PEOPLESCPC STAFF ★ AMSTRAD REFORMS SINCLAIR ★

Malcom Miller - Amstrad Reforms SinclairPeoples Cpc Staff
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Malcolm Miller is the marketing director of Amstrad, he is number two to Alan Sugar and he is currently overseeing the launch of a new computer. It's called the Sinclair Spectrum 128K Plus Two and Graham Taylor thought it might be worth talking to him ...

Malcolm Miller won't waste words. Like his boss Alan Sugar, when the answer is yes it's just 'yes'. No is simply 'no'.

He is not in fact arrogant, as it first seems, just very direct. If he thinks it reasonable he'll answer your question but he won't help you with quotable quotes.

He isn't exactly easy to talk to but he isn't unfair either, which is fortunate really because, as Alan Sugar's right-hand man, Malcolm Miller is currently overseeing the launch of the most exciting new home micro this year — the Spectrum 128K Plus Two.

Six months ago no-one would have thought Amstrad launching a new Sinclair machine anything but a joke. That was before its shock take-over in April.
Long before it was a computer company Amstrad made cheap hi-fi gear and TVs. It still does — the gear is of reasonable quality but very, very cheap. Amstrad won a name for itself initially by doing very well at the budget end of the market in what was a difficult period in the hi-fi business.
When the company announced it was moving into computers two years ago everyone expected it would repeat the same formula — a nice cheap machine everybody could afford.
So it might have been but for Sinclair.
No matter how much Alan Sugar disliked all those leads and plugs and separate bits
and pieces of the Spectrum, there was no getting away from the fact that Sinclair had the low-end sewn up.

So Amstrad produced instead the CPC 464, a computer with built-in tape machine and bundled colour monitor. At around £350 it was comparatively expensive and
Malcolm Miller explains it thus: "We looked where we could operate best and provide added value — that led us to the bundled cassette drive and monitor and we produced what ended up as a fairly up-market machine. Throughout we consciously did not attract the lower end games entertainment users simply because the Sinclair Spectrum was already catering for them very well.

"The idea of entering the low end of the market really occurred quite late on in Amstrad's computer history — previously we had been occupied with the success of the CPC464 and the 6128. We eventually decided that we needed a Sinclair style product. Maybe a knocked down 464,” he pauses, "or the Sinclair product itself."

Amstrad prides itself on a very close relationship with its dealers, and it was whispers from them about the unstable financial state of Sinclair combined with the wish to move into the low end of the market that made the Sinclair deal happen. "It was no secret they were having problems. Their problems and our efforts to capture the lower end of the market just moved together at the right time."


“It was no secret that Sinclair were having problems.
Their problems and our efforts to capture the low end
of the market just moved together at the right time”

The new machine looks good (see the full review, this issue) but Sinclair credibility was at a pretty low ebb when Amstrad took over. A lot had to be done in only a few months. There were technical problems with matching a cassette recorder with the computer and there were a good many consumer and trade questions which had to be answered associated with compatibility of the 128. Amstrad also saw an opportunity to improve the keyboard.

"We also had the marketing ability and the finance to actually advertise the product properly and give it good distribution."

I trod carefully on to the subject of Amstrad's purchase price for Sinclair's products and brand name. On the face of it Amstrad got itself a bargain. It payed £12 million for the Sinclair name, the rights to use the technology of the biggest selling home computer, and a warehouse or two of existing Sinclair machines. Was it true that by selling the existing Sinclair stock alone Amstrad made a good deal of its
purchase price back ?

"What do you mean a good deal?"

Over 50 per cent I suggest. Malcolm is clearly not going to give anything away. "I don't think we made extraordinary amounts of money from it, we came out fairly clean — I think that's all I can say — we had to sell the product off because we had the liability of the product." Make of that what you will.

The Plus Two is a thorough redesign of the 128 with a proper typewriter keyboard and a sturdy looking tape deck. Built in are twin joystick ports, a MIDI/RS232 socket and a numeric keypad slot.
Amstrad has retained the curious MIDI option found on the 128 for Plus Two. It allows primitive interfacing between the computer and electronic musical instruments. "I think that the consumers
are quite interested in music and it will develop. It is an interesting idea that hasn't yet been fully exploited." No definite hardware is planned at the moment though, according to Miller.
The twin joystick ports are obviously very welcome. Less welcome will be the news that they are Sinclair Interface Two standard not Kempston, more frequently used by existing software.

Why wasn't Kempston chosen?

