After meeting with quite some success in selling cheap audio equipment (namely, the first all-in-one stereo systems we all use today), Amstrad (which stands for Alan M Sugar TRADing) skyrocketed to the top of British computer manufacturers when it launched the CPC 464 in 1984. Further releases in the CPC series, as well as the PCW series brough in tremendous amounts of cash and lots of fame for its founder and CEO. The Amstrad PC series, although initially another big success, were to be its ultimate demise since Amstrad did not have the strong selling points needed in a clone-infested market.
Nowadays Amstrad is selling, with very modest success, the Em@iler telephones, satelite equipment and various other things - some of which are just own-branded OEM electronics.
A very partial history of Amstrad
(from WACCI issue 136, written by ChaRleyTroniC)
In the beginning was the word. And the word was Amstrad. And the word was a rather corny conflation of AMS (Alan Michael Sugar) and Trading. And when Adam Shade came to name his PD library, he called it Dartsma, possibly because he thought it’d be amusing to reverse such a well-known name, but more probably because he just couldn’t spell it.
In the last 25 years, Amstrad has gone from rags to riches to (let’s be charitable) obscurity. It hurried along a couple of revolutions – consumer electronics, home computing – that were happening anyway. Nothing more. When the history of home computing comes to be written, Alan Sugar’s company will merit a couple of index entries and a few paragraphs on the PCW word-processor.
The dark ages
Incidentally, this is a history crying out to be written. The story of the over-optimistic start-ups, many clustered around Cambridge, launching almost one new home computer a month, neatly predicates today’s dot-com boom and bust. Remember the Camputers Lynx? The Flan Enterprise? The Jupiter Ace? The Dragon 32? Exactly.
Pioneering games coders such as David Braben (Elite), Geoff Crammond (The Sentinel) and Matthew Smith (Manic Miner/Jet Set Willy) are celebrated only in Internet fan sites. I doubt any book currently in print includes the word LocoScript. But these were the computers, the programmers, the programs that set the scene for today’s chips-with-everything lifestyle.
But while garage start-ups such as Apple and Commodore (in the US) and, later, Sinclair and Acorn (over here) were pioneering home computing, Alan Sugar was selling hi-fi lids from the back of his van, doing the rounds of East London markets. His subsequent excursions into audio equipment had a plug on the back, but were just as technologically basic. Amstrad products were cheap. Not necessarily good value, certainly not high fidelity, but cheap.
Stories about Sugar’s wheeling and dealing are legion. Perhaps the best one relates how he managed to get High Street giant Dixons to sell his products. Granted an audience with proprietor Stanley Kalms, he proceeded to extol the virtues of his latest amplifier import. Kalms knew it was rubbish. So, probably, did Sugar.
But Kalms wanted to keep Sugar sweet, because he had contacts in the Far East that could potentially be useful sources for Dixons’ own brands, such as Saisho. All right, says Kalms, we’ll put your amp in the catalogue. We won’t stock it in the stores, but we’ll let our customers order it. (Not that they would.)
Sugar agreed. The next week, he gave one of his relatives the money to order an amp from Dixons. The order was duly processed, and a Dixons flunkey phoned Sugar to obtain what they expected would be the one and only Amstrad amp they’d ever sell. “Don’t be so bloody stupid,” snapped Sugar. “I’m not sending you one amp. You’ve got to order at least a hundred!”
Then there’s the old one about the Amstrad stereo unit with a button marked “Sound Quality Boost”. Some inquisitive soul opened the system up and found it wasn’t connected to anything.
The genesis of Arnold
On such business acumen did Amstrad prosper, until Sugar, casting round for a new outlet for affordable electronics, lighted upon the computer market.
The conception of the CPC has been well chronicled, notably in Amstrad Action. The original design team envisaged a machine based around the 6502 processor, because that was what Commodore’s VIC-20 used – one of the best-selling computers of the time, but already on its way out.
The project was go. The designers weren’t. Proving inadequate to the task, they were swiftly booted out, and replaced with names still familiar to CPC users: Locomotive Software, William Poel, and so on. The result was the original CPC 464, a well-built, easy-to-use home computer, which broke no new ground over and above the standards of the time – Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro – but was sensibly priced and intelligently packaged.
