Largely ignored in the crush of events at the recent COMDEX convention in Las Vegas was the introduction of a new Kaypro computer, a 12-megahertz IBM AT-compatible machine. Nothing terribly dramatic about that, but it is one of several new machines Kaypro hopes will help it recover ground lost in the past year.
It's hard not to root for Kaypro, a small firm in Solana Beach, Calif., that's been making electronic equipment for 35 years and computers for five.
Kaypro's computers feature solid construction, good dealer support, a lot of free software and reasonable prices. But its adventures in the personal-computer business have included enough triumphs and near disasters to give Indiana Jones the shakes.
After early success, the company fell on hard times when it was slow to respond to the migration from the old CPM standard to the MS-DOS era, ushered in by the success of the IBM PC and XT.
Kaypro's first PC compatibles were clunky portables that did not sell well. Finally, early last year, Kaypro brought out its first desk-top IBM compatible, the Kaypro PC (Professional Computer).
It was a hit. With two disk drives standard, a full load of memory, more speed than the IBM original and a $1,595 list price (many dealers offered substantial discounts), it was a good buy. It came bundled with Wordstar Professional, MS-DOS and other utilities. Kaypro's market share increased.
One of the attractions of the Kaypro PC was what the company called "snap-in technology." The computer was designed with no motherboard, as such.
All the basic circuitry was on snap-in cards that could easily be removed for repair or replacement with more powerful circuitry. "Just install a different card," dealers would say, "and you've got an AT."
That was an exaggeration. There is a snap-in circuit board to get an Intel 80286 microprocessor (the same one used in the IBM AT) into a Kaypro PC, but the PC's box is not tall enough to accommodate expansion boards made for the IBM AT.
Few of the upgrade boards have been sold. That's partly because the Kaypro PC is a speedy machine as it is and partly because prices of true AT-compatibles have dropped sharply the past year, with many Brand X machines now selling for less than the Kaypro PC.
Kaypro actually made the first AT-compatible, the 286i, but newer, cheaper clones outperform it.
Meanwhile, prices of PC XT clones were falling as well. So only a year after its introduction, the Kaypro PC found itself the victim of what the industry calls "collapsing price points," and many Kaypro dealers were forced to push cheaper brands to stay competitive. Kaypro's market share plunged.
In the past year, Kaypro has brought out one of the first computers based on the mighty Intel 80386 microprocessor. It is well built, and it garnered some good early reviews, but newer, faster and cheaper 386 machines appear to have overtaken it. Still, Kaypro is plugging away.
It has continued to upgrade the PC, and now has added the machine introduced at COMDEX: the Kaypro 286, an 80286-based system that will run as fast as 12 megahertz (twice the clock speed of the original IBM AT). It has the same snap-in architecture as the Kaypro PC, but the box is big enough to accept AT expansion boards.
It comes with 1 megabyte of memory, a 40-megabyte hard disk, a very nice 101-key keyboard and a flexible graphics adapter compatible with a variety of video standards. And there is the usual Kaypro assortment of free software, including the latest, much-improved version of Wordstar. The 286's list price is $2,995, hardly cheap but offered by most dealers for less. There also will be a new and faster 80286 upgrade card for the Kaypro PC.
In addition, Kaypro has brought out a new lap top, the 2000+, with the highest resolution screen (640 by 350 pixels) of any machine in its class. The display is liquid crystal, but has something called "cold-cathode backlighting." It produces very sharp blue characters on a white background. At $2,795 list for a two-floppy drive system, it's not cheap either, but with that screen and dealer markdowns, it could find a market.
David Kay, the 41-year-old president of Kaypro (and son of founder Andrew Kay) says the new 286 was a response to requests from dealers. "They said they wanted a desk top, and we gave them the PC. Then they said they needed a faster 286 machine, and we've given them that."
Kaypro is responsive to dealers because it is dependent on them. It doesn't sell through distributors, or direct to customers. Dealers like that, as long as those price points are right.
Brit Hume is a contributor to the Washington Post Writers Group. Hume is an ABC News Capitol Hill correspondent and the founding editor of a computer newsletter