back to article UK Court of Appeal rules Tiny Computers' legal remains can sue Micron and Infineon over 2002 DRAM price-fixing cartel

The legal remains of one-time PC maker Tiny Computers can sue RAM manufacturers Micron and Infineon for damages over a 2002 price-fixing cartel, the UK Court of Appeal has ruled. The case resurrects some ancient brand names from British computing history as well as some decidedly dodgy doings by DRAM dealers during the 2000s …

  1. UCAP Silver badge

    First PC ...

    ... was a Tiny - pretty solid as well for its time (late 1990's) and got good use from it for several years before I started to build my own.

    1. Stuart Castle Silver badge

      Re: First PC ...

      Friend of mine bought a Time PC.

      Lovely PC until he wanted to expand it. He wanted a new Graphics Card . Something made a little difficult to add due the the lack of any expansion slots. So, he gave up on that idea.

      Then, it went wrong. Due to their use of proprietary parts, and a lack of physical service centres he could visit, he had to phone their support line to report a fault. A premium rate line that cost well over £1 a minute. Due to the speed the support staff operated at, and the fact the phone system had a 15 minute cut off (this was a legal requirement), he had to make several calls to get it fixed,

      I think he'd spend nearly £100 in phone calls by the time he gave up. It was only a very low end PC, so really wasn't anything special.

      1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Re: Premium rate phone line support

        Plan A: If the support line is premium rate, buy somewhere else where failure is not a revenue stream. Plan B: call the sales number - which is probably a freephone number and be persistent until they transfer you to support. Plan C: put it in writing and post it. Plan D: keep records in case you have to escalate either to a small claims court or a tech journalism web site - it should not be too hard to find a good one.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Premium rate phone line support

          this wouldnt work. Sales would transfer you to the waiting "hell" line which was hardware support. Hardware support was a "local rate" number. Software assistance was the premium number. There were twice as many people on software than hardware. The software guys were generally quite good and there was a 3rd line that were very good. The third line would write fixes for hardware and were generally decent coders.

          Hardware support were script readers only. Software had a bank of golden samples that were the actual machines sold, they would look at these machines and talk your through the exact screens that they saw. They would also do the same things you did over the phone on a same model.

          Post was a good method, everything was scanned and all letters looked at in "slow time" by call staff who were not on the phone. They DID call people back with issues so it wasnt all just premium numbers.

          Not defending them totally as the company was shady, however it was the management at the top not the middle bunch and there was a lot of talent at the company.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: First PC ...

        I call foul on this one. Posting anonymously because I know there are a few ex TimePC guys on here. I was the evaluations team leader at Time computers (and since there was only one for quite a number of years, that gives me away to those who might remember - I got the job at nvidia early 00's). I signed off almost every consumer build that was sold (a different team looked after the business and education departments, occasionally these were sold as consumer PCs so that wasnt my doing...)

        Only the PSUs were proprietary (bare minimum cables for the maximum PC configuration, no spares), none of the other parts were proprietary, they were bog standard micro ATX boards, normal PCI cards and sourced mainly from MSI. Laptops were all semi-custom built, some had onboard discrete GFX too. Parts were rebadged though and some were apparently unbranded that was all (the PCI modems were cheap, often reflashed foreign models to work in the UK). CPUs were AMD due to us having a massive supply in a large safe, AMD distributed from our site near Padiham, it was a good business deal as it meant we could undercut Dell etc.

        The worst offenders were the TV cards, they were very noisy on the PCI bus, since only the higher end PCs had these it often made things worse. Removing the TV card was the best thing you could do but no-one wanted to admit this of course. Drivers were developed inhouse that locked the frequency ranges, this made them less noisy.

        There were systems sold that were very hard to upgrade, this was because some of the coolers were cheap (they were cheap because they were large and obscured the upgrade slots!), also the PSUs were adequate for the system, often not enough power to run powered peripherals such as GFX or they lacked extra molex for more HDDs (5v rail was probably not enough formore HDDs either). Cost saving again.

