|★ PEOPLES ★ 1986 - THE YEAR OF THE AMSTRAD (POPULAR COMPUTING WEEKLY) ★|
|1986 - The year of the Amstrad (Popular Computing Weekly)|
Looking back over the events of the last twelve months, it becomes apparent that 1986 belonged whole-heartedly to Amstrad Consumer Electronics. It was never out of the news, and created some of the best headlines.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that, in 1986, Amstrad changed the nature of home computing permanently: its PCW machines sold in hundreds of thousands to people who would never otherwise have bought a computer; it made individuals consider, for the first time, admitting IBM-compatibility into the home, and it finally put to sleep any notions that the Spectrum might be anything other than a games machine.
It stimulated the competition into thinking about new bundles' and packages to approach Amstrad's value-for-money boxes, and, thanks to a string of record profits, it brought home computing back to credibility in the City and the national press (the latter having been under the impression that the entire industry ‘died' at some point during the previous 18 months).
However, Amstrad wasn't solely responsible for everything that went on in 1986, though it came close. On these pages, we attempt to put the whole year into some sort of perspective.
The year opened with Atari finally giving up the ghost on Digital Research's Gem Write and GemPaint as bundled packages with the Atari ST. GST's First Word and Stoneware's DBMaster 1 went in instead.
Commodore s problems, which had begun in late '85 with a series of poor financial results, continued with the closure of its plant in Corby, with the loss of 250 jobs.
Acorn, which had been lurching from one financial crisis to another for most of the previous year, chirpily announced its Master Series, eight micros based on the BBC technology. Some of these bore an uncanny resemblance to Acorn's ABC range (anyone remember them?), but Acorn staunchly refused to acknowledge any relationship.
Acorn then proved that Olivetti had not taken over all its old marketing policies by announcing the prices, which started at C500.
The now Corbyless Commodore launched the 128D at the Which Computer? Show and gave the Amiga its first public airing. People were still excited about the Amiga then and the crowds flocked. Sightings of the much-fabled Spectrum 128 largely proved groundless. Atari and Commodore slugged it out at CES in Las Vegas; the final score was generally believed to be Atari 1 (own goal), Commodore 0.
On the software side, US Gold bought up Ultimate, of whom little has been heard since, and Off the Hook, the follow-up to SoftAid. was launched.
A somewhat quiet month for Amstrad, you'll notice.
Amstrad's first launch of the year was to be a low-key affair - the PCW8512 made its forthcoming presence known. Sinclair, on the other hand, finally unveiled the Spectrum 128. Its numeric keypad had evidently got lost somewhere en route between Barcelona and Cambridge, but software houses hadn't missed much, since they were busy showing forthcoming programs written especially for the 128K beast. Some of these programs still are forthcoming.
Another 'forthcoming' product finally bit the dust, as Atari announced that it would not be launching a 260ST after all.
By this time, everyone was expecting Commodore to go bust, as it announced another series of disastrous financial results. Just to rub Commodore's nose in it, Amstrad reported record profits (£27.4 million) in the same week.
British Telecom continued software empire building and took on the marketing for Liverpool house Odin. Activision continued acquisitions Stateside, and bought up Infocom. Infocom addicts rubbed their hands in glee and waited for price cuts.
The PCW8512 quietly slipped into the shops. The usual compatibility problems hit the 128K Spectrum with a few games. Sinclair blamed the software developers, the software developers blamed Sinclair.
Atari announced it would release both IBM and CP/M emulators for the ST range, and an Amstrad-bashing word processor. All for this year. Still waiting for the IBM emulator.
People were still excited by the Amiga so Commodore announced that it would be available in May. It declined to put a price on the machine, so people remained excited.
Rumours began to abound about Amstrad's PC - it would be released in two versions, one floppy and < one hard disc based at £700 and £900 respectively. Warmish.
Amstrad owners were1 given a further treat with the launch of i Get Dexter, and Thrust from Firebird made its first appearance.
On the morning of April Fools Day, a mole' rang the Popular offices to state that Amstrad was in the process of buying Sinclair, lock, stock and barrel.
But Popular Computing Weekly doesn't . suffer April Fools gladly, and suggested the caller should ring back with the same information after 12.00 if they wanted to be taken seriously.
Humble pie was duly shared round the following Monday, as we crowded into Amstrad's press conference to be informed that Amstrad had bought rights to all Sinclair's current products and stocks thereof. Sir Clive would never be able to put his own name on a computer again.
Amstrad was going to produce (yet another) new Spectrum. Amstrad did not know what the hell it was going to do with the QL. Amstrad had paid just £5 million for Sinclair computers.
The rest of April passed largely unnoticed as users, software and peripheral companies and Amstrad's competitors (Sid and Doris Atari and Commodore) digested all this. Amstrad's first move was to reorganise the Spectrum repairs and returns service. QL-supporting companies quickly got together to start battling for the machine's survival.
Robert Schifreen and Steve Gold made hacking history by being the first individuals to be convicted of a hacking offence in the UK. Schifreen admitted he was behind the notorious 'hack' into the Duke of Edinburgh's Prestel mailbox, and was ifined C750 for his pains. Gold was fined £600 and the pair were ordered to pay £1,000 costs each.
