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Acorn and Amstrad

…he explains to her that Sinclair, the British inventor, had a way of getting things right, but also exactly wrong. Foreseeing the market for affordable personal computers, Sinclair decided that what people would want to do with them was to learn programming. The ZX81, marketed in the United States as the Timex 1000, cost less than the equivalent of a hundred dollars, but required the user to key in programs, tapping away on that little motel keyboard-sticker. This had resulted both in the short market-life of the product and, in Voytek’s opinion, twenty years on, in the relative preponderance of skilled programmers in the United Kingdom. They had had their heads turned by these little boxes, he believes, and by the need to program them. “Like hackers in Bulgaria,” he adds, obscurely.

“But if Timex sold it in the United States,” she asks him, “why didn’t we get the programmers?”

“You have programmers, but America is different. America wanted Nintendo. Nintendo gives you no programmers…”

— William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

A couple of years ago I ventured out of the man cave to give a talk about the Amiga at a small game-development conference in Oslo. I blazed through as much of the platform’s history as I could in 45 minutes or so, emphasizing for my audience of mostly young students from a nearby university the Amiga’s status as the preeminent gaming platform in Europe for a fair number of years. They didn’t take much convincing; even this crowd, young as they were, had their share of childhood memories involving Amiga 500s and 1200s. Mostly they seemed surprised that the Amiga hadn’t ever been all that terribly popular in the United States. During the question-and-answer session, someone asked a question that stopped me short: if American kids hadn’t been playing games on their Amigas, just what the hell had they been playing on?

The answer itself wasn’t hard to arrive at: the sorts of kids who migrated from 8-bit Sinclairs, Acorns, Amstrads, and Commodores to 16-bit Amigas and Atari STs in Britain made a much more lateral move in the United States, migrating to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

More complex and interesting are the ramifications of these trends. Because the Atari VCS console was never a major presence in Britain and the rest of Europe during its heyday, and because Nintendo arrived only very belatedly, for many years videogames played in the home there meant games played on home computers. One could say much about how having a device useful for creation as well as consumption as the favored platform of most people affected the market across Europe. The magazines were filled with stories of bedroom gamers who had become bedroom coders and finally Software Stars. Such stories make a marked contrast to an American console-gaming magazine like Nintendo Power, all about consumption without the accompanying ethos of creation.

But most importantly for our purposes today, the relative neglect of Britain in particular by the big computing powers in the United States and Japan — for many years, Commodore was the only company of either nation to make a serious effort to sell their machines into British homes — gave space for a flourishing domestic trade in homegrown machines. When Britain became the nation with the most computers per capita on the planet at mid-decade, most of the computers in question bore the logo of either Acorn or Sinclair, the two great rivals at the heart of the young British microcomputer industry.

Acorn, co-founded by Clive Sinclair’s former right-hand man Chris Curry and an Austrian academic named Hermann Hauser, was an archetypal example of an engineering-driven company. Their machines were a little more baroque, a little better built, and consequently a little more expensive than they needed to be, while their public persona was reserved and just a little condescending, much like that of the BBC that had given its official imprimatur to Acorn’s most popular machine, the BBC Micro. Despite “Uncle Clive’s” public reputation as the British Inspector Gadget, Sinclair was just the opposite; cheap and cheerful, they had the common touch. Acorns sold to the educators, to the serious hobbyists, and to the posh, while Sinclairs dominated with the masses.

Yet Acorn and Sinclair were similar in one important respect: they were both in their own ways very poorly managed companies. When the British home-computer market hit an iceberg in 1985, both were caught in untenable positions, drowning in excess inventory. Acorn — quintessentially British, based in the storied heart of Britain’s “Silicon Fen” of Cambridge — was faced with a choice between dissolution and selling themselves to the Italian typewriter manufacturer Olivetti; after some hand-wringing, they chose the latter course. Sinclair also sold out: to the new kid on the block of British computing, Amstrad, owned by a gruff Cockney with a penchant for controversy named Alan Sugar who was well on his way to becoming the British Donald Trump.

Ever practical in their approach to technology, Amstrad made much of the CPC's bundled monitor in their advertising, noting that with the CPC Junior could play on the computer while the rest of the family watched television.

Ever mindful of the practical concerns of their largely working-class customers, Amstrad made much of the CPC’s bundled monitor in their advertising, noting that Junior could play on the CPC without tying up the family television.

Amstrad had already been well-established as a maker of inexpensive stereo equipment and other consumer electronics when their first computers, the CPC (“Colour Personal Computer”) line, debuted in June of 1984. The CPC range was created and sold as a somewhat more capable Sinclair Spectrum. It consisted of well-built and smartly priced if technically unimaginative computers that were fine choices for gaming, boasting as they did reasonably good if hardly revolutionary graphics and sound. Like most Amstrad products, they strained to be as easy to use as possible, shipping as complete units — tape or disk drive and monitor included — at a time when virtually all of their rivals had to be assembled piece by piece via separate purchases.

The CPC line did very well from the outset, even as Acorn and Sinclair were soon watching their own sales implode. Pundits attributed the line’s success to what they called “the Amstrad Effect”: Alan Sugar’s instinct for delivering practical products at a good price at the precise instant when the technology behind them was ready for the mass market — i.e., was about to become desirable to his oft-stated target demographic of “the truck driver and his wife.” Sugar preferred to let others advance the technical state of the art, then swoop in to reap the rewards of their innovations when the time was right. The CPC line was a great example of him doing just that.

But the most dramatic and surprising iteration of the Amstrad Effect didn’t just feed the existing market for colorful game machines; it found an entirely new market segment, one that Amstrad’s competitors had completely missed until now. The story of the creation of the Amstrad PCW line is a classic tale of Alan Sugar, a man who knew almost nothing about computers but knew all he needed to about the people who bought them.

One day just a few months after the release of the first CPC machines, Sugar found himself in an airplane over Asia with Bob Watkins, one of his most trusted executives. A restless Sugar asked Watkins for a piece of paper, and proceeded to draw on it a contraption that included a computer, a monitor, a disk drive, and a printer, all in one unit. Looking at the market during the run-up to the CPC launch, Sugar had recognized that the only true mainstream uses for the current generation of computers in the home were as game machines and word processors. With the CPC, he had the former application covered. But what about the latter? All of the inexpensive machines currently on the market, like the Sinclair Spectrum, were oriented toward playing games rather than word processing, trading the possibility of displaying crisp 80-column text for colorful graphics in lower resolutions. Meanwhile all of the more expensive ones, like the BBC Micro, were created by and for hardcore techies rather than Sugar’s truck drivers. If they could apply their patented technology-for-the-masses approach to a word processor for the home and small business — making a cheap, well-built, all-in-one design emphasizing ease of use for the common person — Amstrad might just have another hit on their hands, this time in a market of their own utterly without competition. Internally, the project was named after Sugar’s secretary Joyce, since it would hopefully make her job and those of many like her much easier. It would eventually come to market as the “PCW,” or “Personal Computer Word Processor.”

The first Amstrad PCW machine, complete with bundled printer.

The first Amstrad PCW machine, complete with bundled printer. Note how the disk drive and the computer itself are built into the same case as the monitor, a very unusual design for the period.

Even more so than the CPC, the PCW was a thoroughly underwhelming package for technophiles. It was build around the tried-and-true Z80 8-bit CPU and ran CP/M, an operating system already considered obsolete by big business, MS-DOS having become the standard in the wake of the IBM PC. The bundled word-processing software, contracted out to a company called Locomotive Software, wasn’t likely to impress power users of WordStar or WordPerfect overmuch — but it was, in keeping with the Amstrad philosophy, unusually friendly and easy to use. Sugar knew his target customers, knew that they “didn’t give a shit whether there was an elastic band or an 8086 or a 286 driving the thing. They wouldn’t know what you were talking about.”

As usual, most of Amstrad’s hardware-engineering efforts went into packaging and cost-cutting. It was decided that the printer would have to be housed separately from the system unit for technical reasons, but otherwise the finished machine conformed remarkably well to Sugar’s original vision. Best of all, it had a price of just £399. By way of comparison, Acorn’s most recent BBC Micro Model B+ had half as much memory and no disk drive, monitor, or printer included — and was priced at £499.

Nervous as ever about intimidating potential customers, Amstrad was at pains to market the PCW first and foremost as a turnkey word-processing solution for homes and small businesses, as a general-purpose computer only secondarily if at all. “It’s more than a word processor for less than most typewriters,” ran their tagline. At the launch event in the heart of the City in August of 1985, three female secretaries paraded across the stage: a snooty one who demanded one of the competition’s expensive computer systems; a tarty one who said a typewriter was more than good enough; and a smart, reasonable one who naturally preferred the PCW. Man-of-the-people Sugar crowed extravagantly that Amstrad had “brought word-processing within the reach of every small business, one-man band, home-worker, and two-finger typist in the country.” Harping on one of his favorite themes, he noted that once again Amstrad had “produced what the customer wants and not a boffin’s ego trip.”

