It's a funny old game this launching a new computer. It's said that you can't please everyone all the time, but Amstrad seems to have the knack of always pleasing nobody and still selling truckloads of hardware. The new Sinclair PC 200 looks likely to continue this trend. People who wanted to see the introduction of a new 16-bit games machine to equal the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga are bemused by what they see as a slow 'businessy' computer, while companies who are basically interested in selling software are happy to see a new machine that will be sold to mums and dads as a 'family' machine.
People who don't like the machine very much argue that though it may be compatible with the IBM PC, it's a very basic computer and will not be easily upgraded. The graphics system, which is vital to any computer's games capabilities, is the age-old CGA (Colour Graphics Adaptor) configuration which pales into insignificance when compared with what the Amiga or ST are capable of achieving. Also, in technological terms CGA has long since been superseded by EGA and VGA, two superior (if more expensive) graphics systems.
Those in favour of the machine point to the massive base of software that already exists for IBM PC-compatible computers but unfortunately PC games tend to be more simplistic than their Speccy cousins and the four colour limitation makes them look a little drab. More importantly though, PC-compatibles use a disk operating system known as MsDos which is by far the most popular operating system worldwide and is used in just about every office in the country - which probably means that you'll end up fighting with dad for a chance to sit in front of the monitor.
Eventually, the machine will stand or fall depending on the software support that it receives: if software publishers aren't prepared to make masses of software available - and at an affordable price then Joe Public won't want to know. So who better to talk to than the heads of some of the country's leading software manufacturers? After all, if they don't buy the concept, then you won't buy the computer.
Ocean has developed a reputation for taking advantage of changes in the software busines. In typically practical style, managing director David Ward is unimpressed by the argument that the machine is old-fashioned or 'a step backwards'. "History has shown that it's very rare that the technical architecture of a machine makes it succeed," he says. "What makes success is good, efficient and innovative distribution. The Spectrum itself is a good example of this. Was that the best 8-bit machine for playing games on? Probably not, but it succeeded nonetheless."
Slightly Above A Yuppie
However, harking back to Sinclair's erratic history, David points out that the machine may be overstretching itself by attempting to be 'all things to all men'. Without wishing to draw too many comparisons, he did finish by saying: "The only thing that gave me a slight pause for concern was when I saw the way this was being promoted, an old two letter phrase came to mind. It said to me... QL."
Telecomsoft, the company behind Rainbird, Firebird and Silverbird, already has a massive back catalogue of PC-compatible software, and managing director Paula Byrne sees the disadvantages attached to the PC 200. "Sometimes with the IBM compatibles it's difficult to find product that you're really proud of publishing. There's no reason for people in Europe to buy average IBM product, they've got the ST and the Amiga. The American market hasn't had the huge success of the 16-bit market that we've had here in Europe that's why they're reliant on the IBM."
Once again though, Paula believes that Alan Sugar's marketing muscle will make a success of the new micro, saying: "I'm sure that Amstrad will sell it, it'll do a good marketing job and we'll publish product for it, but if this was purely a European publishing decision I'd be feeling much more wary."
Microprose is so far the only company which will be supporting the PC 200 specifically with new product. Managing Director Stewart Bell has strong views on the new machine: "We want it to succeed because we believe that the PC is a good machine for the home, and to this end we will produce a range of original product at £9.99 including, among others, Walt Disney and Sesame Street licences."
Argy Barge Pole
So does Stewart think that the machine is aimed at a younger market? "We think that the person who buys this machine will be slightly above a yuppie people with young kids. This may be the opportunity for educational or home-based learning software to take off. Obviously you're not going to get the best quality in the world with CGA. But I don't think it will succeed if it's only sold just as a games machine."
As its name would suggest, US Gold is another company which has strong links with America (and therefore PC software). The company's Operations Director Tim Chaney sees the arrival of a cheap PC as a logical step: "Looking at the penetration of the PC in homes in the US, and the fact that there are now millions of 'two PC' homes, Amstrad's attempt to introduce the PC into the home as a games machine is a natural development. The fact that this particular model plugs directly into the TV gives a greater access to the home user."
