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By Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy

The Quantum Leap - to where?

The massive success of the ZX81 and the Spectrum had given Sinclair Research the top sellers in a rapidly expanding market. The rewards for such success, allied to Sir Clive's cost-cutting expertise and the massive percentage mark-up that mail-order sales provide, are apparent in the profit figures, the year ending March 1983 producing profits of nearly £14m. on a turnover of just over £54m. March 1984 showed a lower percentage profit, reflecting the Microvision costs and retail merchandising, with the increased turnover of £77m. providing only the same profit. However, in anyone's terms this was good business. Rothschild and Sons placed 10 per cent of the company equity with a group of financial institutions in January of 1983 for a price of £13.6m. At the same time, it was announced that the company would seek a share placement, either on the unlisted securities market or on the Stock Exchange, some time in 1984.

As well as rewarding himself with a £1m. bonus on top of his salary for the year ending March 1982 (he needed the money for his £400,000 Knightsbridge mansion), Sinclair had now cashed in some of his corporate chips, at what in hindsight looks like a very well-chosen point. The notional value of £136m. that this gave Sinclair Research was not a realistic assessment, based as it was on a rapidly saturating market in the UK. The rise of Sinclair as a household name had gone together with the micro mania that had produced the highest percentage of homes with micros in the world. In 1982 over 500,000 home computers were sold in the UK, 220,000 of them ZX81s, and 75,000 of them Spectrums. While the 1983 market was estimated at 600,000 machines, sustainable growth in the computer market would require new products. While Sinclair, secure in his visionary zeal, undoubtedly believed that the latest version of the pocket television would sell 'zillions', despite the decidedly lukewarm reception previous incarnations had met with, few shared his faith in this as the replacement cash generator for Sinclair Research.

Sinclair had defined the new wonder product that would keep the computers rolling off the lines, and the contortions of his team as they struggled to flesh out the contours of his vision are the main focus of this chapter. Although it owed little to any activity on the part of Sinclair himself, it owed much to the legacy of his hand-picked team as they followed in the master's footsteps.

The supposed Quantum Leap in computing power after which the Sinclair QL was named apparently had more to do with the chaos of quantum unpredictability than the orderly behaviour of large numbers of particles. The QL - 'sheer professional power in the special Sinclair style' as the glossy brochure had it - was 'launched' in January of 1984. Expectations in the computer press were high, with persistent rumours about the 'ZX83' having been circulating more or less since the Spectrum appeared. When it finally arrived, having become the 'ZX84' in the meantime, the assembled hacks were informed of its manifold virtues by the recently knighted Sir Clive, and MD Nigel Searle, dazzled by pre-programmed displays on the monitors, prevented from playing with the bolted-down QL, but allowed to book review machines. Searle, with that intriguing blend of Mensa mental might and ingénue honesty we have come to expect, delivered the firm managerial policy: 'When we introduced the Spectrum we didn't know what we'd do next ... and now we've launched the QL, we don't know what direction the machine will take us.'

The cream of the technical press then staggered out into the winter sunlight, having plied themselves with free sparkling wine, clutching the glossy blurbs, press releases and a copy of the SuperBASIC manual firmly stamped PROVISIONAL on every page. They then informed their eager readers in no uncertain terms that a new age had dawned for British computer power, and that Sinclair had done it again. The general tone in the computer press was much as Practical Computing (March 1984) had it:

Each of Sinclair's new machines has been more amazing than the one before, but this time he has really excelled himself. The QL fully deserves the initials, which stand for Quantum Leap, it is so far ahead of everything else at the same price.

Most reports didn't strike the realistic notes and qualifications that Practical's previewer stuck in, though:

On past performance, the QL should be well made, but there will be supply problems due to demand. There will also be bugs, and some features of the QL will turn out to have unforeseen and possibly unwanted consequences.

Four software packages are supplied with the QL ... Extravagant claims have been made for these packages: 'They outperform the software for all existing micros.' On demonstration they looked fast, attractive and user-friendly - but then, it would be a poor demonstration if they did not.

Sir Clive himself said the QL was:

Sinclair's most important contribution to personal computing since breaking the £100 barrier with the ZX80. It should set new industry standards for value, performance, quality and user-friendliness.

(Financial Times, 13 January 1984.)

Orders flooded in for this new wonder micro, but when nothing trickled out it became apparent over the next few months that what had been done was to set new industry standards for launching a machine prematurely. It is an all too frequent occurrence in the industry to announce new machines before completion, but only Sinclair Research follows the mail-order merchandising policy such that both legally and ethically, the announcement should imply that a new product will actually be available. The theory is, as Sinclair expressed it in an interview with Martin Hayman back in 1982:

'Professionalism is very important. We have very professional people and we do everything on time, to very tight schedules and with a great deal of commitment. We just are not amateur ...

Did he include in the amateur category the common practice of 'kite-flying' - announcing a product with a stupendous specification for delivery 'next month'?

'Yes, there is far too much of that and it is very silly. It mucks up the marketplace at the time but it rebounds on the company eventually ... If we announce a product now, it is because it is ready for production.'

(Practical Computing, July 1982.)

Quite apart from the fact that he was talking about the Spectrum at the time, and guilty of terminological inaccuracy in respect of that product, the vaunted 'professionalism' of Sinclair Research would seem to have taken a turn for the worse in the intervening years.

The astonishing thing is that at the time the QL was launched there did not exist a complete working prototype of the machine. (Astonishing, that is, unless one has followed the Sinclair story thus far, and hence might predict the culmination of the Sinclair Research style at just such a nadir.) Note that this is not a case of 'vapourware', as the trade calls software announced before writing the code is finished, nor yet a case where the hardware design was finished, albeit not geared up to production, nor even a bug-ridden machine. It was simply the announcement of a machine, for delivery in '28 days', of which a complete working example had never been seen, even within Sinclair Research's labs! When the QL did finally arrive, it turned out to have many of the faults new machines tend to have, and not a few unique ones, but by then the initial tide of enthusiasm had long ebbed, leaving the QL a long crawl back to the littoral of profitability.

