If it had happened a week earlier we’d all have thought it was an April Fool but at the hastily called press conference at noon on 7th April there was no laughter — just the smiling face of Amstrad’s Alan Sugar and the slightly more restrained features of Sir Clive Sinclair.
John Minson rushed off to the press conference at which the £5 million sale of Sinclair Computers was announced ...
“Amstrad Consumer Electronics PLC today announced that it has purchased from Sinclair Research Ltd the worldwide rights to sell and manufacture all existing and future Sinclair computers and computer products, together with the Sinclair brand name and those intellectual property rights where they relate to computers and computer related products.”
That’s how the Amstrad press release puts it and the wording of Sinclair’s statement is expectedly similar, but what does it actually mean for us, the consumers? Will our beloved Spectrums somehow transform themselves overnight into abominable Amstrads? Nothing so dramatic. Instead, any Sinclair machine you buy from now on will carry the old logo, and for the near future will be identical to any other Sinclair product — only the profits will go to Amstrad who will also be responsible for all backup support, marketing and so on. Effectively, Sir Clive has said goodbye to the company that bears his name and has brought him so successfully into the public gaze.
In exchange for the sale of these rights Sir Clive has received £5 million and Amstrad will also purchase existing stocks and have agreed to take over outstanding sales commitments. Sinclair’s financial problems have made headlines recently — indeed some quarters of the press displayed indecent haste in putting the boot in when the one time hero of the British Hi Tech proved all too human — but at the conference Sir Clive was quick to assure questioners that the deal with Amstrad will write off all debts, which stood at £6 or 7 million a few weeks before. He denies that it is a rescue deal, though. Faced with the choice of taking on a large investment and competing directly with the other computer companies or selling the traditional business operation, Sinclair had no hesitation in choosing the latter.
Alan Sugar is undoubtedly an expert in the traditional business of marketing — witness the success of the Amstrad computers, which have only been around for two years. Last year Amstrad sold 750,000 units and they aim to sell over a million this time round. Meanwhile Sinclair sold 400,000 units last year — which Amstrad now intends to add to its figures. Why then should Amstrad want to purchase Sinclair?
Back at the 128 Spectrum launch in February, Sir Clive Sinclair made a comment that amused me and several others. He claimed that the Amstrad machines were having their major success in the business field while Sinclair was placing itself firmly behind the games market. It was amusing, because apart from the PCW 8256, Amstrad have carved their position in the entertainment market too, and Sinclair have in the past made claims for their machines’ serious applications. Now Sir Clive claims that the new deal was only thought up four to five weeks ago, when Michael Langdon of Price Waterhouse, representing Sinclair, approached Amstrad, but his statement almost two months ago is uncannily similar to Alan Sugar’s reasons given at the formal announcement that he had acquired his one time competitor’s business.
“We have recognised that Sinclair Computers have dominated the entertainment market in Europe for the last few years. We always viewed our computers as a step up from the entertainment market.” Sugar was keen to quote the Japanese market to us, in which games are just beginning to flourish. He sees home entertainment as far from dead, saying that for every eleven year old who gets fed up with his Spectrum and discards it to gather dust under his bed, there is a ten year old ready to get into computing. Whether the average Sinclair owner would like to be seen in this light is open to question!
But Alan Sugar recognises the seasonal nature of this particular market — one of the factors that came near to sinking Sinclair — which means that Amstrad will aim to “ramp up” the entertainment side for the four or five months a year when it’s big business. The metaphor that he repeatedly drew on was Boots changing its window display from sun tan oil to cough syrup! This is likely to mean a much more prominent advertising profile for Sinclair, including television airtime, and improved export performance. Amstrad already sells 68% of its product overseas and shares distributors with Sinclair in many European countries. One notable exception is Spain where the 128 Spectrum was first launched, and it seems likely that that machine’s future is limited. Sugar says that he envisages £139 as a fit starting point for a pricing policy.