        Firmware on all the hard drives was proprietary but that didnt stop them being changed, that was due to a small hidden partition with the rebuild data, the firmware was an MS requirement for hiding the installation data from prying eyes - I wrote the bootloader unlock code for the ubiquitous option 6 - alongside the guy in the same office (the guy with the 5th generation Bengali cat + the many scratches). You couldnt format them to full size, you couldnt get them to admit to being full size because the firmware hid the partition unless the time boot CD was used to recover. It was a small linux system, all developed in house.

        Time was a reasonable company with very bad senior management, there was a lot of talent in the mid level and everything was done to a tight budget. As for the builds, a lot of things were innovative for the time, they had a build picker way before many other companies did the same (not many intel offerings though), these went straight through to build orders after payment. The picking for parts was automated, build sheets were automated, the lines people had a screen in front of them with colour coded items which they shoved into slots. Imaging was a 100mb intel custom ghost clone. Each PC had a barcode which listed each part put in, the part serial numbers were coded to each PC so we could tell if a customer had swapped the CPU or RAM - all parts barcodes were scanned you see. The whole backend was running on an NT4 access database (!) with vb5 code (I know because I wrote it!).

        Good times, I learnt a lot back then but was happy to move. Nvidia was such a different story.

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: First PC ...

          Yeah, I had a Time Computer. Was perfectly fine, a good spec for the price. An amazing spec for the price, actually. Upgraded the CPU myself a few years later with no problems. I still have it downstairs in the storage room - it worked fine last time I checked it, about 3 years ago.

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: First PC ...

            Memory finally kicked in... it was an Evergreen modification. Replaced the CPU with a 1GHz Pentium III I think it was, and you had to reflash the BIOS.

        2. don't you hate it when you lose your account

          Re: First PC ...

          Worked for them while I was at uni. And pretty much agree with your assessment, particularly about the top management. The only thing I'd add is the couriers they used where the biggest bunch of thieves I've ever had the misfortune to come across. PC repairs in transit would evaporate parts at an alarming rate. I got to the stage of using one of their first webcams to snap the insides before packing them up. Didn't stop the steal but coverd my arse.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: First PC ...

            they treat the warehouse staff rotten. Really badly. Almost noone on the production lines spoke english, almost noone could read or write either. Stuff went missing from the couriers definitely, once a box was unloaded there were the two security prison wardens supervising until they were inside the inner cage. All staff were wanded with metal detectors, there was a one way turnstyle, no bags allowed on site, no personal possessions either. I felt sorry for the grunts building the machines as im sure a lot were living in the same blocks of flats owned by the management (zubair certainly had a lot of property in blackburn and there was a bus laid on for staff in the morning).

            If you worked in the packing area, I remember that was freezing at the best of times. The only positive was that it was too far away for most people to care. The network connection over there was a miracle of 4x chained 10Mb hubs running a pair of zebra printers. They wouldnt pay for fibre so we ran cables at their maximum....

            1. Lazlo Woodbine Silver badge

              Re: First PC ...

              We had our own gigabit network in the service centre, the rest of the network was a mess, so we didn't touch it, had our own ghosting servers for rebuilding PCs.

              Our fast network came in handing for Medal of Honour & Call of Duty at lunchtime...

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: First PC ...

        I remember Tiny Computers. They did make nice kit. In the late 90's I was a young "whizz kid" and I made a lot of money supporting brands like Tiny because their support was pricey.

        I'd likely have no IT career if not for premium rate tech support in the late 90's.

    2. CuChulainn Silver badge

      Re: First PC ...

      "got good use from it for several years before I started to build my own"

      Absolutely and completely ditto. Same here.

      The only issue with them was the underpowered (and custom-sized) PSUs they had fitted - which could fortunately be replaced by a full-sized one if they blew. And they did, quite often.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: First PC ...