The reasons for this deplorable débâcle - the attempted marketing of a machine so far from completion, but still with the ludicrous promise of delivery within a month - are buried within the attitudes and management of Sinclair Research. When Sir Clive sold off 10 per cent of Sinclair Research, one of the conditions imposed by the financial institutions that bought the shares was that a proper board of directors should run the company. Several Sinclair staff members found themselves now directors - for example, Jim Westwood, after some twenty years of faithful service to Sinclair's concepts. This condition did not suit Sir Clive, as ever resistant to any control of his activities, and he moved out of the Willis Road premises two weeks after the enhanced board was formed. From this point on he took no part in the day-today running of the company and the QL project apart from attending directors' meetings. Sir Clive was pursuing another obsession, electric vehicles, into which he sank a large part of the funds he derived from the share sale. This tale will be told later.

It fell to the directors, under MD Nigel Searle, to follow through on realising the ZX83 design concept, eventually to become the QL. The original design, much as presented in various leaks to the computer press in mid-1983, was for a portable, battery-powered machine with the famous flat-screen display, using twin Microdrives for storage, and incorporating a modem for communication via the telephone system. Following the lead provided by the conceptual, if not financial, success of the Osborne 1 and subsequent 'portables' it was to have a 'bundled' package of business software - spreadsheet, word processor, database and communications. The flat screen and Microdrives offered good size and weight savings over the first generation of such machines, which with standard disc drives and built-in monitor screens were sewing-machine-sized computers for which the trade coined the term 'luggables'. The ZX83 was to take Sinclair Research up-market, into a proven market for serious business computers, and away from entry-level computers and the games syndrome. The concept was Sir Clive's, although the execution was not. As Steven Vickers observed:

One of the things he has always wanted to produce is a business machine - or he's always wanted to put his machines across as business machines - even the ZX81.

(Interview, 24 September 1985.)

As far as the abstract idea was concerned, it was fine, and constituted effectively a portable and telephone-less version of the ICL One-Per-Desk workstation machine, or OPD, also known as the British Telecom Merlin Tonto. This was supposed to emerge from the collaboration deal that Sinclair made with his old friend Robb Wilmot (from whom he bought chips when Wilmot was at Texas Instruments before moving to ICL as MD) in December 1981. ICL did indeed bring out the OPD in February 1985, but it owed little to the Sinclair effort in its final form. However, the deal with ICL presumably marks the genesis of the concept. Unfortunately the prenatal development process within Sinclair was flawed, producing a malformed offspring.

The ICL deal presumably sounded good to Wilmot, since ICL was to put up something in the region of £1m. for development and give Sinclair royalties on top. It must certainly have sounded good to Sir Clive, offering the chance of funding a large part of Sinclair's R&D on the new project, with no overlap in the markets for the two versions. At the time ICL was doing quite well with software for the ZX81, and the concept was fine, but one can't help suspecting that it was another case of Sir Clive's renowned powers of persuasion. As Norman Hewett said:

The trouble with a guy like that is that he can get away with things because he can hoodwink by his presentation, earnestness and technical forcefulness, his apparent mastery of his subject... It's entirely people talking. There's no product yet, by definition. They're backing the man, as they cheerfully say.

(Interview, 16 October 1985.)

The Sinclair Research labs at the time could probably show a 2-inch flat-screen display of some kind, and a guy named Ben Cheese who was working on the Microdrives (as he had been for a year), but for the rest ICL was putting up a lot of hard cash on faith. As it turned out, it was unwarranted. The first signs of disquiet in ICL may well have appeared when Sinclair Research failed to tell the company when it decided to change the main processing chip from the good old Z80 of the Spectrum. The delay in informing ICL would not have mattered much if they had not, in the three months or so that the news took to travel from Cambridge, bought in Z80 development kits in order to start work on their own bits of the project!

The new machine, it was decided in late 1982, would now be based around the Motorola 68008 microprocessor chip. This was decided on not because of any of the inherent virtues such as power, speed or flexibility on which chip choice is normally based, but because of its perceived virtues as a market ploy and its attractiveness as a futuristic hip chip in 1982. Getting away from the aging Z80 workhorse chip was presumably seen as necessary to presenting the image of pushing forward the frontiers of technology or some such marketable rationale.

The complex innards of processor chips are not of interest to our story, but a few comments are probably in order to illustrate this particular theme. Data in a computer is all numbers, and is transferred as on/off voltage patterns along 'buses', parallel sets of conductors.

Think of it as a road with a certain number of lanes, and you can see that the more lanes, the more traffic (in this case, data) can be handled. All old-style chips used 8-lane highways (an 8-bit bus), both inside the chip and to pass data in and out. The 68000 family of chips uses 32-bit buses internally, but different sizes of bus to communicate with the rest of the computer. The 68008 has an 8-bit bus, the 68000 a 16-bit bus. Other considerations aside, it is apparent that all data coming in and out of a 68008 will have to be chopped up into smaller pieces for transmission, and take longer, than would be the case with a 68000 chip. The performance penalty is serious, so much so that no other manufacturer used the 68008 in a micro.

When first chosen the 68008 was admittedly much cheaper than the full-specification 68000. By 1985 it was only a few dollars cheaper. If the project had been controlled by the ever-cost-conscious Sir Clive, the savings might have made some sense. In the event, in terms of both design and component costs, the difference is minimal. Choosing a limited chip rather than the full-specification 68000 version (now used by the Apple Macintosh, the Atari 5205T and other modern machines) is an example of Sinclair Research's incapacity to get it right when it matters. It ended up paying more or less the same price for a processor that does less, more slowly, than the correct choice. In any case, the price differences were a matter of a few dollars, and not of major significance to production costs. However the QL saga illustrates the capacity of Sinclair Research to make not only single wrong choices and assessments, hut a whole sequence of them.

When the R & D effort started in earnest, there were, to put it mildly, problems. There was no project director, and Nigel Searle was effectively running the show. Sinclair's explanation for his own non-involvement in the development process centres around Searle's sensibilities as an MD:

The reason behind that was because Nigel Searle was managing director at the time, and he really wanted a free hand, you know, he was very concerned not to have me breathing down his neck.

(Interview, 6 November 1985.)

The notional concept, at the beginning of 1983, was, as we saw, for a portable battery-powered computer with built-in modem, twin Microdrives, the flat-screen display and business software. Those facilities which constituted whatever claims the machine had to represent technological advance got dropped one by one. First the battery-driven capability went, since although the Microdrives could easily run on batteries, the DRAM (dynamic memory) chips necessary would drain too much power. Then the flat-screen display was dropped, itself a blow to any lingering portability concepts. In the light of the performance of both earlier (calculators) and later (C5) battery-powered Sinclair products, one should perhaps be grateful.

