(Your Spectrum, March 1984)
YOUR SPECTRUM: How would
you describe working alongside Sir Clive?
NIGEL SEARLE: It's obviously
very stimulating. The biggest difference you'd find compared
with working for anyone else is that Clive is not a conservative
character in business terms. He doesn't mind taking risks.
In many other companies you would be forced to play safe -
which is something we at Sinclair Research rarely do. And
you get the opportunity to do some pretty exciting things
that you just wouldn't get elsewhere.
YS: Can you be more specific?
NS: Well, we were trying to put a deal together with
American Express. I was in the US handling the negotiations
and they suggested that we should share some of the up-front
risk. It required us to make a decision to spend about $1.7
million. I was talking to them on the phone from Boston to
New York and felt that it was something I should consult Clive
about. So I called him in England and talked to him on the
phone - literally for less than a minute. He wanted to know
how much and I told him. Then he asked how I felt about the
deal and I said it seemed good to me but it wasn't my money.
He said it sounded all right to him too and I phoned American
Express back within five minutes and said "Yes".
I could tell over the phone that they were amazed any organisation
could take that sort of decision so quickly.
YS: That's certainly positive enough, but surely working
for someone like that must also have its negative side?
NS: Well, he obviously has very strong opinions of
his own - but I don't think he undervalues other people's
opinions either. You'd hardly be surprised to hear that he
is very ambitious and demands a lot of other people. And,
like many of us, he gets very impatient when things don't
move along as quickly as he'd like them to. But the main thing
is if you've got an opposing opinion and back it up with a
good argument, then he'll listen.
YS: Your approach to launching products seems a strange
mixture of secrecy and hints about what might be coming.
NS: Things happen for different reasons. For instance,
the Microdrive was announced the same day as the Spectrum
- and we announced it because we thought it was a highly innovative
mass storage system and that it would be a prime reason for
people to buy the Spectrum rather than any other product.
The Spectrum had no disks, so we wanted to make it clear that
something was coming that would offer the same sort of thing.
So it was done for preemptive reasons in April '82. We knew
that it was not there and deliverable in April; we never suggested
We did believe in all sincerity that it was going to be available
in autumn '82 - but a number of things happened to delay it.
One was that we had trouble getting the Spectrum into large
volume production, and a lot of engineering effort that would
have gone into the Microdrive was diverted to the Spectrum.
Also, some of the problems that had to be resolved - the speed
and capacity - took longer to solve than we had anticipated.
YS: Is it true that you had to install two extra phones
at your head office to handle early complaints about the Microdrive?
NS: No. The only thing we decided to do with some
early Microdrives - the first hundred or two hundred we sent
out - was to include a special letter to the customers explaining
that they were literally getting the first Microdrives. And
we gave them, I think, only a single telephone number - but
maybe it was two - for contacting the engineers who worked
on the Microdrive. We invited customers to use those numbers
in the case of any problems or if they felt they needed any
YS: The Spectrum has come in for its share of criticism
especially for the design of keyboard. Was this purely an
NS: I think the main consideration was cost. When
we designed the Spectrum a couple of years ago, the keyboard
offered us a major opportunity to save on costs. In fact,
it doesn't matter quite so much nowadays because the price
differential between what you find on the Spectrum and a more
typewriter-like keyboard is not so great. But it's interesting
that IBM has used a Spectrum-like keyboard for its PC Junior,just
announced, which is going to sell for $669. I think they are
going to have a tough time defending the keyboard at that
kind of price.
YS: Did you go for a function-based keyboard because
it cut down on the typing?
NS: In some ways we did, but it was more because we
saw the Spectrum as a ZX81 with colour. We deliberately chose
a design which emphasised the programming side of the machine.
At the time it seemed that Atari had the games machine side
of things sewn up so it was ridiculous to try and compete
with them. Of course, things have worked out very differently.
YS: You obviously had to offer a machine with Basic,
despite the criticism the language receives. Did it occur
to you that you could have improved on it?
NS: In retrospect I think we could have done more
to improve it. In fact we have a project going on within the
company now to develop a version of Basic which will get rid
of most of the disliked features. The problem is that by the
time you do that I'm not sure it's Basic anymore. Perhaps
we should just design the language people really want - and
then say it's Basic so that they will buy it. But I think
the new version will be a significant step forward. Basic
is not dead - it's just got a lot of things wrong with it
which are fixable. (The new version of Basic Nigel Searle
is alluding to is the command language, SuperBasic, which
is present on Sinclair Research's QL computer. For more detail
on this new device, look no further than QL User in
this issue. Ed.)
YS: Can you explain the thinking behind the decision
to modify the early Spectrums with the so-called 'cockroach'?
NS: When you get a problem of that type, if you stop
and wait for the new component - a new uncommitted logic array
(ULA) - then you've got a holdup of several months. I think
people would rather have a product that works with a 'cockroach'
in it than have nothing at all.
And again, times have changed. We were the first company
to use the ULA on the ZX8l and I think our use of it showed
our lack of experience. I don't think we'll make that mistake