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back to article Sinclair’s 1984 big shot at business: The QL is 30 years old

In May 1983, Sinclair Research Managing Director Nigel Searle began briefing the press about the successful British micro maker’s next big release. It was 13 months after the company had launched the Spectrum and although that machine had become a huge success, punters and market-watchers were keen to hear about what Sinclair …

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Scrabble

My favourite memory of the QL was that when our review machine arrived some of the key caps had fallen off in the box, making it a bit like a game of Scrabble.

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Re: Scrabble

I read the article and expected to see that quirk reported - I recall the early units didn't have the keycaps glued in place to save time and money, so one cruel trick was to take a new owner's machine and turn it upside down to hear the gasps of horror :)

(And at the risk of being OTT, all hail Dick Pountain and PCW's Calculator Corner :) Remembered with much fondness.)

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Re: Scrabble

That was the fun you could have WHSmiths.

That was before they became a purveyor of fine carpets.

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It bodes - ooh, it bodes

According to someone I know who was writing a book on the QL, it was a bit of a sow's ear.

One pointer to future problems was that the QL had a 12 semi-tone octave.

I also remember the OPD and the BT All in One (or whatever it was called by whichever name the phone peope were using at the time).

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Wot?

How many semitones do you think are in an octave?

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Anonymous Coward

I was given one in the late 1990s. Worked perfectly.

But the article just shows how bad British engineering can be. Acorn seemed to be the more quality UK computer company.

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Anonymous Coward

Obsession with cost engineering

The typical British engineering problem has always been about trying to make things too cheap, because we don't have the sales people that can get a fair price for the product.

Arnold Weinstock famously sank the British television industry by (a) trying to stay all valve when the Japanese were already using transistors in the low voltage circuits and (b) trying to reduce the number of valves. There comes a point where cost reduction simply makes things perform worse or be less reliable, both of which hit sales.

Other examples are Triumph Motorcycles, which kept trying to increase power output to compete with the Japanese while not strengthening the bottom end (I remember a conversation with Harry Weslake late one night in which he admitted that his 4-valve head was a step too far for the Bonneville; I had the impression that he hoped its popularity would provoke Triumph into fixing the bottom end, but no such luck), and of course the unlamented British car industry.

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Re: Obsession with cost engineering

sales people that can get a fair price for the product

Sorry, fair prices don't exist.

The above means either that there are simply no customers for that particular product (demand is filled by cheaper products that are good enough) or that one cannot compete with other providers because the production costs are simply too high (demand is filled by equally good or even better products that are cheaper).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

You are assuming free markets with perfect information, which don't exist. In fact, if your post was correct nobody would need more than GCSE Economics in order to understand the business of making and selling consumer products.

In the real world, products sell on brand image and perceived quality and reliability as well as performance and value for money. As a result, Apple is able to achieve a higher gross margin than others on its iPhone, while BlackBerry and HTC seem to be making a loss on every phone sold. BMW is able to get very high prices for its Mini range, even though reviews consistently suggest that they are not better than the competition. To put it another way, the price and sales of consumer goods are affected by a range of nontechnical factors, including emotion and confusion (e.g. nostalgia for the old Leyland Mini, which is a completely unrelated product to the one made by BMW).

Sinclair presumably believed that he had to achieve a certain selling price to make sales. If the achievement of that selling price meant a product with inferior performance, that wasn't a viable business plan. Competent marketing and sales people create a climate in which people will buy at a price which ensures a reasonable level of profit, taking into account the necessary costs of production to ensure a satisfactory level of performance and reliability.

The time to cost reduce a product is often once its market success is assured, since it is possible to see the tradeoffs based on customer and vendor feedback.

I didn't mention that one of the factors in excessive cost reduction is the traditional unwillingness of British banks and shareholders to take on any risk in new product development, but this of course is a factor in preventing an orderly design and development cycle. Which is why we as a country continue to struggle in industries that don't attract inward investment, and why the biggest British car manufacturers are now Honda and Nissan.

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Holmes

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

You are assuming free markets with perfect information, which don't exist.

I assume no such thing. Well, okay, I assume somewhat free markets otherwise the plan is to buddy up to some politician for some protectionism, quotas, regulations or creation of a "free trade 'zone'". But for that you need to be a big fish.

All of what you say is included in the statement "there is no such thing as a fair price"; you have to find the market and the correct price for that market (or the market has to find you). Yes, taking risks is part of the package.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

You are correct about the Bonnie but by contrast the Trident/Rocket-3 had a rock solid bottom end.

My T160 has been brilliant. 650cc Bonnies likewise as my 68 T120 has more than 300,000 miles on the clock using the same big-end and mains.

