How can anything be an "antique" in a world that's only about 20 years old?

In the personal computer world, which runs on a clock that ticks millions of times per second, it's pretty easy. And these days, its inhabitants are showing some nostalgia for the good old days of the '70s and '80s.

It's old software they're after -- programs that just aren't made any more, applications that have been retired for any number of reasons. They have become outmoded, perhaps, or their companies have died or been bought up, or they can't run on today's machines.

Pair that demand with the Internet, and voila, you have a market for antique software.

This new wave of reminiscence started last month when Dan Bricklin, coauthor of the classic but long-dead spreadsheet program VisiCalc, posted a working version of it on his Web site (www.bricklin.com/history/vcexecutable.htm).

For the youngsters among us, VisiCalc came out in 1979 for the Apple II computer and a couple of years later for IBM PCs, and its ease and functionality almost single-handedly created the personal computer market. In other words, it was wildly popular.

But it was discontinued by Lotus Development Corp. when the company bought VisiCalc's developer firm in 1985; Lotus, after all, already had a fine-selling spreadsheet, 1-2-3. But now VisiCalc's back: In July, Bricklin put up the 1981 DOS version as part of his site cataloguing the history of the program.

In just the past couple of weeks, early versions of Borland's Turbo Pascal and Turbo C programming applications and the More outlining software, all from the early '80s, have hit the World Wide Web. (The More software is available at www.outliners.com; the Borland software is available at http://community. borland.com/museum/; click on `Anonymous' to enter the site.) The Internet's wildfire way of spreading the word has fueled the rest.

What's the draw to programs that have failed?

It's due in part to a nostalgic fondness for childhood toys. We learned on these programs, and laughed and cried over them; just seeing these old pals again gives us a warm feeling.

But many people would argue the tug is more than emotional. Some of these old-timers are essential tools for opening old data files. And many of them seem better than today's multi-featured applications, which are powerful but overextended pieces of programming that always do far more than the task you bought them for. They take up huge amounts of disk space and memory.

The 1981 VisiCalc just posted takes up 28 kilobytes on a hard drive! Case closed.

Even if you like today's apps better, you may not own the latest, greatest, fastest personal computers that you need to run them.

Thus, when a Web site for Macintosh news posted some publicity about the release of the More software, there was an outpouring from readers looking for Cricket Graph, or Multiplan, or the ChipWits game, or MacWrite, or bragging about how their 10-year-old calendar program still worked better than anything out today.

Even without the latest push started by VisiCalc, the Web already held a lot of old software, most of it shareware; the commercial applications still belong to their companies or creators, and search engines will turn them up.

A lot of DOS programs, for example, can be found at http://oak. oakland.edu/simtel.net/msdos/ index-msdos.html.

Some old Mac software is archived at www.geocities.com/ SiliconValley/Hills/6629/old.html.

There's also something called the Software Museum on a personal home page in Amsterdam, but it just catalogues the names of disk contents and doesn't provide the programs themselves. You'll need to be a hard-core fan of nostalgia to enjoy it. Programs include IBM PC DOS 1.10, Microsoft Multiplan 1.2 and Microsoft Word 1.1.

A couple of years ago, Sun Microsystems Inc. launched a "project rescue" to issue software that would help keep 486 machines up to speed on the Web. The idea was to sell speedy Java engines that could work on DOS without Windows 3.1. But there appears to be little evidence of it today on Sun's mammoth Web site.

There are also a few bricks-and-mortar retail stores that sell out-of-print software; B&R Computer Services in San Diego is often mentioned for Macs. Community computer user groups also tend to have a selection.

It's real easy to get teary-eyed over this old stuff. But at the same time, we shouldn't forget that a lot of programs have become historical footnotes for a good reason -- they were dogs. If you go looking for them, be discriminating.

Victoria Shannon can be e-mailed at VShannon@aol.com.