|★ PEOPLES ★ CPC STAFF ★ HIP TO BE SQUARE (NEW COMPUTER EXPRESS) ★|
|Hip to be Square (New Computer Express)||Peoples Cpc Staff|
On April 11th 1984 the CPC, Amstrad's first computer, was launched to critical acclaim from the entire computer press. An instant success, its now well on the way towards its three millionth sale. Steve Carey tells the tale of the machine that made Amstrad
Forget Amstrad pic 1989, beefy Brentwood blokes boasting £100 million profits and running rings round a bewildered IBM. Think instead of Amstrad ‘83, a wee Tottenham import/exporter with a handful of staff and a total turnover of £20 million. It had done the lot: TVs, videos, car radios, CB radios, music centres, those huge headphones with sliding bass and treble controls
Now Amstrad intended to impose this pattern on a new market. Employ someone to design a computer and hand the design over to a subcontracted manufacturer to build 100,000 to flog at Christmas. Simple as that. (There was no-one at Amstrad up to it. Employee Ivor Spital recalls landing the job of examining the competition, such as the Commodore VIC-20, as the result of the toss of a coin. He doesn't say whether he won or lost.)
'All Amstrad knew,' Technical Manager Roland Perry emphasises, ‘is that it definitely wanted this thing designing: it definitely wanted it ready on this date; and it definitely wanted to make 100,000 of them' - at that time an immense order for a one-off ‘flog-'em-and-forget-'em' enterprise.
This background - cheap and cheerful, and in that order - made an Amstrad computer a risky bet. But it was also the reason why it succeeded. Home computers at the time tended to be designed by engineers funded from a backlog of orders.
So used was Amstrad to doing things its way -design a box and find someone to fill it - that not only were parts and chips bulk-ordered, but there was a plastic casing ready long before there was ever a computer to put in it! But its usual suppliers were unable to design a computer, and it found itself reluctantly drawn into the world of the ‘techies.'
And Amstrad's first venture into this alien environment was a bizarre flop. The previously untried contractors completely underestimated the task. Things came to the boil in late July 1983 when the prototype was delivered. The black and white version had just that, with no grey scales; the colour machine had no palette; the memory map had the screen RAM in the middle; and there was a second microprocessor which remains a mystery to this day.
This abortion of a machine was not only heading straight for the ‘scoop purchase' counter, if it ever got launched: it was threatening to take Amstrad with it. It got to the stage where one team member lost his nerve completely, returned the advance and disappeared. The designer of the CPC was an officially listed missing person.
A case of Perry aid
Of course Amstrad escaped. It hired Roland Perry and Bill Poel from Brentwood-based Ambit. Perry took the plastic casing and machine specification to contacts and acquaintances, meeting a variety of responses, all negative. Given the nature of the brief you couldn't blame them: ‘Fill this; parts are ordered; it must be 6502 processor based [in the end it wasn't]; sign this non-disclosure agreement; and er, no, I'm sorry, I can't tell you who it's for.' Eventually he found people with the nerve to take on the job and the ability to bring it off: Richard Clayton and Chris Hall of Locomotive Software, who produced the BASIC; and Mark-Eric Jones of MEJ Electronics, who designed the hardware, commissioning Roger Hulley to design the circuit board and the gate array. (Both companies have since worked with Amstrad on other machines.)
The launch, on 11th April 1984, was unusual in that, at a time when it was traditional to present a last minute bodge of dubious prototypes, Amstrad had machines not only present and working, but manufactured from final tooling and masks. Not surprisingly it was a success, capturing 16% of the home computer market by Christmas ‘84. Indeed, how could it fail? Anyone could have foreseen it. It's just that no-one did.
The 464 had, however, a drawback obvious to anyone who's ever loaded a program from cassette. By the time you've made a cup of tea, written that letter to your bank manager and done the weekend shopping, Harrier Attack had nearly loaded.
The disc-based 664 duly arrived. Launched in May ‘85 at £350 for the green-screen version and £450 for colour, it was rendered obsolete in August by the 6128, with an extra 64K of bank-switched memory allowing it to run CP/M+, a major upgrade of the disc operating system. ‘It suffered from a leap in technology,' Sugar explained, and had a consoling message for dealers: ‘They shouldn't have much difficulty getting rid of [664s] at reduced prices.' It was ever thus for the poor Amstrad dealer.
Perry playfully claims he's afraid to wear his 664 T-shirt ‘because I'd get lynched,' but 664 customers must have felt like Kathleen Turner's Edsel-owning father in Peggy Sue Got Married. Even worse, the launch of the 6128 (at the old 464 prices) and cancellation of the 664 coincided exactly with a £100 cut for the 464! Those unfortunate enough to be buying in summer rather than at Christmas felt shafted, as well they might.
By Christmas ‘85 Amstrad was ready to launch the third CPC machine onto the UK market - the 6128. There were even three specially shot 40 second Delaney Fletcher Delaney television commercials, part of £4,500,000 lavished upon the range.
And still it sold. Sugar expected to shift 600,000 CPCs in 1985. In January of 1986, with no fanfare and no presentation - a stupidly squandered opportunity - the one millionth CPC changed hands. (The two millionth sale was passed last year, again without celebration.)
With the launch of the 6128 and CPM+ the CPC's image underwent a subtle transformation. Suddenly there were meaty applications -databases, spreadsheets and, with Tasword 6128, real word processing at only £25. Soon the rush was on to provide upgrades, utilities, ROMboards. Even ‘vertical market' software took off briefly, off the shelf programs to run butchers' and video hire shops. And though the machine has been left behind by PCs, it's still the cheapest way to computerise a small business.
On the face of it the CPC doesn't have a future, being based on the Zilog Z80 processor and CPM operating system - technology old when the machine was new. Neither is the CPC cheap any more, with official price cuts rare. It is allegedly heading for old age, senility and death. If it were a racehorse it would be dogfood.
But it's not, and the rumours of its imminent demise which have been around for at least two years are greatly exaggerated. Hardware and software sales are steady, perhaps even expanding. And reliability and durability guarantee it a high re-sale value, so that as big brothers and sisters move up to Amigas or STs, younger siblings or friends move up to CPCs. As an entry into computing it is ideal, and it's not only new owners who buy software for their machines. Sales of games are only just behind the Commodore 64 (and sometimes in front of it), and regularly twice as much as the combined total of the Amiga and ST.
But Amstrad's cynicism in launching the 664 while aware that it was soon to be replaced; its reluctance to boost its image by price-cuts or advertising; and worries about availability of discs all fuel the impression that Amstrad no longer gives a toss for the CPC. Still, its success has never depended on marketing, and it will undoubtedly continue to thrive in the face of apparent indifference from its manufacturer.
New Computer Express #23