24/09/2021

Great ambitions

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We set out to use our lucrative Sinclair deal to build an ‘empire’. We created a software rack-jobbing team that visited multiple retailers’ branches to refresh their software stocks. Our modems took off too, we were selling network adaptors for all PCs. We took on representation of the Oric and Enterprise computers, we even flirted with Amstrad.

We set up a French subsidiary after gaining distribution rights for Sinclair there. Overcoming the need to have a French PDG, by appointing a Scot who had taken French nationality. This was Cameron Macsween a friend who had co-developed the first UK video game, Videomaster.

This was not enough for us, we wanted our own computer. There was a BBC computer designed and built by Acorn, we got heavily involved in a series of meetings with various ITV regions’ business heads to suggest that an ITV computer would be appropriate.

Wren advertisement

We proposed that it needed to be distinct from the BBC computer and convinced them that an executive computer was the way to go. Their TV series could therefore concentrate on the executive and small business sectors that the BBC was unable to address.

ASIDE: In 1981 Adam Osborne had launched his Osborne 1, the first commercially-available portable, which at its peak shipped 10,000 units/month. He went bankrupt in 1983. When asked why, he declared that he had ‘briefly doubted his own infallibility’.

With Transam Microsystems we developed the Wren and had Thorn/EMI build it for us – we were thus all-British, hence its name. It had a Zilog Z80 processor, used the vogue CP/M3 OS, we created an early GUI, graphics user interface, on its onboard 7” orange monitor, and it had viewdata capability – of course!

It had two 5.25” floppy disks and a port for an external Winchester hard drive. We had to concede that at 15kgs it was more luggable than portable – though for me it was easy, based on prior years of lugging Sweda 46s and Xerox 660s.

The ITV project stalled and failed  and so we entered an increasingly busy market with no special edge. Only 1,000 were ever built, but it was an exemplar of the 1983 status of PCs.

Romox EPROM-cartridge programmer

I still went to the American CES shows annually and would routinely come back with products from there. Perhaps the most interesting, though least successful, was ROMOX. This was a unit that retailers could install to hold 100s of video games and other software packages in different brand formats that could be output onto ROM carts on-demand. Better yet the user could come back with the cart and overwrite a new package for a fee, smaller than the cost of a new cart. The device would also present the local and national top charts as a sales promotion. Sadly, the rights proved elusive and it just didn’t take off.

Nolan Bushnell and Androbots
TOPO barrista

I met up with, and befriended, Nolan Bushnell the originator of Pong and Atari and we launched his range of Androbots in the UK. Taking over the Hippodrome on Leicester Square in January 1984 we gave press and trade launches of our plans for the year. William Woolard of Tomorrow’s World was our presenter. We hit all the evening news broadcasts, with Angela Rippon intoning ‘Hello Topo’ robotically. As a development device Topo was timely, but the market for personal robots was still a thing of the future.

ASIDE: Nolan Bushnell had set up a business incubator company called Catalyst Technologies Venture Capital Group, offering innovators office and workshop space backed by a support team, advice and finance.
His own office was something of a marvel. He had a glass-topped desk which had a scrolling LED message device, so his secretary could send messages to him in a meeting without disturbing it. He set up each of his innovators with a camera for face-to-face conversations, but while theirs were fixed, so that they had to sit still, his tracked a device in his shirt pocket so he could pace and still be on their screen.
His office was also set up to establish moods, the one I liked most was the lights taken down low, except on his desk surface, crickets chirrupping in the background. He said it might make him look like a space cadet, but by using these technologies he would know what worked and what was marketable.

Nolan later invited Richard and I to meet up with him in Paris. He rented perhaps the most amazing building in Paris. It sat with an uninterrupted view of the Eiffel Tower from every window. Its basement had a grotto swimming pool, you walked out from what looked like a Greek temple’s portico and pillars, then descended marble steps along the broad width of the pool. The heated water took you out under rough-hewn rocks with concealed lighting.

Nolan knew how to spend his money and was proud of his profligacy, for example he had flown the Atlantic in his private jet and pointed out that he owned two, after all what would you do when the first was being serviced?

Nolan has received many accolades including being on Business Week’s list of ’50 Men Who Changed America’. Leonardo di Caprio was to play Bushnell in a movie project named Atari, but it has yet to materialise.

Prism promos (1984

   )

As 1984 dawned we had a lot to say, and as stated above, we booked the West End’s brand-new Hippodrome, off Leicester Square, with our press presentation set for when the clocks should have been striking thirteen.

We calculated that we had sold sufficient Spectrums, when laid side-by-side that would have stretched from the Hippodrome for 62 miles to Sinclair’s Cambridge HQ. We showed the Wren and Androbot’s Topo all augmented by the futuristic laser shows at the club.

The night club’s team really got behind the launch as it was their first real opportunity to apply their new equipment with space themes like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Thus Spak Zarathustra. This had a visceral impact even after many rehearsals and two launches.

British Microcomputing Award/Prism modem
ASIDE: Richard and I decided we needed to take out keyman insurance on each other, the notion being if either of us popped our clogs, our wife would get £1m promptly. The survivor could then carry on with the business uninterrupted and value the balance of the deceased’s share without any urgency. The insurance company required a rather detailed medical, not the usually cursory approach, and this gave me a shock.

The doctor asked did I drink, and I gave a knee-jerk response that yes I did, but only socially. He was not happy with that and asked detailed questions. Did I drink at lunchtimes and I admitted to three business lunches a week when I would have a Kir aperitif and wine. He established that the lunches were usually for two or three people and we consumed a bottle between us. He asked about after lunch and I thought it sensible not to mention my usual port. He asked about the office and I admitted I had a bar in my office so that when we worked late colleagues would often come to get a drink and pour me a scotch, say three evenings a week. He pressed and suggested that presumably I had not invested in optics, so the measures would be generous. At home? I admitted to wine with the meal, stressing this was usually from a box, so not a whole bottle, but confessed to the occasional scotch later in the evening. This had all crept on given the success we were enjoying and I had not stopped to assess this.

After listing all of this I realised this made me an alcoholic. I stopped drinking. But two days in I started getting aches in my upper arms, so I went back on it, but did reduce the amounts. We got the insurance and I had received a wake-up call.

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