Sugar’s aggressive manner may have grated with many buttoned-down trade journalists, but few could deny that he might just open up a whole new market for computers with the PCW. Electrical Retailer and Trader was typical, calling the PCW “a grown-up computer that does something people want, packaged and sold in a way they can understand, at a price they’ll accept.” But even that note of optimism proved far too mild for the reality of the machine’s success. The PCW exploded out of the gate, selling 350,000 units in the first eight months. It probably could have sold a lot more than that, but Amstrad, caught off-guard by the sales numbers despite their founder’s own bullishness on the product, couldn’t make and ship them fast enough.

Level 9's Time and Magic text adventure running on a PCW.

Level 9’s Time and Magik text adventure running on a PCW.

Surprisingly for such a utilitarian package, the PCW garnered considerable loyalty and even love among the millions in Britain and all across Europe who eventually bought one. Their enthusiasm was enough to sustain a big, glossy newsstand magazine dedicated to the PCW alone — an odd development indeed for this machine that seemed on the face of it to be anything but a hacker’s darling. A thriving software ecosystem that reached well beyond word processing sprung up around the machine. Despite the PCW’s monochrome display and virtually nonexistent animation and sound capabilities, even games were far from unheard of on the platform. For obvious reasons, text adventures in particular became big favorites of PCW owners; with its comfortable full-travel keyboard, its fast disk drive, its relatively cavernous 256 K of memory, and its 80-column text display, a PCW was actually a far better fit for the genre than the likes of a Sinclair Spectrum. The PCW market for text adventures was strong enough to quite possibly allow companies like Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9 to hang on a year or two longer than they might otherwise have managed.

So, Amstrad was already soaring on the strength of the CPC and especially the PCW when they shocked the nation and cemented their position as the dominant force in mainstream British computing with the acquisition of Sinclair in April of 1986. Eminently practical man of business that he was, Sugar bought Sinclair partly to eliminate a rival, but also because he realized that, home-computer slump or no, the market for a machine as popular as the Sinclair Spectrum wasn’t likely to just disappear overnight. He could pick up right where Uncle Clive had left off, selling the existing machine just as it was to new buyers who wanted access to the staggering number of cheap games available for the platform. Sugar thought he could make a hell of a lot of money this way while needing to expend very little effort.

Once again, time proved him more correct than even he had ever imagined. Driven by that huge base of games, demand for new Spectrums persisted into the 1990s. Amstrad repackaged the technology from time to time and, perhaps most importantly, dramatically improved on Sinclair’s infamously shoddy quality control. But they never seriously re-imagined the Spectrum. It was now what Sugar liked to call “a commodity product.” He compared it to suntan lotion of all things: the department stores “put it in their window in July and August and they take it away in the winter.” The Spectrum’s version of July and August was of course November and December; every Christmas sparked a new rush of sales to the parents of a new group of youngsters just coming of age and discovering the magic of videogames.

A battered and uncertain Acorn, now a subsidiary of Olivetti, faced a formidable rival indeed in Alan Sugar’s organization. In a sense, the fundamental dichotomies hadn’t changed that much since Amstrad took Sinclair’s place as the yin to Acorn’s yang. Acorn remained as technology-driven as ever, while Amstrad was all about giving the masses what they craved in the form of cheap computers that were technically just good enough. Amstrad, however, was a much more dangerous form of people’s computer company than had been their predecessor in the role. After releasing some notoriously shoddy stereo equipment under the Amstrad banner in the 1970s and paying the price in returns and reputation, Alan Sugar had learned a lesson that continued to elude Clive Sinclair: that selling well-built, reliable products, even at a price of a few more quid on the final price tag and/or a few less in the profit margin, pays off more than corner-cutting in the long run. Unlike Uncle Clive, who had bumbled and stumbled his way to huge success and just as quickly back to failure, Sugar was a seasoned businessman and a master marketer. The diffident boffins of Acorn looked destined to have a hard time against a seasoned brawler like Sugar, raised on the mean streets of the cutthroat Tottenham Court Road electronics trade. It hardly seemed a fair fight at all.

But then, in the immediate wake of their acquisition by Olivetti nothing at all boded all that well for Acorn. New hardware releases were limited to enhanced versions of the 1981-vintage, 8-bit BBC Micro line that were little more ambitious than Amstrad’s re-packagings of the Spectrum. It was an open secret that Acorn was putting much effort into designing a new CPU in-house to serve as the heart of their eventual next-generation machine, an unprecedented step in an industry where CPU-makers and computer-makers had always been separate entities. For many, it seemed yet one more example of Acorn’s boffinish tendencies getting the best of them, causing them to laboriously reinvent the wheel rather than do what the rest of the microcomputer world was doing: grabbing a 68000 from Motorola or an 80286 from Intel and just getting on with the 16-bit machine their customers were clamoring for. While Acorn dithered with their new chip, they continued to fall further and further behind Amstrad, who in the wake of the Sinclair acquisition had now gone from a British home-computer market share of 0 to 60 percent in less than two years. Acorn was beginning to look downright irrelevant to many Britons in the market for the sorts of affordable, practical computer systems Amstrad was happily providing them with by the bucketful.

Measured in terms of public prominence, Acorn’s best days were indeed already behind them; they would never recapture those high-profile halcyon days of the early 1980s, when the BBC Micro had first been anointed as the British establishment’s officially designated choice for those looking to get in on the ground floor of the computer revolution. Yet the new CPU they were now in the midst of creating, far from being a pointless boondoggle, would ultimately have a far greater impact than anything they’d done before — and not just in Britain but over the entire world. For the CPU architecture Acorn was creating in those uncertain mid-1980s was the one that has gone on to be become the most popular ever: the ubiquitous ARM. Since retrofitted into “Advanced RISC Machine,” “ARM” originally stood for “Acorn RISC Machine.” Needless to say, no one at Acorn had any idea of the monster they were creating. How could they?

ARM, the chip that changed the world.

ARM, the chip that changed the world.

“RISC” stands for “Reduced Instruction Set Computer.” The idea didn’t originate with Acorn, but had already been kicking around American university and corporate engineering departments for some time. (As Hermann Hauser later wryly noted, “Normally British people invent something, and the exploitation is in America. But this is a counterexample.”) Still, the philosophy behind ARM was adhered to by only a strident minority before Acorn first picked it up in 1983.

The overwhelming trend in commercial microprocessor design up to that point had been for chips to offer ever larger and more complex instruction sets. By making “opcodes” — single instructions issued directly to the CPU — capable of doing more in a single step, machine-level code could be made more comprehensible for programmers and the programs themselves more compact. RISC advocates came to call this traditional approach to CPU architecture “CISC,” or “Complex Instruction Set Computing.” They believed that CISC was becoming increasingly counterproductive with each new generation of microprocessors. Seeing how the price and size of memory chips continued to drop significantly almost every year, they judged — in the long term, correctly — that memory usage would become much less important than raw speed in future computers. They therefore also judged that it would be more than acceptable in the future to trade smaller programs for faster ones. And they judged that they could accomplish exactly that trade-off by traveling directly against the prevailing winds in CPU design — by making a CPU that offered a radically reduced instruction set of extremely simple opcodes that were each ruthlessly optimized to execute very, very quickly.

A program written for a RISC processor might need to execute far more opcodes than the same program written for a CISC processor, but those opcodes would execute so quickly that the end result would still be a dramatic increase in throughput. Yes, it would use more memory, and, yes, it would be harder to read as machine code — but already fewer and fewer people were programming computers at such a low level anyway. The trend, which they judged likely only to accelerate, was toward high-level languages that abstracted away the details of processor design. In this prediction again, time would prove the RISC advocates correct. Programs may not even need to be as much larger as one might think; RISC advocates argued, with some evidence to back up their claims, that few programs really took full advantage of the more esoteric opcodes of the CISC chips, that the CISC chips were in effect being programed as if they were RISC chips much of the time anyway. In short, then, a definite but not insubstantial minority of academic and corporate researchers were beginning to believe that the time was ripe to replace CISC with RISC.

