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I bumped into that Alan Sugar on memory lane...

Sweet nostalgia for the PCW generation

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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.

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