The continual promise of the flat-screen display deserves a comment. When the QL development started, it was not in production. During the first half of 1983 the production problems were solved, or at least ameliorated to the point where the televisions could start rolling off the lines. Since the 2-inch flat-screen display of the Microvision has resisted all attempts to increase its size (the only reason the Microvision is viewable is a combination of electronic fixes for the beam path and a thick plastic lens), making a larger version for use on a computer was a closed pathway. A larger display would produce a more distorted image, beyond optical correction. Successful attempts were apparently made to produce a projected image from the small flat screen, one version using a mirror producing a real image hanging in space - a nice idea but a non-starter as far as engineering it for production went. ICL was reportedly none too pleased that the visibly innovative bit of its machine was unproduceable, but presumably consoled itself with the other promised features. ICL could get by with a black and white display (the OPD being dubbed by some ICL wit 'Work Station Zebra'), since this was all they wanted, but whether the concept of the QL screen involved colour is not known. If it did, then Sir Clive was being more ludicrously optimistic than ever in his assessment of Sinclair Research's capabilities, however much he could depend on the inventive engineering skills of Jim Westwood, already tried and tested in pursuit of Sinclair's television visions over decades. Derek Holley's comments, made in the context of the conventional tube of the first lab pocket television, are perhaps even more appropriate to the flat screen:

His argument was that once you developed the 2-inch screen and got it running it would be easy to scale upwards, a typical non-engineering approach to it. You take something and double the size of it, he thinks it's easy, but it isn't. In fact, it's as hard to double the size as it is to halve it.

(Interview, 13 November 1985.)

So the downgraded ZX83 project lurched along in what one source called the 'disorganised shambles' that was Sinclair Research at the time. The absence of a project leader, a board acting divisively and throwing up conflicting views masquerading as decisions, and the lack of co-ordination all compounded each other, and combined with the absence of Sinclair from the R & D scene to produce a fiasco. Whatever Sir Clive's competence or lack of it in other respects, his capacity to provide drive to an R & D team's efforts are not in question, nor is his decisiveness. His lack of direct interaction with the project, which however uninteresting to him personally was vital to his own company, cannot be explained solely by his interest in Sinclair Vehicles. Since he attended various of the board and steering committee meetings, and since the QL was the major project, the progress of the machine should have been both of concern to Sir Clive personally, and the subject of report. Whether because of over-optimism, personal and departmental strife between the directors, fear of showing incompetence and triggering Sir Clive's infamous temper, or whatever other influences were at work in the boardroom cabals, the true situation appears to have been concealed from him. He certainly seems to have known little of the QL's problems until it was too late for him to resist the pressures driving the company to launch the machine prematurely. Not that our readers will by now think that Sir Clive is averse to premature launches, or overly concerned with the problems of production, only that he has a history of at least producing a prototype of some kind before launching a new idea on the world. His comments to us, if accurate, show that even this charitable view is incorrect:

I knew what was being done. If I'd felt that it was very wrong I'd have said so pretty firmly, so I can't say I got it right, I didn't.

(Interview, 6 November 1985.)

As development work proceeded on the separate sections of the machine - the Microdrives, the main-board hardware, the software, the case and keyboard, all the concern of separate groups - it became apparent that all was not going as it should. Part of the trouble was that it was an all-new machine, with the necessary need for well-organised development that that implies, rather than a development of a prior model, as with the ZX80-ZX81-Spectrum series. The plans were also based on an inflated view of Sinclair Research's capabilities, ensuring that time and effort would be wasted in trying to produce features then abandoned, such as the flat screen. Over-optimism in respect of flat-screen displays can be laid firmly at the door of Sir Clive, who first announced in 1980 that the ZX80 would be linked to a flat-screen display', and additional pressure must have come from the ICL agreement, which specified the flat screen as part of the deal.

Other aborted lines of research wasted more time, changed the specifications and delayed the project. Even David Karlin, the designer of the main QL board and hardware, in a staunch display of Sinclair PR hyperbole in Personal Computer World while the customers were still waiting for sight of the QL, had to admit that 'there was a spec, but this was modified almost every day'. His comment that 'it was the machine I wanted to build, although it went through various permutations en route' makes one wonder about his criteria, if they were not based on simple pragmatism, since they were still trying to get bits working when he made the comments (around March of 1984). As our story of the Sinclair team's travails continues, the inaccuracy of his comments about this period will become apparent:

Karlin says that the development of the QL was almost trouble-free. In fact, the most difficult problem the team encountered was how to assemble the case!

(Personal Computer World, April 1984.)

The PR style of bland and placatory statements delivered straight-faced by Sinclair personnel intent on retaining a veneer of 'professionalism' and credibility seems to be absorbed by association with Sir Clive, or else is a factor in his choice of employees. Whatever his PR utility, David Karlin was valuable as someone who knew the microchip manufacturing scene well from his days at Fairchild Semiconductors running a production line. Because of his insider's knowledge of the industry, it fell to him to replace the absent Sir Clive in the role of cost-cutting component purchaser. Unfortunately, this role diverted effort from the work on what was his first major piece of electronics design. The tendency of Sir Clive to recruit talented people and place them on tasks new to them, on the grounds that they are then not cluttered with old ideas, may give them an interesting challenge, but also increases the likelihood of inefficiency in the ways they go about the job.

For those unaware of the normal progression of microcomputer hardware design, you start with schematics, essentially a paper design. Any standard chips, such as the 68008, can be considered as 'black boxes' where the innards don't need to concern you overmuch, since the chip specification will tell you what comes out for a particular set of inputs and conditions. The design work, after these chips are chosen, proceeds to a definition of the logical circuits necessary to control and manipulate the system. Some portions of these circuits can utilise standard off-the-shelf chips, others will be incorporated in custom-designed chips. Usual practice is then to build TTL (transistor-transistor logic) prototypes of the custom chips, and then of the full machine, using the Lego blocks of electronics design, simple chips forming logical elements, to replace the symbols of the schematic. This gives you the capability to test out the correct operation of the circuits and their interactions, and revise as necessary before commissioning custom chips. The next stage is the design of the printed circuit board on which the chips, plus sockets, resistors, and all the other discrete components are mounted, and which provides the interconnecting 'wires' as metallic tracks laid down on the insulating board material. Prototypes can then be built with the custom chips, and they can be tested. Several reiterations of complex chips will be necessary for various reasons - logical errors in the circuits, different timing between TTL and chip circuits, and the like.

