Sinclair wants to take
Intel to task
(Interview in Network Solutions magazine,
Clive Sinclair set the IT World spinning during the 1980s
with his sub-£100 computer. He talks to Robert Juman
Blincoe about his desire to start a portable PC revolution,
and to teach Intel a lesson in the process.
Sir Clive Sinclair doesn't suffer fools gladly and this includes
the processor developers at Intel. He's also not keen on customer
choice being stifled in the computer market and roundly condemns
over-priced, over-powered machines. But he's not calling the
rest of the IT giants incompetents.
It is in this climate that the man who ignited the personal
computer market with sub-£100 machines in the early
1980s is planning a return to the business. He claims he can
bring out a portable machine within two years that will be
less than half the price of whatever is on the market at the
time. It will also deliver the performance that corporates
and consumers want.
The processor is key to this. Sinclair has very strong ideas
about how chips should have evolved, and though it is doubtful
that Intel will be called to account for not doing things
his way, he has long thought that the chip giant has dragged
processor development, and the desktop PC, off in a wrong
and power-wasting direction. This view, combined with the
appearance of Linux and exciting leaps in display technology,
has spurred him to consider re-entering the computer business.
He sees his return, or the arrival of someone else with a
similar vision, as the salvation that the market needs. The
dominance of Microsoft Windows and Intel processors is one
that concerns Sinclair. He hopes the US Department of Justice's
case against Microsoft and its control of the software market
will lead to PC suppliers unbundling of Microsoft's products
from their systems and allowing customers to choose which
software they want. Of course, this still leaves Intel processors
dominant. He said the lack of consumer choice bothers him,
and that the overblown, memory-sapping software, combined
with overpowered, over-priced processors, is a problem.
"It really needs something like a dedicated Linux machine
to break the mould " he said. "I think the situation
is frightening. The manufacturers should be forced to unbundle.
People shouldn't be effectively obliged to pay for having
Microsoft software. There ought to be a choice - one price
for Microsoft and one price for Linux."
"Linux looks like one way in - a Trojan horse. Apparently
it's a good operating system and a lot of software suppliers
are now supporting it. They wouldn't do that if they didn't
have a lot of confidence in it. I think it will be very interesting
to do a Linux machine. The standard PC is expensive because
of the Intel chip. It is elaborate and consumes a large amount
of power. The software is also very demanding of memory."
The machine Sinclair has in mind could be considered a reworking
of the Z88, the last computer he developed. The portable Z88,
released in 1988, did not achieve the kind of sales its inventor
had dreamed of, but he's obviously still fond of its concept.
The technology he's now waiting for will give him the chance
to resolve the issues that made the Z88 fail: "It wasn't
the success I'd hoped for partly because of the limitations
of display and because it was completely non-standard. That's
still a possible route to take if it's good enough, but if
you can use an OS that's out there, then at least you've got
an audience that's familiar with it. Linux looks to me as
if it might be the one."
Which One Will He Choose?
Though he's obviously well disposed to Linux, Sinclair won't
rule out other OSs. "Others are interesting. Psion's
is also well-known and very successful," he said. His
approach to researching any new project is exacting. He enthusiastically
hunts down the solutions to the problems he thinks exist.
He demands precision and accuracy from all accounts of developing
technology. His knowledge of electronics lets him know what
is and isn't possible. If you've not done or seen things his
way, you'd better be able to justify why not. If you're telling
him something new, you'd better give the whole story.
Before Sinclair created his ZX80 and ZX81 home computers, he
wrote about complicated self-build machines or the more pricey
systems from Tandy and Apple. Sinclair's budget computers boosted
the PC market beyond recognition, giving rise to a new generation
of people who went on to work in every aspect of the TT industry-
games developers, corporate information strategists, internet
visionaries and joumalists. This was the generation introduced
to programming, touch-insensitive keyboards, and temperamental
16K RAM pack upgrades.
Sinclair has been looking at the computer market with a view
to using current and up-and-coming technologies to create
a low- cost alternative to Wintel machines. A suitable OS
and display technology, combined with a low-price, powerful
processor, and he'd be in business. The ARM chip, forecast
to be used in 70 per cent of all cellular phones produced
next year, is an example of the kind of processor Sinclair
thinks will help smash the prices of Wintel machines. "ARM
is an option as it's a low-cost processor with a high performance.