And now Acorn was about to act on their belief. In typical boffinish fashion, their ARM project was begun as essentially a personal passion project by Roger Wilson1 and Steve Furber, two key engineers behind the original BBC Micro. Hermann Hauser admits that for quite some time he gave them “no people” and “no money” to help with the work, making ARM “the only microprocessor ever to be designed by just two people.” When talks began with Olivetti in early 1985, ARM remained such a back-burner long-shot that Acorn never even bothered to tell their potential saviors about it. But as time went on the ARM chip came more and more to the fore as potentially the best thing Acorn had ever done. Having, almost perversely in the view of many, refused to produce a 16-bit replacement for the BBC Micro line for so long, Acorn now proposed to leapfrog that generation entirely; the ARM, you see, was a 32-bit chip. Early tests of the first prototype in April of 1985 showed that at 8 MHz it yielded an average throughput of about 3.5 MIPS, compared to 2.5 MIPS at 10 MHz for the 68020, the first 32-bit entry in Motorola’s popular 68000 line of CISC processors. And the ARM was much, much cheaper and simpler to produce than the 68020. It appeared that Wilson and Furber’s shoestring project had yielded a world-class microprocessor.

ARM made its public bow via a series of little-noticed blurbs that appeared in the British trade press around October of 1985, even as the stockbrokers in the City and BBC Micro owners in their homes were still trying to digest the news of Acorn’s acquisition by Olivetti. Acorn was testing a new “super-fast chip,” announced the magazine Acorn User, which had “worked the first time”: “It is designed to do a limited set of tasks very quickly, and is the result of the latest thinking in chip design.” From such small seeds are great empires sown.

The Acorn Archimedes

The Acorn Archimedes

The machine that Acorn designed as a home for the new chip was called the Acorn Archimedes — or at times, because Acorn at been able to retain the official imprimatur of the BBC, the BBC Archimedes. It was on the whole a magnificent piece of kit, in a different league entirely from the competition in terms of pure performance. It was, for instance, several times faster than a 68000-based Amiga, Macintosh, or Atari ST in many benchmarks despite running at a clock speed of just 8 MHz, roughly the same as all of the aforementioned competitors. Its graphic capabilities were almost as impressive, offering 256 colors onscreen at once from a palette of 4096 at resolutions as high as 640 X 512. So, Acorn had the hardware side of the house well in hand. The problem was the software.

Graphical user interfaces being all the rage in the wake of the Apple Macintosh’s 1984 debut, Acorn judged that the Archimedes as well had to be so equipped. Deciding to go to the source of the world’s very first GUI, they opened a new office for operating-system development a long, long way from their Cambridge home: right next door to Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. But the operating-system team’s progress was slow. Communication and coordination were difficult over such a distance, and the team seemed to be infected with the same preference for abstract research over practical product development that had always marked Xerox’s own facility in Palo Alto. The new operating system, to be called ARX, lagged far behind hardware development. “It became a black hole into which we poured effort,” remembers Wilson.

At last, with the completed Archimedes hardware waiting only on some software to make it run, Acorn decided to replace ARX with something they called Arthur, a BASIC-based operating environment very similar to the old BBC BASIC with a rudimentary GUI stuck on top. “All operating-system geniuses were firmly working on ARX,” says Wilson, “so we couldn’t actually spare any of the experts to work on Arthur.” The end result did indeed look like something put together by Acorn’s B team. Parts of Arthur were actually written in interpreted BASIC, which Acorn was able to get away with thanks to the blazing speed of the Archimedes hardware. Still, running Arthur on hardware designed for a cutting-edge Unix-like operating system with preemptive multitasking and the whole lot was rather like dropping a two-speed gearbox into a Lamborghini; it got the job done, after a fashion, but felt rather against the spirit of the thing.

When the Archimedes debuted in August of 1987, its price tag of £975 and up along with all of its infelicities on the software side gave little hope to those not blinded with loyalty to Acorn that this extraordinary machine would be able to compete with Amstrad’s good-enough models. The Archimedes was yet another Acorn machine for the boffins and the posh. Most of all, though, it would be bought by educators who were looking to replace aging BBC Micros and might still be attracted by the BBC branding and the partial compatibility of the new machine with the old, thanks to software emulators and the much-loved BBC BASIC still found as the heart of Arthur.

Even as Amstrad continued to dominate the mass market, a small but loyal ecosystem sprang up around the Archimedes, enough to support a software scene strong on educational software and technical tools for programming and engineering, all a natural fit for the typical Acorn user. And, while the Archimedes was never likely to become the first choice for pure game lovers, a fair number of popular games did get ported. After all, even boffins and educators — or, perhaps more likely, their students — liked to indulge in a bit of pure fun sometimes.

In April of 1989, after almost two long, frustrating years of delays, Acorn released a revision of Arthur comprehensive enough to be given a whole new name. The new RISC OS incorporated many if not all of the original ambitions for ARX, at last providing the Archimedes with an attractive modern operating system worthy of its hardware. But by then, of course, it was far too late to capture the buzz a more complete Archimedes package might have garnered at its launch back in 1987.

Much to the frustration of many of their most loyal customers, Acorn still seemed not so much inept at marketing their wares to the common person as completely disinterested in doing so. It was as if they felt themselves somehow above it all. Perhaps they had taken a lesson from their one earlier attempt to climb down from their ivory tower and sell a computer for the masses. That attempt had taken the form of the Acorn Electron, a cut-down version of the BBC Micro released in 1983 as a direct competitor to the Sinclair Spectrum. Poor sales and overproduction of the Electron had been the biggest single contributor to Acorn’s mid-decade financial collapse and the loss of their independence to Olivetti. Having survived that trauma (after a fashion), Acorn seemed content to tinker away with technology for its own sake and to let the chips fall where they would when it came to actually selling the stuff that resulted.

Alan Sugar shows off the first of his new line of PC clones.

Alan Sugar shows off the first of his new line of PC clones.

If it provided any comfort to frustrated Acorn loyalists, Amstrad also began to seem more and more at sea after their triumphant first couple of years in the computer market. In September of 1986, they added a fourth line of computers to their catalog with the release of the PC — as opposed to PCW — range. The first IBM clones targeted at the British mass market, the Amstrad PC line might have played a role in its homeland similar to that of the Tandy 1000 in the United States, popularizing these heretofore business-centric machines among home users. As usual with Amstrad, the price certainly looked right for the task. The cheapest Amstrad PC model, with a generous 512 K of memory but no hard drive, cost £399; the most expensive, which included a 20 Mb hard drive, £949. Before the Amstrad PC’s release, the cheapest IBM clone on the British market had retailed for £1429.

But, while not a flop, the PC range never took off quite as meteorically as some had expected. For months the line was dogged by reports of overheating brought on by the machine’s lack of a fan (shades of the Apple III fiasco) that may or may not have had a firm basis in fact. Alan Sugar himself was convinced that the reports could be traced back to skulduggery by IBM and other clone manufacturers trying to torpedo his cheaper machines. When he finally bowed to the pressure to add a fan, he did so as gracelessly as imaginable.

I’m a realistic person and we are a marketing organization, so if it’s the difference between people buying the machine or not, I’ll stick a bloody fan in it. And if they say they want bright pink spots on it, I’ll do that too. What is the use of me banging my head against a brick wall and saying, “You don’t need the damn fan, sunshine?”

But there were other problems as well, problems that were less easily fixed. Amstrad struggled to source hard disks, which had proved a far more popular option than expected, resulting in huge production backlogs on many models. And, worst of all, they found that they had finally overreached themselves by setting the prices too low to be realistically sustainable; prices began to creep upward almost immediately.

For that matter, prices were creeping upward across Amstrad’s entire range of computers. In 1986, after years of controversy over the alleged dumping of memory chips into the international market on the part of the Japanese semiconductor industry, the United States pressured Japan into signing a trade pact that would force them to throttle back their production and increase their prices. Absent the Japanese deluge, however, there simply weren’t enough memory chips being made in the world to fill an ever more voracious demand. By 1988, the situation had escalated into a full-blown crisis for volume computer manufacturers like Amstrad, who couldn’t find enough memory chips to build all the computers their customers wanted — and certainly not at the prices their customers were used to paying for them. Amstrad’s annual sales declined for the first time in a long time in 1988 after they were forced to raise prices and cut production dramatically due to the memory shortage. Desperate to secure a steady supply of chips so he could ramp up production again, Sugar bought into Micron Technology, one of only two American firms making memory chips, in October of 1988 to the tune of £45 million. But within a year the memory-chip crisis, anticipated by virtually everyone at the time of the Micron buy-in to go on for years yet, petered out when factories in other parts of Asia began to come online with new technologies to produce memory chips more cheaply and quickly than ever. Micron’s stock plummeted, another major loss for Amstrad. The buy-in hadn’t been “the greatest deal I’ve ever done,” admitted Sugar.

