Sir Clive Sinclair
has never been very far from the headlines since the launch
of the ZX80. Now, after last year's sale of the Spectrum and
QL rights to Amstrad, he's back with the favourably received
Z88 - and other products, as John Brissenden discovered, in
THE history of Sir Clive Sinclair's involvement
in the UK computer industry has been one of pinnacles and
troughs (and not an awful lot in between).
From being the architect of British interest
in home computing, we have seen the sad tale of the C5 electric
vehicle, last year's sale of Sinclair to Amstrad and the lengthy
and acrimonious saga preceding the arrival of the Z88. It
all put Sir Clive Sinclair's public image at something of
a low point.
However, the appearance of the Z88 portable
in the shops this month marks the return of Sinclair from
the wilderness, and the beginning of his attempt to reclaim
a position among the computer industry's leaders.
The Z88 is here, and has garnered favourable
reviews from many quarters. In price/performance terms the
tiny machine looks like a potential winner.
Sinclair himself has always held the concept
of portability - and miniaturisation - close to his heart.
He is confident that the Z88 is right for the market, and
Cambridge Computer is currently producing 1000 per week. That
figure will shortly double.
So can we expect further developments in
this area shortly, maybe even a Z89 or Z90?
"The thing about the Z88 is the way
we've designed it, of course. It can go on being expanded
pretty well indefinitely," he says.
"So obviously there's no need to change
the machine, because we just plug in different cartridges
and expand it. In terms of portables, that's our statement
for a long time to come, I think it's not the sort of product
that needs changing."
Sir Clive admits to being unsure exactly
how big the market for the Z88 will be: "We know that
there's a reasonable market, because we can already see that,
but what the potential size of the market is, we can't tell.
Obviously we hope, we think it's huge, that's why we've done
it, but we can't tell."
But he is steadfast when questioned about
the adverse publicity he received over the three-month delays
in the despatch of the machine to mail order customers, and
the run-ins with the Advertising Standards Authority.
"The criticism came from people who
weren't the customers, that was the irony. We never said that
it was going to be available in 28 days, because it wasn't.
We just said if people were prepared to be one of the first,
that's the way to be first and those people who wanted to
be first were.
"All the criticism was artificial,
because it wasn't as if we were making anybody unhappy. We
were only making the ASA unhappy apparently," he says
with not a little hesitation. But Sir Clive says he wouldn't
do things the same way again, simply to avoid being censured
by the ASA.
"But equally, we didn't do anything
wrong, and our customers are very happy," he says.
Sinclair might have done all he wants to
with portables for the time being, but he is nevertheless
involved in other computer-orientated projects.
"The area that we're looking at is
very high performance machines. The technology that we've
been building up over the years is towards that area, because
we anticipate that this will be needed in all sections of
computing. What I'm thinking of now is high-performance desktop
Then there is the wafer chip, being developed as an ultrafast
access hard disc replacement by Anamartic. Recent, unconfirmed
reports suggested that Sir Clive had finally won the £4
million needed to bring the project - currently at prototype
stage - to market.
Sir Clive clarifies the situation. "The
position is that that is broadly what's happening, and we're
expecting to have an agreement signed in about three weeks'
"The first product will be a 20Mb wafer,
and that will be built into various products. There'll be
black boxes that will contain anything from one upwards of
these wafers," he says.
"What Anamartic is going to be selling
is not replacements for hard discs, because it does a lot
more than a hard disc, but a sort of ultra-fast access hard
"Sinclair Research is interested in
building wafers into computers, so that they can increase
their performance, and obviously we will be doing that as
early as we can. The earliest we can see wafers being in production
is late-ish next year, so that sets the beginning."
Another company with the Clive connection
is Shaye Communications, which has a 25 per cent stake in
a new pocket telephone project being developed with Timex,
Fred Olsen and the Finnish company Nokia Mobira, the world's
largest producer of cellular radio. Sir Clive reckons we should
see the pocket phone sometime next year.
One thing we definitely won't see is a successor to the disastrous
C5 electric vehicle, launched in 1985. Last reports said that
C5 parts had been bought up and fitted to pushbikes.
"The C5 was meant to be a stepping
stone, because what we really wanted to do was produce a full
range electric car. We had a design for an 80 mile-per-hour
300 mile range, electric vehicle, which we conducted a complete
design study on.
"The C5 was meant to come in the next
generation, but of course it got a bad press, and it didn't
turn out to be the success we hoped, and so that fell by the
Sir Clive occupies a unique position in
the UK computer world, and there is more to know from him
than the next six months' product schedule. What, for example,
is his view of the much-touted shift to 16-bit machines which
is occupying many people's attention at the moment?
"I think, funnily enough, that the
16-bit machines were and are a mistake. We were the pioneers
in that field, when we came out with the QL long before Commodore
and Atari came out with their 16-bit machines, and the irony
is that really the 16-bit machines are not doing anything
that the 8-bits couldn't have done," he says. Surely
several thousand Amiga and ST owners, at the very least, would
beg to differ?
"There's nothing wrong with the Atari
ST, I'm not knocking the machine. The Atari ST is a super
machine. The point I'm making is that - it's not super because
it's a 16-bit machine, it's just a nice machine.
"You certainly don't need 16-bits for
games, because if you look at all the games, people who put
out games for the 16-bit machines, put them out for the 8-bit
machines as well. You could say the Amiga has got super graphics.
It has, but not because it's a 16-bit machine, but because
it's got a blitter chip in it, so there's the super graphics,"
he says. Sir Clive went on to hint that he's more excited
by the prospect of 32-bit micros.
Talking of which, what of Acorn's RISC-based
Archimedes? It has had publicity this summer, with everybody
marvelling at its speed. King's new clothes, says Sinclair.
"I was very excited when I first read
about it, because Acorn said this is the most powerful processor
on the block, it's more powerful than anybody else's machine.
If that had been true, it would have been very exciting and
very impressive - but it happens not to be true at all.
"We had a look at it, and to give you
an example, it runs quite a lot of mips, four mips as against
two or three on the 80386. The 386 are very powerful instructions,
whereas the RISC machine necessarily has simpler instructions."
"When you actually compare them when
they're doing an important task, say multiplying two numbers,
whereas the 386 does it in two microseconds, the Acorn RISC
chip takes about 23 microseconds. So in fact, when it comes
to a serious task, it isn't any faster, it is actually a lot
Of course in the real world, there
is a huge market for 16-bit micros, Archimedes is the fastest
micro most of us have seen, and as for 80mph C5s . . . But
it looks like Sir Clive is back with a bang, and may even
have got it right again - let's hope so.