I bumped into that Alan Sugar on memory lane...
Sweet nostalgia for the PCW generation
It was nearly two years later that the man who could have been Watkins's replacement, Roland Perry, approached Sugar with a project to build a world-beating microcomputer, and Alan was deeply sceptical. Perry wasn't Watkins, and Watkins had just spent more than 18 months getting absolutely nowhere with a design based on the same chip that was inside the Commodore Pet and the Tandy TRS-80 - a long forgotten chip called the Z80.
I got a call from Perry. "You may remember me from the Sintrom shop I set up in Reading, selling microcomputer parts? Well, I'm now running a consultancy, and I've built a new computer and Alan Sugar wants to know if it's any good."
Perry's proposition was very simple: "Would you come and see the prototype and write a review of it as if you were doing it for Personal Computer World?" - and he offered to pay me exactly what PCW would. In my innocence, I accepted a consulting job for which I could legitimately have charged a great deal more, but for journalism rates (trust me, not princely).
These were the days of Clive Sinclair's ZX Spectrum. Like the Spectrum, Perry's machine (called the CPC 464) was a games-playing Z80 based machine theoretically capable of running CP/M but with a built-in tape player, and - the mug's eyeful - a proper monitor, not a TV-out socket. It came with Locomotive Basic for writing your own software, and several people wrote games for it, based on existing Spectrum software. I wrote a thousand word report saying "nice, standard bit of kit, brilliant feature of a proper monitor and built-in tape!" and was summoned to Tottenham, where Amstrad was based at the time.
Alan and I seemed to get on pretty much straight away. I was immediately struck by his directness. He had questions to which he wanted exact answers. No guesswork. If I didn't know exactly how long, how many, how much, and how heavy, he had a phone which I could use to call someone and find out. Now.
The similarity to Felix Dennis was disconcerting. Both had a similar way of staring right into your face, watching for betraying flinches that might reveal uncertainty. Both were curly-haired and bearded - business hippies, as we used to say. And both were uncanny in their ability to focus on exactly the issues that were unclear - and both expected you to be the same.
A year or so after my first encounter with Sugar, I received a call: "Do you want to do another project, like the last one?"
By this time, Sugar had won the title of "young businessman of the year" and had set up Amstrad in its Brentwood offices, hiring Roland Perry as his chief digital techie.
Perry and Sugar had gone on to co-operate in a truly remarkable design, a word processor which could work as a business computer - the PCW8256. It was an astonishingly efficient design, including a non-standard diskette drive from Hitachi, and it was built almost entirely around Sugar's perception of the critical price point of the typical Barclaycard spending limit of £500. Any features which took it outside the reach of a Barclaycard holder - out.
But this time round, we worked on Amstrad's new PC 1512 and PC 1640 machines - same trick of building the PC around a proper video monitor with the power supply built in, same low price. It was a controversial success (pundits said it needed a cooling fan, Perry said it didn't and was proved right) and propelled Sugar into the spotlight which, in those days, surrounded anybody who was operating in the shadows of IBM.
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