Rage Hard!
Remember the Hobbit, the Soviet Spectrum clone we wrote about a few months ago? Well, they're so proud of it over in Leningrad they asked us to pop over and have a loom "Okay," said big KEITH POMFRET (who doesn't need asking twice), "I'm on my way!"
YS Scan
Keith Pomfret
When the jet bounced onto the cracked concrete at Leningrad airport and ground to a halt two miles from the terminal buildings I wondered if I was in the right place. All I could see out of the porthole was a huge expanse of concrete and flatlands, interrupted only by (eek!) huge military aircraft parked out by chequered hangers! What on earth was going on? It was with some trepidation that we all filed off into an articulated lorry (there wasn't an airport bus to be seen) and were driven off towards some low buildings.
    Actually, the story gets a bit more boring at this point, because all the lorry did was take us straight to the terminal (which I'd somehow failed to spot before) where we collected our luggage, smiled for the nice KGB man, and hoped that he couldn't smell all the chocolate I'd smuggled in inside my duffel bag.
    The chap who'd come to meet me bundled me into one of the thousands of Ladas lined up in the overgrown car park (how do they all find the right car?) and off we zoomed (if that's the right word) towards the city. The Soviet Union has an excellent way of enforcing the speed limit - instead of employing hundreds of traffic policemen, they just place deep potholes randomly along the roads.
    Anyway, to cut a long story short, I avoided having anything to do with Russian computers for as long as possible, and instead spent a pleasant couple of days enjoying Soviet culture (ballet, art and all that other stuff on the postcards). Very nice it all was too. Eventually though I had to resign myself to my fate, so off I trotted over to InterCompex (the company that'd invited me there in the first place) for a look at what I'd really come to see - the new, updated Hobbit.
So what's it like?
Well, when Mikhail Ossetinski and Dmitri Mikhalov (the two guys who originally came over to England to show us the Speccy-based Hobbit) first demonstrated the original version to me it left me speechless. I can only say his new one left me gobsmacked. It's got all the amazing features of the machine they brought to England - the multi-language keyboards, built-in networking and so on - and retains its full Spectrum compatibility, but refines the hardware techniques used to construct it massively. A disk drive (3.5 inch) lives under the side in the same place they do on the Amiga and ST, the video outputs are standardised to RGB and TV and (perhaps most importantly) it's now being finished in a much more pleasing shade of cream.
    The most radical new development though is the addition to the Hobbit range - a console! Fully Spectrum compatible, there are inputs for tape and cartridges planned and a couple of the craziest joysticks being run up that you've ever seen! (Sega and PC Engine beds, watch out - the Ruskies are going to blow you away!)
    The console won't be limited to just working with cartridge games though - it can run all existing Spectrum joystick software via a tape port at the back. It uses a truly open system which means that if anyone developes a series of cartridge games they could load from ROM cartridges. Another alternative is 'blowing' existing games on to ROM.
Hack In The USSR
While we were at InterCompex's offices, a lanky guy with long hair and a palid complexion from months at the keyboard came in. "Keith, meet Nicolas Rodinov, Leningrad's greatest hacker," they said. I chilled a bit - I'm not mad on guys who steal from other programmers - but I needn't have worried. Far from being a monster, he was quite a nice guy. "Show me the software for sale and I'll buy it - but there simply isn't any," seemed to be his argument. He showed me a wad of roubles. "The problem isn't money, it's just that there's nowhere to buy software in the Soviet Union."
    Hardware designer Dmitri explained the situation - "You see, what happened is that these guys started by altering the few games we had so that the instructions were in Russian and we could play them more easily. In this country, if you need something and it's available you can have it - it isn't regarded as theft.'
    And he's right. There aren't actually any laws to protect copyright in the Soviet Union at all, so hacking isn't illegal. You can't really get too miffed with someone when they're not actually breaking any of their own laws. But this may all be about to change - they're welding some new laws into the Socialist Constitution to protect western firms' copyright and patents in 1991 - so, with a bit of luck, that'll tempt software companies to export to the Soviet block, and may even allow guys like Nik and his team to produce some saleable software of their own. (After all, it's high time we saw more than just Tetris come out of the Soviet Union.)
Keyboards and consoles
So there we have it - things are starting to look pretty rosy so far Soviet home computing is concerned, and the really good news is that the Speccy is stuck right in the middle of it! The Hobbit console was an especially exciting development, I thought, and could have great relevance in this country - especially when, just as I was about to leave, Dmitri and Mikhail drew me to one side, pulled back a drape and revealed... a plug-in keyboard for the Hobbit Console! Price - less than a fiver! (Bet you Alan Sugar couldn't do that!)
    And that was it really. A few more days of caviar and culture and it was back to that horrible empty airport and a British Airways flight to Blighty. I had a good old time in Russia, though I must admit I was quite pleased to get home (I'd troughed all the chocolate I'd smuggled in, you see). The final word I guess must go to Marek Kar, the Polish Editor of a joint Polish/Soviet computing mag who I met on a snatched trip to Moscow. "In our first issue we ran a survey of our 25,000 or so readers to see what machine they'd got. Ninety percent owned Spectrums or Spectrum clones." Pretty remarkable figures really, and it means one thing is certain - it's going to be worth keeping our eyes rather sharply peeled for whatever the Russians come up with next for the Speccy. Who knows - some of it may filter over here yet!

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Published in the January 1991 issue of Your Sinclair

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