|★ AMSTRAD CPC ★ SOFTOGRAPHIE ★ COMPANY ★ TASMAN SOFTWARE ★|
Man of letters
John Cook talks to Robin Thompson of Tasman Software
My guess is that until recently, you could split home computer owners into two main groups; Buffs and Game Players.
Games Players are the class of kids (age has nothing to do with this definition) who moved up to computers from a Binatone Mk XVII home domestic games console or the pub ‘Tank Pong' games of the late seventies.
Buffs are a different kettle of fish completely. Having moved on from building things such as infra-red burglar alarms, they pounced on the ZX80 (in kit form) and have never looked back since. They all program in code, and are puzzled as to why anyone should ever want to use anything as cumbersome and slow as a high-level language. For them, the computer is a unique combination of cryptic crossword and Holy Grail.
I qualify this with 'until recently' because it seems there is a growing number of people who, after going through one of the above phases, want to do something practical with their computer.
This includes a great number of firsttime buyers or upgraders - a band-waggon that has not gone unnoticed amongst the trade; hence the built in software or bundled software packages that come with so many machines at present. However, one firm has been plugging the idea of the 'usefulness' of the home computer for quite some time -and that is Tasman Software, the originator of the universally acclaimed Tasword II wordprocessor. I asked Robin Thompson - co-director of Tasman and author of Tasword II - about his company's approach towards home computers.
"We specialise in the user applications end of the market, including small businesses — even large companies.” What? Spectrums being used for 'serious' purposes? "The Spectrum can be a very viable business machine," he maintained. "Of course, there is the difficulty of long loading time, but with micro-drives this is less of a problem.”
Indeed, Tasman practices what it preaches - all word processing in the company is done using Tasword on one machine or another - although an Apricot with a 10 MByte hard disc is used for accounting and mail-order work, "simply because of the memory".
That much of the business is still mail order is a mark of the humble origins of the company, and the fact it is still relatively small makes the size of its contribution to the home computer industry even more remarkable. When you think that Tasword is probably the most owned piece of Spectrum software after the Horizons cassette, the scale of that contribution cannot fail to impress.
Robin started programming long before Tasman became a gleam in his eye -using Fortran to produce computer models of Gas Lasers at Leeds University. Later, he taught Z80 code at a college of Further Education, when he started programming on a ZX81. It was at that time that he decided to write a word processor for the ZX81 (with 16K Ram expansion) purely as a personal project. He was so pleased with the result (which he called Tasword), selling it seemed to be a good idea.
"I just thought I'd have a go." he told me. "I put an advert in the classified section of Sinclair User, but it was just before the Spectrum was announced, I didn't sell many; just enough to encourage."
Then came the first Tasword conversion - for the new. revolutionary Spectrum! “This was released about three to four months after the launch of the Spectrum - and most of that time was spent waiting for it to arrive!” Then came what has become the standard configuration of the program. Tasword U. "This was for people who wanted to use the Spectrum with full column printers. Tasword II has a 64 column display. It also included instructions such as Find and Replace and block commands.”
It was at this point that it was decided to form the Tasman company, together with his co-director Simon Howath, designer of their Tasman printer interface.
Since then Tasword II has sold steadily and well, some comparing it favourably to such legendary business titles as Wordstar. "It has all the main features 95 percent of the users will want 95 percent of the time," says Robin. Another advantage of Tasword over conventional business software is the fact it is completely unprotected, so that users can alter the program to suit their own needs, even though it makes it easy for software pirates to duplicate.
"It's essential for the user to configure our program," he explained. "It's difficult to say how much we suffer because of the lack of protection."
Tasword II now has an accompanying suite of programs, Tasprint, Tascopy and Tasmerge - and recently a plethora of conversions, both mechanic and linguistic! Not only can MSX, Amstrad and Einstein users revel in the joys of word processing Tasman style, but they can also do it in French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish! Why conversions?
Robin shrugged. “Largely because they're there. They are all Z80 based machines, so you can use the same logic; even so it is no minor task."
The linguistic conversions - mainly involving redesigning the character sets - are well worth the effort; the appeal of "word processing for the price of a home computer", it seems, is universal.
So how does Robin see Tasman in relation to the games market - the one that could be said to have been the catalyst for his success. He smiled with the air of a man on well trod ground. "Games? Why not?"
However, Tasman has no plans yet to enter the tumultuous arena of the games market. "We'll continue branching out with products that both support word processing and are free standing. Word processing is the major computer application for for most people - and we're sticking with that."
Which only goes to show - for some at least - the pen is mightier than the sword . . . and the wand . . . and maybe even the joystick.
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