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O Popular Computing Weekly, 1988
x The Micro User, 1988

 

Last updated
14 Dec 1997


sinclair@nvg.ntnu.no

Sinclair relaunches himself

Popular Computing Weekly, 1988

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Sir Clive Sinclair has never been very far from the headlines since the launch of the ZX80. Now, after last year's sale of the Spectrum and QL rights to Amstrad, he's back with the favourably received Z88 - and other products, as John Brissenden discovered, in our interview.

 THE history of Sir Clive Sinclair's involvement in the UK computer industry has been one of pinnacles and troughs (and not an awful lot in between).

From being the architect of British interest in home computing, we have seen the sad tale of the C5 electric vehicle, last year's sale of Sinclair to Amstrad and the lengthy and acrimonious saga preceding the arrival of the Z88. It all put Sir Clive Sinclair's public image at something of a low point.

However, the appearance of the Z88 portable in the shops this month marks the return of Sinclair from the wilderness, and the beginning of his attempt to reclaim a position among the computer industry's leaders.

The Z88 is here, and has garnered favourable reviews from many quarters. In price/performance terms the tiny machine looks like a potential winner.

Sinclair himself has always held the concept of portability - and miniaturisation - close to his heart. He is confident that the Z88 is right for the market, and Cambridge Computer is currently producing 1000 per week. That figure will shortly double.

So can we expect further developments in this area shortly, maybe even a Z89 or Z90?

"The thing about the Z88 is the way we've designed it, of course. It can go on being expanded pretty well indefinitely," he says.

"So obviously there's no need to change the machine, because we just plug in different cartridges and expand it. In terms of portables, that's our statement for a long time to come, I think it's not the sort of product that needs changing."

Sir Clive admits to being unsure exactly how big the market for the Z88 will be: "We know that there's a reasonable market, because we can already see that, but what the potential size of the market is, we can't tell. Obviously we hope, we think it's huge, that's why we've done it, but we can't tell."

But he is steadfast when questioned about the adverse publicity he received over the three-month delays in the despatch of the machine to mail order customers, and the run-ins with the Advertising Standards Authority.

"The criticism came from people who weren't the customers, that was the irony. We never said that it was going to be available in 28 days, because it wasn't. We just said if people were prepared to be one of the first, that's the way to be first and those people who wanted to be first were.

"All the criticism was artificial, because it wasn't as if we were making anybody unhappy. We were only making the ASA unhappy apparently," he says with not a little hesitation. But Sir Clive says he wouldn't do things the same way again, simply to avoid being censured by the ASA.

"But equally, we didn't do anything wrong, and our customers are very happy," he says.

Sinclair might have done all he wants to with portables for the time being, but he is nevertheless involved in other computer-orientated projects.

"The area that we're looking at is very high performance machines. The technology that we've been building up over the years is towards that area, because we anticipate that this will be needed in all sections of computing. What I'm thinking of now is high-performance desktop personal computers."

Wafer chip

Then there is the wafer chip, being developed as an ultrafast access hard disc replacement by Anamartic. Recent, unconfirmed reports suggested that Sir Clive had finally won the 4 million needed to bring the project - currently at prototype stage - to market.

Sir Clive clarifies the situation. "The position is that that is broadly what's happening, and we're expecting to have an agreement signed in about three weeks' time.

"The first product will be a 20Mb wafer, and that will be built into various products. There'll be black boxes that will contain anything from one upwards of these wafers," he says.

"What Anamartic is going to be selling is not replacements for hard discs, because it does a lot more than a hard disc, but a sort of ultra-fast access hard disc.

"Sinclair Research is interested in building wafers into computers, so that they can increase their performance, and obviously we will be doing that as early as we can. The earliest we can see wafers being in production is late-ish next year, so that sets the beginning."

Another company with the Clive connection is Shaye Communications, which has a 25 per cent stake in a new pocket telephone project being developed with Timex, Fred Olsen and the Finnish company Nokia Mobira, the world's largest producer of cellular radio. Sir Clive reckons we should see the pocket phone sometime next year.

Pushbikes

One thing we definitely won't see is a successor to the disastrous C5 electric vehicle, launched in 1985. Last reports said that C5 parts had been bought up and fitted to pushbikes.

"The C5 was meant to be a stepping stone, because what we really wanted to do was produce a full range electric car. We had a design for an 80 mile-per-hour 300 mile range, electric vehicle, which we conducted a complete design study on.

"The C5 was meant to come in the next generation, but of course it got a bad press, and it didn't turn out to be the success we hoped, and so that fell by the wayside."

Sir Clive occupies a unique position in the UK computer world, and there is more to know from him than the next six months' product schedule. What, for example, is his view of the much-touted shift to 16-bit machines which is occupying many people's attention at the moment?

"I think, funnily enough, that the 16-bit machines were and are a mistake. We were the pioneers in that field, when we came out with the QL long before Commodore and Atari came out with their 16-bit machines, and the irony is that really the 16-bit machines are not doing anything that the 8-bits couldn't have done," he says. Surely several thousand Amiga and ST owners, at the very least, would beg to differ?

"There's nothing wrong with the Atari ST, I'm not knocking the machine. The Atari ST is a super machine. The point I'm making is that - it's not super because it's a 16-bit machine, it's just a nice machine.

"You certainly don't need 16-bits for games, because if you look at all the games, people who put out games for the 16-bit machines, put them out for the 8-bit machines as well. You could say the Amiga has got super graphics. It has, but not because it's a 16-bit machine, but because it's got a blitter chip in it, so there's the super graphics," he says. Sir Clive went on to hint that he's more excited by the prospect of 32-bit micros.

Talking of which, what of Acorn's RISC-based Archimedes? It has had publicity this summer, with everybody marvelling at its speed. King's new clothes, says Sinclair.

"I was very excited when I first read about it, because Acorn said this is the most powerful processor on the block, it's more powerful than anybody else's machine. If that had been true, it would have been very exciting and very impressive - but it happens not to be true at all.

"We had a look at it, and to give you an example, it runs quite a lot of mips, four mips as against two or three on the 80386. The 386 are very powerful instructions, whereas the RISC machine necessarily has simpler instructions."

"When you actually compare them when they're doing an important task, say multiplying two numbers, whereas the 386 does it in two microseconds, the Acorn RISC chip takes about 23 microseconds. So in fact, when it comes to a serious task, it isn't any faster, it is actually a lot slower."

Of course in the real world, there is a huge market for 16-bit micros, Archimedes is the fastest micro most of us have seen, and as for 80mph C5s . . . But it looks like Sir Clive is back with a bang, and may even have got it right again - let's hope so.