|★ AMSTRAD CPC ★ LOCOMOTIVE SOFTWARE: FULL STREAM AHEAD|8000PLUS) ★|
|Chris Hall (Locomotive Software)||Locomotive Software: Full Stream Ahead||Locomotive Software|
The launch of LocoScript 2 is now only a couple of weeks away. Ben Taylor has been to Dorking, home of Locomotive Software, to get a sneak preview of LocoScript 2, and also to ask their marketing manager Howard Fisher how it was that LocoScript came about in the first place.
It's a strange thought, but five years ago all the key figures responsible for the design of the biggest-selling word processor ever all worked for one company." said Locomotive's Howard Fisher.
A Locomotive's Howard Fisher >>
Data Recall, as that company was called, obviously didn't know what they had. They were bought up by another company, and the disgruntled staff gradually went their separate ways. Some formed a hardware company called MEj Electronics, some formed Locomotive Software. Fisher himself went to work for Acorn in Cambridge.
Locomotive's first product, back in 1982. was Mallard BASIC, written under contract for Acorn and their BBC micro's Z80 second processor. Not long afterwards, Amstrad came on the scene - they were developing their CPC 464 home micro, and Locomotive were asked to write the BASIC for that.
The CPC machines were a great success, the hardware and the software winning praise from all corners. It was only natural that when Alan Sugar turned his mind towards the PCW as his follow up. he should go back to Locomotive for the software and MEJ for the hardware.
A machine is born
"Roughly speaking, it was nine months from Amstrad saying to us, 'Design us a word processor,' to us saying, 'Here are the discs'," said Fisher. There were five people in on the act, although not all of them were full time.
The brains behind LocoScript were Locomotive's two founders. Chris Hall was responsible for the design of the product, and Richard Clayton managed the team of programmers doing the implementation. The PCW software and hardware influenced each other. For instance, the screen was given 90 columns rather than the usual 80 at Locomotive's request.
"People say that Amstrad machines are not advanced - that's rubbish." Fisher went on. The prototype that MEj produced for the PCW was a circuit board the same size as the PCW's current one. but eight layers deep. It was called the GAS board (for 'Gate Array Simulator'), and packing that down into a PCW took some pretty advanced techniques.
Fisher doesn't know how many PCWs have sold - "somewhere over a quarter of a million," he reckoned - but does know that from all the Amstrad machines over one million copies of Locomotive's various BASICs have been shipped. The number of different national versions of LocoScript runs well into double figures, catering for most major European languages. The American version had to be called 'LocaScript' because of connotations that 'loco' has over there.
After the PCW launch. Locomotive were kept busy developing software for the Amstrad PC 1512. As soon as this was done, they cracked down to producing LocoMail and LocoSpell, which emerged respectively in September and December 1986. About the same time. LocoScript 2 started to become more than just 'vapourware' (as unwritten software is sometimes called).
Although Amstrad-based software is the most visible part of Locomotive's products, they do a lot of work for other companies too. When Richard Branson crossed the Atlantic on his Virgin Challenger - and sank - he was carrying a Locomotive-programmed Microscribe portable.
Past, present and future
An evangelical look came into Fisher's eye at this point, as he began to talk LocoScript. "With LocoScript 2 we've tried to leave the user interface much the same. We don't want users to have to learn a whole new product, although we have rationalised a lot of the idiosyncracies to make it easier for newcomers." Locomotive's technical author.
Jean Gilmour, has written a long and comprehensive new manual, which should please everybody at last.
Although LocoScript 2 is based on LocoScript I. the changes are significant enough that LocoMail and LocoSpell will not work with LocoScript 2. Third party suppliers who market add-ons for LocoScript (like SuperType) will find their products no longer work. New versions of LocoMail and LocoSpell will be available for LocoScript 2. and people who have bought the old versions can upgrade free of charge if they return their master discs at the same time as buying LocoScript 2.
<< Where it all happens... Locomotive's programming area
"We don't see LocoScript 2 as the ultimate word processor, or even the last word in LocoScript," Fisher added. "There are always improvements that can be made, and there will be a LocoScript 3 sometime. That's why we are happy to charge a relatively low price for number 2. Basically, apart from those who never use LocoScript for anything except the very simplest letters, every single LocoScript user is going to benefit from LocoScript 2.”
And to the future? Sometime there will be a LocoScript for the IBM PC. but if Locomotive do know of Amstrad's plans for a new model of PCW. Fisher was being coy. "LocoScript 2 will not be bundled with future sales of the PCW8256 or 8512." he said. But if he were an Amstrad marketing man. would he want to bundle LocoScript 2 with some machine? "Oh yes. Definitely." Watch this space...