This is a fairly well-established development process, and originally must have been plotted out on a timescale by Sinclair Research despite the statement in Rodney Dale's account that:

It was part of the Nigel Searle management technique never to prepare any sort of schedule showing who was going to do what and by when. Such an approach, he averred, leads people to take more time than they should.

(The Sinclair Story, p. 136.)

If this was the case, it would have made for unusually vague 'management'. Apparently Nigel Searle, at least towards the end of the project, was engaged in not only defining timescales for particular activities, but manipulating them rather arbitrarily. Tony Tebby, working on system design and software, recollects the process:

For instance, I was asked how long it would take to do the Microdrive software, and said four weeks' actual working time once the work started. That went down in the minutes as 'The Microdrive software would be complete within two weeks.' First, the period was halved, and then it was changed from actual to elapsed time, by Nigel Searle. When the minutes went to everyone else, [and] in two weeks I haven't done the Microdrive software because I'm doing something else, everyone who gets [the minutes] says I'm falling down on my job ... I think he thought he could make things run faster by generating external pressure.

(Interview, 14 October 1984.)

Slippage in the timescale and the design flaws resulted from a combination of factors. Shortage of technical staff, forced and unforced changes in the design, problems with the technology, lack of management decisiveness allied with the divisiveness of tactics such as the above, all emerge from the story. As pressure to complete the work was exerted by management the problems got worse, with mutual recriminations the order of the day at the steering committee meetings.

Grandiose ideas of what could be achieved by as small a group as the Sinclair R&D team, however talented individually, led to the contemplation of an additional computer project in 1982. Sinclair Research was going not only to produce an all-new machine, the ZX83/QL, aimed at the business market, but it was also going to recycle bits of the hardware into a new machine for the Spectrum market. Although the Interface I and Interface II were still not ready, despite the efforts of Martin Brennan and Ben Cheese (Brennan had originally joined to do artificial intelligence work, but technical staff were so thin on the ground that he ended up doing logic design for the interfaces), plans were in hand for a 68008-based SuperSpectrum. This would have all the add-ons incorporated: ROM cartridge, joystick ports, Microdrives, serial interface and network. A faster processor and more memory, plus a new BASIC, would give the loyal Spectrum freaks a machine to upgrade to, it was hoped, since the QL was supposed, in both price and concept, to avoid this area. Jan Jones was recruited to do the new BASIC, and the project started, including an enhanced keyboard design, which replaced the soggy rubber keypads of the Spectrum with hard plastic for a firmer feel. Then, at the end of 1982, the project was dropped, because the hardware design load was already over-stretching the capacity of the limited technical team. The Spectrum market was also holding up well, and the interfaces would give it a boost when they finally appeared, so there was no immediate need for a new hobbyist machine.

The ZX83 design process outlined above never got much of a chance to proceed smoothly. The delays in the design of the Spectrum Interfaces held up the development of the upgraded Microdrives for the QL. Having finalised the actual tape-cartridge design, Dave Southward, Sinclair Research's technical director, had to try to gain faster data transfer and capacity by modifying the drive mechanisms and electronics. Sir Clive is inclined to blame delays on this aspect of the design:

The problems centred principally on the Microdrives, which worked a treat in the Spectrum version, but in the QL were re-engineered in what looked like subtle and fairly minor ways, but in fact turned out to have a lot of problems.

(Interview, 6 November 1985.)

Since portability had vanished, there was no longer any particular need for the low power consumption of the Microdrives, and not as much cost benefit as might be imagined. Standard 34-inch floppy disc drives bought in from Japan would be nearly as cheap, and have both faster performance and higher storage capacity. There was no likelihood that Sinclair would take this route, however, since it had succeeded in producing an 'innovative', if inefficient and idiosyncratic, storage device, and would proceed with the design despite good arguments to the contrary. Of course there was little else that was distinctive about the machine, and ICL presumably wanted some innovative Sinclair technology in exchange for its investment.

The need to stick with the Sinclair approach is also apparent in the keyboard for the QL. This revised membrane design, although a distinct improvement over previous Sinclair designs, is not the 'professional keyboard' it pretends to be. It was assessed as the better of two designs produced for the QL but, symptomatically, the sample keyboards produced by a Japanese company to Sinclair's requirements, of typewriter standard, were not included in the assessment. The obsessive Sinclair Research mentality says, apparently, that it has to look like a Sinclair design even if it doesn't work as well as it might. Again, there is no significant cost saving that acts as a justification. We were informed that the sample keyboards costed out at the same price as the Sinclair design chosen! The movement of the yen might have altered this by a pound or so, but most purchasers of a 'business' computer would probably happily have paid such a surcharge for something their secretary could type on.

It's unlikely that any decisions could have been made to go against the Sinclair style, since the management couldn't even manage to decide which of the sample printers offered by manufacturers they should choose. (The QL has a serial printer interface, rather than the industry standard parallel interface.) Since the sample printers were available in 1983, it is somewhat peculiar that only in late 1985 was one announced. One explanation for the lack is of course that a useful business system must have a printer. Since cheapness would be a selling point, reminding the potential purchaser that another large investment would be required would be counter-productive.

The same argument went for the VDU monitor that is essential for extended use. Again, there was a very good argument for Sinclair to provide a monitor, because the QL system drives an international standard display, which will not work effectively with some of the British monitors available. Marketing-wise, to trumpet a price breakthrough of £400 for a business system, and then admit that you needed a printer (about £250) and a colour monitor (about the same) to put it to use might remind potential purchasers that they were looking at a total cost of nearer £1000. At £400, the QL could be made to look like a bargain, but at £1000 there were other options the customer might look at. This train of thought, or incapacity to commit to a competitive assessment however you look at it led to two decisions, or rather one non-decision and a fudge. The first was not to provide a monitor, which was one less commercial task, and the second was the addition of an output suitable for a domestic television. Again, this was retrogressive in terms of the original concept, but comforting in the sense of reverting to Sinclair style - all previous machines had only plugged into televisions. The fact that the display wraps off the corners of a lot of television screens and produces flicker was discounted in favour of increasing the market; the specifications changed again, and another job was added to the design task.