Many saw in the Amstrad of these final years of the 1980s an all too typical story in business: that of a company that had been born and grown wildly as a cult of personality around its founder, until one day it got too big for any one man to oversee. The founder’s vision seemed to bleed away as the middle managers and the layers of bureaucracy moved in. Seduced by the higher profits margins enjoyed by business computers, Amstrad strayed ever further from Sugar’s old target demographic. New models in the PC range crept north of £1000, even £2000 for the top-of-the-line machines, while the more truck-driver-focused PCW and CPC lines were increasingly neglected. The CPC line would be discontinued entirely in 1990, leaving only the antique Spectrum to soldier on for a couple more years for Amstrad in the role of general-purpose home computer. It seemed that Amstrad at some fundamental level didn’t really know how to go about producing a brand new machine in the spirit of the CPC in this era when making a new home computer was much more complicated than plugging together some off-the-shelf chips and hiring a few hackers to knock out a BASIC for the thing. Amstrad would continue to make computers for many years to come, but by the time the 1990s dawned their brief-lived glory days of 60 percent market share were already fading into the rosy glow of nostalgia.

For all their very real achievements over the course of a very remarkable decade in British computing, Acorn and Amstrad each had their own unique blind spot that kept them from achieving even more. In the Archimedes, Acorn had a machine that was a match for any other microcomputer in the world in any application you cared to name, from games to business to education. Yet they released it in half-baked form at too high a price, then failed to market it properly. In their various ranges, Amstrad had the most comprehensive lineup of computers of anyone in Britain during the mid- to late-1980s. Yet they lacked the corporate culture to imagine what people would want five years from now in addition to what they wanted today. The world needs visionaries and commodifiers alike. What British computing lacked in the 1980s was a company capable of integrating the two.

That lack left wide open a huge gap in the market: space for a next-generation home computer with a lot more power and much better graphics and sound than the likes of the old Sinclair Spectrum, but that still wouldn’t cost a fortune. Packaged, priced, and marketed differently, the Archimedes might have been that machine. As it was, buyers looked to foreign companies to provide. Neglected as Europe still was by the console makers of Japan, the British punters’ choice largely came down to one of two American imports, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. Both — especially the former — would live very well in this gap that neither Acorn nor Amstrad deigned to fill for too long. Acorn did belatedly try with the release of the Archimedes A3000 model in mid-1989 — laid out in the all-in-one-case, disk-drive-on-the-side fashion of an Amiga 500, styled to resemble the old BBC Micro, and priced at a more reasonable if still not quite reasonable enough £745. But by that time the Archimedes’s fate as a boutique computer for the wealthy, the dedicated, and the well-connected was already decided. As the decade ended, an astute observer could already detect that the wild and woolly days of British computing as a unique culture unto itself were numbered.

The Archimedes A3000 marked the end of an era, the last Acorn machine to also bear the BBC logo.

The Archimedes A3000 marked the end of an era, the last Acorn machine to bear the BBC logo.

And that would be that, but for one detail: the fairly earth-shattering detail of ARM. The ARM CPU’s ability to get extraordinary performance out of a relatively low clock speed had a huge unintended benefit that was barely even noticed by Acorn when they were in the process of designing it. In the world of computer engineering, higher clock speeds translate quite directly into higher power usage. Thus the ARM chip could do more with less power, a quality that, along with its cheapness and simplicity, made it the ideal choice for an emerging new breed of mobile computing devices. In 1990 Apple Computer, hard at work on a revolutionary “personal digital assistant” called the Newton, came calling on Acorn. A new spinoff was formed in November of 1990, a partnership among Acorn, Apple, and the semiconductor firm VLSI Technology, who had been fabricating Acorn’s ARM chips from the start. Called simply ARM Holdings, it was intended as a way to popularize the ARM architecture, particularly in the emerging mobile space, among end-user computer manufacturers like Apple who might be leery of buying ARM chips directly from a direct competitor like Acorn.

And popularize it has. To date about ten ARM CPUs have been made for every man, woman, and child on the planet, and the numbers look likely to continue to soar almost exponentially for many years to come. ARM CPUs are found today in more than 95 percent of all mobile phones. Throw in laptops (even laptops built around Intel processors usually boast several ARM chips as well), tablets, music players, cameras, GPS units… well, you get the picture. If it’s portable and it’s vaguely computery, chances are there’s an ARM inside. ARM, the most successful CPU architecture the world has ever known, looks likely to continue to thrive for many, many years to come, a classic example of unintended consequences and unintended benefits in engineering. Not a bad legacy for an era, is it?

(Sources: the book Sugar: The Amstrad Story by David Thomas; Acorn User of July 1985, October 1985, March 1986, September 1986, November 1986, June 1987, August 1987, September 1987, October 1988, November 1988, December 1988, February 1989, June 1989, and December 1989; Byte of November 1984; 8000 Plus of October 1986; Amstrad Action of November 1985; interviews with Hermann Hauser, Sophie Wilson, and Steve Furber at the Computer History Museum.)


  1. Roger Wilson now lives as Sophie Wilson. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 

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This Tormented Business, Part 2

In December of 1984 Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry, heads of those leading lights of the British PC revolution Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers respectively, gave a Daily Mirror columnist named Michael Jeacock a Christmas gift for the ages. Like Jeacock, Sinclair and Curry were having a drink — separately — with colleagues in the Baron of Beef pub, a popular watering hole for the hackers and engineers employed in Cambridge’s “Silicon Fen.” Spotting his rival across the room, Sinclair marched up to him and started to give him a piece of his mind. It seemed he was very unhappy about a recent series of Acorn advertisements which accused Sinclair computers of shoddy workmanship and poor reliability. To make sure Curry fully understood his position, he emphasized his words with repeated whacks about the head and shoulders with a rolled-up newspaper. Curry took understandable exception, and a certain amount of pushing and shoving ensued, although no actual punches were thrown. The conflict apparently broke out again later that evening at Shades, a quieter wine bar to which the two had adjourned to patch up their differences — unsuccessfully by all indications.

If you know anything about Fleet Street, you know how they reacted to a goldmine like this. Jeacock’s relatively staid account which greeted readers who opened the Christmas Eve edition of the Daily Mirror was only the beginning. Soon the tabloids were buzzing gleefully over what quickly became a full-blown “punch-up.” Some wrote in a fever of indignation over such undignified antics; Sinclair had just been knighted, for God’s sake. Others wrote in a different sort of fever: another Daily Mirror columnist, Jean Rook, wrote that she found Sinclair’s aggression sexually exciting.

It would be a few more months before the British public would begin to understand the real reason these middle-aged boffins had acted such fools. Still heralded publicly as the standard bearers of the new British economy, they were coming to the private realization that things had all gone inexplicably, horribly wrong for their companies. Both were staring down a veritable abyss, with no idea how to pull up or leap over. They were getting desperate — and desperation makes people behave in undignified and, well, desperate ways. They couldn’t even blame their situations on fate and misfortune, even if 1984 had been a year of inevitable changes and shakeouts which had left the software industry confused by its contradictory signs and portents and seen the end or the beginning of the end of weak sisters on the hardware side like Dragon, Camputers, and Oric. No, their situations were directly attributable to decisions they had personally made over the last eighteen months. Each made many of these decisions against his better judgment in the hope of one-upping his rival. Indeed, the corporate rivalry that led them to a public bar fight — and the far worse indignities still to come — has a Shakespearian dimension, being bound up in the relationship between these two once and future friends, each rampantly egotistical and deeply insecure in equal measure and each coveting what the other had. Rarely does business get so personal.

Acorn’s flagship computer, the BBC Micro, is amusingly described by Francis Spufford in Backroom Boys as the Volvo of early British computers: safe, absurdly well-engineered and well-built, expensive, and just a little bit boring. Acorn had taken full advantage of the BBC’s institutional blessing to sell the machine in huge quantities to another set of institutions, the British school system; by the mid-1980s some 90% of British schools had BBC Micros on the premises. Those sales, combined with others to small businesses and to well-heeled families looking for a stolid, professional-quality machine for the back office — i.e., the sorts of families likely to have a Volvo in the driveway as well — were more than enough to make a booming business of Acorn.

Yet when the person on the street thought about computers, it wasn’t Curry’s name or even Acorn’s that popped first to mind. No, it was the avuncular boffin Uncle Clive and his cheap and cheerful Spectrum. It was Sinclair who was knighted for his “service to British industry”; Sinclair who was sought out for endless radio, television, and print interviews to pontificate on the state of the nation. Even more cuttingly, it was the Spectrum that a generation of young Britons came to love — a generation that dutifully pecked out their assignments on the BBC Micros at their schools and then rushed home to gather around their Speccys and have some fun. Chris Curry wanted some of their love as well.

