SINCLAIR talks...

At the invitation of Sinclair Research, CRASH magazine took four reader/reviewers along to an afternoon interview with Alison Maguire. Alison is Sinclair’s Software Manager, and as such takes care of evaluating software for publication. In the event, she was able to answer a wide number of questions which our readers put to her. The interview took place in the boardroom at Sinclair’s London office in Motcomb Street on the 9th. of February.

We met our four reader/reviewers for lunch before the interview beside the swimming pool/restaurant of Chelsea’s Holiday Inn. They were Matthew and Scott from Enfield, and Fraser Hubbard and his cousin James from Kent, aged between them 13 years to 15.

The questions uppermost on everyone’s mind were about the new QL computer and the microdrives for the Spectrum. It was Fraser who kicked off with the $64,000 question...

... to CRASH

Q: Do you know when the microdrives will be in the shops?

AM: Er, yes I do — (silence, then laughs). I know when I think they will. The last date I heard may well not be right, it’s not in my area. But I think it likely that they’ll be on general release within a couple of months. At the last count we had got through our mail order list, now it’s just a question of waiting for the time it takes for people to place orders. We have controlled the demand for it until we have got the supply reliable. We weren’t satisfied with the product right at the start — the first people who bought microdrives were able to telephone the engineer who designed it and told him what was the matter with it. You can only do that with small numbers of people, and now I think it’s an absolutely fantastic product. The cartridges are more reliable and I think we’re ready to go. Okay, there has been a time lag, but I think it has been worthwhile.

Q: Do you think there will be software on microdrives?

AM: It’s funny. It’s a sort of chicken and egg situation. There are lots of things that will benefit from being on a microdrive cartridge but if you release something on microdrive you’re only going to sell it to people with microdrive. So I’ve been waiting, like everybody else until they’re on general release, and we’ll be publishing our first microdrive software around about June, something like that.

I think it’s worth saying that a lot of people have been complaining about the expense, but I think they’re perhaps comparing it wrongly, thinking about microdrive software in the wrong way. I don’t think it’s sensible to put a single game on a cartridge that has 85K storage. I would see the cartridges being exploited by the fact that they can hold so much, and I think good adventure programs could be released on a cartridge, and also languages.

Q: Are software houses actually thinking of writing or releasing software of that sort of size?

AM: Yes I think there certainly are. There are lots of games writing companies who are thinking ‘big’ at the moment, and also thinking about ROM cartridges. It’s an area where people are continually trying to find something bigger, better and more original. Who knows where it will end!

Q: In connection with ROM cartridges, how has the ZX Interface 2 done generally?

AM: Well, we’ve had a surprising number of people buying it just for the joystick interface, which surprised me a bit because there are other interfaces about.

Q: Why were the particular keys used chosen?

AM: I’ve no idea.

Q: The main problem with those keys (6/7/8/9) (5/4/3/2) for a games player is that they are not ergonomic.

AM: I think you probably need to provide an alternative option. I’ve seen some games that allow you to choose your own key structure. But once you have chosen, I think you need to be able to store it — you don’t want to do it every time. So you favour user-defined keys do you?

(There is general agreement between the interviewers on this point)

AM: Isn’t it a bore having to redo the keys each time you play?

(A chorus of ‘No’ follows)

AM: That’s interesting, in fact I think I’ll even write that down. I don’t know who’s interviewing who here! I am interested in getting any feedback like that, I can.

Q: Will software houses be able to bring out software from the ROM cartridges?

AM: We are talking to a number of companies who want to produce software either themselves on ROM, or through us. If a company wants to bring out ROM software, and it’s our ROM cartridge, then the only way to go about that at the moment, is to do a deal with us whereby we actually produce the program for them. And there are several large companies that we’ve been talking to with whom we are going to do that. Or they can produce a program that will fit into an 8K or 16K cartridge, send it to us, and we’ll produce it. The ROM cartridge market hasn’t really been tested yet — we brought out ten titles, six from Psion and four from Ultimate. But we will be releasing some more ROM titles, new ones that haven’t been published in cassette form, say about May or June this year.

(At this point the most important question of the day could be held back no longer!) Q: When will the QL be freely available?

AM: (laughs) That’s a good one! I can’t really answer it. We’re still going through stages of having pre-production machines coming out, and each lot going through a testing procedure — they get better and better — then we start to ship, and you see how it goes with the first users — and then we start to ship in larger quantities. We are planning to produce half a million this year, and we are planning to start shipping next month.

Q: Is the QL mainly for business use or for games?