Psion launched computing s answer to the Filofax with the Organiser II, an altogether much improved version of the original. JVC had a go at an improvement on its original with a preview of its MSX.
Most of the other MSX companies declared they would hold off MSX 2 for a while.
CST announced Thor, its QL upgrade' - welcome news for QL owners who were feeling distinctly cold-shouldered by Amstrad. Another Scandinavian deity briefly hit the headlines: Loki was revealed as a prototype machine found at Sinclair Research. The specs were pretty impressive, but it was always a cert that Loki was not going to see the light of day.
It was a good month for new machines to be announced - Tatung and Memo-tech both jumped on the bandwagon, with the Einstein 256 and a new Z80-based micro respectively.
Commodore juggled its 64 around again with a decision to restyle the machine in a C128-lookalike case, and to offer the 128D in three versions to appeal to the small business user.
And as people were still excited by the Amiga, Commodore announced prices for the machine, at the same time as officially launching the machine at the Commodore Show. Having revealed that the Amiga would cost £ 1,475 (plus Vat) or £1,675 (plus Vat and a second disc drive), there was much gasping and consulting of credit card limits. The excitement didn't die down too much, but the aspirations of many home computing enthusiasts did.
Commodore then proceeded to surpass itself with its worst financial quarter yet, a loss of £25 million worldwide.
Activision launched as even more introspective computer game than Little Computer People - Alter Ego, where the player lived out a fantasy life, steered by the computer. The game came complete with a parental warning that some sections contained 'matter of a sexual nature”, and one could skip these sections with a key press. We would be interested to know if a single soul took any notice of these warnings.
Digital Integration added a new dimension to flight programs with Tomahawk, a helicopter simulation, and US Gold crash landed with World Cup Carnival, which everyone agreed would have been much more acceptable if it had kept all the nice packaging in, but left out the game. Most buyers already had a copy -as Artie's World Cup Soccer
Mastertronic, unstoppable as ever, decided to go for a share flotation, "sometime next year".
Commodore continued its tale of gloom and despondency with the loss of 70 more jobs at Corby. This came as a surprise to those who hadn't realised that there were still 70 people working at Corby.
However, it also launched the Commodore 64c, the restyled 64. At that time, the 64c incorporated Geos, a Wimp-like operating environment.
Nintendo and Sega both took huge stands at Chicago CES to demonstrate games machines, which set people thinking, particularly as Alan Sugar had expressed interest in Nintendo's Far Eastern success.
Alan Sugar infuriated QL supporters by declaring that CST had no legal right to produce its Thor QL-variant. As Amstrad appeared to have no plans to produce anything based on the QL itself, it all seemed a bit dog-in-the-manger.
Those who had been hoping for a glimpse of Amstrad's PC at the Amstrad Show were disappointed, but the rumours about it/them were gaining weight. By this time, it was confidently expected to be a 128K machine with 512K memory, built-in 3, 3½, 5¼ and hard discs, three different graphics boards, joystick-driven with a mouse, and six bundled operating systems.
A rumour then circulated that Amstrad hadn't launched it at the show because the stand wasn't big enough to take the machine's footprint.
Meanwhile. Spectrum Group (nothing to do with Clive or Amstrad) quietly launched the Bondwell. a cheap PC compatible at £600. The battle of the low-cost clones had clearly begun.
Ocean finally killed off the notion that the PCW8256 was merely a word-processor by launching Batman on it. If anything, it was better than any previous version, the sound limitations notwithstanding. A vogue for PCW games started up, which sadly seems to have abated somewhat now.
Donmark knows how to hit the headlines, and continued to demonstrate how to generate publicity by sailing headlong into a row with Spitting Image. Its game Spitting Images, a variant on the sliding block puzzle, was deemed to be rather too close to the TV title for comfort. The program was retitled Split Personalities, but not until the world and its spouse knew of the legal quarrels it had caused.
The life support machine was finally turned off at Enterprise, with debts running into six figures, leaving the machines, the Enterprise 64 and 128, to go the way of Oric, Dragon et al, although to date, no continental knight in shining armour has turned up.
The QL bandwagon refused to be beaten into submission and set up a group with one possible aim being to buy the QL rights from Amstrad, if necessary. Sir Clive made a brief comeback by announcing that his wafer-scale technology plans were nearing fruition.
Saga Systems decided it was time to get in on the variations-on-a-theme act with the Saga Compliment, a Spectrum upgrade kit.
News leaked out of another new Acorn machine, based on . . . you guessed it.
BBC technology. At that time it was being called the Baby BBC. It finally appeared as the Master Compact.
More machines . . . Opus joined the PC clones with the Turbo. This end of the market was beginning to look crowded - and still no sign of Amstrad PC.
The software scene promised plenty in July. Gargoyle, renowned for graphic adventures, announced the establishment of FTL, an arcade label: Leader-board appeared on 64 and Atari ST; Beyond declared it had won the rights to Star Trek - everyone crossed their fingers and prayed it wouldn't be a repeat of Superman - and the first Gauntlet derivative. Druid, hit the screens.
