Almost as soon as the Sinclair computers became popular, commercial software publishers sprang up to meet an apparently insatiable public desire for programs. By the time the Spectrum died out in the 1990s, a truly colossal number of games and other programs had been published - by some estimates, upwards of 20,000. To give some idea of how many this represents, a pile of 20,000 Spectrum cassette boxes would be as tall as the Empire State Building.
The development of the Sinclair software market can be divided into four phases:
- 1981-83: the era of the programmer-entrepreneur; one person writing, duplicating and selling his own programs - in effect, a hobbyist selling his work to other hobbyists.
- 1983-85: the era of the star programmers; businessmen handle marketing and distribution while programmers (increasingly employed on an in-house basis) concentrate on programming. Programmers are given a high profile in company marketing - Matthew Smith is a classic example - although in too many cases they are ripped off by their employers.
- 1985-88: the era of consolidation; after the high-profile failures of major publishers such as Imagine and increased competition from other computers and consoles, publishers retrench, merge or are taken over. A few major publishers come to dominate the market. The majority of the Spectrum's classic games are published during this period.
- 1988-94: the era of decline; with the Spectrum fading away in the face of competition from consoles and 16-bit computers, publishers pull out of the market until Spectrum products finally disappear from British shops by about 1994.
Very few Spectrum publishers now survive (major exceptions are Psion and Rare, better known as Ultimate, both of which left the Spectrum market before it died out). However, the programming expertise which underpinned the Spectrum software industry still remains, and has helped make Britain a global force in the electronic entertainment industry.