As for Sinclair, I worked for them for a time in the early ZX days. The only design mantra was 'one less chip today'. Sinclair was made in the GEC/Weinstock mould as far as cost reduction went.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

Fair comment. (I wanted a Trident but I'm simply physically too small to manage one safely). The 650 Bonneville in standard trim was adequately engineered, so long as you didn't get one with defective cylinder castings. But it was, as I noted, trying to increase power to keep up with the Japanese, that was a step too far for the design.

The Bandit, now...not enough money in the kitty to finish it off and get it out the door, and the banks didn't want to know. It wasn't just the miners and the unions that sabotaged UK PLC, but the money people who were convinced that anything made in Britain was doomed to failure.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

The concept of a fair price is one that makes an adequate return on effort for the vendor while leaving the buyer happy with the purchase. It's a convenient shorthand for a lot of underwater paddling, and I think to say it doesn't exist is quibbling. "You have to find the market" - well, if it's a really new product you may have to create the market. And in any case you often have to tell the market what you think is a fair price for your product - by making an offer.

Sinclair always tried to make offers of very cheap products, thinking this would create a mass market. Apple demonstrated, rather neatly, that if you want to make leading edge electronic products it's probably better to start off aiming at people with more money.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

True, plus the obsession with getting the initial price to be good instead of having a high cost for early adopters and then reducing it as the product takes off.

The cheapness of Sinclair meant popularity but also meant later on that they didn't have a quality premium product as people wanted more from their computer.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

Spot on. That is why Triump is better off in the hands of John Bloor than at the whims of the stock markets.

I ride a Tiger 1050 almost every day. Great bike, lots of fun and made in Hinckley. Anyone who doubts that we can take on the Japanese at Motorcycle manufacture should take a trip around the factory.

BTW, the old bonnie Cylinder castings issue could be solved with a simple re-lining.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

Replying to my own post to correct an error - I should also have mentioned the now successful Land Rover Jaguar company, which is Indian owned.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obsession with cost engineering

Also succesful and foreign owned: Toyota, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Rover Cowley (the Mini factory), etc.

In many cases the companies in question have the same workforce as when they were UK owned.

They simply have different owners and managers, who understand the meaning of words like "invest", "train", and "leader", rather than the usual:

"the floggings will continue until productivity+morale improves".

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Re: Obsession with cost engineering

Good point but as I recall Japanese TVs were cheaper than British models, not more expensive.

One thing the Japanese did have was good management and good worker relations.

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Spot on!

BTW, I was involved externally in the design concepts for the One Per Desk, about to contact the author of this article. Started with me winning a competition in August 1982 to predict/conceive ideas for the - ZX-82! My prize was a Spectrum from Sir Clive himself. Scanning in all my correspondence and drawings right now, most from 1983.

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Re: Obsession with cost engineering

Not to mention, quality control and attention to detail.

European companies, French and Italian included, may offer innovative industrial design, but their reliability is rubbish. Glad finally to have two built like a tank Nissan's in the family. (Year 2000 Micra and 2002 X-Trail.) No rattles, everything works, engines drive like new. (Same for my former 1991 BMW that lasted 21 years, and is still on the road I believe!) BMW get quality too. It's in their DNA.

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Joke

"One thing the Japanese did have was good management and good worker relations"

That's two things. :-)

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Anonymous Coward

Microdrives

They sank it, surely a design decision which even Dr (failed) Flawed, of Flawed Consulting Inc., the inventor of the mine detector which consisted of a metal plate that bounced up and down on the ground in front of the operator, would have surely rejected. What was it about the British computer industry and its obsession with not using 90mm floppies like everybody else?

Other than that it was a useful little machine. I was able to port an industrial application that ran on a Thomson VME based system costing around £10k, to the QL, which turned a very expensive bit of test and measurement equipment into a comparatively cheap one - till the tape gave out.

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Re: Microdrives

Clive was interested in Microdrives as then, as now, tape was cheap.

When all the problems were finally ironed out, Microdrives were a decent tape based storage system. Indeed people are recovering data off of them 30 years later!

By the time Sinclair actually had them working properly they were totally discredited and nobody would touch them.

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Re: Microdrives

Partly it was Sinclair NIH and need to show that they were innovating .

But a big problem for Sinclair seems to have been negotiating parts, a normal manufacturer assumes that the price he is quoted for a one-off unit now will drop over the year it takes to design the machine and then will fall with ordering bulk.

Sinclair always seems to have taken the cost of a component and decided it would be cheaper to design their own alternative.

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Mushroom

"people are recovering data off of them 30 years later!"

True, microdrive cartridges did tend to fall into two categories, those that would last about a week of usage, and those that would see out the heat death of the universe. The problem was that if you bought a box of ten of them, you'd likely only get one that was in the latter category, and it wouldn't be the one that you'd saved that important file on!

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Re: Microdrives

"What was it about the British computer industry and its obsession with not using 90mm floppies like everybody else?"

