of corporate America.
Recompute purchases fleets of top-brand desktops, servers, and laptops from
businesses, spruces them up, and then sells them to consumers and small
businesses at a discount.
For instance, $599 buys a computer with an Intel 486 chip and a 14-inch monitor.
A 233-MHz Pentium MMX with 32MB of memory and other features can be had for $1690.
Although used computers have been around since shortly after the PC revolution
began, recent market conditions have made the refurbished option more
attractive, according to Brian Kushner, Recompute's chief executive officer.
Refurbished computers, for instance, are no longer necessarily
yesterday's technology. The rapid upgrade cycles of corporate America means
that in some cases computers released just six months ago are already
making their way to the refurbished market. Thus are Pentium Pro servers available in the recycled market.
Also, customers get the benefit of hindsight, and companies can scout
performance reports on old machines and then pick and choose which ones
to award a second life.
"The AST Bravo was very good, so was the
Dell OptiPlex," said Kushner. On the other hand, "we know to avoid things
like the Compaq Prolinea 450M. [
Also] we avoid [certain models] from Dell," he said.
The genesis for the company came to Kushner in the early '90s, after reading
an article published in an academic journal from Carnegie-Mellon
University. The paper theorized that massive technological purchasing would
lead to an a dire need for landfill. Germany, Sweden, and other European
nations were already experimenting with "take back" legislation, which
would force computer vendors to devise disposal methods prior to sales.
To ensure quality, the company puts used machines through a 32-point
testing procedure to test for defects after purchasing them from first-time
users, but before selling them to customers.
"The monitor is the Achilles' heel of the computer. They have a higher
failure rate. Some go blank, some burn out," he said. Typically, the BIOS
and the memory need to be upgraded as well.
Generally, however, the machines are in good working order. "Electrons
don't get tired," he said, referring to one of the chief moving components
in a system. Finished systems are branded with the Recompute label and the
label of the original manufacturer.
Once testing is completed, the company offers the machines for sale on its
Web site or through a network of resellers. While small businesses and
home users constitute a large portion of the company's business, large
corporations are increasingly turning to the company. Aircraft manufacturer
Northrop Grumman bought a fleet of Recompute machines, as has KMPG Peat
Marwick. School districts sales continue to grow.
With the upgrade cycle getting faster all the time, Kushner sees no
shortage of raw material for his company in sight. Except for mouse pads.
"Recycled ones actually cost more than new ones," he noted.
There is no denying, however, that the plunging prices of new computers are
hurting the company's prospects. A comparison between the
Recompute Web site and the Web sites of electronic retailers shows that the
refurbished vendor saves customers only $100 on a number of models. In some
cases, an equivalent new computer can sell for less. Some
aging--though unused--bargain-basement IBM Pentium business PCs go for as
little as $650 at some resellers.