In those days I was "editor at large" of what was, then, a singularly powerful trade weekly, MicroScope. This meant that as well as working with Alan, I spoke with several people who provided Amstrad with components and systems for the PC and PCW.
The thing that stands out in all their comments was his insistence on answers. "We showed him GEM - a GUI system based on CP/M," said the UK boss of Digital Research. "He said 'Can you do that in colour?' and we said we'd find out and report back. He pointed to the phone, and made us ring head office right there and then. And then he was on the phone to Hong Kong and Taiwan asking about prices for colour monitors capable of showing 80 characters per line."
The mug's eyeful: A WIMP feature. A machine that looked like a Mac, with windows, mouse, menus, and pointer. OK, no one used it like that, they loaded PC-Dos and ran IBM software, but it made the machine look like it was worth twice the price.
After that, for reasons which I can guess at, but can't speak with authority about, Sugar let Roland Perry go. It was (I think) because of his personal loyalty to Bob Watkins, who was tech director and who became CEO. Perry was a rival. To promote him would have been a slap in the face for Watkins who stayed on as CEO until, finally, the Amstrad eMailer showed that he really didn't have Perry's genius for designing to a spec.
Sugar went on to greater things. His partnership with Rupert Murdoch was questioned by people who felt there had been collusion to get control of the Football League contracts, but no evidence of unethical behaviour was found on either part. Amstrad was the "founder supplier" to Murdoch's Sky TV service back in 1988, while Sugar's vote (as chairman of Tottenham Hotspur) was a casting vote in a crucial decision by the league as to whether to give Sky the exclusive rights to show live Premiership matches.
But while Sugar flourished, Amstrad posted dull results. It bought Sinclair, and did nothing with it. It fiddled with the eMailer. And, finally, having become a TV star and media figure on a scale which fully justifies my faith in his media skills, Sugar has flogged the company off to Murdoch.
The key to Alan Sugar is family. His drive to make money is the public man. In private, only Bob Watkins has ever been admitted into the family circle from his business circle. He's been guilty of appointing family members to senior jobs, even when they were pathetically incompetent, and company gossip has been bitter about such nepotism...but no one has ever suggested that his private life was anything but private. No one ever mentioned girlfriends. No one ever knew what he did at weekends.
I'm sorry I fell out with Sugar. I found him stimulating company, always worth engaging in conversation, always eager to pick up innovative ideas, which he would as quickly drop if they proved unprofitable. We broke up our business relationship over a rather stupid misunderstanding (he seemed to think that his friendship with me meant that I could persuade an editor not to run a story that displeased him) and after that we rather lost touch.
What he might have achieved in consumer high-tech if his partnership with Perry had continued, is something I'll always wonder about. What he will do with the money he's making from the sale of Amstrad is, probably "family" - I don't see him trying to start again, or trying to rebuild his relationship with Perry.
A pity. At the same time as Sugar and Perry were "divorcing", Felix was building up a killer partnership with Steven England, a former advert salesman (I worked with him at New Scientist in the late 70s). Dennis had no huge admiration for England, any more than Sugar had for Perry, but he recognised their working partnership as something which delivered results. At the end of the relationship, Dennis and Sugar are about the same age, but I'd estimate Dennis's fortune at around 10 times that of Sir Alan's, and I'd say the British technology industry is the loser.
But also, in the same way as I'd love to have an album of Hugh Laurie songs, I'd love to have worked with Sir Alan on a serious publication. I think he'd have been brilliant at it. ®
Updated: Our thanks to all the readers who spotted the geek test: the TRS-80 used a Z80 CPU, not a 6502.
I bumped into that Alan Sugar on memory lane...
Blah blah blah...
A dinosaur gushing about another dinosaur. I thought this site was about what's going on now rather than being an archive of anecdotes from ancient history. Maybe we can have an informative article about how Alan Turing was a really nice chap by some old hasbeen claiming to be be a good friend of his.
Seriously, can the staff at El Reg not find anyone to write articles other than their dads?
Geeking isn't just for computers
Alan Sugar started his business selling from the back of a Mini Van.
I notice no-one mentions how Sugar used the Elan/Enterprise's pre-launch publicity to infliuence the colour scheme of the 464 and benefit from the delays that the technically superior Enterprise suffered ;)
What a great article! I never realised his price points were based around credit card limits! Pure genius! Just a little thing so tiny and insignificant, exploited by a real pro!
I was basically raised an Amstrad junkie! We had an Amstrad Car stereo in our old VW van, the second home computer was an Amstrad 464 ( first was a Dragon 32! ), the third was a CPC6128 then the first PC we ever owned was, yep, Amstrad 1640 ECD (EGA)! I even convinced five of my schoolmates to get 464's so we could "trade" games and copy them on, yep, one of my mates had a double-deck Amstrad Hi-Fi unit! We beat the life out of it everyday for 3 years!!! If it wasn't for Mr Sugar I wouldn't have a good job in IT. He made it possible for average hardworking Joes, like my old man, to afford to the technology they knew would set their kids on the road to jobs in the new wonderful world of computers!
Thanks Alan for everything! Now how about getting Murdoch to re-release an updated 464 or Speccy?
Good Insight.... indeed!
Nice piece... I'm a big fan of retro computing, having owned a ZX Spectrum Plus and then a Spectrum +3 in the 80s and I always wonder why Amstrad didn't do more with the Speccy!
I am fascinated by Alan Sugar's business skills, but I have to say he didn't seem to have the best interests of users and computer enthusiasts at heart.
Look at the failure to produce an add on 3inch disk drive for Spectrum +2 owners when the +3 came out!
I rest my case.
TRS-80 *Color* == 6809
According to wikipedia, the original TRS-80's used a Z80, while later "TRS-80 *Color* Computer (Coco)" used a 6809. I can't vouch for that, as I never owned one. But the code I typed into my 6809-wielding Dragon was always listed as "TRS-80" - one example I have to hand describes it as "TRS-80 (32K)", another explicitly describes it as "TRS-80 Colour computer (32K)". So I'd be surprised to discover there wasn't a 6809 variant.
(Ah, 6809s - two users stacks and SEX - happy days *sigh*)