16/09/2021

Micronet and Sinclair

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One key PC player initially proved more complicated for us and our Micronet plans. We wanted to be able to connect the Sinclair ZX81 with Micronet 800 but the contents of their ROM were as yet unpublished. We ran a competition, offering a £1,000 cash prize for anyone who cracked the code to enable a modem to be attached to the ZX81. We ended up with two credible solutions, but still wanted some formality with Sinclair.

ZX81, Manual, Cassette player and screen

Richard published Sinclair User and Sinclair Programmes at this time, so he got me an appointment with Clive Sinclair (not yet knighted). I laid out my thinking and where I needed his help. A man who uses silence as a weapon, he pondered this and eventually concluded that he wanted to do this himself.

ASIDE: I once took a sales manager from my team into a meeting with Clive and advised the guy not to try to fill any silences. I asked Clive for something and the sales guy was in a perfect position to time the resultant silence – it went on for eighteen minutes! Neither of us spoke, so I did get what I had asked for.

I explained the power of EMAP and Prestel, rather overstating our central role of course and said we were already doing it. When he repeated that he wanted to do it, I asked what was in it for us if we backed off.

Prestel logo

This proved to be fortuitous timing because he dealt then only with mail order and a handful of multiple retailers, he had ramped up production to satisfy these retailers and that very day Dixons had rejected a shipment leaving him embarrassed with stock. This had happened to him in a previous enterprise and the operation crashed, so he was worried by this live development.

He knew of me from my ACE days and so replied that he was prepared to offer me a distribution deal – we would turn this offer into a business that over the next three years would turn over £90m!

First year results – Evening Standard (Sep-83)

The product of that meeting with Clive was a scrap of paper on which I agreed to buy 1,000 ZX81s a week for the next twelve weeks, together with agreed proportions of peripherals and software. I would pay for these 28 days after delivery. In return I was to be exclusive in the UK except for his current direct clients (five or six major retailers) and the direct mail business.

On Micronet, with Clive’s support, and access to his ROM, we later produced the VTX5000 modem to connect ZX81s. But the Micronet significance of our deal proved as nothing compared to this distribution deal.

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