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If you subscribe to the motto, "It's the software that maketh the hardware", then Psion have a lot to answer for. Surya asked the authors of the QL's bundled software, Charles Davies (Archive), Martin Stamp (Quill), Martin Brown (Easel) and Colly Myers (Abacus), what they'd set out to achieve.
The QL's 'free' software packages
together provide the four most
common areas of business application - word processor, database
management, business graphics and
financial analysis. And yet for the
company writing these programs, this
was its first real foray into the cut-
throat world of business software.
Charles Davies, Psion's technical
director and author of Archive,
explains how Psion managed to win
the contract in the first place. |
"Sinclair contacted a number of companies at the beginning of 1983. At the time, they were extremely vague about the machine, just that it would 'probably be 16-bit'. They invited us to submit proposals for a suite of business software."
Psion had apparently already made the decision to move into the business market, and was working on four packages. "Since we'd already given the matter a lot of thought, we were able to give Sinclair detailed proposals, which they accepted."
At the beginning, Psion knew nothing about the machine at all - not even what the processor was going to be. Davies, however, doesn't feel that it was the handicap it might at first seem. "The development work was done on our VAX systems," he explained. "Since the packages are written primarily in C, it didn't particularly matter which processor was chosen."
Psion owns two VAX superminis, which the company uses to develop most of its software. The attraction of carrying out development work on a VAX is clear enough; why work on a
home micro with a poor keyboard and
no debugging software in assembler,
when you can work in a professional
programming environment in C? And
- perhaps equally important in an
industry where it seems almost
common practice to launch first,
design later - you can actually
develop software before the
hardware exists. |
Sinclair has stuck by his much- quoted statement that he was not aiming for a specific type of user, and that "the market will decide" where the QL's future lies. But was Psion given an image of the typical user? "I suppose you could say we were given the 'granny in a sweet shop' image of the user," says Davies. "The packages had to be easy to use for someone with no experience of or interest in computers. The whole emphasis was on sitting down and using the packages from day one - without needing to refer to the documentation. We all know the 'if all else fails, read the manual' attitude; we tried to work with this attitude instead of against it.
"We've provided substantial 'in- context' help facilities in all four packages. The prompt box at the top of the screen tells you exactly what you can do at any time and provides brief prompts. And the in-context help screen can be called for more detailed instructions."
Using a VAX for development work is all very well, but there's a limit to how much work can be done without the target hardware. How long was it before Psion received its first QL? "We were given a rack system in the
"The Archive programming language was designed to be as close to Basic as possible; if users know any programming language, they'll know Basic."
Given the similarities between the Archive programming language and Basic, I suggested to Davies, why not simply let users program the database using SuperBasic?
"The Archive programming language is much easier to use. It provides full prompting and in-context help at all times. You also get a lot of dedicated commands, like automatic sorting. There's a full editor, though you could of course use Quill if you prefer. Basic programmers will find very little difficulty with Archive, but we have to cater for inexperienced users too."
It's clear that much as the Psion packages are aimed at inexperienced users, the QL has also attracted a lot of interest from hobbyists. Does Davies see the QL as a programmers' machine?
"I don't see the QL as an enthusiasts' device; it's being marketed as a 'plug-in-and-go' system, and this is where I think it will make its impact."
Stamp On QuillPerhaps the most important package in the suite is the word processor, Quill. While not everybody will be impressed by the benefits of holding one's address book in a database, or balancing the cheque book with the aid of a spreadsheet, almost everybody can see the advantages of a word processor - even if it's used only for writing letters. I asked Quill's author, Martin Stamp, about the problems involved in writing the package.
"The main problem was space; we wanted to cram a lot of features into a small area. With the relatively slow speed of Microdrive access, we couldn't rely too much on overlay files. The bit-mapped screen presented both problems and opportunities. The slow speed of writing to the screen meant that we couldn't subscribe to the 'when in doubt, redraw the screen' school of programming. We had to keep track of what was on the screen at any given time. But it has its compensations, enabling us to display underlining, superscripts and subscripts and soon."
Quill has been criticised for its lack of features. For example, once in block mode, you have to use the
cursor keys to define a block of text.
This is a very slow method of defining
a large block of text. How would
Stamp answer these criticisms? |
"The emphasis throughout the word processor was on ease of use. We didn't want lots of complex features that nobody ever uses. You won't find a paragraph-delete function, for example. It would be too much power; people can go terribly wrong that way.
"Block definition is achieved using the cursor keys so that users can see what they are doing. Experienced
computer users are quite happy with abstract concepts - they know that the block has been defined, even if they didn't see it happen. But when a beginner does something, he wants to see it happen. That way, he's sure."
Quill supports the importing of files from the other packages, but not vice- versa. "It's just not something we feel to be appropriate," says Stamp. Does he really see the QL competing with machines like the IBM PC and the ACT Sirius? "Yes," says Stamp, "I think the QL is appropriate to business users. I can see it competing with much more expensive machines."
Friendly AbacusPsion claims to have gone out of its way to make the four packages both powerful and easy to use. I asked Colly Myers, author of Abacus, what that means to a spreadsheet. Isn't it a case of see one, and you've seen them all?
"We feel that Abacus is much friendlier than most spreadsheets. There's none of this 'cell D45' business. If you want to refer to the cell containing the profits made in March, you simply specify 'Profits. - March' and Abacus will find the cell where the row marked 'Profits' crosses the column marked 'March'.
"As with the other software, Abacus is intended to be simple to use. Anyone can have the package up and running for straightforward applications within a matter of minutes. But the more complex and powerful features are there when you need them. And as with Archive, we've used Basic functions wherever possible since these - if anything - will be familiar to the user. So to find the length of a cell's contents, for
example, you use LEN. We think that
Abacus compares well with traditional
spreadsheets in terms of speed and
power, but is friendly enough for
people to be tempted to use it to
balance their bank account." |
Instant EaselThe final package in the suite is the business graphics package, Easel. While the combination of a database, word processor and spreadsheet has long been the established formula for a business system, the addition to the trio of a graphics package is something relatively new. I asked Martin Brown, author of Easel, what the product offers that other graphics packages don't.
"Most business graphics packages are 'post-processing' programs. That is, they take data from, say, a database and turn it into a set form of graph or table - and that's it. We wanted to go for a genuinely interactive approach. With Easel, you can sit down in front of it, type in a few figures and instantly see those figures displayed as a bar- chart. If you want to turn the chart on its side, you can. If you want a graph instead or as well, you can do that too.
"To start with, everything is set by defaults. You won't be asked a lot of questions first, you just get the default display. Later, you can change anything you don't like - colours, type of grid, form of chart or graph, and so on."
But how useful is the ability to produce graphs from keyboard data? I put it to Brown: wouldn't most users be importing data from a spreadsheet or database?
"I think it's useful in cases where the user has only a small amount of data to work on," he replied. "You don't want to go to all the trouble of setting up a spreadsheet model, exporting the file to Easel, and then loading Easel before you can produce your graph. Easel has simple spreadsheet functions built-in which allow you to combine different sets of data. Mathematical functions are also incorporated, enabling you to produce sine waves and so on."
And what of the future? Will we be seeing the four QL packages on other machines? "Yes," says Psion. "We're working on other machines right now." Marketing manager Matthew Gaved wouldn't specify which, but I'd say it was a safe bet that we'll have CP/M and MS-DOS versions before long. I'll also give good odds on the BBC micro as another likely candidate.
And how about QL games software? "We're working on that too," says Gaved, "but we're not saying what."
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