Acorn Electron

Enter in 1983 the Acorn Electron, a radically cost-reduced version of the BBC Micro designed to take on the Spectrum on its own turf. Enthusiasm for the Electron amongst the rank and file at Acorn was questionable at best. Most were not afflicted with Curry’s need to show up his old boss, but rather manifested a strain of stuffy Cambridge elitism that would cling to Acorn throughout its history. They held Sinclair’s cheap machines and the games they played in a certain contempt. They were happy to cede that segment to him, would rather be working on innovative new technology — Acorn had already initiated a 32-bit RISC processor project that would eventually result in the ubiquitous ARM architecture that dominates smartphones and tablets today — than repackaging old for mewling schoolchildren. Curry had to struggle mightily to push the Electron project through in the face of such indifference.

A price of £200, about half that of the BBC Micro, would get buyers the same 32 K of memory and the same excellent BASIC, albeit in a smaller, less professional case. However, the Electron’s overall performance was sharply curtailed by an inefficient (but cheaper) new memory configuration. The Electron’s sound capabilities also suffered greatly by comparison with its big brother, and the BBC Micro’s Mode 7, a text-only display mode that programmers loved because it greatly reduced the amount of precious memory that needed to be allocated to the display, was eliminated entirely. And, much cheaper than the BBC Micro though it may have been, it was still more expensive than the Spectrum. On paper it would seem quite a dubious proposition. Still, a considerable number of punters went for it that Christmas of 1983, the very peak of the British micro boom. Many were perhaps made willing to part with a bit more cash by the Electron’s solidity and obviously superior build quality in comparison to the Speccy.

But now Curry found himself in a truly heartbreaking position for any captain of industry: he couldn’t meet the demand. Now that it was done, many months behind schedule, problems with suppliers and processes which no one had bothered to address during development meant that Electrons trickled rather than poured into stores. “We’re having to disappoint customers,” announced a spokeswoman for W.H. Smith. “We are not able to supply demand. What we have has sold out, and while we are expecting more deliveries the amount will still be well below demand.” By some estimates, Acorn missed out on as many as 100,000 Electron sales that Christmas. Worse, most of those in W.H. Smith and other shops who found the Electrons sold out presumably shrugged and walked away with a Spectrum or a Commodore 64 instead — mustn’t disappoint the children who expected to find a shiny new computer under the tree.

Never again was the lesson that Curry took away from the episode. Whatever else happened, he was damn sure going to have enough Electrons to feed demand next Christmas. Already in June of 1984 Curry had Acorn start placing huge orders with suppliers and subcontractors. He filled his warehouses with the things, then waited for the big Christmas orders to start. This time he was going to make a killing and give old Clive a run for his money.

The orders never came. The home-computer market had indeed peaked the previous Christmas. While lots of Spectrums were sold that Christmas of 1984 in absolute numbers, it wasn’t a patch on the year before. And with the Spectrum more entrenched than ever as the biggest gaming platform in Britain, and the Commodore 64 as the second biggest, people just weren’t much interested in the Electron anymore. Six months into the following year Acorn’s warehouses still contained at least 70,000 completed Electrons along with components for many more. “The popular games-playing market has become a very uncomfortable place to be. Price competition will be horrific. It is not a market we want to be in for very long,” said Curry. The problem was, he was in it, up to his eyebrows, and he had no idea how to get out.

Taking perhaps too much to heart Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric about her country’s young microcomputer industry as a path to a new Pax Britannia, Curry had also recently made another awful strategic decision: to push the BBC Micro into the United States. Acorn spent hugely to set up a North American subsidiary and fund an advertising blitz. They succeeded only in learning that there was no place for them in America. The Apple II had long since owned American schools, the Commodore 64 dominated gaming, and IBM PCs and compatibles ruled the world of business computing. And the boom days of home computing were already over in North America just as in Britain; the industry there was undergoing a dramatic slowdown and shakeout of its own. What could an odd British import with poor hardware distribution and poorer software distribution do in the face of all that? The answer was of course absolutely nothing. Acorn walked away humbled and with £10 to £12 million in losses to show for their American adventure.

To add to the misery, domestic sales of the BBC Micro, Acorn’s bread and butter, also began to collapse as 1984 turned into 1985. Preoccupied with long-term projects like the RISC chip as well as short-term stopgaps like the Electron, Acorn had neglected the BBC Micro for far too long. Incredibly, the machine still shipped with just 32 K of memory three years after a much cheaper Spectrum model had debuted with 48 K. This was disastrous from a marketing standpoint. Salespeople on the high streets had long since realized that memory size was the one specification that virtually every customer could understand, that they used this figure along with price as their main points of comparison. (It was no accident that Commodore’s early advertising campaign for the 64 in the United States pounded relentlessly and apparently effectively on “64 K” and “$600” to the exclusion of everything else.) The BBC Micro didn’t fare very well by either metric. Meanwhile the institutional education market had just about reached complete saturation. When you already own 90% of a market, there’s not much more to be done there unless you come up with something new to sell them — something Acorn didn’t have.

How was Acorn to survive? The City couldn’t answer that question, and the share price therefore plunged from a high of 193p to as low as 23p before the Stock Exchange mercifully suspended trading. A savior appeared just in time in the form of the Turin, Italy-based firm Olivetti, a long-established maker of typewriters, calculators, and other business equipment, including recently PCs. Olivetti initially purchased a 49 percent stake in Acorn. When that plus the release of a stopgap 64 K version of the BBC Micro failed to stop the bleeding — shares cratered to as low as 9p and trading had to be suspended again — Olivetti stepped in again to up their stake to 80 percent and take the company fully under their wing. Acorn would survive in the form of an Olivetti subsidiary to eventually change the world with the ARM architecture, but the old dream for Acorn as a proudly and independently British exporter and popularizer of computing was dead, smothered by, as wags were soon putting it, “the Shroud of Turin.”

If Chris Curry wanted the popular love that Clive Sinclair enjoyed, Sir Clive coveted something that belonged to Curry: respectability. The image of his machines as essentially toys, good for games and perhaps a bit of BASIC-learning but not much else, rankled him deeply. He therefore decided that his company’s next computer would not be a direct successor to the Spectrum but rather a “Quantum Leap” into the small-business and educational markets where Acorn had been enjoying so much success.

He shouldn’t have bothered. While the Electron was a competent if somewhat underwhelming little creation, the Sinclair QL was simply botched every which way from Tuesday right from start to finish. Apparently for marketing reasons as much as anything else, Sir Clive decided on a chip from the new Motorola 68000 line that had everyone talking. Yet to save a few pounds he insisted that his engineers use the 68008 rather than the 68000 proper, the former being a crippled version of the latter with an 8-bit rather than 16-bit data bus and, as a result, about half the overall processing potential. He also continued his bizarre aversion to disk drives, insisting that the QL come equipped with two of his Microdrives instead — a classically Sinclairian bit of tortured technology that looked much like one of those old lost and unlamented 8-track audio tapes and managed to be far slower than a floppy disk and far less reliable than a cassette tape (previously the most unreliable form of computer storage known to man). The only possible justification for the contraption was sheer bloody-mindedness — or anticipation of the money Sinclair stood to make as the sole sellers of Microdrive media if they could ever just get the punters to start buying the things. These questionable decisions alone would have been enough to torpedo the QL. They were, however, just the tip of an iceberg. Oh, what an iceberg…

The QL today feels like an artifact from an alternate timeline of computing in which the arrival of new chips and new technologies didn’t lead to the paradigm shifts of our own timeline. No, in this timeline things just pretty much stayed as they had been, with computers booting up to a BASIC environment housed in ROM and directed via arcane textual commands. The QL must be one of the most profoundly un-visionary computers ever released. The 68000 line wasn’t important just because it ran faster than the old 8-bit Z80s and 6502s; Intel’s 16-bit 8086 line had been doing that for years. It was important because, among other things, its seven levels of external interrupts made it a natural choice for the new paradigm of the graphical user interface and the new paradigm of programming required to write for a GUI: event-driven (as opposed to procedural) programming. This is the reason Apple chose it for their revolutionary Lisa and Macintosh. Sinclair, however, simply used a 68008 like a souped-up Z80, leaving one feeling like they’ve rather missed a pretty significant point. It’s an indictment that’s doubly damning in light of Sir Clive’s alleged role at Sinclair as a sort of visionary-in-chief — or, to choose a particularly hyperbolic contemporary description from The Sun, as “the most prodigious inventor since Leonardo.” But then, as we shall see, computers didn’t ultimately have a lot to do with Sir Clive’s visions.

