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Selling Sinclair:
Sinclair's Mistakes?

Sinclair's marketing was highly effective when it worked, but it can hardly be denied that he made some significant mistakes - mistakes which certainly cost the company money and goodwill, and perhaps doomed it in the end.

Most obviously (and notoriously), Sinclair gained a reputation for advertising products before they were ready to ship or before there were enough to satisfy the demand. This problem recurred repeatedly in the 1970s and 1980s, as many Spectrum and QL owners will recall - wags claimed that "QL" stood for "Quite Late." Manufacturing problems were sometimes to blame but the commonest reason cited by the company itself was that demand was unexpectedly high. For this to happen once would have been understandable, but it was a recurrent problem. This suggests that Sinclair was serially deficient in anticipating the demand and taking steps to ensure that production could be ramped up to meet it.

Sinclair's advertisements were also occasionally guilty of over-hyping the products. Looking back at some of the 1970s adverts for audio products, it seems unlikely that they would have been acceptable to the standards authorities in today's much stricter advertising environment. The company's electronics kits were certainly cheap, but their quality and performance were often not quite at the level stated in the adverts - for instance, amplifiers with a quoted maximum output level at which they could certainly be run, but which would make them burn out after a few hours.

Was bad marketing implicated in Sinclair's two most notorious failures, the Black Watch and C5? Probably not in the case of the Black Watch; the idea was good enough but the implementation was what let Sinclair down. But marketing certainly does appear to have been a problem with the C5. The nature of the product itself - a small open-topped electric tricycle - was a peculiar choice for Britain's rainy climate and congested, cycle-hostile roads. It was positively bizarre and simply not credible to promote the C5 as a "car." The C5 was so far different from a regular vehicle in its appearance and utility that describing it as a car required a virtual redefinition of the meaning of the word. And as people asked at the time, what practical use was the C5? It could not carry passengers or any significant amount of luggage, as it only had a very small storage compartment. Its small range meant that it could not travel any significant distance, and its low speed meant that it would not get to its destination very fast anyway. In short, the C5 was so flawed in so many practical ways that one has to wonder what market testing - if any - Sinclair conducted before the company was committed to the product.

In fact, it may well be the case that Sinclair did not conduct any market testing. Reportedly, he doesn't believe in it, instead preferring to find new niches - a conviction businessman, one might say. Leading by instinct is not necessarily a bad thing; it served Sinclair well in the pocket calculator and home computer markets, where his cheap and simple products defied all conventional expectations at the time and became huge successes. Looking back in hindsight, though, Sinclair's moves into the calculator and computer markets made sense in a way that the C5 did not. In the first two cases, Sinclair created cheap and usable versions of highly desirable but costly and bulky items. The utility of a pocket calculator and a home computer are obvious, and Sinclair's design team was clever enough to produce devices which were highly versatile in spite of the technical compromises forced by the cheap components. The C5 presented an entirely different scenario. Electric vehicles were costly and bulky, but they were not (nor are they now) highly desirable items, nor is there a pent-up demand for them in the same was as there was for computers or calculators. The C5 was cheap enough, but the design team failed to deliver enough utility to make it truly useful; its design flaws and lack of an obvious mass market doomed it before it was even launched.

It's arguable that Sinclair's biggest marketing mistake related not to the C5 but, paradoxically, to his most successful products, the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum. One might well argue "some mistake" - after all, both the company and the man himself made a fortune from the computers' huge success. But had it not been for some quite baffling omissions in marketing, they could have made a fortune several times over. Sinclair's adverts tell the story quite well by themselves. The ZX81 and ZX Spectrum are consistently sold as an educational or productivity tool. For instance, some of the adverts show a devoted father teaching his son the basic of computer in front of a ZX81; they speak of the "more sophisticated ZX Software" such as the "Business and Household management systems." Sinclair peripherals are described in similarly worthy terms - the ZX Printer is useful for "a hard copy of your program listings" and the Microdrive and Interface 1 are mass storage and networking tools useful for a school network. All this was true, up to a point. But the reality was that while Sinclair was promoting the wonders of databases and word processing on the Spectrum, millions of Spectrum owners were playing Jet Set Willy.

Today, the Spectrum is best remembered as a games platform. Within not much more than a year of its launch, it was already obvious that most users were using the machine mostly to play games. Yet, strangely, Sinclair seems to have been uneasy about this use of his product. Sinclair User alluded to this in a 1985 interview with Sinclair in which he mentioned his disappointment with the gap between his expectations and the reality of the 1980s, an era in which (as the magazine put it) "we've all got computers and we're playing Jet Set Willy."

Sinclair's heart clearly was not in the games market, despite its lucrativeness. The company produced only a few half-hearted gestures, such as the relatively unsuccessful Interface 2 with its non-standard joystick ports, and the small range of games software produced for the company by Psion. There was also a marked reluctance to adopt conventional methods data storage, with Sinclair developing the ingenious but relatively little-used Microdrive rather than tape or disk storage. Others rushed in to fill the gap left by Sinclair: Kempston with its ubiquitous joystick interfaces, any number of companies with joysticks, WH Smith with its "datacorders" (actually re-labeled Far Eastern cassette recorders), DK'tronics with typewriter-style keyboards and so on. Sinclair would certainly have made a lot more money if it had produced a wider range of officially badged peripherals, or released a Spectrum with a proper keyboard rather than the idiosyncratic rubber mats used in the 16/48K Spectrums, Spectrum+ and Spectrum 128.

What accounted for Sinclair's apparent lack of interest? Sinclair seems to have been personally unwilling to sell the Spectrum as a games machine - he reportedly refused to allow the QL's games-playing capabilities to be publicised. The Spectrum was instead pitched consistently as an educational tool, a matter which was clearly of considerable personal importance to Sinclair. In the event, the educational market went almost exclusively to Acorn (courtesy of the BBC Micro contract, the loss of which greatly angered Sinclair). The entertainment market came to be dominated by a triumvirate of Sinclair, Commodore and Amstrad, in that order - roughly a 40%/30%/20% split by 1986. This was all the more remarkable considering that the other two companies publicised their machines' games capabilities while Sinclair did not. The contrast with Amstrad in particular could not have been greater. Within months of acquiring Sinclair, it announced the gamesplayer-friendly Spectrum +2 with integrated tape recorder, joystick ports and proper keyboard. The difference in marketing strategies was graphically demonstrated by Amstrad's adverts for the Spectrum +2 (257 Kb) and +3 (254 Kb), which publicised its capabilities as a games machine and ensured the Spectrum's survival for another few years.

Another factor may have been Sinclair's desire to move on from the Spectrum. Former colleagues have noted his nomadic behaviour on the marketplace, moving on from one product to the next as his interest waxes and wanes. It's arguable that the Spectrum was actually peripheral to his main interests, the pocket TV and C5, despite its enormous success. It's very likely that neither the pocket TV nor the C5 would have appeared at all had it not been for the profits from the Spectrum - a very typical Sinclair approach, financing the next product line from the proceeds on the last.


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Chris Owen 1994-2003