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Andrew Kay Hopes to Reclaim Computer Fame

In the game of life, Solana Beach resident Andrew Kay has had his share of touchdowns.

But don’t expect the 86-year-old computer legend to hang up his cleats just yet.

Kay burst onto the San Diego high-tech scene in 1982, when he launched Kaypro, a revolutionary personal computer in its heyday that after just one year on the market was selling at a rate of more than 10,000 units a month. Although Kay was already a success, having invented the digital voltmeter in 1952, a device that digitally measures electronic volts, Kaypro’s launch solidified the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate’s place in San Diego history.

Now, nearly 25 years later, Kay is at it again, prepared to exceed his earlier successes by taking his new PC company, Kay Computers, public early next year with longtime associate and fellow MIT alum Joe Marcello. The small firm, based in Kay’s beloved Solana Beach, currently touts annual sales of about $1 million and has only a small handful of employees.

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“(This launch) should be bigger really because it’s a much larger market now,” Kay said, referring to his new venture, which involves the large-scale design, manufacture and distribution of personal computers for companies and large institutions, such as universities. The assembly is done locally, with Kay putting in many of the work hours himself.

Kay and Marcello, who served as chief financial officer for Non-Linear Systems, the company that Kay used to launch Kaypro, have already piqued the interest of many players in San Diego, including Thomas Scott, dean of San Diego State’s College of Sciences. In a written correspondence to Marcello, Scott noted, “You obviously have a business based on quality and integrity, and that gives you a high level of enthusiasm for your product.”

The motivating philosophy behind Kay’s latest career venture can be summarized in one word: reliability. According to Kay, current statistics show that the annual repair rate for office computers is about 28 percent, compared with Kay Computers’ current rate of about 2 percent. This means that an average office with 100 computers will need to repair 28 of them on average each year, compared to only two out of 100 Kay’s computers needing repair work. High-quality parts and meticulous assembly line work make the low repair rate possible, Kay said.

Kay’s hands-on approach as president and chief executive officer of Kay Computers, backed by more than four decades of experience, also comes into play. After all, Kay was the inspiration behind renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “enlightened management” concept, which stresses the advantages of workplace synergy and continual improvements.

But Kay, who was inducted into the Computer Hall of Fame in 1998 alongside Microsoft Corp. founder and cultural icon Bill Gates, isn’t blind to the fact that fresh minds are needed to carry on the work he’s started.

Marcello, 77, said he and Kay are eagerly looking for young interns who want to carry on their love of high-quality computer building.

The Kaypro computer was born after Kay watched his son-in-law struggle with disassembling and reassembling his Apple II in order to take it to and from work every day.

“I thought, there’s got to be a better way than that,” Kay said. “I had the notion of getting it smaller and making it better and that’s how it all started.”

When the company was launched in 1982, 200 units sold the first month out, followed by 600 the second month. By 1983, more than 10,000 units were rolling out the door, and Kaypro, under the Non-Linear Systems company umbrella, was the third largest PC manufacturer in the world, behind IBM and Apple.

To put that into perspective, Radio Shack’s computer division in 1981 was selling only about 1,200 units annually, Kay said.

“It exceeded my expectations,” Kay said. “I said I would take 10 percent of Radio Shack’s computer business, but we did a lot better than that.”

Although Kaypro rose to almost instant stardom, a failure to adapt to the MS-DOS operating system eventually led to the product’s downfall and, in the early 1990s, Kay filed for bankruptcy and sold Non-Linear Systems for $2.7 million.

“If Kaypro was a big deal, it’s going to be small compared to what we got going now,” Marcello said. “Andy’s got a lifetime of reliability you haven’t seen the last of him just yet.”

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