Clive Sinclair launches the QL

The big unveiling of the QL on January 12, 1984, was a landmark of smoke and mirrors even by Sinclair’s usual standards. Sir Clive declared there that the QL would begin shipping within 28 days to anyone who cared to order one at the low price of £400, despite the fact that no functioning QL actually existed. I don’t mean, mind you, that the prototypes had yet to go into production. I mean rather that no one at Sinclair had yet managed to cobble together a single working machine. Press in attendance were shown non-interactive demonstrations played back on monitors from videotape, while the alleged prototype was kept well away from them. Reporters were told that they could book a review machine, to be sent to them “soon.”

The question of just why Sinclair was in such a godawful hurry to debut the QL is one that’s never been satisfactorily answered. Some have claimed that Sir Clive was eager to preempt Apple’s unveiling of the Macintosh, scheduled for less than two weeks later, but I tend to see this view as implying an awareness of the international computer industry and trends therein that I’m not sure Sir Clive possessed. One thing, however, is clear: the oft-repeated claim that the QL represents the first mass-market 68000-based computer doesn’t hold water. Steve Jobs debuted a working Macintosh on January 24, 1984, and Apple started shipping the Macintosh months before Sinclair did the QL.

As those 28 days stretched into months, events went through the same cycle that had greeted previous Sinclair launches: excitement and anticipation fading into anger and accusations of bad faith and, soon enough, yet another round of investigations and threats by the Advertising Standards Authority. Desperate to show that the QL existed in some form and avoid legal action on behalf of the punters whose money they’d been holding for weeks or months, Sinclair hand-delivered a few dozen machines to journalists and customers in April. These sported an odd accessory: a square appendage hanging off the back of the otherwise sleek case. It seems Sinclair’s engineers had realized at some late date that they couldn’t actually fit everything they were supposed to inside the case. By the time QLs finally started shipping in quantity that summer the unwanted accessory had been removed and its contents somehow stuffed inside the case proper, but that turned out to have been the least of the machine’s problems.

Early Sinclair complete with dongle

Amongst the more troubling of these was a horrid keyboard, something of another Sinclair tradition by now. Sinclair did deign to give the new machine actual plastic keys in lieu of the famous “dead flesh” rubber keys of the Spectrum, but the keys still rested upon a cheap membrane rather than having the mechanical action of such high-flying competitors as the Commodore VIC-20. The keyboard was awful to type on, a virtual kiss of death all by itself for a supposed business computer. And it soon emerged that the keyboard, like everything else on the QL, didn’t work properly on even its own limited terms. Individual keys either stuck or didn’t register, or did both as the mood struck them. Reports later emerged that Sinclair had actually solicited bids for a mechanical keyboard from a Japanese manufacturer and found it would cost very little if anything more than the membrane job, but elected to stick with the membrane because it was such a “Sinclair trademark.” The mind boggles.

And then there were the performance problems brought on by a perfect storm of a crippled CPU, the Microdrives, and the poorly written business software that came with the machine. Your Computer magazine published the following astonishing account of what it took to save a 750-word document in the word processor:

1. Press F3 key followed by 6. A period of 35 seconds elapses by which time the computer has found the save section of Quill and then asks if I wish to save the default file, i.e. the file I am working on.

2. Press ENTER. After a further 10 seconds the computer finds that the file already exists and asks if I wish to overwrite it.

3. Press Y. A period of 100 seconds elapses while the old file is erased and the new one saved and verified in its place. The user is then asked if he wishes to carry on with the same document.

4. Press ENTER. Why a further 25 seconds is required here is beyond me as the file must be in memory as we have just saved it. Unfortunately, the file is now at the start, so to get back to where I was:

5. Press F3 key then G followed by B. The Goto procedure to get to the bottom of the file, a further 28 seconds.

For those keeping score, that’s 3 minutes and 18 seconds to save a 750-word document. For a 3000-word document, that time jumped to a full five minutes.

Your Computer concluded their review of the QL with a prime demonstration of the crazily mixed messaging that marked all coverage of the machine. It was “slightly tacky,” “the time for foisting unproven products on the marketplace has gone,” and “it would be a brave business which would entrust essential data to Microdrives.” Yet it was also a “fascinating package” and “certain to be a commercial success.” It arguably was “fascinating” in its own peculiar way. “Commercial success,” however, wasn’t in the cards. Sinclair did keep plugging away at the QL for months after its release, and did manage to make it moderately more usable. But the damage was long since done. Even the generally forgiving British public couldn’t accept the eccentricities of this particular Sinclair creation. Sales were atrocious. Still, Sir Clive, never one to give up easily, continued to sell and promote it for almost two years.

There’s a dirty secret about Sir Clive Sinclair the computer visionary that most people never quite caught on to: he really didn’t know that much about computers, nor did he care all that much about them. Far from being the “most prodigious inventor since Leonardo,” Sir Clive remained fixated for decades on exactly two ideas: his miniature television and his electric car. The original Sinclair ZX80 had been floated largely to get Sinclair Research off the ground so that he could pursue those twin white whales. Computers had been a solution to a cashflow problem, a means to an end. His success meant that by 1983 he had the money he needed to go after the television and the car, the areas where he would really make his mark, full on. Both being absolutely atrocious ideas, this was bad, bad news for anyone with a vested interest in Sinclair Research.

The TV80 was a fairly bland failure by Sinclair standards: he came, he spent millions manufacturing thousands of devices that mostly didn’t work properly and that nobody would have wanted even if they had, and he exited again full of plans for the next Microvision iteration, the one that would get it right and convince the public at last of the virtues of a 2-inch television screen. But the electric car… ah, that one was one for the ages, one worthy of an honored place beside the exploding watches of yore. Sir Clive’s C5 electric tricycle was such an awful idea that even his normally pliable colleagues resisted letting Sinclair Research get sucked up in it. He therefore took £8.6 million out to found a new company, Sinclair Vehicles.

The biggest problem in making an electric car, then and now, is developing batteries light enough, powerful enough, and long-lasting enough to rival gasoline or diesel. Researchers were a long way away still in 1984. A kilogram of gasoline has an energy potential of 13,000 watt-hours; a state-of-the-art lead-acid battery circa 1984 had an energy potential of 50 watt-hours. That’s the crux of the problem; all else is relative trivialities. Having no engineering solution to offer for the hard part of the problem, Sinclair solved it through a logical leap that rivals any of Douglas Adams’s comedic syllogisms: he would simply pretend the hard problem didn’t exist and just do the easy stuff. From his adoring biography The Sinclair Story:

Part of the ground-up approach was not to spend enormous amounts trying to develop a more efficient battery, but to make use of the models available. Sinclair’s very sound reasoning was that a successful electric vehicle would provide the necessary push to battery manufacturers to pursue their own developments in the fullness of time; for him to sponsor this work would be a misplacement of funds.

There’s of course a certain chicken-or-egg problem inherent in this “sound reasoning,” in that the reason a “successful electric vehicle” didn’t yet exist was precisely because a successful electric vehicle required improved battery technology to power it. Or, put another way: if you could make a successful electric vehicle without improved batteries, why would its existence provide a “push to battery manufacturers?” Rather than a successful electric vehicle, Sir Clive made the QL and Black Watch of electric vehicles all rolled into one, an absurd little tricycle that was simultaneously underwhelming (to observe) and terrifying (to actually drive in traffic).

Sinclair C5

He unveiled the C5 on January 10, 1985, almost exactly one year after the QL dog-and-pony show and for the same price of £400. The press assembled at Alexandria Palace couldn’t help but question the wisdom of unveiling an open tricycle on a cold January day. But, once again, logistics were the least of the C5’s problems. A sizable percentage of the demonstration models simply didn’t work at all. The journalists dutifully tottered off on those that did, only to find that the advertised top speed of 15 mph was actually more like 5 mph — a brisk walking speed — on level ground. The batteries in many of the tricycles went dead or overheated — it was hard to tell which — with a plaintive little “Peep! Peep!” well before their advertised service range of 20 miles. Those journalists whose batteries did hold out found that they didn’t have enough horsepower to get up the modest hill leading back to the exhibition area. It was a disgruntled and disheveled group of cyclists who straggled back to Sir Clive, pedaling or lugging the 30-kilogram gadgets alongside. They could take comfort only in the savaging they were about to give him. When the press found out that the C5 was manufactured in a Hoover vacuum-cleaner plant and its motor was a variation on one developed for washing machines, the good times only got that much better. If there’s a single moment when Sir Clive turned the corner from visionary to laughingstock, this is it.