This showed in two ways. Firstly, the CPC was a one-box solution: take it out the box, plug it in, and away you go. The tape drive was built in, so there was no more faffing around with adjusting volume levels before a game would load – standard practice on Sinclair’s machines. The power supply was in the dedicated monitor: the CPC’s competitors needed an external unit and the use of your telly. By selling the computer, tape deck and monitor combination together, Sugar’s baby commanded a higher price – higher profits – yet seemed good value to the customer.
Secondly, there was AMSOFT, Amstrad’s software arm. It didn’t program much itself, preferring to commission outside programming teams or small software houses. But it ensured that, when you bought a CPC, there was a ready- made library of games, educational programs, and even the odd word-processor to choose from. Instantly, the CPC had eclipsed the Enterprises and Lynxes, and was on a par with the Spectrum and C64. The less said about the actual games, the better.
And that, with one or two refinements, is the same CPC we know today. Expansion kits (disc drives, Amstrad-branded printers, serial interfaces and modems) followed in due course. The disc drive was soon incorporated into the main computer, resulting in the short-lived (but twiffic) 664 and the perennial 6128 – intended to spearhead Amstrad’s failed drive into the American market, but soon revived as the flagship CPC back home.
The CPC design remained unchanged until the ill-fated Plus machines, a story in themselves. Amstrad ceased production of the Plus in 1992 or so – a fact singularly unreported outside French magazine Amstrad Cent Pour Cent.
Meanwhile, Sugar was keeping busy. The one-box approach was repeated in 1986 to produce the PCW 8256, a word- processor with distinct similarities to the CPC. £399 got you a computer, monitor, word-processing software, disc drive and printer; another good deal, and to this day, the PCW is what most laymen associate with the word Amstrad. It, too, spawned a host of derivative machines with varying memory, disc drive and printer configurations.
Then came the PC. IBM’s unexciting business computer, for that’s all it was in the mid-1980s, had been cloned a thousand times in the States – notably by Compaq. It had even been cloned over here, by some outfit called Advance. But once again, no-one had done the one-box solution as cheaply as Amstrad was to.
The entry-level PC1512, with monochrome monitor and 512k memory, could be yours for the price of a PCW. (Though you didn’t get the printer.) Colour versions, upgraded specs (the PC1640), and ‘luggable’ laptops (the PPC512 and 640) followed. All did rather well – well enough, at any rate, for Amstrad to be able to afford to buy Sinclair Research, its main British rival.
Back to basics
Sir Clive Sinclair’s company had pioneered British home computing. After the simple ZX80 and ZX81 came 1982’s phenomenally successful ZX Spectrum, an affordable "colour clashing" computer with barely serviceable sound and a bizarre rubber keyboard. Cheap, cheerful, and easy-ish to use, the public loved it. In Britain, neither the CPC nor America’s Commodore 64 ever caught up with the ‘Speccy’.
But Sinclair’s next-generation computer, the partially 16-bit QL (for Quantum Leap), was a disaster. The firmware was ridiculously bugged. Deliveries were slow, even by Sinclair standards (about on a par with Robot PD, in fact). And flashes of brilliance in the design, such as the elegant Motorola 68008 processor, were countered by the idiotic decision to use unreliable Microdrive tape cartridges instead of discs.
Both this and the ill-fated C5 three-wheel scooter (and you remember that) exhausted Sinclair financially. The Spectrum Plus and 128 offered very little more than the original 48k model. Buyers were tempted by the sexy-looking Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, which leapfrogged the forgotten QL. Sinclair embarked on a project to replace the Spectrum – the SuperSpectrum, or Loki – but no longer had the resources to follow it through.
Alan Sugar wasn’t the first wheeler-dealer offering Sinclair a lifeline. That honour went to fat crook Robert Maxwell, whose Daily Mirror even printed an edition headlined ‘Maxwell Saves Sinclair’. He didn’t.
In fact, neither did Alan Sugar, even if he did buy the company. The Sinclair brand was only to last a few more years. Amstrad repackaged the ZX Spectrum twice, first as the Plus 2 – a Spectrum 128 with proper keys and a tape recorder stuck on the side – then as the Plus 3, the same thing but with a 3-inch disc drive instead. The similarities to the CPCs were more than skin deep: the Plus 3’s disc operating system was written by Locomotive, and could even read PCW discs.
(Another digression: this is one of the most fascinating pieces of firmware ever to grace an 8-bit machine. The Plus 3 DOS was chocker with self-test modes, hidden displays, and other ‘Easter Eggs’ that could be activated by obscure combinations of keys.)
