|★ AMSTRAD CPC ★ SOFTOGRAPHIE ★ LOCOMOTIVE SOFTWARE ★|
|Chris Hall|Locomotive Software)||Locomotive Software: Full Stream Ahead||Locomotive Software|
Locomotive Software started out in a back room in Dorking, and now produces the UK's biggest selling word processor. Raj Chatterjee went to find out how Locomotive got up steam....
Being a software company in the consumer market in the Eighties was a volatile proposition. They came and went like England cricket captains, often earning spectacular profits before disappearing with equally spectacular debts. But if sheer numbers are anything to go by. one outfit, started in a back bedroom in Dorking in 1983. has outdone all the big-name games houses - by writing budget software for a machine described as a dodo when it came out in 1985.
The company is Locomotive; its most famous creation is LocoScript. By virtue of this software being bundled with Alan Sugar's PCW. the word processor for less than a typewriter', more than 1.3 million people are familiar with the dear opening menu-cum-directory. That is a user base almost as large as the population of Northern Ireland.
The software has become the favourite of just about every journo. literary hack and home letter-writer in the country. Such is its fame that as well as the Jeffrey Archers and Johnny Speights of this world, even the caddish writer played by Trevor Eve in a BBC drama series, A Sense of Guilt, has LocoScript chugging away in his study. And LocoScript is marching steadily eastwards, armed with Urdu. Arabic the BASIC interpreter (an adaptation of the original, first written in the back room in Dorking). And they finished the task in time and under budget.
That machine was the CPC 464. and the original ROMs are still being shipped today. The secret of success was in a drastic decision that Locomotive made early on: to ditch the 6502s Amstrad had bought in and base the machine on the Z80 chip instead.
"Amstrad agreed it was the right move, even though it meant throwing away the 6502s. because of the end result - getting the project done to specification, on time and within budget. This sort of pragmatic approach suits Amstrad's style very well." comments Fisher.
Another factor that speeded things up was that the BASIC interpreter with the CPC was based on that already written by Clayton and Hall. And the CPC continues to sell well in virtually its original form...
<< Howard Fisher (1990)
WORD GETS ROUND
In 1985 Alan Sugar had the idea of bringing out a word processing system. He'd seen similar machines selling in tens of thousands in Japan on one of his frequent trips there, and was convinced the same thing could work in Britain. The price he had in mind was £299 - and Farsi versions in addition to the Greek and Cyrillic versions that come as standard on version 2 The PCW is the machine to be seen with in what used to be called the Eastern bloc, and even Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet reformist, is said to be putting together his autobiography on his Amstrad.
Yet Locomotive remains a small company - just 25 employees, many of them working purely on the administrative side, coping with the massive mail-outs that will be required when the PC version of LocoScript hits the market in a couple of weeks'time.
THE STORY BEGINS
The story began in 1983. Richard Clayton and Chris Hall were writing a BASIC interpreter for an Acorn man. Howard Fisher - subsequently to become their marketing manager. The BASIC interpreter was to become Mallard and the company Locomotive - not because of any latent train-spotting tendencies in either of the founders, but because the steam train conjured up images of speed combined with undoubted graceful elegance.
Amstrad was thinking about a cheap 6502 home computer bundle at the time, and approached Clayton and Hall over a problem with the design, which by that time was well advanced. Roland Perry, in charge of rescuing the development, had been given several quotes for the job by well-known names in the computer world, all of them far too high. Clayton and Hall took on the job and not only rescued the project, but along with MEJ Electronics, produced the hardware, did the overall firmware structures and wrote around a thousand pounds less than the cost of assembling a word processing system from scratch at the time.
Through its contacts with Locomotive. Amstrad knew that the company was capable of producing a good word processing package that could be used by someone completely unfamiliar with computers. The software half of Data Recall, linked to MEJ and subsequently to provide many of Locomotive's early employees, had produced arguably the first disk-based word processor in Britain in 1976 - the Data Recall Diamond, on the now-obsolete 8-inch floppy disks.
The brief Locomotive was given for the word processing software remains a secret, thought Fisher admits it was brief, even as briefs go. It is generally though that Alan Sugar demanded, without further elaboration, something that could write letters'. Well. Locomotive produced that and more.
The influence of the company on Amstrad was felt again. The planned machine had 128K of RAM: not enough. Locomotive felt. RAM was cheap in the early Eighties and the machine was expanded to 256K.
Richard Clayton, the architect of LocoScript, wanted to produce a system that was as foolproof as possible; something that didn't depend - as did WordStar, the standard" of the time - on memorizing lists of arcane keystrokes. The first thing the user would see would be. logically, the list of files on the disk, rather than an unfriendly prompt. The whole system was to be menu-driven, but would provide keystroke shortcuts to give the developing expert ways of circumventing the slow-but-sure pop-ups.
"We wanted to make it quite clear to the user what was going on all the time." says Clayton. "That's why when LocoScripi scrolls, it goes a line at a time, instead of jumping up in paragraphs. Jerky movement like that |ust makes you lose your place."