Sinclair Research wasn’t doing a whole lot better than its founder as 1984 turned into 1985. In addition to the huge losses sustained on the QL and TV80 fiascoes, Sinclair had, like Acorn, lost a bundle in the United States. Back in 1982, they had cut a deal with the American company Timex, who were already manufacturing all of their computers for them from a factory in Dundee, Scotland, to export the ZX81 to America as the Timex Sinclair 1000. It arrived in July of 1982, just as the American home-computing boom was taking off. Priced at $99 and extravagantly advertised as “the first computer under $100,” the TS 1000 sold like gangbusters for a short while; for a few months it was by far the bestselling computer in the country. But it was, with its 2 K of memory, its calculator keyboard, and its blurry text-only black-and-white display, a computer in only the most nominal sense. When Jack Tramiel started in earnest his assault on the low-end later in the year with the — relatively speaking — more useful and usable Commodore VIC-20, the TS 1000 was squashed flat.

Undeterred, Timex and Sinclair tried again with an Americanized version of the Spectrum, the TS 2068. With the best of intentions, they elected to improve the Speccy modestly to make it more competitive in America, adding an improved sound chip, a couple of built-in joystick ports (British Speccy owners had to buy a separate interface), a couple of new graphics modes, a cartridge port, even a somewhat less awful version of Sinclair’s trademark awful keyboards. The consequence of those improvements, however, was that most existing Spectrum software became incompatible. This weird little British machine with no software support was priced only slightly less than the Commodore 64 with its rich and growing library of great games. It never had a chance. Timex, like other big players such as Texas Instruments and Coleco, were soon sheepishly announcing their withdrawal from the home-computer market, vanquished like the others by Commodore.

Back in Britain, meanwhile, it was becoming clear that, as if Sinclair hadn’t already had enough problems, domestic sales of the Spectrum were beginning to slow. Sinclair was still in a dominant position, owning some 40 percent of the British market. However, conventional wisdom had it that that market was becoming saturated; by late 1984 most of the people in Britain who were likely to buy a computer had already done so, to the tune of far more sales per capita than any other country on the planet. Sinclair’s only chance to maintain sales would seem to be to sell new machines to those who already owned older models. Yet they had pissed away the time and resources needed to create a next-generation Speccy on the QL. In desperation they rushed out something called the Spectrum Plus for Christmas 1984: a slightly more substantial-looking Spectrum with a better keyboard like that of the QL (still not a genuinely good one, of course; “Sinclair trademark” and all that). With no changes to its actual computing capabilities, this wasn’t exactly a compelling upgrade package for current Spectrum owners. And, Sinclair still being Sinclair, the same old problems continued; most Spectrum Pluses arrived with several of the vaunted new plastic keys floating around loose in the box.

By mid-1985, Sinclair’s position wasn’t a whole lot better than that of Acorn. They were drowning in unsold inventories of Spectrums and QLs dating back to the previous Christmas season and even before, mired in debt, and without the resources to develop the Spectrum successor they desperately needed.

Then it seemed that their own Olivetti-equivalent had arrived. In a “World Exclusive!” article in the June 17, 1985, edition, the Daily Mirror announced that “Maxwell Saves Sinclair.” The Maxwell in question was the famous British tycoon and financier Robert Maxwell, who would inject some £12 million into the company. In return, Sir Clive would have to accept some adult supervision: he would become a “life president” and consultant, with Maxwell installing a management team of his own choosing. Everyone was relieved, even Margaret Thatcher. “The government has been aware that these talks have been going on and welcomes any move to put the Sinclair business on a firm footing,” said a spokesman.

Then, not quite two months after the carefully calibrated leak to the Daily Mirror, Maxwell suddenly scuttled the deal. We’re not quite sure why. Some have said that, after a thorough review of Sinclair’s books, Maxwell concluded the company was simply irredeemable; some that Sir Clive refused to quietly accept his “life president” post and go away the way Maxwell expected him to; some that Sir Clive planned to go away all too soon, taking with him a promising wafer-scale chip integration process a few researchers had been working on to serve as his lifeboat and bridge to yet another incarnation of an independent Sinclair, as the ZX80 had served as a bridge between the Sinclair Radionics of the 1970s and the Sinclair Research of the 1980s. Still others say that Sir Clive was never serious about the deal, that the whole process was a Machiavellian plot on his part to keep his creditors at bay until the Christmas buying season began to loom, after which they would continue to wait and see in the hope that Sinclair could sell off at least some of all that inventory before the doors were shut. This last, at least, I tend to doubt; like the idea that he staged the QL unveiling to upstage the Macintosh, it ascribes a level of guile and business acumen to Sir Clive that I’m not sure he possessed.

At any rate, Sinclair Research staggered into 1986 alive and still independent but by all appearances mortally wounded. A sign of just how far they had fallen came when they had to beg the next Spectrum iteration from some of the people they were supposed to be supplying it to: Spain’s Investrónica, signatories to the only really viable foreign distribution deal they had managed to set up. The Spectrum 128 was a manifestation of Investrónica’s impatience and frustration with their partner. After waiting years for a properly updated Spectrum, they had decided to just make their own. Created as it was quickly by a technology distributor rather than technology developer, the Spectrum 128 was a bit of a hack-and-splice job, grafting an extra 80 K of memory, an improved sound chip, and some other bits and piece onto the venerable Speccy framework. Nevertheless, it was better than nothing, and it was compatible with older Speccy games. Sinclair Research scooped it up and started selling it in Britain as well.

The state of Acorn and Sinclair as 1986 began was enough to trigger a crisis of faith in Britain. The postwar era, and particularly the 1970s, had felt for many people like the long, slow unraveling of an economy that once been the envy of the world. It wasn’t only Thatcher’s Conservatives who had seen Sir Clive and Acorn as standard bearers leading the way to a new Britain built on innovation and silicon. If many other areas of the economy were finally, belatedly improving after years and years of doldrums, the sudden collapse of Sinclair and Acorn nevertheless felt like a bucket of cold water to the dreamer’s face. All of the old insecurities, the old questions about whether Britain could truly compete on the world economic stage came to the fore again to a degree thoroughly out of line with what the actual economic impact of a defunct Acorn and Sinclair would have been. Now those who still clung to dreams of a silicon Britain found themselves chanting an unexpected mantra: thank God for Alan Sugar.

Sugar, the business titan with the R&B loverman’s name, had ended his formal schooling at age 16. A born salesman and wheeler and dealer, he learned his trade as an importer and wholesaler on London’s bustling Tottenham Court Road, then as now one of the densest collections of electronics shops in Europe. He founded his business, Amstrad, literally out of the back of a van there in 1968. By the late 1970s he had built Amstrad into a force to be reckoned with as purveyors of discount stereo equipment, loved by his declared target demographic of “the truck driver and his wife” as much as it was loathed by audiophiles.

He understood his target market so well because he was his target market. An unrepentant Eastender, he never tried to refine his working-class tastes, never tried to smooth away his Cockney diction despite living in a country where accent was still equated by many with destiny. The name of his company was itself a typical Cockneyism, a contraction of its original name of A.M.S. Trading Company (“A.M.S.” being Sugar’s initials). Sugar:

There was the snooty area of the public that would never buy an Amstrad hi-fi and they went out and bought Pioneer or whatever, and they’re 5 percent of the market. The other 95 percent of the market wants something that makes a noise and looks good. And they bought our stuff.

An Amstrad stereo might not be the best choice for picking out the subtle shadings of the second violin section, but it was just fine for cranking out the latest Led Zeppelin record good and loud. Sugar’s understanding of what constituted “good enough” captured fully one-third of the British stereo market for Amstrad by 1982, far more than any other single company.

In 1983, Sugar suddenly decided that Amstrad should build a home computer to compete with Sinclair, Acorn, and Commodore. Conventional wisdom would hold that this was absolutely terrible timing. Amstrad was about to jump into the market just in time for it to enter a decline. Still, if Sugar could hardly have been aware of what 1984 and 1985 would bring, he did see some fairly obvious problems with the approach of his would-be competitors which he believed Amstrad could correct. In a sense, he’d been here before.

Stereos had traditionally been sold the way that computer systems were in 1983: as mix-and-match components — an amplifier here, a tape deck and record player there, speakers in that corner — which the buyer had to purchase separately and assemble herself. One of Sugar’s greatest coups had come when he had realized circa 1978 that his truck drivers hated this approach at least as much as the audiophiles reveled in it. They hated comparing a bunch of gadgets with specifications they didn’t understand anyway; hated opening a whole pile of boxes and trying to wire everything together; hated needing four or five sockets just to power one stereo. Amstrad therefore introduced the Tower System: one box, one price, one socket — plug it in and go. It became by far their biggest seller, and changed the industry in the process.

