Sugar Story #5 : From CPC to PCW (New Computer Express)Peoples Cpc Staff
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Part V: Despite a fiasco on the 664, Sugar strode on to transform the word-processor market, as William Poel explains

One day, early in 1985 Alan Sugar announced to his bemused computer department that he was going to produce a CPC 464 with a built in disk drive. He went out to his way to put down any question of debate when he announced the project. fearing that the techies and "boffins" might open up a discussion on the relative merits of such a thing, and the possibilities of fixing a few more features in the process.

Nope, none of that waffle, old son. Just do as you are told. The important thing was that the return key was a delightful shade of wedgewood blue: number 4789 on the Japanese Industry Standard Colour Chart.

Some of the workers felt that maybe an opportunity to increase the memory to 128K and enhance the CP/M implemention was being missed, but God knew best. The fact that Commodore and others were beginning to use the 128K RAM card was immaterial. Amstrad only ever followed the proven route.

Well, the product was launched (there was hardly what you might call a development cycle) and the ROM was tweaked a bit, and given a slightly slicker BASIC. Enough to be interesting.

Naturally enough, CPC 464 owners wanted to buy the ROMs t,o upgrade their systems. Sorry, can't be done.

Disc discrepancy

Amstrad 3” disks are called 'discs', and many have wondered why the "C" instead of a "K". Well, the answer is delightfully simple.

The word DISC was moulded into the plastic case of the CPC464 when the MEJ/Locomotive project team took it over, and it would have cost at least £200 to have the tool changed. And Amstrad does not waste money in such a wanton fashion, does it? The same commercial logic lay behind the very peculiar keyboard layout with the control key at the end of the spacebar.

And frankly, neither feature got in the way of a single sale.

Of course, it could have been done and, in Amsoft, Amstrad even had the ideal vehicle by which it might have been done. The service arrangements for the CPC 464 were also quite capable of fixing in new ROMs, but in keeping with the strict Amstrad policy of not entertaining upgrades, these were not made available under any circumstances.

A number of enthusiastic, but reticent 464 owners bought CPC 664s. It won't comfort them to know the internal project name of the 664 was the IDIOT (Includes Disc Instead of Tape -1 think Marc Jones of MEJ thought that one up).

Amstrad's PCW. A mixed reception, but Sugar had the last laugh >>

And then it happened. The CPC6128. The upgrade every CPC 464 owner really wanted. A CPC 464 with built-in disk drive, and 128K memory, so that a serious amount of RAM was available to run CP/M applications. The idiosyncratic 3" disk system was retained as Amstrad discovered just how much money it could make from the sale of the media alone, as it enjoyed a virtual monopoly of 3" disk supply. Meantime, the rest of the industry began to cut prices on 3.5" and 5.25" disks, and demonstrate just how little money they could make from the business!

Only around 50,000 CPC 664's were made, and since the CPC 6128 went onsale within four months of the CPC 664, it seemed that just about every one of the 664 owners picked up the phone and asked about an upgrade for their systems. Sorry chaps, no upgrades, buy a CPC 6128. And what do you think the 6128 was called within the fortress-like walls of Amstrad? The big IDIOT of course.

Quite a lot of fur flew as outraged owners of 664s tried all sorts of complaints and tricks to get an upgrade.

But Amstrad held its ground, and reminded folk that if they buy an Escort three months before Ford introduce a new model, then they don't get the option of an upgrade, do they? As usual, the argument made sense, and as usual Amstrad failed to apply the soothing balm to the situation and do a properly accomplished PR job by pointing out just how badly other computer man* ufacturers had dumped their owners with price cuts, new models and all manner of commercial manouvres that left Amstrad alone as a shining beacon of orderly marketing

His master's Joyce

Almost a year before the CPC 6128 was making it out to the market, the PCW 8256 was beginning to take shape The idea germinated after a trip to the Far East, when Alan Sugar saw what was happening on the Japanese home front. For by the time the PCW hit the streets in August 1985, the concept was pretty much old hat in Tokyo.

However the project got under way in the autumn of 1984. replete with the sobriquet of "Joyce". We have Roland Perry to thank for this particular handle, and for those of you trying to work out the sublety of the acronym, dont bother. Joyce Caley was Alan Sugar's long suffering secretary. So it was only fair to name the machine after her. as AMS had conceived the PCW to make Joyce and her kind redundant, through the fulfilment of his vision of executives writing their own letters on his volks-computer.

The game plan for the PCW 8256 was to go one better than even the CPC 6128, and run a printer off the same power suply as the rest of the show. Attempts were made at providing a portrait screen, but the physics of the system meant that a cheap VDU tube could not be used. So we all settled for 90 x32 screen, which still provides considerably more information area than the regular 80x25. The obvious enhancement for the new aged PCW range is a machine with paper white 66 line x 90 column display, and it can't be long before that appears, can it?

Marketing the PCW presented some problems. The CPC was unashamedly a home computer, and the PCW was the first of the breed of business computers at home prices. So the IBM dealers hated the idea of the low ticket value, and those who were duly invited to Amstrad to preview the product went away to dream up all sorts of reasons why they werent interested, and why the PCW would be a flop.

Ironically, most of those folk from the plush computer franchise chains went bust themselves as a result of sticking their heads in the sand and refusing to spot the revolution on the horizon; although Amstrad had invited them all to participate.

ROM for improvement

The PCW was also going to use completely new word-processing software as an integral feature. But such is the nature of such projects, that the prospect of stuffing it all in ROM was daunting, given the timescales of Amstrad's marketing. And by now, Amstrad was taking an international view - so with RAM getting cheaper by the minute (the good old days), the solution was the obvious one of putting all the software onto disc. Then updates would be relatively painless to implement.

In fact, there isn't a single conventional ROM in the machine. The character set is entirely soft, and the disc boot facility is actually contained in the small ROM of the printer control micro. That was a neat piece of lateral thinking that marked so much of Amstrad's early innovative computer design effort from MEJ Electronics.

In this period of preview. Alan Sugar spotted that the office equipment market was the most likely route, and the theme of "More than a word-processor for less than a Typewriter" was created. Another East End lad made good. Terry Wilding of the office equipment empire that bears his name, felt that no matter how much he was alarmed at the prospect of the PCW changing the face of his typewriter business, he was going to be involved fom day one. And by taking that particular bull by the horns, Wilding Office Equipment has continued to grow and prosper.

The more innovative consumer high street outlets were not too difficult to convince either. Dixons spotted the PCW as a hot product, and so contracted to get an exclusive option on the high street sales for the first 25,000 machines, and in return Amstrad featured Dixons heavily in the launch publicity.

But at the launch, a rather crass show-biz performance. held together by the sobriety of newscaster Richard Whitmore. Sugar unveiled a box to the press that was. horror of horrors, based on CP/M80. featuring a wordprocessing package no one had ever heard of. The press fell about. Pundits wrote leaders suggesting that Alan Sugar be certified, and the whole industry regarded the PCW as the rib-tickler of the year.

This view even rubbed off on the city financial institutions, many of whose representatives at the launch phoned their offices with sotries of caution, as Amstrad appeared to have made a blunder.

Well, they didn't. The price of £399 for the lot was nothmg short of astonishing: a good £1,000 less than people had been expecting to pay up to that time. The rest, as they say. is history.


Amstrad's 1512 overtures
The firm pitches itself headlong into the IBM arena, and turns the world of PCs upside down...

New Computer Express #7

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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.