AM: We reckon that the QL is going to be one of the first machines that really sells into the home for useful things, not just for games.

Q: Yet you provide two joysticks ports.

AM: Well yes, we know people will want to play games on it, but it’s not our primary interest at the moment. We want the QL to be seen as a very different sort of computer from the Spectrum although the Spectrum has been very important to us. We see the QL being bought by people in the home who actually want to use it to run the type of software that can advise them what to do in various aspects of their lives. It’s going to be very important in the education field, possibly more important in the University market than in schools, but important in schools too. As far as games playing is concerned, it is capable of the most incredible games — but we know that will happen whatever we do. So, in the early months my main concern is to get compilers, languages and development things for it, so that people can write the software that they think will sell.

Q: There was a hope that the QL would make an appearance at the 10th ZX Microfair. It was even mentioned on the showguide cover.

AM: It’s an interesting question for us, whether we put the QL in exhibitions like the ZX Microfair.

Q: People have said, ‘Couldn’t Sinclair do a little better at the ZX Microfair than just six tables end to end.’

AM: Well, we see the Microfairs as informal additions — events at which we get the chance to just keep in touch. We don’t see them as major exhibitions.

Q: But there must have been thousands there, yet you say it isn’t a major exhibition...

AM: Well we do go there. I don’t know it would be appropriate for us to have an enormous, purpose-built stand at those sort of fairs. It would have the wrong sort of feel. We have a presence there, but it isn’t a sort of great ‘splashy’ presence.

Q: As there is no cassette interface for the QL, does that mean that software houses will have immediate access to QL microdrive cartridges?

AM: Absolutely. Yes — unlimited numbers of microdrive cartridges, blank ones that is, are available.

Q: Have lots of QLs gone out to software houses yet?

AM: Not a lot, no. Some people have them, but at the moment we’re still in the stage between launching the machine and having large scale production.

Q: Psion say they have been working on the business software for the QL pretty much for a year and have neglected the games side somewhat.

AM: That’s right. People have been saying to me, ‘Why aren’t Psion producing games for you anymore? Have they moved onto something else?’ In fact, at one point they had almost all their people involved on the QL software. But they are getting going on games again, and there are some in the pipeline both for the Spectrum and the QL.

(We then asked some questions on how Sinclair goes about choosing the programs which they put out under their own name)

AM: It’s changed a bit actually over the last year. To begin with, we just got a lot of unsolicited programs in, and somebody looked at them. If we thought we wanted to publish them, we published them. It was fairly reactive — we didn’t go out and look. That was mainly because Sinclair started off — and still is — primarily a hardware company. Software was a sort of sideline. It’s become perhaps more important that we expected.

At the least level of involvement we still get people sending in finished programs, and we review quite a lot of these every week. I have a panel of schoolboys in Cambridge who review games. And we do still publish some of these, though fewer than we used to. We also initiate software now, by getting people to write things that we want to do, or at least we make a shopping list of what we need and go out and find it.

Q: Does your panel work in concert or in isolation?

AM: They work in isolation. Well, it’s very informal as an arrangement because we can’t have an enormous panel to test software — we haven’t got the staff at Sinclair to organise that. We only have 50 people at Sinclair even now.

Q: Do you have a Spectrum?

AM: (laughs) Oh yes, certainly! I enjoy playing with it and my daughters like playing with it.

Q: What’s your favourite game?

AM: If I said what my favourite game was ...!

Q: Well, do you like arcade or adventure?

AM: I like arcade games for a while, but I get bored quickly, which is why I put them out for review, because I’m not the right sort of person. I find adventures very difficult — easy ones are boring and difficult ones take up too much of my time.

Q: What about the Hobbit?

AM: Oh I love the Hobbit. I think that’s about the only adventure I’ve really quite liked but mainly because I know the book and know all the characters.

Q: Do you see the Spectrum going on, or fading away?

AM: Well it’s gathered momentum almost more than we could have expected. We expect sales in 84 to be higher than in 83 — 1985 is anybody’s guess.

Q: Will you upgrade the Spectrum at all?

AM: We think we’ve got a pretty advanced computer in the QL, so it’s a question of whether it’s worth our while bringing out something that’s in between the Spectrum and the QL. We continually look at that option. There are so many options open to us all the time, and we review them all the time, and that is a possibility.

(There was a general consensus that if the games market continues, Sinclair should upgrade the Spectrum despite the number of computers in that area, because the ZX name is a potent force).

AM: It’s certainly very possible that we will.

At which point we concluded our interview and trooped out into the wintry London sunshine to leave Alison Maguire to the rest of her busy day.