Sugar Story #8 : Future shock? (New Computer Express)Peoples Cpc Staff
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Part VIII: Amstrad move on from computers to satellite TV - but where has the old magic gone? William Poel concludes the Alan Sugar story.

The expression "the Good Old Days" is being heard rather more frequently in Amstrad admirers' circles. Something has gone astray, but the bravado and general "beastliness" of the company doesn't invite friendly comment and debate to see where the one-time glamour company of British computing is now going. Alan Sugar will regard all this as yet another example of knockers ganging up. and in the past he has always managed to sink criticism of this type by simply outperforming expectations.

The trouble is analysts, being cute, now expect expectations to be outperformed This means that expectations run even higher. So it is all the more worrying when the magician of Amstrad finds the rabbit is no longer in the hat

In common with many other computer firms, Amstrad has been going through a tough six months. The favourite old chestnut about RAM shortages has some credibility, but when examined more closely it looks precariously like a handy excuse to cover up some manufacturing and development problems getting the PC2286 and PC2386 to the stores.

The Surprise Symphony

The mixture of redundancies and “resignations' from Amstrad just before Christmas has left a question mark hanging over Amstrad's future enthusiasm for several aspects of computers. The fact that software has always been people-intensive has meant that this sits uncomfortably in a firm where turnover per head of staff is measured in millions. Sell a million quid's worth of software, and you need at least ten people to support it properly. Not just hotliners, but testers, developers and fixers.

So the rumour that Amstrad is about to bundle Symphony with its PCs would tend to support suspicions that this will then be regarded as the ultimate ‘something for everyone" freebie, and get Amstrad off the hook, software-wise, in one fell swoop.

I have to confess self-interest here, since I feel that Amstrad's part in the budget software market has muddied the waters and ruined an opportunity for many of the more creative publishers to get a look in to the new markets opened by the Amstrad PCs. Those who fondly believe that money was to be made in the wake of Amstrad's own efforts at software (that name or the box has a hypnotic effect), quickly discovered one of the ultimate truisms of the industry: the only people making money out of Amstrad is Amstrad, thank you very much!

Let's hope that the battle on software moves onto merit alone, and forget the marketing muscle afforded by the protection of a Big Name. After all, IBM seems to realise that the software marketplace is better off in the hands of the software publishers, and everyone ultimately benefited from this approach. Just take a look at the systems where the hardware manufacturer monopolises the software to see how uninspired many such approaches tend to be.

No more Sugar-free orbits

Coincidentally or not, at the same time as these problems Mr S. himself has been spending an increasing amount of his time away from computers. The satellite deal with Rupert Murdoch (don't they make a handsome couple?) was duly launched, and the satellite followed suit. To the

relief of all involved, it stayed up there, despite being launched perilously adjacent to November 5th and being somewhat inadvisedly called "Astra".

Whatever the internal effects of Sugar moving away from the micros, it has to be said that this opens up some significant future possibilities for the two main backers of the project. For once the immediate opportunity to ship TV receiving gear has been executed, there is then the infinitely more exciting prospect of using the satellite to broadcast data Murdoch knows that the cost of newspapers and distribution is going to go up and up, but that the cost of the technology to print them in every living room of the land is going to keep falling.

Then )ust think what he can say to the print unions. Will they be picketing every house with an Amstrad Home SataFax?

Quality will be good: the bandwidth of satellite TV is around 25MHz per channel. So if you can get 2.400 bps through a telephone line of 3KHz (just), this goes ten thousand times quicker, plenty fast enough to dump the contents of The Times into cache memory for printing at the user's leisure. Maybe the reader will scan the paper on screen and then elect for the hard copy he wants (or, in the case of the the Sun reader, be able to blow up sections for better resolution...).

People still want to have something to read on the tram, and portable PCs and “electrobooks" are still a step too far removed. The status of having one's TimesFax to read on the train will probably also help alert those around to just what a thrusting techno-yuppie you are Doubtless it will be printed on 6-hole sheets And if downloading is going to be that quick, then it's a simple extrapolation of the concept to see that this medium then allows "broadcasting" of all sorts of minority and specialist publications on an overnight basis to readers who have paid for the appropriate decoders.

And while Sugar is at it. why not produce a version of the SataFax which can double up as laser printer and photocopier? It's all quite possible now. but it seems that the Japs have clubbed together and agreed to unleash these innovations according to an orderly timetable; one that avoids too much unseemly scrabbling which might kill off an opportunity to mug us all with first the photocopier, then the printer, now the fax and scanner, and then - when the money from the separates is safely in the bank - start to peim around these facilities in combi units.

Alan Sugar looks skyward towards the satellite age -
but should he be looking over his shoulder?  >>

Obviously, one box that was a copier, fax and printer rolled into one would kill the market for separates overnight.

So. if Amstrad wants, there's one hell of a future of opportunities lurking out there. It seems unthinkablo that it should be so bereft of ideas that it feels obliged to chop away staff - but that's very much the Amstrad way of doing things. An occasional Napoleonic gesture stiffens the spines of the remaining troops.

Those of us who still admire the singularity of the purpose at Amstrad (money, money, money) occasionally get concerned that a drift into the old ways could spoil the opportunities of the future. And on the evidence of the recent past, there is every reason to be concerned that some of the lessons learned at the outset of its plunge into computing are being forgotten.

But Amstrad is such a mindlessly secret society these days, this presumption may be utterly misguided But you can be sure of one thing: even on current form, Amstrad certainly won't bother to do anything but deny such rumours, and probably take time out to question and ridicule their very existence. Some things never change...

The wee DRAM people

And now Amstrad strangely invest £40 million in a little-known DRAM producer. Micron, which happens to be sitting on a major copyright lawsuit, with them at the wrong end. What a curious departure from Alan Sugar's usual business practice. In the good old days, he'd have paid MEJ Electronics £50,000 to set up his own DRAM facility, or applied some subtle pressure on one of the major producers.

Maybe Micron has something going for it that we don't yet know about, but shovelling all that money off to the USA at a time when "no money" was being paid to IBM for something far. far more significant to the future of the company (in the shape of the PS/2 and MCA deal) seems strange

Sugar's bitter aftertaste

It's a terrible shame that there is so little appreciation of PR. Sugar intimidates all those around into a meek submission, so unless things have changed a lot (and they don't generally change at all at Amstrad), then there is no-one really capable of standing up to AMS. Some pretty crude comparisons have been drawn between his management style and the school bully and his sycophants. and those strike too close to home for many observers (including those dreadful City types).

But the truth hurts - even if it is only a perceived truth. Amstrad's recent performance at last entitles the Amstrad observer to level criticism at the management style, since it saems plain that the change of approach needed to take Amstrad through the barrier of successful medium-sized company to successful large company has yet to be made.

So what happened at the time of the change from small to medium? Well, the secret of Amstrad's success was that it never actually made that switch at all. relying on Alan Sugar's dynamic personality to carry the workings of a small company right up to the verge of the very big time.

The beetroot-boiling mentality has served Amstrad, Alan Sugar and some of the longer-term shareholders well, but can it do so indefinitely?

New Computer Express #11

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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.