The following is an unauthorized translation of an article by Jiří Franěk, published in the Czechoslovak computer magazine List sometime in early 1989. Some readers probably remember those times, others have forgotten. As for the rest—consider yourselves lucky.
The number of computers in our households keeps going up, despite domestic production contributing extremely little—and foreign trade only very slightly more—toward that end. Individual import from abroad is still the most “natural” way of obtaining a computer and peripherals. But the process is not without pitfalls.
One of the proven methods of not buying a computer (or even better a printer) is a purchase through a third party. “Dear auntie, I have a pressing need to buy a Seikosha GP 100 printer and Multiface II for my ZX Spectrum1. Both are very cheap and in Munich you can probably find them in every drug store.” Auntie will waste a lot of time shopping but never find the desired peripherals even in the most specialized store. Those who have spent some time abroad (and know how the foreign markets work) no doubt understand the problem. For the rest, unfortunately the majority, an explanation follows.
- The Seikosha GP 100 cannot be had, because the ad in a six-month old magazine in fact announced a closeout sale. Incredibly low prices usually indicate that a given model is no longer in production. The capitalist manufacturer does not keep producing a model which is no longer profitable. Low profit is only acceptable for new models which are expected to be successful later. As soon as it becomes a bestseller, the price goes up. The capitalist retailer on the other hand may sell with a loss. Margins are high, and spare parts and accessories in particular are more profitable for retailers than for manufacturers. Those profits cover losses from the sale of goods which no longer interest buyers, and which can only be sold at all when the price drops to the rock bottom.
- Multiface II is not available in Munich at all, because Sinclair was never very successful in West Germany. But it’s not available in specialized stores on Tottenham Court Road in London either, even though it’s made in London. The manufacturer is a small company named Romantic Robot which makes the devices more or less by hand, and therefore can’t increase profits by lowering costs. The company does not want to share profits with retailers and sells almost exclusively by mail.
Disappointment caused by unfamiliarity with the market can be experienced even without an aunt. A popular way of not buying a computer is a great “bargain”. I know two people who own a home computer that was a real “bargain”, but in practice they now don’t have anything. One bought a computer on sale on a business trip to Sweden; it was a computer made by a company named Dragon which likely no longer exists, plus three fairly dumb games. The computer “lived” for about a month and then ended up in a closet. The other buyer was not so naive and did some research first. Found out that a new operating system called MSX is becoming successful, and bought himself a MSX machine. But MSX never really made it to Czechoslovakia and in most of the rest of the world MSX didn’t do so great either.
A computer, even the best one, is a fairly dumb machine, which is only brought to life by software. The best way to spend money on a computer but not really have one is to buy something with no real software and no proper documentation. It might seem that the answer is simple—buy a PC, because the supply of software is endless. The trouble is that most Czechoslovaks simply can’t afford one (and don’t have a generous enough aunt), or can at best afford a “bare” PC. And soon discover that without a printer, a computer is just a toy.
It might appear that I’m trying to say that buying nothing is the best option. I only want to point out the dangers of buying a computer abroad. Said dangers are the consequences of roughly four risk factors:
- our own psyche
- “experts” giving us advice
- ignorance of the market
- trouble with import
I’ll now describe these factors in detail.
- We’re all slightly irrational and sometimes we want things we don’t need. Anyone who wants a computer but isn’t entirely sure what to use it for should buy a cheap used Spectrum or similar. Either they’ll play with it and find out that they really don’t need a computer, or they’ll attempt to get something done and understand what they might need a computer for and what sort of computer would satisfy their requirements.
Desire can lead us astray; it is sensible to buy the cheapest thing which checks all the boxes, but our psyche tells us that if we’re already buying something, it should really be Something.
- Hordes of “experts” point us towards what’s best. The reasons are usually purely technical and have nothing to do with the actual purpose of a computer. If I use a computer that’s 99% a text editor, it doesn’t have to be a 32-bit machine with a math co-processor.
- Ignorance of foreign markets can bring disappointments. I know several people who imported Amstrad PCW machines from West Germany, but only after spending a lot of time finding one. Through importing “germanized” Amstrad computers, Schneider built a good position on the German market. Now Schneider sells its own computers and that’s the end of Amstrad in West Germany.
Computer magazines of a given country provide useful information about what’s available. It’s advisable to pay more attention to the articles than the ads. The articles tend to cover what’s typical in a given country, while ads offer all sorts of odd things. And ads are usually placed by small, less reliable companies rather than larger chains. In any case it’s less risky to buy a name brand computer from a big retailer rather than a suspect off-brand item in an obscure one-man shop.
Price is of course important. Mail-order catalogs are a good source of data about pricing. But that’s informational only, since prices at a store can be significantly higher. In some countries, advertised prices also do not match reality. In British magazines for example one has to look for the fine print saying “prices shown without VAT”. Related to this is the fact that when exporting an item from a country, the VAT may be recovered. It is worthwhile to research beforehand which stores can do this and how.
- Now that the import tax on computers has been abolished, it is easy to individually import a computer as long as the purchase price is not wildly higher than the amount of exported foreign currency listed on the customs declaration2. Those who bought currency on the black market and smuggled it out in a sock risk that the customs officer might not be having a good day. The customs officer is a professional who does not appreciate when a little amateur smuggler tries to make him look stupid.
If Aunt Amalie in Lisbon bought you a computer, you may be in for a nasty surprise. There’s no import tax to be paid, but there is a so-called notary fee, 20% of estimated value. And the estimated value has nothing to do with the actual price paid, it is derived from the “common price of goods”, and bureaucratic logic says that that’s the price of computers on the domestic market where computers are usually not available. That way, one Deutschmark can end up having “common value” of sixty crowns or so3.
If Aunt Amalie in Lisbon does buy something for you, the deed should explicitly say something which might seem obvious but is otherwise rather difficult to explain to bureaucrats: Namely that the gift is to your family of four from the aunt and uncle and their three daughters. When several people gift something to several other people, the price of the item is divided by the number of participants of the complicated transaction. If you’re lucky, you will officially only get the keyboard cable and end up paying no fees, even if you end up with an entire computer. Since the details can change by executive order, I recommend checking the current situation with a notary beforehand.
- It is unclear whether the author intentionally or unintentionally highlighted the kind of ignorance that complicated the purchase of computer peripherals. While the Multiface (aka Multiface One) was indeed a ZX Spectrum peripheral, the Multiface Two was an Amstrad CPC accessory, absolutely no good for use with a Spectrum.
- In communist Czechoslovakia, hard currency was tightly controlled. It was possible to officially purchase Western currency at a rather favorable exchange rate, but only in small pre-approved quantities, more or less fixed per day of stay in a given country. A customs official would therefore easily see (based on stamps in the passport) how much money a returning traveler would have been able to spend.
- The official exchange rate was about 3 crowns for 1 Deutschmark (DM). The actual price for individuals was about 5 crowns per DM, if one could get them. On the black market, the exchange rate was roughly 15-20 crowns per DM. 60 crowns for one DM would certainly be an extremely unfavorable exchange rate.