Back to the hardware that was supposed to use the peripherals. The heart of the design was the custom gate array. At the point when the TTL prototypes should have been built, the design process had slipped so far that the electronic design for them was not completed. Since the turnaround time on a custom chip was only three weeks (and about £10,000), the decision was to go straight for the custom chip, and then incorporate this in a prototype, cutting out the TTL version. Predictably, the chips had problems, and with mounting pressure it appears that as soon as one problem had been identified and corrected the modification was incorporated in another reiteration of the chip. Another three weeks, in the course of which more flaws would come to light, and the process would then be repeated.

Two consequences are apparent from this illusorily time-saving approach. The first is that the integrated modem that David Karlin was to produce, as part of one of the chips, was never designed. Another feature vanishes from the vision. The second was the incorporation in the design of what the ad people turned into a virtue, an Intel 8049 microprocessor chip. This 'second processor', says the blurb, 'controls the keyboard, generates the sound, and acts as an RS232 receiver. None of the power of the 68008 processor is wasted on these functions.' Well, yes, but a lot of the potential processing power of the 8049 is wasted on doing three minor jobs, none of them very well. It wasn't supposed to be there at all, since the functions were supposed to be performed by another custom chip.

This was a sensible choice, as an initial design decision, because it would replace the three standard chips that could do the job, be cheaper, and simplify the circuit. Unfortunately, they didn't have time to design this, so the 8049 was pressed into service. The beeping noises it makes are more variable than the Spectrum's, but just as useless. It handles the keyboard encoding, but this could as easily be done in software, and it handles RS232 serial communications (signals in and out of the machine) in a peculiarly inefficient way, operating one channel but multiplexing two channels into this. The result is various problems with the RS232 facilities, one being that both serial ports provided can be set only to the same speed of transmission. If there was a cost saving there might be some argument for it, but since the 8049 is more expensive than the custom chip, and less efficient than three dedicated chips (together not significantly more expensive), it gives a measure of the confusion of the design process. It is not as if the 8049 merely dropped into the position reserved for the custom chip, either, since it didn't have enough pins (connections) and additional custom-chip work was required to overcome this problem.

In the light of this catalogue of circuit changes, Sir Clive's explanation of design problems as due to lack of control over the engineers rings a little hollow:

The project started off in a totally different fashion, and then diverged from what I originally wanted because the engineers who worked on it wanted something very different. Engineers always do, they want something that they would like, and you've either got to pull them back, or you've got to persuade them, or you've got to switch engineers. In this case, they weren't having to persuade me, really, they were persuading Nigel, and he bought the package.

(Interview, 6 November 1985.)

What the engineers wanted was not a better machine, but more time, better coordination, a consistent specification and things like that. Given the way the QL turned out, to blame the engineers for a common trait of their profession, the quest for excellence, is perverse. The engineers were in fact doing their best, but if you can't put all the bits together to test them you are bound to have problems with the overall system.

Since the interactions are supposed to be controlled by the software, the writers of the operating system also have problems. It is quite feasible to write the bulk of the software from the specification of the hardware and its interrelationship, but revisions in the design must be reflected in changes to at least the lower level of software, that directly controlling chips and other devices. The operating system (OS) was commissioned from a software company called GST. It worked from the low-level OS drivers produced by Tony Tebby, and in contrast to the modest fees paid to Nine Tiles, GST was to have done fairly well out of their involvement. In addition to time and material payments that ran into six figures, GST was to receive a royalty. Tony Tebby, inside Sinclair Research, was also developing an operating system 'as a backup'.

Psion, a software company that had done very well out of games software for home micros, had forged links with Sinclair Research on earlier software ventures. When Sinclair put the word out in early 1983 that a suite of business programs was needed, Psion had already started to develop just such a package of integrated software for IBM micros and other MS-DOS machines. It put its proposals in and they were accepted. Since all the development work was done on a VAX minicomputer system the lack of hardware didn't matter too much in the first place. It would later be customised to the QL operating system. The only hardware available in mid-1983 was lash-ups of the main board, minus Microdrives, serial ports and the like. Somewhat later some hand-built versions were produced, with a single Microdrive, and the serial ports, but since the Microdrive couldn't be used in conjunction with the serial port, and the logical faults were still there, their appearance, although better than nothing, could not have given anybody a sense of rampant progress. We now leave the QL saga for a moment to consider another development taking place around this time.

There were persistent rumours that out of the Far East would emerge a cheap (£50 or so) colour computer as the Orient moved into the market. Responding to this potential challenge to the Spectrum's pre-eminence, the Low Cost Colour Computer (LC3) project was started. The hardware was virtually a one-man project for Martin Brennan, who designed and produced it in a matter of a month as a TTL prototype. With a Z80 chip, and designed to use ROM software cartridges, and with data storage on battery-backed RAM packs, it was a nice concept. Steve Berry produced an operating system, complete with the full overlapping 'windows' that the QL doesn't possess. (True windowing, as on the Macintosh, allows a separate screen portion to overlay whatever was originally there, and then be removed, while preserving the contents of the original screen.) This cheap and powerful machine, with superior display handling to that of the QL, was one of the topics discussed at a planning meeting in November 1983 held, for some reason, in the Lake District.

Sir Clive, the technical members of the board, and various members of the technical staff forgathered. The LC3 project was chopped, on the grounds that the competition had not appeared, and there was no reason to introduce a cheaper computer unilaterally, especially with the lower absolute profit margins it would produce. So much for cheap computing for the masses! Further development of the LC3 would be costly, and the view was being sustained at this time that the QL was almost ready for production. The capacity for self-delusion that this implies is explicable only in terms of a lack of communication. While Nigel Searle puts it like this:

We are a very unbureaucratic company and don't spend a lot of time in formal communication, written or otherwise.

(Quoted in International Management, November 1984.)

the technical staff found themselves wondering why, in a fairly small company, communication was worse than that found in the major companies they had worked for. When Searle decided to go for a QL launch date, the stresses became acute. Again, the implication was that the engineers were a problem:

At some point in a project that has been going on for 18 months, you have to put a stake in the ground and say you are launching the product on such and such a date. If you wait for the guys who are working on the product to tell you when it will be finished, you will wait for ever.


Waiting until there's a working prototype, however, would seem to be sensible. The decision to go for a launch was imposed rather than negotiated, just as Searle implies, but ill-advised. Tony Tebby recalled the state of affairs:

Communications were deliberately distorted. If I talked to marketing, they would describe to me a product I'd never heard of. They said, 'Well, give us the finished product in a couple of weeks' time and we'll review our position.' I said, 'But it's not going to be working for six months!' They say, 'But we're starting the ad campaign in two weeks' time, placing the ads.'

