Nigel Searle, the managing director of Sinclair Research, is usually to be found standing on the edge of Sir Clive's 'white heat' limelight, leaving the public relations work to his dynamic boss. Your Spectrum's Phil Manchester tracked him down to a West London hotel and asked what it was like standing in the shadow of genius.
|YOUR SPECTRUM: How would
you describe working alongside Sir
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 it was. |
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 advice.
YS: The Spectrum has come in for its share of criticism especially for the design of keyboard. Was this purely an economic decision?
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 again.