|★ AMSTRAD CPC ★ COMPANY - ARNOR ★|
|Info - Arnor|
If one company can be credited with creating the market for Amstrad ROMs it must be Arnor - a name taken, with permission, from The Lord of the Rings.
Now due to popular demand Amor is moving to the Joyce (and moving to new offices as well, but that's a different story).
Later in June there will be an 8256 version of Protext which will incorporate both spelling and merging.
Jerry Muir vists the people who brought you Protext, Maxam and Utopia to find out where they came from - and where they are going to.
It could have been very different for Amor if Enterprise had only delivered a micro as requested. It was 1984 when the idea of the software company was first suggested and, like so many people, its founders were impressed by the promise of the new hardware.
But time dragged by and the Enterprise failed to appear. Then a new star rose on the horizon and, tired of waiting, Arnor quickly transferred its attention to a computer which was actually available.
It was the beginning of a long romance that has made the company one of the best respected software houses dealing solely with Amstrad computers.
Arnor has recently moved into new premises in Croydon to provide much-needed space for its continuing expansion and it was to celebrate this, along with the release of Model Universe for the CPCs and Protext for the PCW, that I made my way to South London to meet the Arnor Amstrad enthusiasts.
Of the three directors, company Chairman Mark Tilley is the key to Arnor's formation. He knew David Fisk from their school days. But while David went to Oxford, Mark went to Cambridge to study maths and there he met Gavin Every.
Like so many fledgling software companies, Arnor started small. All three men had found jobs on leaving university and when Mark suggested they should start to write software, they were working from their homes.
As David recalls, "We started by just running off a few cassettes."
David Mendes claims Protext is more powerful than Locoscript
Now the three are kept busy all the time, so it's left to another David -Mendes - to fill me in on the company's history since those first few days.
Though he didn't join the ranks till the company was already fairly well grown, as Marketing Director it's his job to know the story of its success.
"The first project was Maxam, an assembler written for the 464. To write any good software you need a decent assembler and there weren't any around at the time - so they decided to write their own."
Appearing on cassette and disc, Maxam sold well. It was helped along by a feature in this magazine, in June 1985, as David Fisk is quick to point out. In fact it sold so well that he was able to leave his job at Whitbread, though he confesses that at the time this step seemed "a bit mad".
Meanwhile Arnor had another trick up its sleeve, as David Mendes recalls.
'They pioneered rom software for the 464. The machine has all the firmware built into it to support roms but Amstrad, for one reason or another, decided not to take it any further.
'They didn't produce a rom box and there was none around at the time. But it was a great shame to waste all that firmware."
Amor therefore decided to build a complete, plug-in cartridge that exploited this potential, so Maxam could be brought into operation without it using up any valuable ram.
They didn't do this totally alone though. It was a customer who suggested building a rom box to hold a chip. 'That really opened people's eyes to our product because, being on rom, it was different."
Overseas sales followed, to markets as far afield as New Zealand. But even more impressive was the order for Maxam chips from Amstrad itself.
"Amstrad technical people started using them because of the convenience of just plugging in." The rom assemblers are also incorruptible, which can be important if you're poking around the memory in machine code!
David Fisk: He gave up drink for software
Meanwhile two other products were under development. The step from assemblers to word processors wasn't that great, as Maxam contained a screen editor for producing source code. It was a natural progression to turn this into Protext.
Utopia, Arnor's other utility program, was also available on rom. As David Mendes admits, "It was something that was very important for in-house use and a lot of the routines had been written for that purpose."
It's an apt name for a program, which must seem like heaven to the beleaguered programmer, containing as it does some 45 new commands ranging from disc utilities to graphics. You can copy or format discs without having to return to CP/M or use Dedit to save corrupted discs.
Working in Basic you can find key-. words or Ascii strings, or list all variables. You can even dump screens to the DMP printers, with full 27 shade graphics. Finally, if this all sounds rather too technical, there's full help support contained in the chip.
However, David confesses that the need for a rom box has been a bit of a stumbling block for mass sales. "You get an eprom and you think, where do I put this?"
Unluckily, putting it on disc or tape defeats the object of having its services ready and waiting but clear of the ram. However, the appearance of several new rom boxes could give Utopia a new lease of life.
There are no such reservations about Protext, which is available in all three formats and has gained a considerable following. Good reviews in the press were matched by enthusiasm from its users. These included some of the journalists, who liked what they'd tried so much that they stuck with it.
"It may not be the top-selling word processor on the CPCs, but it's certainly up among the top three. It was 12 months later than its competitors, which makes it hard to catch up."
But that delay also gave Arnor the chance to learn from the competition, and in David's opinion. "It's probably the most powerful and flexible package available for the machines. And it's certainly the quickest."
When it comes to power, Arnor is very proud of a press quote that says the program is comparable with dedicated machines costing five times the software and hardware combined.
And David reckons that the speed advantage makes it highly suitable for the novice user, who won't be left sitting for any length of time wondering what to do next.
"Taking that further, once you're accustomed to the package, you don't want to wait anyhow."
Now Protext is available for the PCW, this could be seen as a distinct advantage over LocoScript. David is charitable enough to say that "Loco-Script is suited to a different purpose. If you use it for short notes it's good.