        I had the provison for larger PSU many times and I was always overruled by Zubair for all of them. I never liked running the PSUs at maximum and with the minimum cables, it made no sense but I suspect we were getting PSUs from failed high rating ones and rebadged. If the minimum power was 3A on 5V rail then that is what was given and I had to detail the minimums, not the recommended - no exception. The best I could do was spec for the maximum possible in a machine, this often led to some machines being more upgradable than others but still, not great. Zubair wanted proof for all eval kit, Mark used to do most of the PSUs and Andy was the peripherals guy so they needed the paperwork with specs to come to me.

        Some early builds had more molex than were required, the lines folk were ordered to CUT the cables not being used - this was after we had signed off leaving them with a cable tie. It was quicker to cut than tie by a few seconds so they cut them. Floppy cables were cut flush also, not great as that was a short risk and probably led to supplies blowing.

        All the broken machines were resold via emiT anyway, another of the Granville subsidiaries (along with the lesser known sat comms outfit that fitted the BBC buses, this turned into SupaNet eventually)

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    I'd have thought that any money due as a result of price fixing would be to those who actually paid the fixed prices: those who bought the computers.

    1. anthonyhegedus Silver badge

      The law is an ass. It's ridiculous, and anyone with common sense can see that. The liquidators are greedy, plain and simple. Nothing in there about how Tiny sold substandard crap with proprietary parts (I worked on them at the time; they'd get a perfectly good motherboard and then get the manufacturer to build several of them with bits missing off them, and with cheaper components. The resultant abominations were harder to service, and unreliable.

      So does this mean that people who wasted money on badly made computers 20 years ago can sue the liquidators? Thought not.

      1. IGotOut Silver badge

        "So does this mean that people who wasted money on badly made computers 20 years ago can sue the liquidators? "

        No but they can sue the Cartel.

        Have fun getting your £5 back.

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Technically those would be creditors of the insolvent company.

    3. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Compensating correct victims

      In theory the fines paid to the EU meant you paid slightly lower taxes - or the EU got a bigger budget to spend on services / grants / Galileo GPS / ...

  3. jpo234

    Infineon's DRAM business was spun off in 2006 to become Qimonda. Qimonda became bankrupt in 2009. It's still around to market its patent portfolio.

  4. Admiral Grace Hopper

    Moo

    I'm surprised to see that the ghost of Gateway 2000 is still chewing the cud, albeit as a zombie cow on a phantom prairie. My cow-puter was a sturdy and reliable beast, as was the Tiny box that preceded it.

  5. nematoad Silver badge
    Happy

    Brilliant!

    Moon Beever

    "We build watertight cases."

    I nominate this firm of solicitors for the coolest name of the week.

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: Brilliant!

      "We build watertight cases."

      I nominate them to build a liquid cpu cooler

  6. sreynolds Silver badge

    Mother fuckers....

    I remember starting work at one of the offenders and was forced to undergo ethics training, as punishment for their price fixing. It was totally useless as it didn't show how they got caught and how they could avoid getting caught in the future.

    1. druck Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Mother fuckers....

      Is it ethical for the ethics training to include how not to get caught in the future?

      1. keith_w
        Devil

        Re: Mother fuckers....

        I believe that by behaving ethically, as trained in your ethical training, you avoid being caught acting unethically.

      2. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Mother fuckers....

        In the world of business, "ethics" is an extremely pliable concept.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Mother fuckers....

          To many politicians, ethics is just north-east of London. Any other concept is totally foreign...

      3. David 132 Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Mother fuckers....

        I had to take ethics/antitrust training at my workplace a couple of years ago.

        When my manager asked me if I'd taken it, my response - "Nah, I bribed a child-labourer North Korean government official to take it on my behalf by offering him exclusive kickbacks on our products" - didn't go down well. Fortunately he has a good sense of humour.