(Interview, 14 October 1985.)

The case design was frozen, which didn't allow time for the design of the 'feet' to prop up the case to a good typing angle to be completed. The resulting bodge occasioned comment from reviewers:

If you do a lot of typing you might find the keyboard lies a bit flat. To overcome this, Sinclair has supplied three funny little plastic feet which are supposed to fit into rubber pads under the keyboard. I found that these fell out regularly and in the end I dispensed with them and got used to a new typing position.

(Personal Computer World, June 1984.)

Another reviewer suggested you also dispense with the feet, but rest this 'professional' micro on a book! Another result of freezing the case design meant that positions of sockets for external connections were also frozen, and the PCB (printed circuit board) tracks had to lead, however inefficiently, to those locations. Rick Dickinson, the case designer, and John Williams, the draughtsman, or the others involved (effectively everybody) can't be blamed or even disparaged for any of these problems. The lack of coordination and communication, and the pressure for an unrealistic launch date must bear the blame. The last prevarication and specification change indulged in by the management of the time illustrates the point.

At launch date minus a few weeks, the stance was still that there would not be an in-built version of BASIC on the QL, in line with the decision to go for a 'business', rather than a hobbyist, machine. The only set of instructions provided in ROM memory, apart from the QDOS operating system, would be a 'bootstrap' BASIC with no instructions other than those needed to enable the Psion software packages to be loaded and run. Jan Jones had been recruited for, and had started writing, an advanced and structured BASIC for the proposed, but now dropped, SuperSpectrum. When the SuperSpectrum project got the chop, she continued to develop the BASIC in her own time, while working on other QL software for Sinclair. Since there was most of a 68008-based advanced form of BASIC in existence on the premises, the temptation was to use it. No Sinclair machine since the MK14 had been provided without an inbuilt BASIC, and the computer freak/hobbyist market made much use of BASIC (when they weren't playing games), as was attested by the continuing popularity of BASIC program listings in the magazines. To commit to the business computer market and have no product for the mass of loyal Sinclair enthusiasts to upgrade to must have produced a distinct and disconcerting feeling of going out on a limb. The Sinclair success with computers was based on a certain type of machine: ones that had BASIC built in, could be plugged into a television, powered up, and be ready to go. To move into a new area of the computing arena, even at the bottom end of such a market, would require both an impeccable machine and a great deal of confidence in the product and the market. This latter would appear to have been lacking, while as yet the machine could hardly be said to have emerged as an operational reality.

It is only such considerations that can explain the gradual watering down of the QL concept in certain respects. Adding a television outlet was as much a response to this as the fact that Sinclair Research hadn't produced a monitor to go with the QL, or arranged an OEM deal with someone who manufactured a monitor. The late decision to hedge the bets yet again and include a BASIC was not only a failure of nerve in the concept, but productive of more problems.

The operating system had been allocated two sockets on the board, each for a 16K ROM chip, into which the operating system and the 'bootstrap' loader for the Psion programs had to fit. The operating system commissioned from GST was not finished (the designers realistically couldn't do much to finalise it until there was some definitive hardware) and in any case the OS was designed to occupy most of the 32K available. QDOS was more compact, and more complete, but with the unfinished SuperBASIC needing some 22K, there was no way in which the OS plus the BASIC would fit within 32K. Tony Tebby, on learning of the launch, promptly handed in his notice, to take effect as soon as working machines had been produced, on the grounds that the launch was misleading to the consumer:

There was never any possibility of launching a machine of which there was not a working prototype... [the launch] was commercially foolish, and brought no benefits.

(Interview, 14 October 1985.)

The QL manual handed out at the launch was a stop-gap construct leaning heavily on the Psion package's documentation, since at least the user's actions and their consequences could be described with some accuracy, even if they were not yet converted so that they actually worked on the QL. The SuperBASIC section of the manual was a confabulation of existing facilities, hoped-for additions and some straightforwardly inventive writing.

At this point, we arrive at the launch date. There are two views as to why the launch was allowed to go ahead so prematurely. One has it that the launch was designed to upstage the Apple Macintosh computer. As the Macintosh would predictably be a more expensive machine) and would not be competing directly with the QL, this explanation makes little sense as a marketing decision. Given that the Macintosh is, however, noticeably more innovative, flexible and user-friendly, as well as faster, than the QL, the need to get in ahead on the media attention may have played a part. Far more likely is the suggestion made by, among others, Guy Kewney in Personal Computer World that it was a desire to get some funds in before the end of the financial year (March 1984), to enhance the sales figures for the potential shareholders who would be invited to invest in British innovation on the basis of this year's figures. Given the investment costs of the flat-screen television production line, and the continuing problems that prevented even the fairly sluggish demand for the £100 Microvisions being satisfied, plus cessation of the high-profit mail-order market for computers and the Spectrum price cuts, this would seem as good an explanation as any. Christmas sales were not as great as had been hoped, and Sinclair was holding £7m. of stocks at the end of the year - none of it in QLs!

As up to 500 orders for the QL poured in each day, there was certainly no hesitation in cashing cheques, despite an absence of product. Indeed, it must have been clear that there was no hope of shipping before the end of the financial year in March, let alone honouring the '28 days delivery' promise. That this was not only apparent, but recognised as a fact within Sinclair, is confirmed by Tony Tebby:

I discovered they were going to launch it about one week before Christmas. However, in the press release I was shown the day before the launch, it estimated delivery as 'end April'. The press release that went out had 'end February' - a stroke of total idiocy. They said the ads said 28 days delivery, so the press release couldn't say different. But, I said, it's totally untrue, we don't even have a complete working prototype!


Whether the over-optimistic promises to the public were rooted in the desire to help the faltering cash flow or not, this was the result. The cash figures for the year end were a massive £8.5m., and apparently included the £5.5m. 'trust fund' set up by Sinclair (after the end of the financial year) to hold the mail-orderers' money when the flak started to fly in the press. However useful in accounting terms, the publicity subsequent to the initial euphoria of the 'launch' was uniformly negative.