"But things have moved on since the PCW appeared and Protext is more powerful than LocoScript, even with LocoMail."
In addition to its speed, Protext boasts single key entry for all its functions, which makes it easy to use. It can be used with all Amstrad-compatible printers and supports all the features you could hope to find in a word processor - and a few more.
There are six foreign character sets built in, all of which can be mixed in a single document. And there's a wide range of print effects, including the choice of pica or elite faces.
Despite these sophisticated options, I had to ask David whether he thought people with LocoScript would be willing to pay for this alternative. His answer was frank.
Gavin Every was a founder member of Arnor
"I think a large percentage of people will be quite happy with what they've got and anyone that thinks differently is under an illusion.
"The type of people who bought the PCW are inexperienced users. They took their box home, plugged it in and they're set up for the next ten years. But there is a percentage who will get turned on to computing and start reading the magazines.
"Amstrad did a very good job of marketing the machines. A very large number has been sold internationally and even though only a very small percentage of users will look for this type of word processor, the actual numbers will be quite high."
Arnor has already dipped a toe into the Joyce market, beating all competition in the spelling checker stakes. Prospell has been lavishly praised when used as a stand alone with LocoScript. The PCW Protext package includes it with the word processor.
And there's also Promerge, a dedicated mail merge program, which makes the £79.95 selling price look very competitive indeed.
Changing machines, and continuing to stay right up to date. Arnor's other project is Model Universe for the CPC range. Anybody attending the last Amstrad show is sure to have been impressed by this 3D graphics package, and I was able to see the penultimate pre-release version.
I asked David to describe Model Universe, but he felt that the best way to explain it was with a demonstration and shepherded me over to a waiting 6128.
At first working with it is very much like using any graphics package. You fix the starting point for a line, move the cursor to where you want it to finish and fix it again. That's all very well for two dimensions but it becomes a whole new ball game when you add a third plane.
You can keep the same view, which means that you have no idea of depth, or flip through 90 degrees to see yourself drawing "out of' the X,Y axis.
My doodle was little more than a collection of lines which would have made even a contemporary minimalist artist weep. But despair would have turned to joy when he saw what came next.
The spindly collection of sticks revolved in space smoothly and at a very respectable speed, thanks to the programmer writing his own line drawing routine. There was more to come.
Returning to the main menu - and the whole program is very easily cursor-controlled - we loaded a demo of a house and moved towards it with the zoom facility.
The movement was slowed by the complexity of the picture, but it was still quite amazingly smooth considering all the calculations that were taking place.
We turned round the house and finally continued to zoom - right in through one of the walls. Even that wasn't the end of Model Universe's tricks. Once inside the desirable residence it was possible to turn on the spot, as if we were circling on the floor, then fly up towards the ceiling.
I was suitably impressed. "How did it come about?" I asked, once I'd picked my jaw off the floor. David laughed. "It arrived in the post. That's how." What a wonderful, unexpected gift.
"We feel that we've got a reputation for quality software on the Amstrad machines. And because we only publish for the Amstrads, if people have written anything for those machines we tend to be on a short-list - and sometimes the only one on the list!
"When Model Universe arrived it was not far from being up to standard and with a little help from the author and ourselves it became a good package."
With so much graphic power to hand, it's good to know that you can save screens to disc or tape in either of two ways.
You can store the three dimensional details, so that you can return to examine or modify them at a later date, or you can save the screen display as a flat, perspective line drawing or dump it to a picture.
In practical terms I can see the package having business applications in many areas of computer aided design. I asked if there's going to be a Joyce version:
"Yes, but the programmer doesn't know it yet - we've not told him. Maybe he'll read it in ACU", David said.
But let's not forget the other aspects of Model Universe. If flat computer art is fun, you'll certainly double your pleasure when you can create objects inside your monitor. I could have happily played with this program all day.
Of course it's possible that inspiration will desert even the most determined Arnold da Vinci. And for those moments, there's a bonus lurking on the other side of the disc as Gatecrasher, a colourful strategy game.
It's a test of reasoning as you try to tumble barrels through a series of gates, it's rather like one of those fairground machines that always seems to roll your 10 pence into the Lose slot at the last moment.
It's a nice extra, better than several budget titles I've seen, and I tell David so. He blushes slightly because, yes -he is in part responsible for the program, which he wrote way back for the BBC Micro.
It was then marketed by Amsoft but met with less than a startling response, which was hardly surprising considering the distinct lack of advertising. I must admit, I like it.
Moving in the opposite direction from even the brainiest arcade game, Arnor is currently developing one of Mark Tilley's special interests, the language BCPL.
Though it's not widely known, Mark says that it's flexible but simple and very fast to compile, with similarities to C. It will be available on all the machines.
There is also a great deal of interest in the PC market, thanks to the PC 1512. From hints dropped by David Fisk, nobody should be surprised to see a version of Protext appearing for that machine.
There is also talk of an updated Maxam with a version for the PCWs, to include what David Mendes describes as the best CP/M debugging monitor around.
But whatever happens, Arnor intends to stay faithful to Amstrad, the company with which it has grown.
As David Mendes says, "It's not been a conscious decision to stick with just one manufacturer, but for the last two years it's been what we feel is one of the better machines to write for."
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