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RIP Personal Computer World

What did happen to the likely lads?

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Boxing clever

These days, Felix is a forest builder and poet. Occasionally, he sends me a book of verse, which I read (and enjoy, it has to be said) but the days when he and I worked together in a creaky old Victorian house in Rathbone Place, are just history. Still, he was easily the best publisher I ever shared an office with, and he really, really knew what he was doing.

One day, Felix popped into the office, where editor Derek Cohen and I were arguing about something, and wanted to talk covers. He’d been looking at sales, returns, and advertising response. “All our best editions have one thing in common,” he said. “They have a picture of a new computer box on the front cover.” We tested this theory scientifically: “Oh, wow!” we said.

It was true. Software, however innovative, or peripherals, however clever, or brand-new network concepts, or compilers — they were death to a front cover of PCW; circulation dropped by a third, or more. So the question “What’s the front cover box?” was a monthly obsession, and took all the focus of all the staff. And it was my job (as I saw it) to sabotage this.

My task, every month, was to write “NewsPrint” – the news section. I’m an obsessive news journalist, and take a very simple view of news: first is all that counts. If people have to come to your pages to find out what happened, they will. If they can get the same news from somewhere else, they will. You have to be first. To do that (very simply) the news section has to be the last bit you send to the printer. My mission (which I pursued ruthlessly) was to ensure that if something happened on the Thursday before the paper went to be printed Friday, then it was reported in that edition of NewsPrint. So I didn’t send my copy in till Thursday.

Naturally, the editors, all focused on “this month’s new box” saw that as the ultimate deadline, and urged me to finish NewsPrint three weeks before publication, so that they could spend that Thursday polishing off the front page story, not editing my typos.

A titanic series of bitter struggles ensued; but NewsPrint did become a “must read” part of the magazine, and Felix was obliged to disappoint several editors who issued the “Either Guy goes, or I do” ultimatum. He knew about news.

Did that help the UK industry? I was able to report on many important issues which became “wars” at the time. Local area networking; we take it for granted now, but many, many news items in the early 80s covered arguments about whether it would ever work.

Other people covered the same issues. Dick Pountain, one of the founders of PCW under Felix Dennis, was maniacally convinced that software and software development tools were under-reported. He persuaded Felix to launch Soft which was a wonderful title for developers, and I don’t know any Soft reader who didn’t think it was required reading. It was Soft which first covered the innovative Transputer – not the silicon, but the multi-tasking language which underpinned it.

But it was PCW which hosted the Transputer farce, when Inmos set itself the “impossible” task of producing the 64K RAM chip. How the industry laughed at the idea of 64 kilobits of storage on a single silicon die! “Cosmic rays will corrupt the memory,” said experts. We reported it in PCW; the letters page turned to charcoal in the heat of debate. (Did you ever try to work out how many 64K RAM chips you’d need to replace a single 16 Gig Flash chip, today?)

Inmos? Ask anybody in the street today: “Never heard of it.”

Let’s not list all the things that went wrong. There is one star survival, heritage, legacy, what you will, from the UK industry in the 80s. Sophie Wilson, the best 6502 programmer ever, became disappointed with what she could do with the BBC Micro, and went off on her own to design a RISC processor that would do all the good things she liked about the 6502, and all the other things which she wished the 6502 could do.

The chip was the Acorn Risc Machine – the ARM, which started out merely as “the chip inside the Acorn Archimedes”.

Today, there is scarcely a single mobile phone left which doesn’t have an ARM processor in it. ARM derivatives are starting to appear in new sub-notebook, pursebook, netbook and smartphone designs. Intel, the giant which dominates processor technology with its X86 family, has been forced to have an ARM variant of its own, and is becoming increasingly flustered at just how much you can do with an ARM chip running at two watts power, which an Atom will have to burn 15W to match.

It is, without doubt, a triumph for the UK computer industry. It’s a triumph for Herman Hauser and Chris Curry, who founded Acorn, a triumph for Sophie Wilson and the team who founded ARM (the company), and it’s a triumph for all who contributed to the debate.

Would it have happened without PCW? When I can answer that question, I’ll know what the magazine’s real legacy is. Candidly, I think the answer may well be no. The awareness of the importance of low-cost, personal computers in the UK was miles ahead of anything, anywhere else in the world. And the awareness was fuelled by PCW, and stoked by PCW, and the audience of PCW created the arena where these things were discussed.

Final footnote: we got a phone call in the office of PCW in the early 80s. It was the man from Gillette, wanting to buy advertising space. “We write about computers,” we told him gently. “Oh. But the demographic is exactly what we want!” Huh?

Amazingly, it turned out that PCW in the 80s had the highest ratio of male to female readers of any magazine, anywhere. Nobody has ever been able to explain why 98.7 per cent of PCW readers were testosterone-fuelled, and females accounted for just over one per cent. But that, too, is part of the legacy, if you like… ®

Bootnote

Here's another perspective on the passing of PCW, from former editor Gordon Laing.

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