Sir Clive bows out:
facing the future
(Interview in Sinclair User, August
Is Sir Clive Sinclair a new age techno visionary or a
deluded crackpot? A business incompetent or a consumer genius?
Or none of the above ... Graham Taylor interviews the man
who gave this magazine (SU) it's name
Clive Sinclair admits he was wrong. Wrong about the consumer
market generally, and wrong about the QL in particular.
In the past, sometimes angrily, at other times somewhat
wearily, he would defend every product and every marketing
decision Sinclair Research ever made. On occasion it seemed
he hoped to make black white by repeatedly declairng it to
Now he's not only ready to admit the mistakes of the past
but actually eager to do so. Such admissions seem a kind of
Like the optimist he declares himself to be, he is looking
enthusiastically towards the future.
On a personal level, he is more open, friendly and charming
than ever before, full of enthusiasm and keen to explain himself.
In the aftermath of the £12m deal with Amstrad - £5m
cash and £7m in machines - we talked first about Spectrum.
Still an astoundingly popular computer despite its great age
and obvious failings as a games machine.
"It was originally intended as a machine to teach computing,"
he admits, "and the games market was rather secondary.
Of course it turned out the other way around but that was
not the original intention."
I wonder whether he was actually disappointed at what happened.
He says no. "Not at all, I didn't plan it and I didn't
particulary want to get into the games market, but it was
an interesting business.
"I just don't think as a company we understood it very
In fact, some time before the Amstrad deal, Sinclair had
admitted the importance of games and had been working on a
second new machine (the first which leaked to the press was
the Loki) was codenamed the LC3, which stood for low cost
colour computer. The machine was designed but later dropped.
"It was a complete colour computer, entirely on two
chips - very much like the Japanese Nintendo machine but many
years beforehand." The Nintendo is a dedicated games
console, much more sophisticated than the Atari VCSs of old,
currently selling bundles in Japan and the USA, and attracting
attention from the likes of Alan Sugar, amongst others.
If the machine was designed so long ago why on earth didn't
Sinclair Research make it? Sir Clive seems to choose his words
with greater care. "The company got distracted as it
were - I ceased to run the company on a daily basis, around
that time Nigel Searle got involved and he was more interested
in sophisticated machines - he went for the QL."
A pause follows - "I think the QL was a good bet but
it didn't work out very well because the market for it wasn't
as big as we anticipated, and we had early teething troubles."
The failure of the QL to attract a mass audience was something
that surprised not only Sinclair Research but nearly all of
the computer press as well. To some extent all of the powerful
68000 based home micros are having problems finding a marked
even now. What, I wonder, was Sir Clive's view now: "I
think I have an explanation. I wanted to do the project that
became the QL on the Z80, some or most of the engineers and
Nigel wanted to do it on the 68000.
"I couldn't see the point of that because it seemed
to me you were paying a lot of money for the chip and I couldn't
see what you were going to be able to do on it that you couldn't
already do on the Z80. The truth was there was nothing you
could do on the 68000 that you couldn't do on the Z80. Sure,
it was a bit faster in principle and this, that and the other
but it wasn't like that in practice ..."
Certainly it is true that the best Spectrum software is
far better than any of the QL software and Sir Clive agrees.
He seemed keen not to sound as though he was trying to escape
his responsibility for the QL error. "That's right. I'm
not saying that I wasn't swayed by the others when they thought
this was the way to go - we all made that mistake. Looking
back there was no need to go for 68000 technology.
"We just haven't found a way to use the 68000 that
gives any extra benefit to the customer."
He thinks now that other companies may be similarly disenchanted
with the 68000 noting that at the Chicage Consumer Electronics
Show "Commodore weren't even showing the Amiga."
Was there any truth in the rumors floating around prior
to the Amstrad deal of a new QL with disc drives instead of
microdrives? "No, there was a program internally to do
a QL-type machine, that's to say based on the same chips,
but with disc drives. It wasn't really a QL though and it
was a much more expensive machine."
Talking of microdrives in an interview full of admissions
of various kinds of failure they are one area Sir Clive still
defends strongly despite their bad press. "I'd defend
them absolutely - I think they were a marvellous approach."
Over the past couple of months Sinclair User has been covering
Loki, a project Sinclair Research had to create a Spectrum-compatible
Amiga-bashing machine for under £200.
"Loki was a product under development before we sold
out ... chip designs were under way but there was still quite
a lot of work to be done on specific specifications. Basically,
we thought if we could do an Amiga for under £200 with
decent graphics there'd be a big market. I wasn't actually
convinced of that. There was a danger of running into the
same trap as the QL of not giving people what they actually
"I still think the LC3 was the best approach".
