Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/06/11/pcw/

RIP Personal Computer World

What did happen to the likely lads?

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Hardware, 11th June 2009 14:02 GMT

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.

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.