  7. knarf

    Bought a few Tiny Computers

    They were mail order only for a longtime and my mates and I used to buy their bare bones machines and add bits as we scrounged up more cash.

    Now what IRQ did I set that card too.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Bought a few Tiny Computers

      >Now what IRQ did I set that card too.

      DMA channel

      ROM address

      All parameters that had to be set by using the jumpers on the card, back then...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bought a few Tiny Computers

      Not 7. Everything went to 7. Then you plugged a TV card in and everything blue screened. constantly as it hammered interrupts to buffer the channels.

  8. mark l 2 Silver badge

    I used to work at Granville Technology (Time Computers) from the late 90s to early 2000s. Pretty awful place to work TBH.

    The PCs they sold was cheap crap which was lucky if it would last out the 12 month warranty and the support staff were on minimum wage so most would fob off customers with BS which they knew would never fix the problem just to get them off the phone.

    Customer 'I can't connect to the internet'

    Granville support 'OK run a hard drive defrag and then call back when its finished'

    Glad I got out of there before they went titsup.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Bizarrely legitimate troubleshooting.

      I used to work for a small ISP.

      Scandisk and defrag were in our standard troubleshooting for Windoze computers. Yes, for people who couldn't get on the internet.

      Why?

      Because Microsloth were so incredibly incompetent at writing an operating system that the frequent disk corruption and fragmentation would actually break the garbage winmodem drivers, and keep people from being able to get on the internet.

      It was never the problem with actual hardware modems. But since winmodems were just software (long before the processor could really handle it, and before consumer Windoze had real multitasking) they were flaky as all f**k.

      And of course the cheap garbage modem in a cheap garbage computer from a cheap garbage company is almost certainly going to be a f-ing winmodem.

  9. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    The people worst impacted by memory price fixers were not PC manufacturers/assemblers. Indeed many of them made a lot of money off the back of the cartel. Those who were in support jobs back then may remember the thefts of memory. I remember whole office buildings being raided and either hardware being stolen wholesale or components being removed usually leaving the PCs an unserviceable mess. The end result being that companies had to replace every PC in that building or if they were lucky just buy new components. Hopefully funded by insurance companies. Meaning of course that the likes of Tiny probably did quite well out of all these shenanigans selling as they probably did a whole load of new hardware.

    The victims and/or insurance companies on the other hand got nothing.

    1. Peter 26

      I'd forgot about the mass memory stealing around that time! It always made the Computer Weekly headlines.

      It seems bizarre looking back that memory was the most expensive part of a PC with the mass production we have now.

  10. SuperGeek

    Granville, hmmm..

    G..G..Granville, fetch a cloth!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Granville, hmmm..

      Was I the only one back in the day who thought Nurse Gladys was probably a goer in real life?

      Oh, just me then...

  11. Ynox

    I had a Tiny _and_ a Time machine back in the day.

    The Tiny was bought in '96 in the early days of them being on the high street. Was a Pentium 133 with 16mb RAM and a 2gb HDD. It required an RMA for a dodgy motherboard which resulted in it going back off to Asia from what I remember. Think from memory it was a broken LPT port. Also required software support after an installation of Flight Sim '96 resulted in Direct X 3 screwing up the ATi Mach 64 graphics drivers. No real complaints on that.

    The Time I bought as a result of a review in a PC mag. It was a weird spec machine only available from their business side of the business. P3 500MHz, 128mb RAM, 17.2gb Seagate disk (Medallion I think), DVD ROM drive, Riva TNT2 Ultra graphics card, Soundblaster Live sound card, Supermicro P6SBA motherboard, crap quality software MODEM (replaced it with a hardware MODEM in the end) but also with a Microsoft Sidewinder force feedback joystick, a half decent quality LG monitor and a good set of Labtec 2.1 speakers. I couldn't build this machine for what it cost then and it had pretty good quality parts.

    Overall I was happy with the machines. Also heard about some iffy work conditions there though!

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