(Sinclair User, July 1984)
Was the premature launch
of the QL deliberate? Bill Scolding asks Nigel Searle, head
of the computer products division at Sinclair Research.
RESEARCH has attracted a considerable amount of criticism
recently, both from the sceptical computer press and an outraged
public who, whether they are waiting impatiently for their
new Spectrums to be repaired or waving QL order confirmations
yellowed with age, think it is time the company put its house
It seemed, then, an opportune time for Sinclair User
to seek an interview with managing director Nigel Searle,
the man responsible for all business activities of the computer
products division. A date was arranged and the letter of confirmation
which followed referred mysteriously to Searle's intention
to speak on "innovations in the QC area". The QC
area? Had Sinclair finally come clean, and, somewhat belatedly,
renamed its new offspring the Quantum Cock-up? No doubt all
would be revealed at the meeting.
In the event, much to no-one's surprise, little or nothing
was revealed. From the beginning things did not bode well.
Searle, like the QL, arrived late, accompanied by excuses.
There had been, apparently, a crisis, the nature of which
Searle declined to disclose. The mind boggled.
The by then seriously abbreviated interview began with matters
relating to the new computer and its peculiar exterior EPROM,
added at the last minute when Sinclair discovered that the
operating system would not fit into the planned 32K. Searle
was reluctant to indicate the exact quantity of QLs so far
delivered but said that only hundreds had been fitted with
the outboard EPROM so, presumably, that gives a fair idea
of the number of orders fulfilled.
The new improved QLs with internal ROM would not be ready
until sometime in July and Searle implied that the company
was waiting for feedback from the first QL users, who had
been given the number of a telephone hotline for when they
need to let off steam. Criticisms of the machine might pinpoint
shortcomings which could be remedied before full-scale production
began. It is unlikely, then, that most of the 13,000 orders
received before the end of April will be met before mid-July.
Why did Sinclair Research launch the QL in January, promising
deliveries by the end of February, when it must have been
clear that those could not be fulfilled? At that stage even
the operating system was incomplete. Searle was ready for
"We were over-optimistic and were two months out in
our calculations. Next time we will be two months more accurate
in our estimates. Most companies have, at some time, been
guilty of promising more than they can deliver. Sinclair Research
has done it for the last time."
Was Searle aware that there were rumours to the effect that
the QL was launched prematurely to improve the company's end-of-year
accounts? Those rumours suggested that when Sinclair puts
a quantity of shares on to the Stock Exchange later this year
the amount paid for those shares will reflect the profit made
by Sinclair in the previous year, ending June, 1984. Customers
who paid £400 for a QL in advance will have contributed
more than £1 million towards the company assets, it
has been suggested.
"That is totally untrue," Searle replied firmly.
"The accounts are unaffected by the money which has been
placed in the trust fund. None of the sales can be counted
until deliveries have been made."
Turning to the subject of QL software Searle became animated
at the prospects: "Hundreds of titles will be available
soon. Even publishers in the U.S. have expressed interest
and some are working on software now."
He anticipated that a significant percentage of software
will be developed under licence from Sinclair Research, which
is offering generous royalty deals to interested houses. The
company still planned to maintain its monopoly on the manufacture
of cartridges for the QL and Searle believed that that would
not cause difficulties in meeting demand.
No definite dates for QL peripherals could be given, although
he was confident that some would appear before the end of
the year. Sinclair did not plan to develop all the add-ons
and had been approached by other companies with which it was
considering the possibility of joint ventures.
The mention of the recently published book by Boris Allan,
The Sinclair QL Companion, brought a chuckle from Searle.
Though hesitant to advance an opinion on it, he admired the
speed at which it had been produced. "If we could get
computers out as fast we would have no problems."
Moving away from the QL towards other Sinclair products,
Searle revealed that the company has no immediate plans to
produce new software for the Interface Two. "There are
steady sales at the moment but it is not going to change the
world." He seemed to think it had been a mistake: "When
it was launched I believed the market was moving towards firmware
rather than software. Events have proved me wrong."
He confirmed that the ZX printer had been discontinued and
would be available only while stocks last. Sinclair did not
intend to produce another printer.
Finally, the subject of faulty Spectrums. With some retailers
saying that the number of returned machines was as high as
40 percent of Spectrums sold and few claiming it was less
than 25 percent, did Searle admit that there had been a serious
fall in quality?
He confessed he was unhappy with the situation: "There
are more returns than I would like but I think the problem
has been magnified in some people's minds".
He suggested that many perfectly good Spectrums were returned
by inexperienced first-time users and denied that the figures
were as high as those quoted. "If they were, I would
be out of a job."
Sinclair Research was, nevertheless, anxious to rectify things,
particularly as there had been a conflict recently in the
company between those who advocated quality and those who
demanded quantity. Searle had acted as referee previously
but now feels the time has arrived for a concerted drive towards
a better product.
"Computers are not yet mature products but they will
be soon, and quality is already improving substantially. The
returns are liveable with but we must be damn sure that we
get as good in quality as we have done in price."
With that Searle excused himself and rushed to face another
crisis. He had given away little and neglected to mention
the "innovations in the QC area". It is, of course,
possible that QC referred to Quality Control. What a pity.