As I recall it, the problem back then was that not everybody did use those 3.5" jobbies, mostly because more than one company was trying to come up with something to replace the last truly floppy floppy, the 5.25". Indeed Amstrad's all-in-one unit mentioned in the article used the 3" alternative and don't get me started on the various addons you could get for the BBC Micro at the time! All Uncle Clive was trying to do is what he always tried to do - invent stuff that could, given a chance, corner the market.

As we all know, however, he didn't in this case. The "microfloppy" eventually became the "microdrive", an endless loop that didn't really cut it, whether you were a QL user with built in drives or one of the few that added them to your Speccy. Someone tried a similar approach on the Beeb with a drive known as the "Floopy", though I never heard of anyone actually using one in anger.

But then hindsight is always 20/20.

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I had a QL and I seem to remember getting one of the JS ROM versions, which was the least buggy of the lot. Oddly, I never really had trouble with the microdrives, but I managed to purchase (out of my own money - I was just 16) a floppy drive. This was fantastic. For just £40 more I purchased 10 floppy disks and had a storage capacity of 10MB! This was amazing, it was like, the capacity of a WINCHESTER but for a fraction of the price, and only the slight inconvenience of having to change disks. Still, I managed to keep the thing going till I started university and I used it to do coursework in the first year or two. I had a Centronics GLP ("Great little printer") that could actually print on A4 sheets!

At one point I had purchased a multitasking programming language called QBasic or something - can't remember - but it did allow for inter-process communication. I also had a mouse, which was useless, as it only worked with one specific and rather bad "paint" program.

I also did various bits of coursework in Pascal using a compiler I'd bought and it overall a bloody useful tool. In those days we put up with buggy software, unfinished hardware and lies from manufacturers. It was just part of what you'd expect from home computers at the time. Especially sinclair. Compared to today, when software "just works", it was a different world...

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Pint

The dongle ...

I met Tony Tebby sometime early in 1985, and he led me to believe then that the reason for the dongle was a cock-up at Sinclair. He told me that he'd ben asked whether QDOS was ready for manufacturing and had said that it was, but later discovered that someone had sent a set of EPROMs that contained an old, incomplete, version as masters for ROM production.

Having a new set of ROMs made would have delayed the release, so the "dongle" mechanism was used to replace the ROM code with sufficiently working code to get the thing to market.

My QL is languishing in the attic somewhere (with a dead keyboard) but by chance I have the dongle here (I was supposed to return it when I returned the QL to have its ROMs upgraded, but I "forgot") ... it contains a single 27128 (128kbit) EPROM so it can't have replaced the whole ROM image.

Beer for the whole QL team because, for the money, it was a fantastic piece of kit at the time (even the microdrives weren't the total disaster I expected).

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An rousing story of unbridled capitalism!

...but 30 years already? This is bad.

Did anyone ever find any documentation about that machine in real life in continental Yurop?

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OOOhhh maaan!

Pascal, Logo and Assembly rocked on this machine!

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Sugar made people redundant?

I'm not sure it was Amstrad making people redundant. They purchased the name, the rights to all the computer products + intellectual property and all the existing stock including parts already in the manufacturing chain.

I believe they did take on some ex-Sinclair staff but they were not obligated to. It would have been Sinclair making people redundant after the banks forced Clive to sell or else.

It was pretty much the only avenue open. What would Amstrad do if they purchased Sinclair wholesale? The company was a basket case. Why buy it when Amstrad already had an engineering department, designers and were producing computers far more profitably than Sinclair could. What Sugar wanted was the products and the intellectual rights and that's what he got.

The book "Alan Sugar: The Amstrad Story" details all of this including the negotiations. Sugar was adamant that he did not want the company wholesale and negotiated hard to get his way. The fact that he was the only offer on the table by the end speaks volumes about the appeal of Sinclair as a company by that stage.

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Nice article, thanks Reg

I enjoyed reading this because I remember all the fuss in the press in the early 80's. I was very happy to stick to my Spectrum although the microdrives sounded very impressive, mostly down to the marketing hype I guess.

This story is one of the many examples of amazing British ingenuity of the time. We seem to have had the imagination and geniuses to do the work but are let down by the business end of it - finances, cutting corners and unrealistic deadlines.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Nice article, thanks Reg

Sinclair and others all fell foul of standardisation.

It got to the stage where people wanted standard floppy drives and to use standard printers.

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Re: Nice article, thanks Reg

"It got to the stage where people wanted standard floppy drives and to use standard printers."

WhenI eventually retired mine (it's in the loft staring at me when i go in there) it had twin 3.5 inch floppies and was on its second 'standard' printer. The first was the universally popular Citizen LSP10. Evenually I got sick of the noise and replaced it with an Epson Laser that cost me about £700 (possibly more). Both of them connected with a 'standard' serial to Centronics (bought for about £29 at MicroAnvica's first shop in TCR.)