Martech's ebullient boss David Martin has always been a great believer in quality software, particularly in the 8-bit market. Because of this he has strong views on Amstrad's latest offering. "Personally, I think that this is the wrong machine at this point in time", he said, with a bluntness that's rare for MDs of large businesses. "I would have thought it was a bad move CGA graphics just don't look good. If you want it for spreadsheets or as a database it's probably great, but for entertainment purposes I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole."
The Future Begins Tomorrow
And you can't really say it straighter than that! On the subject of the market's future, David is equally forthright: "There'll be a gradual shift away from 8-bit. Already we're experiencing greater revenue sales on 16-bit and soon unit sales will be greater too. Come next year, new products will probably be developed with 16-bit in mind and then we'll see what we can do with 8-bit.
"I was personally hoping that the Amiga and the ST were going to dominate the entertainment world but they haven't, particularly in America, so as a company we have to go where people are developing hardware. The Sinclair name has still got a high profile, so the PC 200 will probably sell, but as a software developer it doesn't excite me at all."
Rod Cousens is European Vice President of American giant Mediagenic, and as such is already familiar with the production of PC-compatible software. He sees the new machine as opening up a whole new market: "The PC 200 will appeal to a wider audience than before; both from a younger age range of 14 to 25 year olds right up to parents and home business users. Consequently you'll see a wide range of MsDos software which will take in arcade adventures, simulations and strategic programs alongside business packages." Having seen the development of the American software market, Rod is confident that, despite its critics, the PC 200 will take off: "Ultimately the winner in a marketplace of entertainment software will be MsDos based. I believe that in years to come we'll will see a distinction between MsDos machines and games machines and I would expect Amstrad to participate in that arena."
Mirrorsoft has been developing PC-compatible software for a couple of year-s now, mainly due to the influence of its American affiliates. Because of this, Managing Director Peter Bilotta is quick to see the PC 200's advantage. "This machine will be suitable for both the home business user and the games player, so a lot of people who are thinking of upgrading are going to consider the potential advantages of PC compatibility."
A staunch PC supporter to the last, Peter points out that the hardware's apparent restrictions aren't all that important. "The restriction to CGA isn't such a bad thing, as EGA packages are still the exception rather than the rule - also, the inclusion of two expansion slots means that Amttrad hasn't written off the possibility of people including their own EGA card at a later stage."
Dominic Wheatley and Mark Strachan are generally known as the 'upper-class twits' who run Domark, and are more often seen posing for silly photographs than sitting around discussing the implications of new hardware. But behind this humorous facade lie a couple of shrewd business brains, and like most others they're slightly confused by the new machine.
"It's obviously not as good a games machine as either the ST or Amiga", said Dominic, "and we're not sure exactly where Mr Sugar has positioned it, but it seems that he's going for the loyal Sinclair customer who wants to trade up. However, if a customer really wants to play games then he or she will go for an Amiga or an ST. If they're interested in doing a bit more on the home computing side, and they're still brand loyal, then they'll probably buy a PC 200."
Despite this, they are pleased that there will be a relatively cheap IBM-compatible machine for the home as Mark was quick to point out. "Up until now machines in that market have been too highly priced for the home user, so a machine which allows us to develop IBM software for markets other than the States is absolutely perfect for us." And on the subject of the Spectrum's future, the dynamic duo are still quite confident: "Less titles will probably come out on the 8-bit format, but what will come out will be good and what's not so good will come out on budget. It's a really solid base and it's being added to every year."
So it seems that only one thing is certain - the fact that Amstrad is the company behind the new machine means that it'll probably sell more than smuggled Levis in Moscow. Whether or not this is a step forward in the development of home computing is almost entirely irrelevant.
The PC 200 may not be the greatest games machine ever invented, but it will have many other uses around the home and for this reason it could become the perfect 'family' computer. This is one thing that the Spectrum never achieved, despite the fact that it was originally pushed in that direction.
And to finish on a happy note, one good thing which emerged during all this hype and hyperbole was the fact that the majority of software producers still see a bright future for the Spectrum - which means that they should all continue to produce tons of fabbo Speccy software for years and years. And when all is said and done that can't be bad, can it?