Sinclair relaunches himself
(Interview in Popular Computer Weekly, 1988)
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 our interview.
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
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,"
"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
"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 personal computers."
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' time.
"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,"
"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 disc.
"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
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 wayside."
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 slower."
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