Sord drawn: The story of the M5 micro
The 1983 Japanese home computer that tried to cut it in the UK
Archaeologic It took Japanese micro maker Sord more than six months to launch its M5 home computer in the UK, but in April 1983, the company said the Z80A-based machine would finally go on sale during the following month - half a year after it was originally scheduled to arrive over here.
It was a bold move. Even in November 1982, when the Sord M5 was first scheduled to debut, the UK home computer market was becoming uncomfortably congested. More to the point, it was dominated by British firms: Sinclair, Acorn and Dragon, and Tangerine offshoot Oric and Camputers were both gearing up to release home micros of their own. Oxford’s Research Machines dominated the education micro market.
There were overseas computer makers who were successful over here in the home market: Commodore primarily but also, though to a lesser extent, Atari and Texas Instruments. Apple was selling its pricey II to business buyers, and IBM was starting to do make inroads into the same market with its 1981-launched PC.
But the Japanese? They were nowhere close. Only Sharp and Epson were making any headway in the business micro market, but neither they nor their fellow firms were attacking the home arena. It was arguably a point of pride among native computer companies that this was the case. They were adamant that they were not going to let Japan’s major electronics firms destroy the UK home micro industry they way the Japanese had smashed domestic hi-fi makers.
Sord Computer Systems was no Sony, JVC or Sharp, of course. It was founded on 15 April 1970 by Takayoshi Shiina and his mum, and in its first ten years had become one of Japan’s fastest growing firms - the fastest, it claimed at the time - thanks to its success selling business micros on its home turf. Sord, by the way, came from ‘SOftware haRDware’, Shiina said in a 1979 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. When the company opened a beachhead in the UK early in October 1982, it was forecasting an annual turnover of £40 million - equivalent to £167 million now, depending on how you measure it. To put that 1982 figure into context, Sinclair Research reported revenues of £27.17 million for the year to April 1982, rising to £54 million during the following 12 months.
Sord’s pitch to British home computer buyers was typically Japanese: a machine clearly designed for playing games rather than thrashing out your own code, or running a small business. The stylish M5 had a prominent Rom cartridge slot and came with a pair of Mattel Intellivision-style wheel-based games controllers. Like other home micros it supported the Basic language, but the interprester came on a cartridge rather than a firmware chip within the machine. The M5 packed 8KB of Rom for its operating system. Other cartridges allowed it to run PIPS, Sord’s business automation system.
By the late 1970s, Sord was punching out business micros
The M5 spec was suitable games-centric too: only 4KB of Ram but an additional 16KB dedicated to the video sub-system. The resolution wasn’t spectacular but it was comparable to that offered by other micros of the time: 256 x 192, with 16 colours. But it had the capability to run 32 separate 8 x 8 or 16 x 16 graphic sprites - a facility then only offered by the Commodore 64, at that time as readily available to Brits as hens’ teeth, and the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. It had four-channel sound too - three for tones, one for “noise” - and its processor ran at an impressive (for the time) 3.6MHz. Handling the video was a Texas Instruments TMS9929A chip. It had the same sound chip, the TI SN76489A, as the BBC Micro.
When Sord took the wraps off the M5 in the UK at the end of October 1982, the machine had been on sale in Japan for less than a month but had already notched up a software library of 60-odd applications and games, the company claimed. Sord said the M5 would cost around £150.
Inevitably, it was a no-show. Due to go on sale here in November 1982, by mid-December Sord was pointing to a February 1983 release instead. Most likely, the parallel attempt to establish the M5 in the US, which saw the M5 debut there as scheduled, along with the M343, an Intel 8086-based MS-DOS machine, took all the units Sord had earmarked for Blighty. Exchange rate fluctuations and other factors saw the price now listed as £169, though it would now come bundled with three cartridges, Sord promised: Basic and a couple of games.
Sord also had an eye to the broader British micro market. Come March 1983 there was still no sign of the M5, but the Japanese company had by now signed a distribution deal with Loughton, Essex-based Computer Games Ltd (CGL) to allow it, as CGL Chairman Paul Balcombe said at the time, to “concentrate its efforts on promising its business computer range”. CGL had experience importing Japanese handheld videogame devices. It would later be acquired by Amstrad.
