Scientist 12 June 1986 33
The decline of Uncle Clive
Knighted by Margaret Thatcher and widely considered as the most well-known scientist in Britain, the chairman of Sinclair Research seemed unstoppable. What went wrong?
Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy
0n 7 APRIL 1986, Clive Sinclair
sold off his name and rights to all existing computer products to Amstrad.
With this single, dramatic move, he has effectively withdrawn from the
market in home computers that his products played a major role in creating.
When Sinclair signed the deal with Alan Sugar of Amstrad, Sinclair's products
held the largest share (around 35 per cent) of this declining but still
lucrative field. Sinclair's decision to opt out at this point illuminates
several recurrent problems with his entrepreneurial style.
It also raises questions about the viability of Sir Clive's future operations. Alternative offers (favoured by Bill Jeffrey, the managing director of Sinclair Research) would have allowed the computer business to continue, and avoided many of the redundancies, which involved 95 per cent of the workforce. However, the price of the alternative deal was that Sir Clive would become a minority shareholder. The history of the decline of Sinclair's earlier company, Sinclair Radionics, subsequent to 1977, when Sinclair became a minority partner and the National Enterprise Board took the helm, showed that loss of absolute control, with the attendant obligation to take into account the views of others, soon becomes intolerable to a partner programmed to run a one-man show.
Sinclair's decade of fame and (mostly) favour, which resulted in both his knighthood and the less-inspiring sobriquet of "Uncle Clive" among the enthusiastic young purchasers of his high-tech toys, is mainly the result of the popular success of the "ZX" series of computers, from the ZX80 to the ZX Spectrum. While his predominant social contribution was to promote mass addiction to computer games, Sinclair has been widely misrepresented—not least by those centres of learning that gave him honorary degrees for "services to computer literacy and education"—as the man who brought computers into the home. This is not strictly true, if we understand by "computer" a functional tool with several related applications, whose design increases the ease or efficiency with which we can perform such tasks.
Sir Clive's marketing achievement was to downgrade the "concept" of a computer to the point where he could claim to provide one for less than the magical £ 100 mark. To this end, efficient keyboards and monitors, useful amounts of - memory, effective filing and storage systems and the like were stripped away, to leave an affordable facsimile of a "computer". The market image was more important than what the computer could do, but the burgeoning industry in computer games provided an application which adolescents—young and old—eagerly seized on as the raison d'etre for their new gadget. In the main, it was ignorance of genuine computer technology that fired the success of the ZX range, despite the availability of accessories that, albeit inefficiently, turned the Z80 processor chip at the heart of these up-market toys into the core of a useful machine.
microcomputer marked Sinclair's attempt to move out of games and into the market of true home computers and computers for small businesses. The launch was a multi-faceted disaster.
The original concept—an affordable, portable and genuinely useful computer, with a flat-screen display,
adequate memory, built-in communications modem and "free" software to perform basic functions—was viable, as attested to by Amstrad's later success with its less ambitious purpose-built word processor, the PCW8256. However, Sinclair's penchant for idiosyncratic technologies led the company to waste
time and effort on trying to produce a workable flat-screen display, using Sinclair's
modified cathode-ray tube. Other delays in the development of the QL resulted from the choice of a new but inefficient microdrive (a
system which uses a fast audio cassette based on a Throughout the 1970s,
the attempt to realise such a
continuous tape loop) as the medium for storing data.