PEOPLESCPC STAFF ★ A star is born ★

A star is born (New Computer Express)Peoples Cpc Staff
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Part IV: In which William Poel explains the CPC's birth

There wasn't much time between the demonstration of the first CPC 464 prototype with the cursor responding to the cursor keys, and a prototype with an adaptation of Locomotive Software's Mallard BASIC arriving.

Meantime, the decision to stuff as much of the stray logic into a gate array was made from the combination of several factors:

  1. There was a growing shortage of low power TTL logic ICs due to the cyclic nature of the business and the boom in micro computer manufacture.
  2. The complexity of a discrete logic board meant that a substantial saving on ICs could be made, a saving reflected in assembly costs and reliability as much as in parts costs.
  3. A custom logic array device would provide a better degree of immunity against casual rip-offs in the Far East where the machine was to be made.

Amstrad's first home-grown custom logic array also gave Alan Sugar a warm feeling, as it would signal to his manufacturing partners in the far east that Amstrad was indeed moving up a gear in terms of technology. The oriental folk were duly impressed, as the specification of the CPC 464 was indeed ambitious given their understanding of the background of Amstrad's audio and TV products.

The GAS board cometh

MEJ Electronics tackled the gate array with typical candour and a professional approach to engineering that uncovered the deficiencies in one of the chosen gate array suppliers' design and development practices. All the more astonishing, since that company had been held up as a beacon of British ingenuity and an example to all in the development of custom gate array technology.

Within a far better than average time, Marc Jones and Mike Scaise, then pretty much the whole of MEJ Electronics, had completed work on the Gate Array Simulator (The GAS board, as it was fondly known) and got to a working state with the first samples.

The bottom line was that the yields of the gate arrays were low, and the supplier wanted to put the price up to cover for this problem. A yield of around 15-20 per cent working devices was considered acceptable if unexciting. So with their usual caution and pragmatism (that had not been much in evidence at Sinclair and Acorn, which had suffered its own well-reported problems with gate arrays, largely attributed to the fact they had remained with a single source of supply), Amstrad was unimpressed by the performance of the suppliers over the next few months. It quickly commissioned MEJ to procure an alternative in a different technology from another European company.

Meantime, Locomotive steamed along with the software. The firmware of the CPC464 was created in a very structured and systematic approach that is a hallmark of the way Locomotive works. The specification was written, and then the software was produced to match the specification: a fundamentally more professional approach than many microcomputer manufacturers had seemed to adopt up to then.

This orderly approach had a side effect in that it was easy to produce the firmware manual in good time. The first "public" prototypes were duly shipped with more documentation than just about any of the invited programmers had ever seen before from-any micro maker, let alone one that came with all the foreboding of the name of Amstrad. Hitherto, it was not renowned for its attention to this type of detail.

Stuff the press

The initial success of the CPC464 brought in a flood of accolades from the computer press. Amstrad's view of the specialist press had been unprintable as a result of the less than encouraging encounters in the hi-fi days. Alan Sugar had erected a barrier of bravado to protect the morale of his staff from the depressing effects of such criticism, which had been a major factor contributing to the less restrained "stuff 'em" attitudes which the press found so distasteful.

However, a few paragraphs of glowing praise were enough, and Alan Sugar discovered just how warm it felt to be the idol of the press, and so strenuous efforts to court their favour were made. In fact, the honeymoon lasted a long time.

Attention to public relations for the CPC market was given through the launch of the Amsoft operation, which arose as a result of the way in which Alan Sugar accepted advice that the home computer industry was a different animal to the consumer electronics business he had hitherto understood.

With Amsoft, Amstrad had grasped what people like Texas, MSX and other had failed to grasp, and that was the benefit of creating a total support operation to give the users the comfort of a user club. Various meetings were held with the then publishers of computer magazines to try and interest one of them in providing the "official" Amstrad computer magazine, but at the early stages of the project, they all turned the idea down flat.

"We'll wait and see" was the response. Which was pretty fatuous, since it seemed obvious that the success of the project would be enormously enhanced by the right sort of monthly magazine to boost the CPC marketplace. Most said that for a fee of around £20,000 they might deign to produce a pilot issue, but those of us who felt strongly that the CPC was going to succeed were irritated by this response, and decided to do something about it.

World of support

To those at Amsoft, it was very much a chicken and egg situation. Utterly out of character, Alan Sugar and his marketing manager Malcolm Miller, saw the benefit in supporting Amsoft's desire to provide the total support package that the Spectrum and BBC marketplace would not.

So an initial 32 page "newsletter" that appeared in September as a result of the spare time efforts of the Amsoft staff (some of whom had previous experience of launching specialist publications) blossomed into a full blown colour magazine by November. Some Amstrad executives found all this very hard to swallow, it being completely out of character with their past, but they all came along for the ride and were generally tickled pink to read the monthly .

As the success of the move into computers became apparent, those who had stuck their necks out to support Alan Sugar heaved a sigh of relief, and those who had expressed reservations jockeyed for position in the new computer operations. Who wouldn't rather be associated with a success like the CPC464, than a less critically acclaimed range of tower audio systems?

The CPC464 project had clearly changed the way Amstrad was being perceived by the public, and this was to have far reaching consequences that lead to their on-going love affair with computers.

In Alan Sugar's own words from an article in the Daily Mail, the company's edge is brought about (amongst other things) by a form of "confrontational" commercial aggression. Handling this is an art which Alan Sugar has generally mastered, but many of his famous band of clones have yet to manage without irritating everyone they encounter. When visited by an Amstrad person, one journalist once joked that Amstrad people should plant their visiting cards on the numbed body of their "victims" on the way out, with the immortal phrase borrowed from Chelsea football fans:

"You've just been confronted by Amstrad"

Hours not to reason why

The CPC 464 launched in April 1984 - a remarkably short gestation period for a product which started from scratch only some eight months earlier. It was just as much a tribute to the long hours of effort put in by the contractors as to the "Sugar magic", so it came as something of an irritant to the workers on the project when Alan Sugar began his round of boffin knocking, and general belittling of those who were obliged to work long into the night, implying that such circumstances were a reflection of basic ineptitude if the job couldn't be done in the hours of 9 to 5.

Weil, those engaged on the project were certainly boffins in the terms of Amstrad, and if they had downed tools at 5.30 pm like the rest of the Amstrad, then the CPC 464 might just have reached the market by Christmas 1985. At that time, the concept of overtime at Amstrad was an anathema, since in common with many other suspicious companies, the feeling was that if overtime was available to staff, then they would spend the day from 9 to 5.30 stirring their tea, waiting for double time to start. To those who were dedicated to their task this was obviously faintly insulting, but most had learned to take the rough with the smooth when working for Amstrad. Persons of nervous or delicate disposition do not last very long at Amstrad.

NEXT WEEK:

Nice PCW, shame about the 664

The greatest Amstrad computing success follows the first Amstrad computing mistake...

New Computer Express #6 (17 December 1988)

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L'Amstrad CPC est une machine 8 bits à base d'un Z80 à 4MHz. Le premier de la gamme fut le CPC 464 en 1984, équipé d'un lecteur de cassettes intégré il se plaçait en concurrent  du Commodore C64 beaucoup plus compliqué à utiliser et plus cher. Ce fut un réel succès et sorti cette même années le CPC 664 équipé d'un lecteur de disquettes trois pouces intégré. Sa vie fut de courte durée puisqu'en 1985 il fut remplacé par le CPC 6128 qui était plus compact, plus soigné et surtout qui avait 128Ko de RAM au lieu de 64Ko.