Commodore opened its August account by strongly denying allegations that the C128 was to be dropped. (This, incidentally. is roughly equivalent to Ken Bates strongly denying that he is about to ditch John Hollins.) It also denied knowledge of a cheaper version of the Amiga. The 64c, however, made its first appearance
The Spectrum Plus 2, which would have been the most eagerly awaited launch of the year had it not been outdone by its Amstrad PC stablemate, was confirmed as a PCW Show exhibit, as was the Master Compact.
Software continued to gather strength as the run-up to autumn began. Elite got going on its list of arcade conversion with Paperboy, and the Amiga version of Marble Madness made its debut.
Companies laid themselves bare and exposed their wares at the PCW show, which was deemed a great success. The Amstrad PC, launched the day before, duly made its appearance and attracted
huge crowds. More crowds gathered round the Spectrum Plus 2, redesigned in Amstrad grey rather than Sinclair black.
Yet more crowds visited the Atari Village, although Atari kept prototypes of its 2080ST and 4160ST in a back room, not for public consumption.
Commodore, however, remainedaloof in the library atmosphere of the business exhibition hall.
In the games hall, it was more like a coin-op arcade. Arcade conversions were ‘in': Space Harrier, Gauntlet, Marble Madness, Shaolin's Road, 1942, Yie Ar Kung Fu II, all belted out at top volume.
On one of these, Gauntlet, a bizarre tiff blew up between US Gold (Gauntlet) and Electric Dreams (Dauntless). While both parties appeared to claim that the other had nicked their licence, it was eventually decided that they could both launch their games, so long as Dauntless was renamed Dandy.
The games consolers were still on the warpath, with Nintendo, through Mattel; Sega, through Ariolasoft; and Atari each deciding that video machines would be a Good Thing. At under £100, it was hard to disagree.
A backlog of orders for the Amstrad PC had been created almost as soon as the machine was launched, as Amstrad - it goes without saying - announced another set of record profits (up to £75 million for the full year).
At the end of the month, alarms and excursions started, with the news that the PCs were "prd'ne to overheating”. The share price fell, Alan Sugar got on the phone personally to deny the allegations and ended up promising to fit PC1512s with fans, along with recommending that users didn't waste their electricity by using them, as they were quite unnecessary. Curiously, Amstrad's share price did not recover.
Atari announced it would raise £40 million odd by selling shares publicly in the US. Saga finally got its Compliment launched. Commodore did some more juggling on the 64, planning to bring its America Ram expansion over to the UK. Rumours of cheaper Amiga versions persisted, especially after cutting the existing model s price by £500 for Commodore upgraders.
British Telecom also suffered at hands of the rumour mongers, after a long list of amicable departures, which included
the heads of Beyond (Francis Lee) and Tony Rainbird (of that ilk). Was BT about to close the software companies down? It appeared not.
Gallup admitted W H Smith to its weekly chart, and found its whole nature suddenly changed. As W H Smith didn't stock Mastertronic titles, the budget company's domination of the Top Twenty disappeared in one fell swoop.
Within two weeks. W H Smith was taking Mastertronic's product.
Starglider from Rainbird finally saw the light of day, making ST owners gloat, and other micro users gaze in envy.
Amstrad created more history by raising the prices on its PC 1512 range. Due to the strength of the Yen, said Amstrad. Then it cut the price on its 3-inch discs, made in Japan. Despite the strength of the Yen, presumably.
Amstrad also announced it was axing the guarantees on the hard disc PCs, putting the onus on the dealers.
Commodore announced a post-tax quarterly profit, and it was generally agreed that the troubled company had at last turned the corner.
Compatibility problems, predictably enough, began to dog the Spectrum Plus 2.
Boots even stopped selling its first consignment for a while.
Christmas software began to hit the shops. Level 9‘s golden oldies reappeared courtesy of Rainbird, as Jewels of Darkness and Silicon Dreams. Aliens arrived. The first pictures of Star Trek were released, and looked astonishing.
One of the year's biggest licensing deal, Gauntlet, appeared to general approval.
The other licensing 'biggie' was Space Harrier, and its publisher. Elite, was also having problems with its sister label. 299 Classics, amid mut-terings from the third parties involved, of nonpayment.
More from the golden oldie collection - Superior relaunched Elite (no relation) on the BBC and Master Compact. Since Elite achieved over 50% market penetration of BBC owners when it was first launched, there was only half the market left to sell to. Brand new. however, was Top Gun, another Ocean film licence. By this stage, any company that hadn't yet released for Christmas was holding off until January 1987 ... or February ... or ...
Atari was preparing, after its financial boost in November, for a no-holds-barred assault on the market.
Price cuts, new STs, new games consoles, more software support, no stone to be left unturned. Watch this space.
And MikroGen, one of the longest serving companies in the Spectrum market, famous, ironically, mainly for Wally and his family, at last gave up the independent battle and succumbed to CSD, better known as Creative Sparks, budget house and software distributor.
Lastly, the BBC was not convinced by the success of Sugar that home computing was worth its time and money, and decided to axe Micro Live, the only TV series to cover computing specifically.
Popular Computing Weekly (1986-12)