I'm another one who didn't have problems with microdives - but as soon as the floppies came along the MDs were never used again.

That machine earned me quite a lot of dosh at the time. Th Psion suite along with Tony Tebby's QJump OS made it a terrific machine to use.

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Had a QL and was using it until I got my first PC in 1992. The microdrives never really let me down. The spreadsheet application was brilliant for its time and I ran the Sgts Mess accounts with it for a few years along with the 200 Pound Citizen 120D 8pin printer! Ah fond memories. Think I still have it in the loft, maybe it will be worth something soon.

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I Must have been lucky

never had any problems with either of the microdrives on the QL I have (still works even now :) )... the software was good and the DOS versions worked well as well... did a very serious database using the database app on DOS to keep track of trade stands (and their payments) for the air show at the RAF base (Leeming) I was working at back then...

oh PS, I even took the trouble to key in the extensions that Linus coded up for the QL... his additions were very usefull :)

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All our yesterdays :-)

To complete the journey down memory lane/amnesiac's avenue.

https://sites.google.com/site/theqlimagerepository/products

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Coffee/keyboard

Xerox PARC inspires Gates to create Windows?

"...There he’d encountered a Xerox Star, the colossally expensive workstation that introduced the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointer) user interface and which - unknown to him at the time - inspired Steve Jobs and Apple to build the Lisa then the Mac, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates to start work on Windows..."

If that's his story and he's sticking to it, fine.

Still, saying that Xerox PARC inspired Gates to create Windows is a little like saying that Ed Wood was inspired to make Plan 9 From Outer Space after seeing War Of The Worlds.

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Anonymous Coward

All to depressingly reminiscent ...

of working for Clive.

Every sane choice overruled by a man who thought that the only reason you couldn't to for 5p what everyone else was doing fore £1 was a lack of 'creative imagination'.

The shame of seeing stuff advertised that you knew didn't work, and the fear that one day the law would catch up with the money already banked on products that never ever could work..

Worst year of my life, probably.

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Windows

Re: All to depressingly reminiscent ...

"Worst year of my life, probably."

AC 15:32

Yes, reading between the lines, the 'development process' does seem somewhat chaotic. Has anyone done a book about Sinclair and his business approach?

The Amstrad green screen PCW if that was the one with the green screen and double disk drives that were a bit different to normal floppies, was the first small computer I used seriously. Supercalc(?) and the word processor proggy got me a long way, and it was *reliable*.

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Re: All to depressingly reminiscent ...

Sinclair and the "Sunrise" Technology: The Deconstruction of a Myth, Adamson Richard Kennedy

Describes the business approach (good and bad) and the downfall of SInclair research

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Re: All to depressingly reminiscent ...

All I remember back then was the insistence in adverts for the ZX80 and the ZX81 (I forget if they did the same for the Speccy but I wouldn't be surprised) about how many ICs the machines had. (ICs. Now that really dates me!)

So yes, I can certainly believe that!

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Linux

There is one big leguacy with the QL...

It was the QL that a certain Swedish-speaking Finn from Helsinki was inspire to better an operating system.

Tux, you get my drift.

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Re: There is one big leguacy with the QL...

Actually, Linus was a Minix hacker for a few years in between his QL tinkering and starting Linux. Hence early Linux's obvious influences and dependencies on Minix.

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Re: There is one big leguacy with the QL...

Yep. Here's Linus telling me about his QL whilst we were hanging out at Sao Paulo Zoo (great Zoo by the way :-). For some strange reason this wasn't a popular video :-). I was also a QL fan :-).

http://google-opensource.blogspot.com/2010/09/geek-time-with-linus-torvalds.html

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Ah, the QL—fond memories!

I got a QL when Dixons started knocking them out for £199 and I loved it. For the time it was a great machine and I almost never had problems with the Microdrives. I remember I got an expansion board (can't remember what it was called) that bunged another 512K of RAM into it. After my ZX-81 and Vic-20, this was my first "serious" computer.

Psion's app suite was pretty damn good—I loved Quill— and all in all, I got two years of good use out of it before I moved onto the Atari ST. I wish I still had it: I've gone all nostalgic now (sniff, sniff).

It was flawed but it had heart.

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Re: Ah, the QL—fond memories!

It's very very we'll emulated on Windows and OSX.

I boot an MG machine up more regularly than I should :-)

http://www.terdina.net/ql/q-emulator.html

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Re: Ah, the QL—fond memories!

Thank you. I also had one, but it always worked perfectly, and reading this article I was wondering how I ever afforded it. I was beginning to think I imagined it, but thanks to you Chas I know I'm not going mad. Yet.

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