What's the value of old software?

What do you do with a warehouse full of outdated software? Simple--put it up for auction online with a starting bid of US$250,000.

At least, that's what Eli Tomlinson plans to do. Beginning September 7, Tomlinson is offering some 250,000 software titles--more than half of them released before 1990--in a single EBay Inc. auction.

Tomlinson, now assistant vice president of information systems for a bank in Homesdale, Pennsylvania, acquired the software over the past 20 years in his roles as a computer programmer, software publisher-importer, owner of a close-out software business, and computer hobbyist.

Nearly 80 percent of the 250,000-piece collection consists of gaming titles, including a nearly complete line of games from such publishers as Accolade, Activision, Epyx, Infocom, LucasArts, Microprose, Origin Systems, Taito, and Virgin, according to Tomlinson. The games were designed for a variety of now-vintage home computers and operating systems, including Apple II, Amiga, Atari, Commodore 64, CP/M, Macs, and PCs. Over 60 percent of the collection has never been used and is in its original packaging, or as they say on EBay, MIB (Mint In Box).

The Value in Vintage

Given today's sophisticated computer games, with their cinematic imagery, CD-quality sound, and nonstop, in-your-face action, would anyone really want, say, a copy of Text Adventures, an early-1980s puzzle game that--as its name implies--relies entirely on text?

Absolutely, says Tomlinson. In every field of interest, collectors invariably emerge, and home computer software is no different. The personal computer revolution began in the mid-1970s--a time now distant enough for early programs to arouse interest today as baby-boomer nostalgia.

In addition, first runs of popular game titles in the late 1970s and early 1980s typically consisted of only 2500 to 5000 copies, even from major publishers, according to Tomlinson. The result: Vintage gaming software, particularly titles still in their original box, is "remarkably rare" compared to other collectibles, such as baseball cards.

Finally, the growing popularity of EBay and other auction sites has made it possible for buyers to easily find sellers of collectible software, and vice versa.

"Interest in collectible software is growing," Tomlinson asserts. As evidence, he cites some of his own recent vintage software auctions on EBay: Leisure Suit Larry sold for $122.50; Zork 1 went for $71; and Welltris was snatched up for $62.50.

Not surprisingly, interest in vintage computers appears to be rising as well. Last fall, for instance, an Altair 8800, one of the most sought-after collectible computers, sold on EBay for $1967 and change. The computer's original price in 1975: about $500.

Downloadable History

Meanwhile, Web sites devoted to classic computer games and other software titles abound. Among the vintage game-related sites are Mobygames.com, Classicgamer.com, and Classicgaming.com.

Old Software sells exactly what its name implies, as well as vintage hardware (such as a used Commodore 64 computer for $90). You can also easily find vintage software programs on the Web available for free download. For instance, the groundbreaking spreadsheet application VisiCalc, released in 1981 for the IBM PC, is available at Dan Bricklin's Web site at no charge. A Google search for a vintage software title often leads to FTP and other sites where the program can be downloaded.

Big Business

Tomlinson's auction is aimed at entrepreneurs looking to resell individual titles to collectors. The auction includes a Microsoft Access database that Tomlinson created, cataloging 16,000 software titles, including images, original release dates, keywords, and other information.

Selling closeout and vintage software is a viable business, Tomlinson says. For example, if you buy 10,000 pieces of software for $1 apiece, you'll break even just by selling only 1000 pieces at $10 each--and that's easy to do, he explains. Tomlinson says he's auctioning the software off in one lump because he wants to sell the downtown Scranton warehouse in which the collection is stored.

To get more details about Tomlinson's auction, which ends September 17, go to his Web site at http://www.swrweb.com/.

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