Amstrad’s computer would follow the same philosophy, with the computer, a tape drive, and a monitor all sold as one unit. The included monitor in particular would become a marketing boon. Monitors being quite unusual in Britain, many a family was wracked with conflict every evening over whether the television was going to be used for watching TV or playing on the Speccy. The new Amstrad would, as the advertisements loudly proclaimed, make all that a thing of the past.

Amstrad CPC464

The CPC-464 computer which began shipping in June of 1984 was in many other ways a typical Amstrad creation. Sugar, who considered “boffin” a term of derision, was utterly uninterested in technological innovation for its own sake. Indeed, Sugar made it clear from the beginning that, should the CPC-464 disappoint, he would simply cut his losses and drop the product, as he had at various times televisions, CB radios, and car stereos before it. He was interested in profits, not the products which generated them. So, other than in its integrated design the CPC-464 innovated nowhere. It instead was just a solid, conservative computer that was at least in the same ballpark as the competition in every particular and matched or exceeded it in most: 64 K of memory, impressive color graphics, a decent sound chip, a more than decent BASIC. Build quality and customer service were, if not quite up to Acorn’s standards, more than a notch or two above Sinclair’s and more than adequate for a computer costing about £350 with tape drive and color monitor. Amstrad also did some very smart things to ease the machine’s path to consumer adoption: they paid several dozen programmers to have a modest library of games and other software available right from launch, and started Amstrad Computer User magazine to begin to build a community of users. These strategies, along with the commonsense value-for-your-pound approach of the machine itself, let the CPC-464 and succeeding machines do something almost inconceivable to the competitors collapsing around them: post strong sales that continued to grow by the month, making stereos a relatively minor part of Amstrad’s booming business within just a couple of years.

Amstrad’s results were so anomalous to those of the industry at a whole that for a considerable length of time the City simply refused to believe them. Their share price continued to drop through mid-1985 in direct defiance of rosy sales figures. It wasn’t until Amstrad’s fiscal year ended in June and the annual report appeared showing sales of £136.1 million and an increase in profits of 121 percent that the City finally began to accept that Amstrad computers were for real. Alan Sugar describes in his own inimitable way the triumphalism of this period of Amstrad’s history:

The usual array of predators, such as Dixons, W. H. Smith, and Boots, were hovering around like the praying mantis, saying, “Ha, ha, you’ve got too many computers, haven’t you? We’re going to jump on you and steal them off you and rape you when you need money badly, just like Uncle Clive.” And we said, “We haven’t got any.” They didn’t believe us, until such time as they had purged their stocks and finished raping Clive Sinclair and Acorn, and realized they had nothing left to sell. So they turned to us again in November of 1985 and said, “What about a few of your computers at cheaper prices?” We stuck the proverbial two fingers in the air, and that’s how we got price stability back into the market. They thought we were sitting on stockpiles and they were doing us a big favour. But we had no inventory. It had gone to France and Spain.

Continental Europe was indeed a huge key to Amstrad’s success. When Acorn and Sinclair had looked to expand internationally, they had looked to the hyper-competitive and already troubled home-computer market in the United States, an all too typical example of British Anglocentrism. (As Bill Bryson once wrote, a traveler visiting Britain with no knowledge of geography would likely conclude from the media and the conversations around her that Britain lay a few miles off the coast of the United States, perhaps about where Cuba is in our world, and it was the rest of Europe that was thousands of miles of ocean away.) Meanwhile they had all but ignored all that virgin territory that started just a ferry ride away. Alan Sugar had no such prejudices. He let America alone, instead pushing his computers into Spain, France, and the German-speaking countries (where they were initially sold under the Schneider imprint — ironically, another company that had gotten its start selling low-priced stereo equipment). Amstrad’s arrival, along with an increasingly aggressive push from Commodore’s West German subsidiary, marks the moment when home computers at last began to spread in earnest through Western Europe, to be greeted there by kids and hackers with just as much enthusiasm and talent as their British, American, and Japanese counterparts.

One day in early 1986, Alan Sugar received an unexpected call from Mark Souhami, manager of the Dixons chain of consumer-electronics stores. Souhami dropped a bombshell: it seemed that Sir Clive was interested in selling his computer operation to Amstrad, the only company left in the market with the resources for such an acquisition. Dixons, who still sold considerable numbers of Spectrums and thus had a vested interest in keeping the supply flowing, had been recruited to act as intermediaries. Sir Clive and Sugar soon met personally for a quiet lunch in Liverpool Street Station. Sir Clive later reported that he found Sugar “delightful” — “very pleasant company, a witty man.” Sugar was less gracious, ruthlessly mocking in private Sir Clive’s carefully cultivated “Etonian accent” and his intellectual pretensions.

At 3:00 AM on April 2, 1986, after several weeks of often strained negotiations, Amstrad agreed to buy all of the intellectual property for and existing stocks of Sinclair’s computers for £16 million. The sum would allow Sir Clive to pay off his creditors and make a clean break from the computer market to pursue his real passions. Tellingly, Sinclair Research itself along with the TV80 and the C5 were explicitly excluded from the transfer — not that Sugar had any interest in such financial losers anyway. With a stroke of the pen, Alan Sugar and Amstrad now owned 60 percent of the British home-computer market along with a big chunk of the exploding continental European. All less than two years after the CPC-464 had debuted under a cloud of doubt.

Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar

When Sugar and Sir Clive officially announced their deal at a press conference on April 7, the press rightly marked it as the end of an era. The famous photograph of their uncomfortable handshake before the assembled flash bulbs stands as one of the more indelible in the history of British computing, a passing of the mantle from Sir Clive the eccentric boffin to Sugar the gruff, rough, and ruthless man of the bottom line. British computing had lost its innocence, and things would never quite be the same again. Thatcher had backed the wrong horse in choosing Sir Clive as her personification of the new British capitalist spirit. (Sugar would get a belated knighthood of his own in 2000.) On the plus side, British computing was still alive as an independent entity, a state of affairs that had looked very doubtful just the year before. Indeed, it was poised to make a huge impact yet through Amstrad.

Those who fretted that Sugar might have bought the Spectrum just to kill it needn’t have; he was far too smart and unsentimental for that. If people still wanted Spectrums, he would give them Spectrums. Amstrad thus remade the Speccy with an integrated tape drive in the CPC line’s image and continued to sell it as the low end of their lineup into the 1990s, until even the diehards had moved on. Quality and reliability improved markedly, and the thing even got a proper keyboard at long last. The QL, however, got no such treatment; Sugar put it out of its misery without a second thought.

Clive Sinclair rides off into the sunset

I’ll doubtless have more to say about a triumphant Amstrad and a humbled but still technically formidable Acorn in future articles. Sir Clive, however, will now ride off into the sunset — presumably on a C5 — to tinker with his electric cars and surface occasionally to delight the press with a crazy anecdote. He exited the computer market with dreams as grandiose as ever, but no one would ever quite take him seriously again. For a fellow who takes himself so manifestly seriously, that has to be a difficult thing to bear. Sinclair Research exists as a nominal corporation to this day, but for most of the past three decades its only actual employee appears to have been Sir Clive himself, still plugging away at his electric car (miniaturized televisions have not been in further evidence). I know I’ve been awfully hard on Sir Clive, but in truth I rather like him. He possessed arrogance, stubbornness, and shortsightedness in abundance, but no guile and very little greed. Amongst the rogue’s gallery of executives who built the international PC industry that practically qualifies him for sainthood. He was certainly the most entertaining computer mogul of all time, and he did manage almost in spite of himself to change Britain forever. The British public still has a heartfelt affection for the odd little fellow — as well they should. Eccentrics like him don’t come around every day.

(Much of this article was drawn from following the news items and articles in my favorite of the early British micro magazines, Your Computer, between January 1984 and May 1986. Other useful magazines: Popular Computing Weekly of November 10 1983 and January 12 1984; Sinclair User of November 1984, February 1985, and March 1985. Two business biographies of Sir Clive are recommended, one admiring and one critical: The Sinclair Story by Rodney Dale and Sinclair and the “Sunrise” Technology by Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy respectively. The best account I’ve found of Amstrad’s early history is in Alan Sugar: The Amstrad Story by David Thomas. Good online articles: The Register’s features on the Sinclair Microdrives, the QL, and the Acorn Electron; Stairway to Hell’s reprinting of a series of articles on Acorn’s history from Acorn User magazine. Finally, by all means check out the delightful BBC docudrama Micro Men if you haven’t already and marvel that the events and personalities depicted therein are only slightly exaggerated. That film is also the source of the last picture in this article; it was just too perfect an image to resist.)

 
 

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