The other key part of Amstrad’s strategy for Sinclair is “enhancement”. It is a term that Alan Sugar used frequently and seems to cover everything from quality control to cosmetic redesign. Recognising that one of the greatest virtues of the Spectrum is the vast backup of software, and that this means that it is an excellent machine for export, it looks as if any changes made will leave the operating system unaltered. Instead they will be aimed at reliability.
Sinclair have had an uncertain reputation for product reliability, while this is an area in which Amstrad have prided themselves. Alan Sugar is obviously keen for Sinclair machines to continue to be assembled in the United Kingdom, by Timex, Thorn and AB Electronics, but the quality control will be improved; he also emphasised the need to minimise other potential problems. His stated belief is, that with an entertainment machine, the user should be able to plug in and switch on. The likelihood of an Amstrad style built-in tape recorder seems strong, though the inclusion of a monitor is less likely as this would be too much of a trespass into Amstrad territory, according to Sugar.
He was keen to place part of the blame for complaints about the machines with Software companies, who in pushing the Spectrum to its limits fail to take note of its hardware specification and are eventually caught out by compatibility problems when the machine is upgraded. This happened with the series 2 and 3 Spectrums, and more recently with top titles that refused to run on the 128. The public’s first reaction is to blame Sinclair.
Alan Sugar’s proposed solution to the problem is to set up an organisation that will provide free guidance for software houses and will provide them with an endorsement of their products’s suitability for the machine. Hand in hand with this, advertising will try to persuade the public not to buy programs that do not carry the official badge. Whether this is a good thing is obviously open to question. Despite programs that have “misused” the Spectrum’s operating system, it is this adventurousness on the part of programmers to boldly go where others thought impossible that has lead to the wealth of games that obtain staggering results out of the humble machine.
Whatever changes Amstrad make, whether they be of the “sticking on” of a tape recorder or the slapping of hands of programmers who do not obey the letter of the law, they’re unlikely to come into force before this Christmas, though we should start to see the effects of the first of them before the year is out — and if Amstrad were to include the addition of a joystick port I can’t see cries of horror from any but the most conservative Sinclair owner.
What though, of Sir Clive’s other computer? The QL has not been produced for the last two to three months anyhow, and although Amstrad will provide full after sales service, Alan Sugar says that because of bad publicity in the past he cannot see a future for it. If it should be reborn at some stage it would probably be with a disc drive. Discs were mentioned again later in the conference when Sugar stated that the success of providing games on discs for the Amstrad range meant that a Spectrum drive would be a distinct possibility. This, one can only speculate, marks the end of the Microdrive.
Meanwhile Sinclair Research Limited are all set to head off in the direction where their greatest strength has always been — a course many people say they should have followed all along. They will originate ideas. Currently they are floating off areas for research in the hope that eventually they will become separate companies. The major new satellite companies are concerned with wafer-scale semiconductors, based at the Metalab with money from Barclays Bank, and a Winchester based business dealing with telecommunications, though Sir Clive was wary about saying anything about the backers here. A cordless telephone is a year away from the market. Sinclair will also be providing development teams to work with international companies on specific projects.
Under the terms of the deal, no new computers can carry the Sinclair name other than ones from Amstrad. Sinclair are continuing to work on their long awaited portable, the Pandora, and this, like any other computer products from Sinclair Research, will be offered to Amstrad first on a royalty basis. It seems likely that the Pandora’s Box will eventually be opened.
Alan Sugar, meanwhile, mentioned the possibility of using the Sinclair name on non-computer products. While a calculator under this logo would make sense, the idea of a Sinclair Stack stereo system for £99.95 including VAT may seem a little strange to some, but HiFi was where Sinclair started....
Sir Clive refused to be drawn by the questioners who asked him for an epitaph for Sinclair, but whether this is a death or not, it is certainly the end of an era. Sinclair were definitely in need of marketing skills, Amstrad undoubtedly have them. Let us hope that they treat the name they have acquired with respect. After all, it has been around a lot longer than they have, and without Sinclair it is unlikely that there would be a home computer market in Britain for Amstrad to dominate.