Jannie rides the digital highway

Jannie van Zyl, of 
Plattekloof, has loved computers since he was kid – it’s been an enduring ROMance, one that today sees the former chief operating officer of iBurst breathing new life into old classics he could once only dream of owning.

These days, Jannie is the executive head of innovation at Vodacom in Midrand; he lives in Cape Town and commutes to Johannesburg every week. But back in 1978, 14-year-old Jannie was crushing hard on tech hardware.

“I was already doing a lot of electronic work, designing and building various circuits using discrete components. Computers were very new and basically unaffordable at this point, but it did not stop me reading as much as I could and lusting after the advertisements in the electronic magazines.”

It was a chance encounter with computer fundi and Jannie’s later mentor, Jean-Andre de Villiers, that spurred his interest in computers.

“He must have sensed my passion and gave me a fully working computer to use. It was a Compukit UK-101 with a 6502 CPU running at 1MHz, 4KB of RAM which I later expanded to a mind-boggling 8KB and 1KB of display memory,” he says.

Then, in about 1980, Jannie got a DAI 8080 system with advanced graphics and sound.

“I had to choose between buying a motorbike or a computer and chose wisely,” he quips.

By 1984, IBM PCs had become dominant. “My first IBM PC,” says Jannie, “was a Taiwanese Takeaway system.

“It was simultaneously the future of computing.”

After studying electronics, Jannie worked at the SABC and earned a bursary to study electronic engineering at Wits.

During his two years of national service, he started a PC business with a few of his fellow conscripts.

“This was in the middle 1980s, so IBM clones were just taking off. We imported components from Taiwan and built and sold many thousands of PCs. We also did a lot of bespoke projects, and I developed the hardware and software for these. As soon as I finished my national service, I resigned from the SABC, and focused full-time on the new business.”

Two years ago, he started restoring and tinkering with old computers. “These days, surrounded by his sizeable collection of vintage machines, restored to look like they’ve just come out of the box, Jannie confesses to feeling “like a kid in a candy store”.

“I found a large group of people on the internet collecting and restoring these computers.

“I found my spiritual home. Every computer I can remember was available with knowledgeable people actively supporting it. What is amazing – and it’s really the power of the internet and crowd sourcing – is how many enthusiasts there are for each
system and the amount of hardware and software still being developed for them today.

“Just the one Commodore C64 group I’m a member of has over 14 000 members.”

In 2000, Jannie and his wife decided to build a new home, but this wasn’t going to be any ordinary home.

“I decided to automate the complete home.

“Initially I looked for contractors to do the project, but it quickly transpired that no one has ever done a fully integrated automated home even if some contractors could do specific sub-systems.

“So, with a few engineers who worked for me at the time, we decided to design, develop and build it ourselves.

“What we initially thought would be a simple project turned into a full-time, three-year project,” he says.

“I’m married to the most amazing person on the planet and restoring vintage computers is just one of my hobbies.

“My wife, Loanne, always supports me 1 000% in all my endeavours, however crazy or time consuming they are, be it restoring old computers, old cars, riding many different bicycles or motorbikes or whatever comes next.

“Fortunately we have the space available, and I have quite a large storage area and a really cool electronics workshop for the old computers.

“This is all at the bottom of the house, so there are no computers in the lounge or living areas. Though I’ve been thinking about it,” he says, cheekily.