Sugar Story #6 : DOS or bust (New Computer Express)Peoples Cpc Staff
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Part VI: The Amstrad army marches on its stomach for fights. This time, as William Poel relates, it was taking on the PC world

It was the autumn of 1985. The PCW was beginning to race away and create one of those apochryphal shortages of Amstrad computer products we've come to treat as part of the marketing mystique. The blackboards at Amstrad were covered in details of shipments on the high seas, and the names of the lucky outlets allocated to receive them were chalked alongside

The famous 3" disk suddenly became rarer than a sober journalist at a press reception. The wheel mg and dealing that went on to obtain supplies of this plastic gold was pretty outrageous, and Amstrad held the whip hand by tying up supplies from only two sources. At one point it was shipping around a million disks a month, and making a seriously large amount of money out of each one; a sum not unadjacent to a pound each in the heyday of the 3" shortages.

It was a classic case of supply and demand, and wouldn't we all be glad if such an opportunity pre sented itself to get rich quick? Business, was. as they say, good.

LocoScript turned out to be remarkably popular with the masses who didn't read computer magazines and so didn't realise that they ought to be finding it impossible to use and positively antiquarian. The early version was fairly quickly superseded by the 1.2 edition, which then remained remarkably unaltered until the entirely new version 2 appeared much later.

However, with that little lot out of the way and now a matter of production and shipping, there was the big coup of 1986 to consider

Fiddling STs

During the summer of '85, I managed to talk my way into getting hold of one of the very first Atari ST systems in the country. I concocted a tale about being a software developer, and paid over the money when I went to collect it. I.proudly set this up outside my office and had a fiddle with the GEM desktop.

At the time, it was the only piece of software around, and the machine was oh so incomplete and unfinished. It was plainly do or die for Atari if it had to ship such dreadful examples (even to developers).

More teapots, Vicar?

A little-known fact is that Amstrad has occasionally dealt in products other than electronics. At one time, it was a major supplier of teapots from the Far East to major department stores in the UK. If the Hong Kong office finds a product with a potential for a deal of profit, then the arch market trader of Mrs Thatcher's vision of GB Ltd is game for a pitch.

Mr S came stomping round on one of his tours of inspection. He is fond of strolling around the office, and manages to appear just at the very moment that you might be gazing out of the window and trying to seek inspiration. This time he caught me fiddling with the ST. and declared it to be of no interest as it would not be serious competition for at least two years, if that And he certainly wouldn't authorise Amstrad to pay for the thing for us to examine and consider So I flogged it on (at cost, honest) to a genuine software developer, HiSoft. which has since made a handsome living from the Atari ST marketplace.

At this point. I guess Mr S. had made the decision to abandon further development of the home computer marketplace with the CPC series (and it still amazes me how much life there still is in that system).

Sugar: Never mind the 1512's plastic, just look at the sales >>

But competition for the current ST? You have to be joking'

However, the Gem user interface set us thinking, and when the expected IBM clone project was got under way. we summoned the man from Digital

Research (which simply could not believe its luck at being able to get money for the continued sales of the very long in the tooth CP/M operating system on the CPC and PCW systems).

The man from DR was somewhat fazed that there was not a single IBM PC or compatible in the company. So he duly hauled an AT up in the lift, and set up a presentation of DR's attempt to get back at Microsoft for stealing its birthright as universal operating system supplier In addition to GEM. DOS Plus was mentioned, and at a price that would be hard to refuse.

Discussions with Microsoft at the time were proving (as they always are) to be tedious and unfulfilling. Microsoft had yet to be properly -confronted" by the Brentwood Beastie Boys (I can't remember who corned that delightfully appropriate phrase, I think it may even be the publisher of this noble organ in his formative years as a hack on a trade magazine).

However, MS-DOS was as American as apple pie. so when the US market was being weighed up. Mr S. concluded that the only expedient thing was to supply MS-DOS. The deal with DR had

been signed, so the product went along with both operating systems. Most agree that, as ever, the DR product was the more elegant and interesting, but elegant and interesting "don't put no money in the till, do it?"

So wielding the stick with which he was going to thrash Microsoft into a pulp by launching the machine sporting DOS Plus. Mr S. got Wild Bill Gates and the Microsoft crew to come down to a deal that was acceptable. Mr Sugar unleashed his famous "tongue o' nine tails".

Poel position

I only wish I had still been around to witness the encounter, since on November 5th, 1985, I retired gracefully from the frenetic world of Amstrad to pursue the market for CP/M software for the PCW8256 Another element instrumental in my decision was a statement from Alan Sugar that Amstrad was not interested in supplying PC software. And since I had put up with the crap end of the business that long primarily to get a crack at the fat pastures of the PC software scene, I felt I might as well stroll off, as my small contribution to the specification of the PC1512 project had been made for the year.

