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What did happen to the likely lads?

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Comment - Updated If you could find the subscription list of Personal Computer World Magazine (PCW) in its startup year, 1978, you’d have a Who’s Who of the UK tech business today. The mag has died – killed by the banking recession, and Private Equity leveraging – but the industry it kick-started will always remember it. I was a founder contributor, and also a contributor to its last edition. Naturally, I’m proud of that.

There will be a wake. One of the questions people will not expect to be asking at that wake will be a tactless one: “Really, what did PCW do for the British computer industry?”

Most readers will react with indignation. OK, the “golden age” of PCW was between 1981 and 1991, and during that time, the monthly magazine was at the centre of what went on in Britain — and Australia, strangely! — but well, what exactly did go on, and what is left of that heritage today? In other words, what happened to all the great names of the 80s?

Sinclair was a major force in UK computing. Literally thousands of competent professionals started out with a Spectrum box and a TV during the 80s, and “got into” the industry when their talents were inspired, developed and enabled by owning a computer. But what is left of Sinclair Research, today?

I rang Sir Clive’s office, told his secretary I’d like a word. She made it pretty clear that she personally resented some things I had once said about her relationship with the great man in a back-page diary column, and wasn’t going to pass the message on. Doesn’t matter: the answer to the original question is “Nothing.” Sinclair failed and got swallowed up into Amstrad, and Amstrad today makes Sky set-top boxes. The One Per Desk (an ICL incarnation of Sinclair’s QL box) is a One Per Museum piece today.

In the late 70s and 80s, we wrote about the IBM personal computer. Editor David Tebbutt scored a real front page scoop when he put the original PC on the cover, and he correctly predicted its success. And in the following months, we covered the start of the PC clone industry, including a long-forgotten UK startup which was the first to be able to run Microsoft Flight Simulator on its imitation PC. It was widely praised, and then closed down by IBM, which managed to prove that the BIOS chip inside it was a bit for bit copy of the IBM BIOS chip. Innovation, yes; but heritage?

There were, of course, lots of different processor chips available then. Most “home” computers ran the 6502 processor, designed by Chuck Peddle for MOS Technology. Successful 6502 boxes included the Apple ][ and the Commodore PET and the BBC Micro.

Ah, the BBC Micro! Splashed all over PCW when it was first conceived, documented during its gestation, and supported through its launch with “type in this Basic program!” type articles, it was a triumph for British IT. It really was. And maybe, just maybe, some of its success can be attributed to the magazine which “everybody” read at the time?

The evidence suggests that being trumpeted as a breakthrough, even in PCW, wasn’t enough.

In my attic, awaiting my personal demise before being “left” to museums, are things like a Dragon, an Oric Atmos, a Newbrain (from Newbear Computers) and an Archimedes. All were greeted with ecstasy by PCW writers, and a surge of readers rushed out to buy, run, and write programs for each new dawn. Remember the Sig-Net? No, nobody does. How about chess player David Levy’s well-funded what’s-its-name? I may have the only sample machine in the world (then again, I never got it to work).

What people may not realise is how much of a boost PCW could give a startup. It was an obsession of successive editors to ensure that any new computer would appear on PCW’s front cover, first, before anybody else got it. This wasn’t a irrational drive, either; it arose from the careful study of readership conducted by Felix Dennis, the guy who bought the paper from the founder.

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