Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Micromarkets of the Internet

I suppose I should find the consequences of network effects so commonplace by now that they're hardly with a certain notice, much les the awe—a dawning realization of just how unlikely and improbably something would have been before Web 1.0 (or at least the democratization of Newsgroups). In this case, it's a sideline business so narrow and specialized that it's hard to see how it could ever be made to work if it required print ads (even in the most specialized of magazines) to find an audience.

First a little background. Northgate was one of what was probably the 2nd generation oro so of PC clones. Compatibility issues were in the past mostly. Northgates like Zeos (along with an equally fledging company called Dell and the still surviving though hardly as successful Gateway) sold most of their systems through ads in the like of PC Magazine and Computer Shopper and direct mail. However, Northgate also made a line of keyboards. Now, back then, a lot of people actually cared about keyboard feel. The IBM PC's with their "buckling spring" clicky feel were the gold standard. (Clones are still made.) But the IBM laylout and the sizes of some of their keys weren't to everyone's liking. Northgate responded to this rather finicky need by releasing several keyboards that, among other differences, had a huge ENTER key the way god intended. I have a couple of these, by now, elderly devices.

Unfortunately, the Northgate keyboard on my regular desktop computer started acting up. Besides being filthy, a couple of keys were sticking. Si I tried cleaning it up, and through the over-zealous application of isopropyl alohol (and then other things), I managed to make it go from bad to worse. There was always the ebay option—another form of network effect—but what should Google find for me but someone who actually repairs Northgate keyboards, Robert Tibbetts. In his words:

My second computer was a 1987 Northgate 386 with a Gold Label 102, in 1999 it started going south. Three switches decided not to work anymore. So my brainstorm was to get some Radio Shack contact cleaner, big mistake. Instead of 3 switches, I had about a dozen that did not work. I scrounged around and came up with a used Ultra T that worked OK. It was bought as in new condition, NOT, but it worked. The GL always bugged me, so I decided to take it apart and pull the switches apart. I repaired them and made it work again, now I just replace them. It is just to time consuming to take a switch apart and clean the contacts. So after that I bought some on e-Bay, fixed them and resold them and here we are 4 years later and over 600 refurbed and sold. I keep around 100 keyboards in stock, some are new.Fixing keyboards is just a sideline that I enjoy doing. My main work is wholesale lumber for the last 40 years.

So, if you've got an old Northgate keyboard sitting up in an attic gathering dust. Consider dusting it off and sending it in. The cost for cleaning is about $60 with shipping and all; key switches cost about $5 each to repair. Above all, keep that Radio Shack Contact Cleaner away from them!
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