|★ PEOPLES ★ CPC STAFF ★ SUGAR STORY #7 : THE UNSOUND AND THE FURY (NEW COMPUTER EXPRESS) ★
|Sugar Story #7 : The unsound and the fury (New Computer Express)
|Peoples Cpc Staff
Part VII: As the industry's dirty tricks made Amstrad furious, so the firm's later machine launches made the industry puzzled William Poel proffers the penultimate episode in the Alan Sugar story
When it comes to being incandescent with rage, few can hold a candle to Alan Michael Sugar. He was at his most utterly furious at the time of the infamous "PC 1512s overheat” tale doing the rounds in autumn '86. The machines were said to be incapable of supporting certain types of power-hungry networking cards.
The storyette reached the rumour mongers, having been initiated by one of Amstrad's competitors (which was never actually named, but is probably the reason for the cracks in the M25 as it passes by Brentwood). Some of the regular PC press who had taken a dislike to the abrupt manner of Amstrad leapt gleefully on this story, with their usual macabre lust for bad news and scare stories. Mr S duly went through the roof.
A feature in the Sunday Times was quickly compounded by a leader in PC Business World...which was shortly afterwards the recipient of legal communications from an outraged Amstrad.
For by now, Amstrad had decided that it should expand its staff base, and before hiring anything approaching a PR officer and department, it had chosen to put a lawyer or two on the books. And jolly zealous chaps they are too. If journalists and competitors don't manage to get "confronted" by Amstrad's legal department, they aren't trying.
When Epson claimed proprietary use of the term LQ (letter quality), the fur began to fly, as Amstrad decided to apply this to its range of printers. It was fun at the time, but the action fizzled out when Epson climbed down. But the real irony of all this is the fact that the term PCW was lifted (from Minolta, which had earlier launched the PCW1 computer wordprocessor). And the cute OA (office automation) logo on the PCW badge appears to have been originated by Panasonic, and since Amstrad is a large customer of Panasonic's, I guess an expedient blind eye was proffered.
Now, if anyone had tried to do the same with any Amstrad branding device, or even something remotely and tenuously linkable with same, then stand by for writ to be nailed to the mast. This is commercially sound and thoroughly aggressive posturing, but typifies the 'one rule for them but we can do what we like" approach that soured relations between the increasingly buUy-boy Amstrad and the rest of the trade during this phase of Amstrad's inexorable progress.
But the underlying lesson had been learned at Amstrad. The gloves were off. Now that it was in the big league for real, an air of secrecy descended on Amstrad Towers with a vengeance.
Sugar: Public profile rising, but problems mounting >>
At the time, the money was on Amstrad to have a 286 AT ready to go, and there was consternation when only the 8086-based 1640 appeared in 1987. All talk of RAM shortages making it impractical was bluff: RAM could be diverted from the lower ticket value items, if necessary.
Quite how and why Amstrad failed to produce a 286-based system at such a vital moment is still a mystery to me (and most others). It was unquestionably an error of judgement. I can only imagine that its great cloak of secrecy effectively prevented the man who needed to know about market trends from knowing that a 286 was a must for a serious presence in the business marketplace.
Just look at the succour and encouragement Amstrad's lack of a 286 system has provided the cloners and importers. Walters, NTS, Opus etc all heaved a huge sigh of relief when it was apparent that Amstrad had utterly missed its marketplace.
Meantime, other battles were being fought. The PPC portables launched in early 1988 were met by a mixture of astonishment (the price including a 2400 bis modem was not then much more than a modem alone) and hilarity at the indifference of the flip-up display. The LCD display was and is truly lifeless when compared to decent backlit offerings, and although as ever Amstrad excuses itself on the grounds of cost, I would wager that most PPC owners would pay an extra £50 for a serious LCD.
This impossibility of an internal hard disk and the rather "modest" battery life both took the product out of the running for serious corporate users, but there seem to have been more customers willing to make do than these observers (including me) would have thought at the outset.
Other end of the spectrum
Elsewhere, the Sinclair arm of the operation was continuing to defy gravity and sell significant numbers of virtually unchanged Spectrum machines. They were sporting a version with the (surprise) 3' disk that managed effectively to blend the Amstrad 6128 and traditional Sinclair styles. Prior to the +2A, the basic Spectrum remained largely untouched, ensuring no problems with compatibility. Thus the +3 was a tempting opportunity for owners of earlier Speccies to simply obtain a classier lump of hardware without any software obsolescence.
It's a pity that the ST and Amiga challenge has (thus far) been declined. Both MEJ and Locomotive have the talent to give those markets a run for their money, and Amstrad has the money to give them the runs...so to speak. Maybe it will yet emerge in the form of an add-in card for the PCs? Now that would be a creative solution.
So when 1988's launch fever began to build, the marketplace anticipated efforts to catch up and overhaul the problems created by the missing 286. There was much speculation about PS/2 compatibility, Micro Channel Architecture and the rest.
But when the launch arrived, Amstrad broke its rules about pre-announcing. and showed a generally lacklustre range in the new PC200 series. It seems that as the quality of Amstrad brochures has gradually drifted towards the industry standard for gloss and panache, so the products have
The Sinclair PC200 also appeared last Autumn. This was received in the wake of the dull performance of the Olivetti PC1 - an almost identical concept and presentation.
In view of the strenuous efforts made by Alan Sugar at the launch to explain problems due to RAM shortage, it seemed as if diverting RAM to the curious PC200 was an act of some contradiction, if, as he claimed, this was the reason for the late arrival of the sorely-needed 286 and 386 systems.
New Computer Express #10