Scientist 12 June 1986
characteristic of Sinclair, launching products before they were really
ready, reached its apotheosis in the high-profile launch of the QL. At
the time, not even the company's engineers had seen a complete working prototype. The consequent deficiencies in the machine, and the delay of around a year before the QL became an available and adequate computer, prevented
the support of a maturing market which, although ready for a product of this type, was wary of investing in unconventional technologies. There was very little software available at the time of the launch. Poor quality control, from Sinclair's practice of contracting out the manufacture of his products, meant that too many machines did not work when
they reached customers. Alan Sugar was quoted as saying that Sinclair's
quality control was "atrocious". These shortcomings were also factors in the fail ure of the QL. The public did not want an "innovative" machine for which they would, as Sinclair's staff belatedly admitted, form a test-bed. They wanted a reliable, functional and staid application of proven technology.
The working man's boffin
What of the future for Sinclair Research? One major facto is cash flow. There may be no current debts, and some retained profit from the deal with Amstrad, but apparent' the only income will be royalties received from ICL on sale of the modified Sinclair technology incorporated in the One-Per-Desk "workstation" - an intelligent telephone system—plus any of his own assets (much diminished by the fiasco of the C5) that Sir Clive chooses to make available. Any future must depend on bringing new and viable products to the market quickly, or attracting sufficient financial backing for longer-term ventures.
The significance of Sir Clive's corporate decline, otherwise a minor event in the commercial world, is that he has worn the mantle of a great British inventor (the term he prefers), innovator and entrepreneur. He has been identified in the public eye with the visible application of microchip technology — what
might be termed high-street high-tech. His corporate failings are likely to be equated with the failure of British "high technology" as commonly understood. In fact, Sir Clive's talents lie in absorbing and adapting original research to develop inexpensive products, often of dubious utility (witness the flat-screen pocket television and the C5 electric tricycle), and marketing them initially by mail order to increase his profit margins and finance his production. People confuse his valid commercial role (where validity can be measured in terms of corporate profits and marketing success), with the popular myth of the inventor beavering away in his lab. The image of Uncle Clive, the working man's boffin, is one that Sinclair's public relations machine has relentlessly promoted. We should base any assessment of Sir Clive's prospects not only on his success or otherwise in directing his R&D staff creatively to exploit existing technology, but also his recurrent problems with production and occasional failures, both technical and commercial.
Leaving aside Sinclair's declared intention to become a "think-tank" for selected clients - a dubious role for the "visionary" who brought us the C5, one might think - Sinclair has three projects in prospect. On the computer front, the company is developing Pandora, a portable micro-computer, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the original QL, but by all accounts omitting microdrives in favour of 3.5-inch disk drives. That Sinclair is still revising the specification of this product suggests a state of confusion that does not bode well for the timely arrival of a competitive and functional product. Amstrad has first refusal on marketing the Pandora, and it is unlikely to take on anything unless it accords with Alan Sugar's dictum of "the right product, at the right price, and at the right time". On past form, Sinclair's R&D team seem unlikely to achieve this, leaving Sinclair
Research the task of starting again with minimal resources and little credibility as a designer of computers, in a field where companies such as Epson, NEC and Tandy are expending intense technical effort.
The second project, emanating from Sinclair's low-profile telecommunications laboratory based in Winchester, is the cheap portable telephone for cellular networks. This will sell for less than £ 100, says Sir Clive, tilting at his magic figure once again. The product should be on the market in 18 months' time. This is manifestly a viable product, as Alan Sugar has also decided, since his company also intends to produce one. So the company jointly created by Timex and Sinclair to produce the telephone faces intense competition in an area where mere corner-cutting on the costs of components and production in the classic Sinclair style will not succeed in the long term—any more than Sinclair's computers faced up to Amstrad's challenge.
The third and most intriguing
option - and the one which presents the most daunting technical challenges—is wafer-scale integration. This approach to the design of semiconductors offers financial savings by producing complete processing systems, laid down on a single wafer of silicon. It
could also pave the way towards compact implementation of the new generation of processing techniques currently under development. The opening in 1983 of the prestigious Metalab research unit near Cambridge provided a base for the realisation of Sir Clive's visions, among them the much-publicised "Fifth Generation" project to develop artificial intelligence. Sinclair made patriotic noises about beating the Japanese at their own game - whatever that might be, and to what end. One of the elements of this fantasy was the investigation of wafer-scale