“As I understand it there is Kempston and there is normal. On choosing ports at some point you have to make a decision otherwise there is no end to it.” There's something of a politician in Miller.
The machine is being sold at £149 by Amstrad but many of the chain stores will be offering package deals including a new joystick and a six-pack of software selected by Amstrad. The pack will be sold for £159.

Amstrad doesn't intend to publish Spectrum software itself, as it has done with the CPC range. “It's not our plan to get heavily involved in the Spectrum market. If a really good title comes our way we might, but I think there are enough people out there publishing stuff that we don't need to."
The Plus Two will be heavily promoted in the run up to Christmas in the specialist press, newspapers and on TV. “We're stressing that it's a whole new product with a proper keyboard, a data-recorder and an enormous software library."

Part of the process of ensuring the old Sinclair compatibility problems — as seen with the Spectrum 128 launch — are not repeated, is the setting up of Sinclair Quality Control, a system whereby software will be awarded a sticker which says the program is fully compatible if it loads with no problem on the machines. Something to watch out for when buying programs for the machine.
The new machine had to look right. Amstrad wanted to retain some of the best features of the Sinclair look but it also had to seem extremely smart, desirable and attractive — that's how it was designed.

"I think it had to look more of a machine, better value for money. It needed to look like it was a performer, but at the same time we had to get across the Sinclair name because it is a very good, highly desirable name, evoking some good responses. What we've ended up with not
only looks good value for money, it is good value for money."

The retail trade had become more than a little suspicious of the Sinclair name so how had the trade reacted to the Plus Two?

"They are very pleased. They know it's just the sort of product people are going to be demanding at Christmas."

That the Plus Two exists is a remarkable thing. Two years ago Z80 micros were supposed to have had their day. Sales were supposed to collapse when the day of the 68000 dawned. Amstrad always disagreed. Alan Sugar asked the obvious question: "Very nice, but why does anybody want to buy one?"

They didn't. The Plus Two reasserts the position of the Z80 with a vengeance and according to Malcolm Miller it won't be the end.

"The philosophy in product development is that one doesn't stand still. Always to look for better products, better value for the customer. You don't sit back and become complacent with a product that is three or four year old and let it die from competitive activity."

Could there be a Spectrum with discs? "We would consider that, yeah".

Would you give it CP/M ? "Could do." Wouldn't that tread on the toes of other Amstrad computers? "I don't think so — it'll just give a young person the chance to get into another area of software."

What about microdrives? "What about microdrives?" he responds. Take that as a no.

What of other possible areas where the Sinclair name might be used. Sinclair is intended as the 'low-end'label. While the Amstrad name is becoming more and more associated with business/serious home machines.

One logical move, hinted at by Alan Sugar, might be a games machine. He is known to have been impressed by the Nintendo games console which has been doing very well in Japan.

"We will reserve the Sinclair name for the entertainment area and that could include a games console,” says Miller, "but it remains to be seen how well the product will do in Europe — Europeans tend to think that the equipment has to educate as well as entertain. If we do one, though, it'll be
Sinclair."

The Spectrum 128K Plus Two will, in all likelihood, be very successful. It looks . .. well. .. right. As Sir Clive himself said in so many words in this magazine, Sinclair Research could innovate but Amstrad know how to market. For the moment they can do no wrong.

Maybe the secret of Amstrad's success is its absolute confidence in its ability to make decisions. The right decisions. Try the following exchange which arose when I asked Malcolm Miller to describe how Amstrad set about transforming the old Spectrum into the new machine:

"We gave it to our engineers . .."
And they told you what was possible?
"And we told them what we wanted and they did it."
That was adding a tape machine and a proper keyboard?
"Yes."
It was completely obvious?
"Completely."
Did it come in at the price you planned?
"Yeah."
Malcolm Miller doesn't waste words.

Sinclair User

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L'Amstrad CPC est une machine 8 bits à base d'un Z80 à 4MHz. Le premier de la gamme fut le CPC 464 en 1984, équipé d'un lecteur de cassettes intégré il se plaçait en concurrent  du Commodore C64 beaucoup plus compliqué à utiliser et plus cher. Ce fut un réel succès et sorti cette même années le CPC 664 équipé d'un lecteur de disquettes trois pouces intégré. Sa vie fut de courte durée puisqu'en 1985 il fut remplacé par le CPC 6128 qui était plus compact, plus soigné et surtout qui avait 128Ko de RAM au lieu de 64Ko.