The CP/M opportunity arose mainly because no one else would take it on, and we had a commitment to do so in order to justify the claims in the ads that the product was indeed a computer capable of running three billion pieces of software.

So, DR was naturally absolutely thrilled to bits to be relegated to the role of the wallflower at the dance by this move, and bravely made the most of the opportunity to ship GEM.

The PC 1512 project proceeded apace and. as ever, the original specification was hardly touched in order to ensure that the product turned up on time (and if it didn't, then no-one had any excuses). Amstrad duly denied its existence, the press duly refused to believe it.

WordStar is born

The big coup was when Amstrad produced WordStar 1512 out of the hat. I don't think I had better say anything about it for fear of retribution, but suffice to say that WordStar 1512 was the phoenix-like reincarnation of a product called Easy that was written in Modula and bought in a while before by MicroPro in the US. It bore virtually no resemblance to any of the other products bearing the name of WordStar, and thus presented little in the way of serious upgrade opportunities.

But marketing opportunism is what it's all about at Amstrad, and a rose by any other smell would still be a rose, wouldn't it, old son? And so a product whose total world sales had hitherto been counted in tens, suddenly rocketed to number one volume shifter, thanks to the name and the Amstrad marketing muscle. Oh yes, and a small thing called a 'dealer agreement" which required Amstrad dealers to take stock of their software if they wanted to get shipments of hardware. ..

Lord Bountiful. The world of PC software, utterly fazed by the phenomenon of the PCW. began to form a disreputable queue outside the doors of Brentwood House.

Various big names prostrated themselves at the feet of Amstrad in supplication hoping for a few crumbs to tumble from the table, as it was becoming widely perceived that the Amstrad PC was going to open up a whole new vista of software bounty for the so-called budget market. A few big 'uns notably did not throw themselves wholeheartedly at Amstrad and its marketplace. Lotus remained offish, but I guess that it will shortly have a go at seeing what happens when you give Amstrad a dead product to recycle and reissue. Symphony 1 looks to be on the cards here.

Amstrad's set-to with Borland was a brief and allegedly acrimonious affair. That's one of those things that it would rather not talk about, but Sor-cim once again coined it in after showing faith with Amstrad and the PCW A just reward foi "being there', and a new lease of life for an otherwise discontinued product.

Development of the PC1512 family was relatively uneventful. The custom chips got ever more complex, but in terms of innovative design there really wasn't much scope, with the objective of IBM compatibility dictatmg everything about the design.

Sure it could go faster, which it duly did with a novel 8096 design from the arch innovators at MEJ, who had previous experience with a PC go-faster board called PC-Express.

Sure it could be the first all in one PC: PSU in the monitor case, this time with an umbilical connector that looked like somethmg connecting two spacecraft after earlier simplicities.

And lob in a mouse. After all, they need not cost the £100 or so bemg asked at the time, and Amstrad's Hong Kong product duly costs around $5 to make.

But the incorporation of the CGA screen driver on the mam board was perhaps the beginning of the decline in Amstrad computmg perceptiveness, and the first slip back into the old penny-pinching days of audio. Because this meant that the PCI512 family could not run an EGA monitor and software. And EGA was just coming up to being big business.

Disunited States

The first foray into the US was with the CPC6128 at the May 85 Comdex Show in Chicago had been a learning experience for all concerned, and nearly as dreadful as everyone imagined. The grand fiasco of the exercise was to give Amstrad a low-cost introduction to the perils of doing business in the US which it never forgot.

Amstrad never quite got it together on hard disks, either. Initially it chose an unreliable source (on price, I suppose) and at the outset expected only 15 per cent of machines to be shipped with hard disks. I seem to remember suggesting being prepared for 40 per cent in that discussion with the technical director - guess who was proved right?

Still, the main object of the exercise was to zap the market with price, hype and advertising. And this lot would do nicely, thank you.

Cobbling nonsenses

The first all-plastic IBM compatible PC and monitor made their inexorable way to an even more crass and tasteless product launch at Westminster. The throng assembling at these events was growing ever larger and more notable, so it's a shame that Alan Sugar was willing to put his name to the bunch of notably dreadful old cobblers that provided a PR man's view of a sense of theatre.

However, the product survived even this nonsense, and Amstrad's PC1512 sales literature was superbly crafted and written and included the novel idea that the prices should be hidden "because you won't believe them". And, once again, the old Sugar magic did its trick and the public flocked.

Amstrad has managed to create and reach straight to the heart of yet another new market for its products


Let's get serious
With the PPC and PC 2000 ranges, Amstrad aimed to be a plausible business computing firm. That was the theory...

New Computer Express #9

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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.