Processors are always coming along, but it looks attractive."
Sinclair was not immediately converted to Linux when enthusiasts
started spreading the word about the OS. That's not his way.
He gave industry analysts a good grilling and has been evaluating
it since. He won't commit to saying the OS is definitely going
to feature in his machine, but it's certainly in his mind.
Not subscribing to the retail scene
Sinclair will sell his new device by mail order,the way he's
launched everything that he's invented, from the ZX8O to the
Zeta bicycle motor and his miniature radio. He said his inventions
create their own market, which isn't necessarily the kind
of product retailers want to stock. However he doesn't subscribe
to the idea that retailers are assisting the Microsoft/Intel
power base in keeping PC prices high.
"The retailers don't have much choice,they just sell
what's provided. They don't determine the product, really.
It's a Wintel-defined product and all computer-makers make
clones of them. They don't give a hoot about the design, they
just sell what's there. They don't know what's possible, what's
not possible. They don't have a clue.
"Intel is desperately trying all the time to keep people
using very expensive and complex processors. It's what they
supply and what makes them money. It's a shame, but you can't
But what he can blame them for, he said, is leading computer
development down a single processor design path. "Years
ago, Sinclair Research was looking at parallel processing
machines and that's the way things should have gone."
"The whole business of having one chunk of silicon as
a processor and other great chunks of silicon as the memory
is a desperately inefficient use of the silicon. The memory
and processing ought to be merged. Instead of having one processor
here, and having your memory there, with loads of wires connecting
them and slowing everything down, you've got one piece of
silicon. And all over that piece of silicon, you've got blocks
of processors and blocks of memory."
"You might have, say, 100 processors in the amount of
silicon you've got in a present-day machine, but all linked
to their memory. Not only would they be faster, because they're
all on the same piece of silicon, but there's 100 of them,
so you've probably raised the processing speed of the machine
200 to 300 times."
This set-up would offer amazing performance for speed-absorbing
problems such as speech input and complex display generation
in real time, said Sinclair. He added that Intel knows all
about parallel processing because it produces parallel- processing
machines, and he doesn't believe the direction it has chosen
is some conspiracy to hold computing back just to make more
money, but he's annoyed by it. "God knows what Intel
is playing at. It's not a conspiracy, just profound incompetence."
He then backtracks slightly, but said he thinks Intel is
just making too much money from the way it is doing things.
He suggested it is going to take some external player to make
it change its ways. The challenge might come from the games
markets and the developments that console manufacturers have
made in making machines that can handle complex graphics in
"Sony Playstation II is going to shake people up because
the performance is so striking. When you've got a Playstation
II, which makes a Pentium III look pathetic, people are going
to say: `Hang on a second,this games machine makes my computer
look weak. What's happening here?' And that's just Playstation
II, which in itself is not really pushing the boundaries."
"Because the games market is so huge, somebody could
design the sort of silicon I'm talking about - multiprocessor
silicon that will blow your socks off." Sinclair is confident
his machine will undercut the market when it arrives for these
very reasons, and the manufacturers will be unable to chase
his pricing because they're too locked into the Wintel way
of doing things. "Their costs are tied. The reason the
machine I propose will be cheaper is because it will use a
lot less memory, use a much lower-cost processor, much simpler
power supply and a lower-cost operating system. "It will
be lower in cost because of the fundamentals. The people who
make com- puters at the moment work on very narrow margins,
so they can't cut their prices with- out going out of business."
Sinclair's interest in creating a new computer seems academic
as well as commercial. His knowledge of what Microsoft and
Intel have created between them is probably based on exhaustive
research as opposed to first-hand experience. He doesn't bother
using computers himself very often. "The opinion I get
is that computers are very frustrating for people. They drive
me round the bend - they're such awful machines." He
laughs at this. He knows what computers can do - and what
they would allow him to do - but it's still not enough for
him. All his design work is mathematical, so he uses a calculator.
He said it assists him with his sums far better than computers
can and has no interest or use for the graphical display a
PC would give him. If a computer needs to be used, he'll get
someone else to do the work for him. He said his own creations
haven't been quite so annoying, though. "They were nice
and easy to use, but they were really only a thing to learn