Similarly, when text is cut or copied. LocoScripi makes it quite clear what's happening by marking out all the text in reversed-out lettering and removing it or copying it smoothly, rather than at a stroke, so that the user can see what's going on - and stop things in midstream if they're going wrong, instead of being presented with an irreversible fait accompli
This emphasis on showing what's happening stage by stage makes LocoScripi undeniably slow, and has led to criticism of the program by some experts in favour of faster, less friendly word processors. But Clayton is unrepentant: "We know that most users are just confused by things that happen suddenly"
And. as Howard Fisher points out. the LocoScript system is one that has been adopted by hitherto command-driven programs. WordPerfect is just one example of a mainstream word processor that is adopting a LocoScripi ike standard with keyboard shortcuts in its latest incarnation, version 5.1.
The usual complaint of the computer journos being shown LocoScript on the PCW was yes. I'd quite like it. but I can't think of anyone else who would'. Just to remind you. there are now 1.3 million anyone elses who did.
GOING IT ALONE
Despite the success of LocoScript 1 it was clear that some people found it had niggling shortcomings -particularly the speed, ability to work with other printers, and handling of layouts. Locomotive - spurred on by its success in marketing LocoMail and LocoSpell. two LocoScript add-ons that Amstrad's efforts at marketing had encouraged the company to take over and do itself - made a txg decision: to design and market a b*gger. better successor itself.
The result was LocoScript 2. a program that, by PC standards, offered functions unheard of at the £20 price tag: Greek and Cyrillic, mathematical and scientific symbols, printer support for just about any machine ever released, and faster and smoother operation than version 1. Why the modest asking price?
"We wanted to make money, of course." says Fisher, 'but without exploiting the users. The competition to LocoScript at the time all cost about £70 so we wanted to make something that was such a good buy people would have no reason for buying otherwise. Hence the £20 tag.
"We wanted to bring word processing to the person buying software out of taxed income, not just businesses - though 40 per cent of our sales go to businesses now."
Locomotive's innovative approach to writing support software ensured entry into lucrative markets most companies had dismissed as too esoteric to bother about. The Cyrillic and Greek capability is one example: the machine has made itself an essential for translators and students, and has given Locomotive a head start into the exploding Eastern bloc market. Again, the Arabic. Urdu and Farsi versions of LocoScript 2 are proving very popular in the so-called minority' markets of the Middle East: it is sobering tc consider that the population of Pakistan alone is 8C million, far greater than the UK s 55 million.
<< Locomotive's telephone support is one of its strong points
Another illustration of its ability to capitalise on trivial'markets is its highly successful range of addons such as LocoKey (a program that lets you configure the keyboard to make any key produce any character) and LocoChar (a set of alternative printer fonts to the standard dot-matrix pattern). They even work in Cyrillic and Greek - another of those unimportant' details that actually do matter to users.
NOT DEAD, NOT EVEN RESTING
The trickle of major new software for the PCW is almost dried up these days - apart from Locomotive. 'A significant new add-on to LocoScript is promised for later this year. The logical successor to the company's successful 50.000 selling database add on. LocoFile. would be a spreadsheet.
LocoSpread? Fisher won't give any clues: Locomotive never announces a product until it is working and ready to demo, unlike some big companies you could name - part of its cautious approach to marketing.
Another reason for its success is its attitude to customer support. Written technical enquiries are dealt with unfailingly, as are telephone queries, by a real person rather than a recorded message in Santa Barbera - though the company isn't desperately keen to encourage people who can't be bothered to read the manual to get free tuition over the phone!
Locomotive's latest venture is the PC version of LocoScript - mainly because of demand. There are thousands of writers who want, for example, to use a portable PC. but don't want to leave their familiar environment on the PCW at home: or business upgraders who also want to retain that comfy LocoScript upbringing.
"There are two reactions to PC LocoScript." says Fisher. "One says, you're mad; there are already a million PC word processors. The other says, why didn't you do it two years ago?' ". Whatever, if Locomotive captures just 10 per cent of the PCW upgraders. then LocoScript PC would become the biggest selling word processor in the UK
But the fact that they didn't plunge into the PC market two years ago. reckons Fisher, is a demonstration of the philosophy that has made the company so successful; caution and care in an age when so many companies have plunged headlong into abject failure.
'We could have borrowed money two years ago to finance LocoScript PC. but it would have been a big risk. We prefer to go one step at a time, when the time is right."
This company philosophy has worked wonders in the PCW market, one of the steadiest and most cautious of all the home computer sectors: sales have increased continuously and steadily since day one back in Richard Clayton's back room, and turnover was £1.3 million last year. When LocoScript PC comes out it will be interesting to see how the 25-person outfit from Dorking compares with the big boys of the PC world - the WordPerfect Corps, the WordStars and the Microsofts. But Locomotive s careful and cautious approach doesn't seem likely to go far wrong.