I bumped into that Alan Sugar on memory lane...
Sweet nostalgia for the PCW generation
Column Alan Sugar reminds me of Hugh Laurie. In the same way that you look at the star of Jeeves and Wooster and House and think: "What a remarkable actor - but he'd have made a brilliant musician!" I look at Sir Alan and think: there goes the man who could have been one of the best journalists in the country.
Two of my wealthiest friends are Alan Sugar and Felix Dennis, and both have now retired from doing what made them so rich. There was a period, back in the early 1980s, where I worked with them both - and what a contrast. One is now a semi-retired TV star (selling Amstrad to Sky) and the other a landowner poet, building forests in the Midlands of England.
What they had in common was an obsession with money. I know quite a few millionaires and a couple of billionaires, and amazingly, some of them made their money almost by accident - but neither Sugar nor Dennis ever had any doubt about it.
Both became pretty well known for doing things which gave no clue to what their main skills were. Felix Dennis became notorious because of a magazine called Oz, which gave editorial control to a bunch of schoolkids; and the resulting edition sent Felix to prison. And Alan Sugar became notorious because he bought a football club, long before he became star of a TV series which portrayed him as a sort of English Donald Trump.
But if you had to go into the office and sit down and do a project with them, they were astonishingly similar in the way they tackled projects. And what marked them out was that either would have made a superb journalist - they wanted to get to the source of everything. They were never content to have committee guesses, they wanted to KNOW.
Felix ended up making his millions selling computers direct to the end user in an age when that was still revolutionary. But the money he needed to set up that operation was made by launching and then selling a magazine, MacUser, in the US. And any computer nerd knows what Sugar did. He started out selling car aerials from the boot of his Ford Cortina and built up an electronics giant from taking that into audio.
I met Sugar when he wasn't known to the general public. Most of us assumed Amstrad audio systems were just another Japanese import. Yet they featured a concept which Sugar could have trade marked: the "mug's eyeful" - something which made an ordinary product look like it had something special about it.
At that time, I'd just started working with Felix. I'd fallen out with one of the bigger publishers in London and, wearing my highest-crested fur-lined huff with the platinum trimmings, took my idea of a fortnightly trade magazine to Bunch Books, where Dennis ran a small team of magazines from motor cycling to Hi-Fi and was thinking of getting into microcomputers. And, though I didn't know it, Sugar was doing the same thing.
The device which got Amstrad noticed wasn't a computer. It was a radio/tape player with an unusual feature: two tape decks. You could put one tape in the left hand drive and press record, and make a copy (naturally, Sugar rejected any suggestion that this was aimed at the pirate business). He'd put this together with Bob Watkins, a technical expert in electronics. And they started out designing a world-beating microcomputer.
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.
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.