The lack of euphoria within Sinclair Research itself can be illustrated by a story that subsequently emerged. Your Spectrum magazine, in its December 1984 issue, asked Nigel Searle what he would like as a Christmas present:

What I'd really like to have is the name of the person who sabotaged my chair at the QL launch. Sitting in my cushioned chair waiting for Clive to finish his introduction so that I could kick off the proceedings I became aware that the chair was absolutely soaked. Someone had filled the cushions with a few gallons of water, so that it looked perfectly all right before you sat in it, but as soon as you did well, need I say more? When I stood up to make my speech I had rivers of water pouring down my legs.

The world and the press waited in vain for QLs while the Sinclair team battled with 'finalising' SuperBASIC and QDOS, getting the Microdrive interface working, and solving the logic errors in the custom chips, all while notionally gearing up for production. Inquiring journalists, anxious for review machines, were told that delays were caused by 'development problems'. This was at least more honest than the letters sent out to all who had placed orders in response to the full-colour ad campaign in the Sunday supplements, which blamed the delays on the fact that, 'The demand for the QL has been phenomenal from the day we launched it.'

This non sequitur posing as a 'reason' for not having produced a single QL was backed up by the offer of a 'free gift' for those who waited patiently while their money accrued interest for Sinclair Research. So those patient souls who didn't demand their money back would receive a free RS232 cable. Normally priced at £9.95, it was re-priced, as an added virtue, for the hopeful customers at £14.95 to increase their ardour. The complaints went to the ASA, and Sinclair itself changed the ads to say that delivery 'may take longer than 28 days'.

The computer press, especially those having to fill QL supplements with notional reviews, rumours, speculative comparisons with other machines and details of the 68008 chip, was starting to complain. Dave Tebbutt, a friend of Sir Clive and a Mensa member among other things, got hold of one of the first working models, some time in April, and produced a positive review in Personal Computer World, despite the unfinished BASIC and QDOS. The less-privileged journalists were shipped off in the Sinclair Research black Mercedes to use four machines on show. The results were not what Sinclair had hoped from this PR exercise. Firstly, the fact that more than 32K of ROM was needed for the BASIC and operating system meant that hanging out of the back of the QLs was what came to be known as the 'kludge' - an extra 16K of storage sticking out of the ROM cartridge socket. Other aspects of the machine also proved disappointing:

The bad news is that QDOS and the bundled software's current implementation is what one of Sinclair's engineers described as 'flakey'. Even basic operations like retrieving specific bytes from Microdrives brought the system down. Several of the bugs thrown up in the session seemed new to Sinclair, and were noted with bemused interest.

(Practical Computing, June 1984.)

In April, the first 'production' models (complete with kludge) were shipped to customers. Estimates of the numbers varied from 89 (curiously precise) to 1000, but were probably closer to the low figure. This enabled Sinclair to declare that it had started shipping machines. The press got the long-awaited review machines shortly after. Their gratitude at finally having something about which to churn out words at NUJ rates muted the criticisms somewhat, but the reception the QL got could still best be described as mixed. The keyboard, the most obvious part of the machine, was criticised by many:

The keyboard is not what it's cracked up to be and don't let anyone tell you otherwise ... The worst factor of all is the key action itself: squashy. Anyone using the word processor will have very tired fingers and wrists after a day's keying in. There is no spring-back on the keys and they have to be depressed a considerable distance to function.

(Electronics and Computing Monthly, June 1984.)

The keyboard also belies the QL's image as a business machine.

The keytops are expensive, classy items, but underneath there's the same old membrane, and we found them unpleasant and difficult to use.

(Personal Computer News, 26 May 1984.)

Others were less scathing:

Sinclair are pushing it to describe the keyboard as of 'professional quality'. It's certainly adequate for programming and soon but doesn't compare with something like the BBC.

(QL User, July 1984.)

Some reviewers even liked it, but it's worth commenting that reviewers don't have to do word-processing for a day at a time, as would a dedicated business user. Nobody of course rated it as highly as Sir Clive, since nobody else would feel driven to defend a dubious innovation' as obsessively:

The mechanism inside the keyboard is an immense investment in tooling and is a very precise system ... We are very proud of the keyboard.

(Personal Computer News, 16 June 1984.)

Emphasising the investment in, rather than the utility of, a keyboard, especially since a better one could have been bought in, seems to miss the point. However, there were more cogent criticisms of the first 'production' QLs. To avoid the tedium of repetitive quotes, we'll illustrate them by a summary that appeared in Your Computer in July 1984:

Those criticisms covered all aspects of the QL: it was slow, had an unfriendly editor, the Microdrives were prone to lose files and data, there was no documentation other than for the Psion packages, the network would not allow integration of Spectrums, the RS232 interface had bugs in it, Microdrive files on a well-used cartridge would take an age to load, the keyboard felt a bit clattery with a sticking enter key, and so on.

The 'and so on' covers a multitude of computerish sins. We should perhaps note criticisms of the Psion word-processing package as being excruciatingly slow to rewrite the screen and of the Microdrives as being very slow. All the above criticisms refer to version 'FB' of the QL BASIC software. (There was a whole sequence of them, issued and unissued, all identified by two-letter names. Rumour had it that these referred to the programmer's initials, but in fact the first two were named after cab drivers' initials, and subsequent ones after girls who worked at Sinclair Research.) The same reviewer went on to say that the newer (AH) version of the ROMs 'is Sinclair's answer to most of the problems, but it does not present a cure for all the QL's troubles, and cannot make any difference to the hardware faults'.

Subsequently, this 'final' version was replaced by 'JM', and then by 'JS' in production models. Sinclair got rid of the unsightly 'kludge' hanging out the back around version 'AH' by putting 32K EPROMs in one of the sockets inside the machine.

Actually, the hardware was going through some hard revision processes as well. By the time the 'AH' software arrived they were on issue 7 of the main board layout! There were firstly some relatively simple problems to resolve, such as the fact that the early machines had the high-frequency PAL television oscillator circuit right next to the head amplifier of Microdrive 1, effectively ensuring that this Microdrive was inoperative and you had to use Microdrive 2. There were interactional problems that appeared in the early machines, such as the fact that the act of turning on a Microdrive altered voltages in the circuit, and it started to oscillate. The result looked like a signal coming off the Microdrive head amplifier, as it stopped when the motor stopped, but was in fact garbage. This was solved by soldering a capacitor across the head amplifier. Gradual improvements were made - re-routing power-supply tracks, modifying the custom chips - and the machine improved over time. Some problems, such as the fact that QLs were supposed to be able to communicate over the network with Spectrums, could be solved just by ceasing to claim that it was possible.