That was still in the future. Now the question was, would the M5 ever be released in the UK? Toward the end of April 1983, Sord President Takayoshi Shiina flew into the UK to state that, yes, the M5 will go on sale here, in May. Oh, and it’ll now cost £190 - £189.95, to be precise. By way of some sort of compensation, the M5 would gain the ability to take extra memory, to be made available in 16KB units from July, Shiina said.
Some punters might have preferred to wait a little longer. Sord also announced it would offer the M5 Turbo, a faster version with “at least” 64KB of Ram in October, the same month in which, it also promised, it would ship a 16-bit business machine, the M12. Impecunious kids exasperated by the M5’s pre-release price rises were offered the prospect of a low-cost games-only machine, the M2, due to arrive in August. Sord even boasted it has a battery-powered portable machine not unlike Epson’s HX-20 in the works. It would go on sale in September, the company promised.
The M5 made its first public appearance in May 1983 at the Midland Computer Fair, held in Birmingham’s Bingley Hall where Sord staff said - ahem - the computer would now not be available until June. Still, the M5’s appearance allowed eager punters to get their hands on the machine. They found themselves with a compact unit stylishly formed from grey and black plastic. The black-on-black keys were of the ZX Spectrum type, but marked with white alphanumeric and cursor characters, plus yellow graphics glyphs and Basic keywords. There was still no room for space bar though. Back from the keyboard, the entire top of the M5 flipped up to reveal a warm yellow surround for the Rom slot, and assorted instructions printed on the inside of the (removable) lid. Later models, some made in Ireland, others in Japan, even after the CGL rebranding, replaced the yellow plastic with the M5-standard pale grey.
Round the back of the machine: the customary power, tape, game controller and TV modulator outputs, plus novel composite video and mono audio RCA jacks for alternative telly and hi-fi linkage.
The colour scheme, said Personal Computer News reviewer Richard King, gave the M5 a “faintly military look”, and the M5 remains one of the more aesthetically pleasing 1980s home micros. Possibly one of the better built ones too: “The general construction is of a very high quality,” wrote King. “It feels solid, almost rugged, and would doubtless stand up to considerable rough treatment... There are proper connectors for everything, so no more problems with power supplies which spend most of their time delivering 5.5V to the carpet.”
Don Thomasson, writing in Computing Today, also gave the M5 the thumbs-up for its “competent and attractive” construction and design. Others praised Sord’s incorporation of a metal shield place over the motherboard to minimise radio interference, something other vendors should perhaps have taken note of.
Reviewers praised the video presentation. King, for instance, lauded the M5’s “frankly impeccable” display, which he found to be “steady and clear, with good definition and well-separated colours. Compared to the tatty output so often associated with lower-end/home machines, it was a pleasure to use”.
It had some clever features too. Personal Computing Today regular Chris Palmer spotted the Basic I - ‘I’ for integer -
HEX$ function for converting decimal numbers into their hexadecimal equivalents - handy for machine coders - and useful character codes such as
CHR$(6), which auto scrolled the display a character width left and right, respectively.
“You might not realise the significance of this,” he wrote, “but you will realise that the biggest hurdle to overcome is how to get the screen scrolling sideways. With the Sord, this can be achieved by printing these control characters and letting the computer do the hard work.”
Users of many other systems had to write machine code routines called from Basic to do this. I did for mine.
But Palmer was not unreasonable disappointed by the lack of available Ram: “Offering only 4KB of useable memory is a very serious crime indeed.”
CGL promotes the M5
Computing Today’s Don Thomasson was less concerned by that because of the scope for expansion. Instead, he decried what he considered the M5’s poor documentation: “The M5 is complicated enough to produce confusion, and the documentation fails to provide enough information to escape from this state. A minor keying error can produce bewildering results, and though there may be a recovery route it may not be obvious.”
Richard King wasn’t keen either: “My only reservation is over the documentation, which suggests that there is considerable untapped potential in this machine, but then fails to provide the keys.”
But overall the response was positive. Chris Palmer was typical. On the basis of his time with the Sord M5, he said, “as the Japanese have a talent for making good products on the cheap I think it is going to be very difficult in the future to remain patriotic and buy British.”
Sord in a gunfight
Not buying British became even easier in July when Sord knocked £40 off the M5's price, taking the cost of the new micro back to the originally promised £149.95. Peeved punters who’d already spent £189.95 would be sent a copy of the games-oriented Basic G Rom cartridge in compensation, said Sord. It had had little choice but to make the M5 cheaper. In previous months, Sinclair, Commodore and Oric had cut their prices - a major battle was brewing.