The other Sinclair was the PC200, a dismal home PC cased in Sinclair black. With similar capabilities to the PC1640, it was Amstrad’s first attempt to challenge the Atari ST and Amiga. Though eerily prescient in anticipating the PC’s modern-day role as all-round entertainment station, the PC200 nonetheless tanked. The Amiga, in particular, had set new standards in graphics and sound, giving rise to spectacular new games like Xenon, Populous, Lemmings and Dungeon Master. The PC200 went ‘beep’ and displayed a handful of feeble colours – making it, if nothing else, an ideal inheritor of the Sinclair tradition.
Beginning of the end
Meanwhile, the Amstrad brand continued to appear on a series of steadily faster PCs. Some were quite nifty, most fairly average in an increasingly competitive market. The most ill-fated was the PC2000 series, which had followed the 1640. It was a decent enough compromise between price and performance. But the hard drive controllers, bought in (as was standard practice) from a US company, simply didn’t work.
In latter years, Amstrad would attribute its decline in the PC market to this one event. The faulty components, claimed Sugar, had cost his company its good reputation, and forced an ignominious retreat from the High Street computer retailers.
This line of argument garnered some sympathy and, more importantly for Amstrad’s chairman, generous compensation. Sugar even established a subsidiary, Amslit, whose sole purpose was to lead litigation against Western Digital et al. It thrived while the rest of Amstrad’s computer division withered.
Because to blame a few dodgy microcontrollers for the failure of a market-leading company is palpable nonsense. In reality, the market had moved on. Cheap was no longer enough by itself. Today, PC buyers are either looking for a brand – Dell, IBM, Compaq – or a bog-standard clone assembled by a low-margin specialist like Tiny, Time, or one of the countless local PC dealers.
Amstrad, which never had a reputation for quality nor especially low prices, was caught in the middle. But unlike similar companies such as Packard Bell, it never managed to tie up the distribution deals with Dixons which would have saved it. Indeed, in one particularly ill-judged outburst, Sugar announced that PC prices were too low, Amstrad would be putting its prices up, and it expected other manufacturers to follow suit. Sugar’s rivals couldn’t believe their luck – and kept on selling PC to the same people who’d once bought PCWs.
In time, the last Amstrad-branded PC appeared. Sugar bought a company called Viglen, one of the better PC manufacturers. It continued in its own way until another restructuring saw it sold off again. Amstrad continued to make stereos, videos, and other dependables. And Alan M. Sugar squandered a large part of his personal fortune on Tottenham Hotspur.
The sad case of the missing scrollbars
One part of Amstrad keeps alive the spirit of the mid-’80s: the Innovations division. It retains Sugar’s preoccupation with all-in-one solutions, which he first spotted in the electronics emporia of Tokyo. The infamous PCW16, a short- lived and deeply flawed successor to the popular word-processor, sprang from this division. So did the Amstrad E-m@iler, the company’s current great white hope. This phone with keypad provides simple e-mail facilities without the need for a PC, and you’ll find boxes of them cluttering up a Dixons near you.
Another neat idea, but not one which is showing any signs of setting the world alight. Like the PCW16, its design is too compromised to take on the all-pervasive PC. Why no web browser – even a simple WAP one? Why does Amstrad attempt to make money from flogging print-like adverts that appear on the E-m@iler’s screen, when a simple e-commerce facility would have opened up great possibilities for selling books, CDs, groceries and the rest to a captive market? Who, in short, does Sugar think he’s kidding?
Amstrad has long been an irrelevance in the computer market. Products like the PCW16 and E-m@iler are viewed with benign amusement by the technology press, and, one suspects, the rest of the world. And now that he’s finished annoying Spurs supporters, it seems unlikely that Alan Sugar will make much difference to people’s lives ever again.
But for everyone reading this magazine, he did – and for hundreds of programmers, thousands of small businesses, and tens of thousands of game-players. The CPC and PCW were small steps in the long haul which transformed computers from playthings for precocious teenagers into the ubiquitous home appliance. The PC and PCW brought computers into offices that had previously managed with only a calculator and a card index.
Look around, and you will find computers everywhere. Now look back at your CPC. In its modest way, this is where it all began.
This article is not the result of searches through Amstrad’s archives. Nor is it even a competent hack-job rephrasing David Thomas’s biography of Alan Sugar (quite a fun book, and worth digging out). It’s just how I remember it from years of reading Popular Computing Weekly, New Computer Express and the like. So don’t quote me on any of it!