ICL, waiting to get the core of the OPD machine out of Sinclair (having given up on the original specification), was given early QLs. ICL ended up using only the display-control chip, Microdrives and the Microdrive-control chips. Even with this low return on its investment, it had problems. It didn't get that much co-operation from Sinclair, either, it would appear. Tony Tebby by this time had left Sinclair Research, his work on producing working machines done and honour satisfied. He was however still involved in QL work, and recalls a meeting with ICL personnel. He takes up the story at the inclusion of the capacitor across the Microdrive amplifier:

I said, 'It stops the head amp oscillating.' They said, 'Sinclair says it improves the signal-to-noise ratio.' Well, it does, in the sense that you got signal out of the thing, rather than noise. Without the capacitor, on a substantial proportion of machines, you got nothing but noise. . . Anyway, we went through either eleven or seventeen problems, all of which were caused because known faults in the hardware had been insufficiently notified to ICL.

(Interview, 14 October 1985.)

ICL, wanting to press Sinclair's innovative technology to use in the OPD, found that its supposed partner was not coming clean:

There was a hardware fault such that you had to go into Microdrive mode to write to a Microdrive, but you also had to disable the RS232 in total, otherwise you wrote to the Microdrive at the RS232 baud rate. You had to disable, not only disconnect, the RS232. ICL were understandably a little annoyed at all this. At this time I was in a Portakabin in the grounds of Milton Hall. ICL sent a very annoyed letter to Sinclair Research [saying] that under the terms of their contract they were supposed to be notified of changes. They had been notified of some changes but had not been informed of other errors in the hardware.


Tebby's desire to help ICL did not have particularly happy consequences. When his input to the contractual partnership was revealed:

I was literally thrown off the [Milton Hall] site. They were furious. I got a letter from Nigel Searle about it, and I got an apology from Clive when I sent the letter from Searle to him and told him what had happened. At that stage he was so far removed he didn't know what people were doing in his name.


However, ICL's need to sort the hardware was fed back into the ongoing development of the QL as it assisted in identifying and rectifying problems.

The fact that meanwhile people were paying good money for these interim development machines (you could get upgrades, but only by returning your 'business machine to Sinclair, a process that took at least three weeks) was brazened out by Sinclair with a bold face. Interviewed in Personal Computer News (26 May 1984), Sir Clive said:

The whole point about the software was that it wasn't final, and it wasn't final in the sense that it was crashable. No new computer with new software is ever totally free of bugs ... in a sense, by shipping the machines out to customers early, we are getting them to find those bugs for us, but we are not making any pretence that we are doing otherwise.

It was not mentioned in the adverts, however! Nigel Searle took a firmer view, as befits a managing director rather than a visionary looking for excuses:

How could it happen that British industry's blue-eyed company could foul up so badly? Managing director Nigel Searle explains that Sinclair felt customers would rather have a provisional machine than no machine ...


Well, maybe, but they should perhaps have been asked. The final words on the machine as it appeared in the early versions can come from the launch issue of QL User magazine. Despite the whole rationale being the wonder of the QL, by July 1984 the journalists couldn't keep realism out of their text:

At the moment it's hard to be enthusiastic about a product that was pre-announced and is suffering from a rush into production and premature placing into the hands of customers. The most obvious reaction is that only dedicated hobbyists and enthusiasts are going to buy the machine. If the QL is to have any part in business computing it needs to be sorted out very quickly. And that's something of a shame because the design is a step forward (though hardly a Quantum Leap) for micros ... The reality is a machine that needs a lot of work, and Sinclair Research is looking distinctly as though it made a mistake.

(Max Philips.)

The marketing of the QL has been shoddy, and the treatment of customers and press alike inadequate for the seriousness with which Sinclair Research would like us to take its new product. However, I'm convinced that the machine is going to be good, and this opinion is not so much fashioned from what Sinclair is saying, but is based on the dedicated user base out there that has backed up and developed previous Sinclair machines into something worth having. Clearly there have been technical problems with this one ... Still, it's lucky the company didn't invent the typewriter - if it had I'd probably be carving this in stone.

(Roger Mumford.)

The hope that a dedicated (and magazine-buying) user base would arise, as it had for the ZX81 and Spectrum, in order to make the QL worth while would seem to show an early recognition that the machine had missed the business market. Ironically, one of the few surviving businesslike bits of the QL was that it had not included a cassette port, thus depriving software houses of their cheapest means of distributing their wares. Instead, they had to use the expensive Microdrive cartridges, available only from Sinclair, which took the QL out of the cheap games arena. The 'serious' software that did appear - other languages, programmers' utilities and the like - was all again for the hobbyist market. Sinclair Research hadn't managed to crawl, let alone leap, into a new market after all.

The QLs that were produced did get better, in terms of hardware and software, over the period to the end of 1984, when they were up to version 14 of the hardware. By July 1984, with machines actually being shipped in visible and kludgeless quantity Sinclair was attempting to persuade everybody that the problems were over. Production was claimed to be 2000 a week, with 28-day delivery possible by September, and Searle predicted 250,000 QL sales in 1984. David Karlin was wheeled out to practice his PR:

On the tricky subject of software bugs Karlin told us, 'Of course silly and convoluted things will crash the machine - if you get the answer wrong through a complicated expression, then this is not significant ... no BASIC ever written is perfect - within that we are perfect.'

(Your Spectrum, August 1984.)

Improved Psion software was announced to be in preparation, but didn't arrive until February 1985. The £4m. advertising campaign in the autumn of 1984, which used television for the first time (Sir Clive in a long scarf doing a leap over rival machines), didn't help much. This promotion was intended to support the retail availability of the QL and the flat screen, as well as the Spectrum.

Unfortunately there appeared to be some quality-control problems on the QLs:

The manager of the local branch of Dixons told me that out of 1000 machines delivered to their warehouse, only 190 worked properly. Further rumbles from Spectrum distributors seem to indicate similar troubles - with one hapless dealer spending a whole morning with six QLs and six sets of Psion software trying to find a combination that allowed all the Psion wares to be loaded.

(Your Spectrum, December 1984.)

Christmas 1984 was a declining market for computers. Sinclair maintained its market share, with the aging original Spectrum supported by freebie software, and repackaged Interface I, Microdrive and software deals, and the cosmetically upgraded Spectrum +. But it was a bad year all round. Poor sales of the QL weren't helping, and all was not rosy on the financial front.