FRANCO FREY PEERS AHEAD AT A NEW HARDWARE YEAR
1985 could well be the year of the modems. Several companies have developed low-cost units which enable Spectrums to communicate via the telephone lines. The technology is there, but what about the need for this device? An obvious plus is the access to Teletext services such as Prestel, Ceefax, Oracle, Micronet 800 etc. Whether these services offer enough in 1985 to warrant the capital investment of a modem remains to be seen. How many households have a TV set with Teletext facilities which, after the initial few days of curiosity, never get used again? Electronic mailbox services may prove too expensive for private users, but who knows what the postal rates will be like next year. The modem may link-up computers between friends, but many will be put off by the enormous telephone bills. Still, perhaps this is a new way of transmitting love letters, or copies of pirated games, or just generally making new penfriends (microfriends, in this case).
A fair number of Spectrum owners will by now have acquired the long awaited microdrives. 1985 will probably see the new waferdrives take off. Whether the extra reliability is worth the extra price will depend on the individual. (The price of the waferdrive cartridges certainly exceeds the Sinclair versions.) Personally I see more use in a low cost floppy disk drive system. Just to prove the point, Timex have launched a 3-inch disk system which also incorporates a communications device with two serial ports. Basically it is an interface/microdrive replacement providing superior speed and reliability to the microdrive unit. This could be the real small business user upgrade for 1985, especially with the promise of a cpm upgrade.
If you are looking for a hard copy system, the situation has improved drastically. The Alphacom 32 printer is the lowest entry point perhaps, but nevertheless it is very reliable. Anything more serious requires either a Centronics interface or the Interface 1 serial communications facility. Either way there are a large number of professional, low cost matrix and daisy wheel printers or even low colour plotters which have come within the reach of most home users, and next year will see the prices drop even more.
TV manufacturers have realised the potential of TV monitor combos, and the home user will combine the purchase of a computer monitor with that of a second TV set (at a normal television set price). The improvement on the picture quality is well worth the expense — that’s if you can afford it, of course. After the lightpen and the digital tracer it is the turn of the touchtablet; this is certainly the best drawing input device to use, but with a price tag higher than the Spectrum itself it has a somewhat limited appeal. Robotics suffers from the same illness. Although there is a lot of interest in this new technology, the products suffer from a far too high entry level as regards pricing. This is the reason why 1985 will not be the year of R2D2. But perhaps it will be the year to switch to an improved computer. Sinclair has indicated the launch of a new portable computer with CMOS power requirements and flat screen technology. Microdrives will be included in the package. Better still would be the inclusion of the expected hard disk-like wafer memory. Whether the flat screen display will be a colour version or not has not been indicated (the Japanese have a brilliant colour LCD screen for their portable TV production), so it is uncertain whether this is a games machine or not. Let’s hope that the Polaroid battery gets left behind, as anyone who as been using the Sinclair flat screen television could inform you of the diabolical costs of the same.
Looking forward to a new year can sometimes be as tricky as making pools’ predictions. Either one gets it right and joins the self-congratulatory ‘I told you so’ prophets, or one gets it entirely wrong and admits as much by keeping a distinctly low profile. On the other hand, one can play it safe and give away broad, vague predictions and alter their interpretation as time goes by.
I will leave the doomsday prophecies to the more pessimistic onlookers, who have predicted the collapse of the computer games industry before Sinclair became a household name. Computer games are here to stay. In some way or another they will continue to capture the interest of the game-loving crowds. Although the games software has travelled light years and reached an unrecognisable level in comparison with late 1983, the peripherals history still seems to be in its infancy. Apart from the various peripherals which are essential and convert the Spectrum into a minimum configuration games machine (joystick interface and sound amplifiers), very little has yet to make an impact in the add-ons market. The Currah Microspeech unit, which seemed to be the success story of yesterday, has not managed to make a sufficient impact on the software houses, and very few games provide an incentive to splash out on a speech synthesiser. The much-loved Track Ball still hasn’t appeared in large numbers, but this could easily change in 1985 if the price drops to a reasonable level. But if the real advantage of the Track Ball — which is undoubtedly the proportional speed or position control — is to be felt, a special interface will be required, and this in turn will have to be written. The Track Ball will face an even greater problem than the speech synthesiser. The Stack Light Rifle suffered a similar fate, and even today only a handful of programs have been written for this excellent games peripheral. The buyers felt cheated by the sheer lack of software support.
1985 should see the make or break of MSX in this country. Several MSX extensions will be launched late next year. Anyone who has been to the computer trade shows in the Far East will recognise the hardware potential behind MSX. Probably the most exceptional facility is the link-up of the video disc system for the arcade-style, random access video backup. With video disc system prices falling to an acceptable level, this means that highly complex arcade games will be made available to you in the living room. Several systems will be seen where the MSX home computer will be part of the Hi-Fi tower and fully integrated with the other home leisure equipment, such as music centre, TV etc. In this context the computer could be seen as controller or organiser of home activities. Your evenings could well be pre-programmed (what a thought!) and your centre would provide you with dim lights, 50 minutes of Dallas, the news, then a spot of relaxing music, an hour or so of arcade adventure, half an hour communications time with your modern associates and friends, and then finally switch itself off, making sure that when you leave the room the lights and heating go off as well. Not really my cup of tea, but who knows, I could have a different outlook altogether at the end of 1985. In the meantime I’ll stick to my Spectrum and hang on more and more peripherals until the power supply packs up....