Was Loki now abandoned? "It is so far as we are concerned
because we sold the rights to 'Spectrum' technology to Amstrad.
Even if we wanted to go on with it, which we certainly don't,
it would not be our legal entitlement."
To an outsider, the Amstrad deal still seems clouded in
mysteries - what can and can't Amstrad and Sinclair do?
In what sense would Amstrad have rights over Loki - because
it would be Spectrum compatible? "That's right - what
they bought strictly speaking was the current products in
the market but partly the 'know how' embodied in those products.
Sinclair Research is specifically excluded in future from
using Spectrum technology in new products which is fine, because
it's not what we want to do."
The Loki papers are still sitting somewhere in the depths
of the company, Amstrad has no rights to it because it was
a future product but Sinclair cannot do anything with it because
being Spectrum compatible it would infringe Amstrad's legal
I get the vague impression that Sir Clive himself probably
doesn't know precisely what the possible ramifications of
every part of the deal are.
But then, I don't think he cares. His interests mostly having
moved on. But what about Pandora, which last I heard was a
Spectrum compatible machine? Sir Clive offered the idea to
Amstrad. "It was originally a design using Spectrum technology
and flat-screen technology that we thought Amstrad might be
interested in. We offered it to them on that basis ... they
had a good look at it and were not interested for quite straightforward
Well, Amstrad don't like new things, I suggest. Sir Clive
laughs, "That's what it amounted to yes .... it was new
and untried and not their cup of tea and I think it was wise
of them. Their business is based on taking what works and
sticking to what you know. Ours is breaking new ground which
is risky but that's what we enjoy.
"There is now a problem with Pandora however. Since
now they've turned it down it can no longer use Spectrum technology.
We have to rethink our policy there.
"I think it's all for the best in a way I think Pandora
was getting bogged down anyway."
More evidence that for him the whole Amstrad/Sinclair deal
was as much about freedom as it was about money. "We
were getting a bit bogged down on the Spectrum, we were victims
of our own past. If we ever did a new machine we were more
or less obliged to make it Spectrum compatible - the same
trap as IBM. By selling off the entire range we've freed of
that, we can start again and think again."
I ask about the options for Pandora now. Would it use some
other proprietry operating system like CP/M? "We've never
taken on somebody else's operating system and I don't think
we ever will ... this is all just what I think. I don't have
a plan yet." But he is still keen on the portable project.
"My belief for years and years right back to the days
of Sinclair Radionics where we had an internal project for
a portable computer was that that was the way computers ought
"I still want to go after that market and get out a
product which meets that need. Obviously, there are portables
but I think you'll agree that they are all compromises of
one sort or another."
It is difficult to see exactly what sir Clive is after that
isn't practically answered by rechargeable batteries and a
big LCD display.
"Agreed, there are all sorts of machines about and
I must have looked at every one of them. But none of them
make me think crikey, that's it! I see them and they are all
wrong in some way.
"To me a portable computer must be totally portable
and no trouble to use, and it musn't cost too much to run.
Rechargeable batteries are an anathema - you never get round
to recharging them. The power has got to last for ages - I
mean really ages."
I remain unconvinced and wonder how many people there are
wanting to do non-games things, really needing the kind of
ultimate portability Sir Clive sees as fundamental.
"You've obviously got to think in terms of probabilities.
The computer that is stuck to the desk or kitchen table is
a dead end - for computers to really be useful they've got
to move with you. And they've got to work without the need
for print and paper. To do that they've got to be with us
all the time."
As fas as Pandora in particular and computers in general
are concerned, Sir Clive is known not to favour disc drives,
because if "their bulk, weight and power consumption."
Neither does he rate CD Roms (using a silver disc like a compact
disc to store data instead of music): "Aside from not
being able to write on them, which will change, the access
time is still very slow. You can make some improvements but
it's mechanical and that's going to look increasingly bad."
Sir Clive's money (literally) is in solid state media - the
wafer drive project which is currently filling much of his
Barclays Bank has already put up some £2m investment
money towards the wafer-scale project. "We've got the
team together and now we're going after the second-stage backing.
We've proved the technology and we are the only people in
the world who have a working wafer we can demonstrate.
"What you have is a wafer of silicon a few inches in
diameter and instead of chopping that up and putting all the
bits that work into packages and then putting them all together
again on a circuit board, you keep them on the wafer. The
problem is that you've got to have some system to test for
the good areas. Essentially we divide the memory up into blocks
about the size of an ordinary chip and put a bit of extra
logic on which uses a mathematical algorithm to connect up
the good chips and not the bad. If one bit fails you can power-down
and reconfigure it so it has an extended lifetime."