One, it seems, that Sord was no longer quite so keen to fight. By November 1983, and possibly much earlier, the M5 was being released not under the Sord brand but as the ‘CGL M5’, the machine’s first UK distributor now handling all aspects of its sale and support in Britain. As CGL had suggested before, Sord wanted to focus its attention on other, more business-centric machines, and it appears to have decided to step away from the M5 when it released its $2000 M23P business luggable in the US in August 1983, along with a $5000 Motorola 68000- and Z80A-equipped desktop, the M68.
The truth was that its small headline memory size made the M5 less appealing than the 16KB, 32KB and 48KB computers it was being sold against. True, they too had less usable memory than their totals suggested, a lot of Ram being reserved for the video buffer and system usage, but in buyers’ minds it made the 4KB M5 less attractive. No wonder CGL’s adverts played down the M5’s spec. More experienced users scoffed at the cut-down Basic I bundled with the machine and the extra £35 needed for the graphically rich, but still lacking floating maths alternative, Basic G. If you wanted floating point maths, you’d be needing the Basic F cartridge, sir.
As Max Phillips, writing in Personal Computer News put it: “There is only one major complaint: Basic G should come with the M5. You can’t disguise the price of the machine just by packaging it with a crude Basic and hoping people won’t notice the extra £35.”
That was the situation in the UK. In Japan, Sord now faced the emergence of the MSX standard, a Microsoft-led scheme that was backed by the major Japanese electronics companies and which defined a home micro specification designed to ensure software compatibility between hardware from different suppliers - a home version of what later transpired in the business PC market. The M5 Turbo and the M2 mentioned at the UK launch do appear to have been released in Japan - as the M5 Pro and the M5 Junior, respectively - but they never made it over here.
Meanwhile, Sord was suffering what co-founder and President Takayoshi Shiina would later call an “an orchestrated smear campaign” which, he alleged, involved the deliberate spread of rumours claiming the company was financially sick. Shiina denies that was the case, and told Computing Japan magazine in 1994 that the it all began in February 1983 after “the president of a famous company called me and asked me to sell him my company”. Despite the unnamed executive’s “persistence”, Shiina refused to throw in the towel.
“Then, in the following months, some really strange things started happening,” he said. “Suddenly, for no reason I could track down, the delivery of parts would stop. And the leasing companies decided not to extend credit to our customers any more.”
Sord never brought to the UK the other machines it promised would ship after the M5. Back home in Japan, the company became increasingly interested in mobile computing, having released the 4MHz Z80A-based, 9kg M23P that Summer. Sord followed it up a year later with the handheld machine it had previously promised would ship in September 1983. The IS-11 - aka “The Consultant” - was a $995 A4-sized machine based on a 3.5MHz Z80A and equipped with a 40-character, eight-line monochrome LCD of the type seen on the Tandy 100 and other handhelds of the time. Like Epson’s pioneering HX-20, the Sord portable had a built-in microcassette recorder for program and data storage.
Sord advertises the M5 Pro and M5 Jr - aka the M5 Turbo and M2 - in Japan. They never made it to the UK
In 1985, Sord later upgraded the IS-11 with a larger display, in the process converting the machine into a clamshell format and naming it the IS-11C. By then the company had come to the attention of Toshiba, which was eager to establish itself as a major manufacturer of portable personal computers. Toshiba acquired Sord that year, eventually turning Shiina’s firm into its Personal Computer System Corporation division, though it was undoubtedly working closely with it beforehand.
Shiina was adamant in his 1994 interview that it wasn’t Toshiba that was behind the 1983 smear campaign. It’s said that the deal with Toshiba was struck to prevent Sord’s collapse into bankruptcy, a result of failing confidence in Sord, a result of the rumourmongering. Shiina stayed with the firm for two more years, then quit to establish Asian PC maker Proside in 1987.
By then, in the UK, the M5 was a distant memory, or a box some folk pulled out of the cupboard during moments of nostalgia. It’s not known how long CGL continued to offer its own-brand M5. During 1983 it never rose higher than 15th place in the chart of best-selling micros under £1000 - lower even than the likes of the Mattel Aquarius, the Tandy Color Computer and the Colour Genie, and a peak reached in late October/early November. A year later, it was still on sale, but CGL has been forced to drop the price to below £50 to shift it.
You know the story: too little third-party software and so too few buyers to encourage further independent software development. ®