Your Spectrum
Issue 13, April 1985 - Circe
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Out on the fringes of the computer world, there are all sorts of people producing peripherals that Sir Clive never bothered about. Kevin Cox sparred with David Heelas of Dk'Tronics at the recent ZX Microfair - this is his blow-by-blow account ...
You don't have to be in the company of David Heelas for too long before it becomes clear why he had the idea for a Spectrum game called Minder. He and Terry McCann have a lot in common. They've both been around a while and seen a thing or two ... and neither pulls his punches!
Beginning my interview in a rather inauspicious way, I asked him what he was doing before Dk'Tronics? "I can't remember!," he replied. Fortunately, his convenient attack of amnesia passed and he soon became forthcoming about his time in the 'biz'.
"I started four years ago just prior to the launch of the ZX81. Our first product was a 16K expansion pack for the ZX80. It was just me, then part-time, and I got interested because of my interest in electronics. The stupid thing was that I could see the market growing but not to the extent it has; although the ZX81 created the interest, it took the Spectrum to take it the distance.
"I went full-time with the launch of the ZX81. The business was all mail-order then, but I was getting a very good response. I had to do everything myself - manufacturing, packaging, selling and posting - and I was working in my bedroom, my garage, my shed (Shades of Arthur Daley's lock-up! Ed.) - anywhere there was room! But by the end of '81, I had four employees, a range of products including a keyboard for the ZX81 and new premises!"
What was your reaction to the Speccy? You must have blessed Sir Clive for that rubber keyboard!
"As soon as we got hold of the Spectrum, we re-vamped
the ZX81 keyboard and brought out a version for the Spectrum at £45. Frankly, I didn't really think people would pay it, but it just shows you how wrong you can be. We've sold 80 to 90,000 of them to date. Fuller was doing the same thing but approaching it all wrong - the product was OK, but the customer service was appalling."
No punches pulled here!
Tell us about the recent takeover of Currah. Did you have your eye on the company?
"No, we had no intentions of buying Currah whatsoever! But circumstances change and now it's done, it seems that taking the company over is a logical extension of our product range. We'd thought of doing a speech synthesiser but Currah had the market sewn up. Apparently, there was an article about Dk in the computer press last November which prompted someone quite high up in Currah to phone me for a job. Something was obviously up, so I began talks with the company's chairman. Next minute, the receiver's called in and we're offered the whole company!"
So, how much did Currah set you back?
"Let's just say it was an undisclosed but substantial five-figure sum." (Whatever happened to 'No comment'? Ed.)
Do you intend to keep adding more and more to the Speccy or have you exhausted its possibilities?
"We're certainly not going to desert the Spectrum, but we shall be broadening our base on to other micros. For the Spectrum we're releasing microSource, an Assembler/Forth 'on-board' ROM - another product we nabbed from Currah.
"Of course, what we really need is a product in our own right. We're going for micro- processor based consumer products - the first is due this year. I can't tell you exactly what it is but it will be connected with music and will have a screen and a music keyboard, all for about £100.
"It's come about from some work we're doing for Memotech. We're designing a music peripheral for Memotech to coincide with its big sales push behind the Iron Curtain. I shall probably be going to Russia later this year, and from that project will come a similar peripheral for the Speccy with a half-size music keyboard for about £30.
"We've also got a slant on a new idea in connection with British Telecom. The short and curlies of the matter is that we're going for a US/M listing in 1986 and we need to strengthen our base. The shine has definitely gone out of the computer market."
Have you completely abandoned software?
"We made a lot out of software, especially in the period between 1982-83. But we decided that it was too much of a rat-race. When we started, a game lasted six months, but now you're lucky if it's around for six weeks! There must be around 300 companies chasing an ever diminishing market, and that's without considering piracy. Too much hassle all round! Still, we're releasing Popeye - it could have been out now if the programmer hadn't done a runner on us - and, of course, there's Minder." David Heelas supped the last of his pint.
"And that's not an easy subject to capture."

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