The implocations of the wafer system are awesome, apart
from cheapness of manufacture there is the potential memory
size. "The amount you can get on a wafer is truely staggering,
the first wafer we've made is half a megabyte. That's quite
small, but it's still quite big for one piece of silicon.
We should be able to achieve something on the order of 20
or more meagbytes on one wafer - a couple of hundred million
bits of information."
Since the deal with Amstrad, Sir Clive's proejcts now revolve
around a number of separate companies. Wilst Pandora will
be a Sinclair Research product, the wafer projects is being
handled by a new company aclled Anamartic. This firm will
be selling shares to raise funds and we will sell wafers to
Sinclair Research for use in Pandora. When did he believe
there will be a product incorporating the first fruits of
the wafer project? "Next year sometime," he said
without hesitation. A Sinclair Research product? "Not
necessarily, that's not certain," he says hesitantly.
His answers seem to reflect his complete confidence in the
viability of the wafer but doubts over which company will
be first to use it.
"There is a very strong chance that we may sell Amstrad
wafers, I think Alan Sugar is likely to have some products
for which they would be ideally suited - I hope to keep in
touch and I like him very much."
Which brings us to that deal. He says it came "out
of the blue" a few weeks before it was announced, and
he had no idea of it even at the time of the 128 launch (about
eight weeks before). There was another deal on the table,
a cash injection operation which would have had the advantages
of not requiring redundancies - rumoured to have been with
Timex - but it would, says Sir Clive, have been a "poorer
decision" in not addressing the fundamental problem of
the sort of company Sinclair was trying to be.
Even so, Alan Sugar seemed to get the Sinclair products
and rights very cheap - £12m for a firm valued at over
£100m a year before. It is said he has already made
£6m from sales of Spectrums.
Although Sir Clive considers his answer carefully, the strongest
impression is that whilst he may agree, he doesn't really
mind. The money wasn't the only reason for making the deal.
"I think it was a good deal from his point of view but
what you've got to remember is that the whole market got in
one hell of a mess ... I mean nothing to do with us particulary
... everybody in it."
And for the most part everybody still is. Commodore, for
example, is still losing a fortune every month.
"If Alan Sugar can make money out of it which he may
do, well, fantastic, but we were losing money in it and there
is no sense in doing that..
"We had the option to sell for good money and get out
of a loss making business and that seemed to me a good move
to make. When we started Sinclair Research we said that we
weren't in the business of bread-and-butter products and that's
where the games market was definitely showing signs of leading.
"We were in the business of pioneering, and if there
is no pioneering to be done then it's time to get out and
do some somewhere else."
So now he's starting afresh, returning to the original ethos
of Sinclair Research - that of the inventive laboratory.
Is he happier now? "Oh, absolutely. We were getting
so bogged down in run-of-the-mill products which isn't our
field. We're not as good as Amstrad at that soft of business."
All this goodwill and confidence is a little unnerving.
Wouldn't he be just a little bit disappointed if (as seems
quite possible) Alan Sugar uses the Sinclair logo on a badged
version of a games machine or something like it, given that
he had originally seen home computers as an educational and
useful tool? He smiles "I suppose so, slightly.
"But I'm very pleased from Britain's point of view
that Alan Sugar is the one who's taken on the Spectrum. He's
a very competant guy and a very brilliant guy and he'll do
well. He'll do a lot of things better than we did.
"I'm not being humble, because I think there a lot
of things we will do better than he ever will. Britain will
sell more computer and we will be free to get on with innovating
and ..." he adds wryly "you'll have two companies
to write about."
My final impression is that for several years Sir Clive
Sinclair has not been happy with Sinclair Research The Computer
He has been alternately a victim of extraordinary success
and then of financial failure. Both have restricted his opinions.
Indeed he seems to have had increasingly little say in day-to-day
sense with what Sinclair Research was doing. By way of an
illustration - I asked him about the MIDI standard interface
incorporated into the Spectrum 128 - "What's that?"
asked Sir Clive genuinely confused. then he remembered.
Now Sir Clive is back in control. Back in control of the
sort of company he understands and wants to be part of - a
small team of talented engineers and specialists, concerned
totally with invention, with the new and untried.
He declares himself to be an optimist and that's just as
well because he's hardly chosen an easy path - he's been ridiculed
before, with the C5. He probably will be again. The difference
is now Sir Clive is unburdened and relaxed enough to share
Discussing Amstrad's plans for the Spectrum I mention that
sticking on a cassette machine on the side, an obvious cheap
thing to make it more 'sellable' in the high street stores,
is just the sort of thing which, however logical, it was impossible
to imagine Sinclair Research ever doing.
Laughing Sir Clive agreed: "Oh no ... far too obvious!"