Dragons, acorns, and other micro-innovations: report from the fourth Personal Computer World Show. Guy Kewney.
Dragons, Acorns, and Other Micro-Innovations
I'm starting to have this vision of the computer of the future--one which shows it as a sort of puppet master, manipulating and directing external storage, external displays, external audio, external communications, and the like.
But unlike a puppet master, this computer will have nothing like the power of the things it controls.
This (perhaps unnecessary) philosophising was brought on by the most impressive display add-on I have seen, at the Personal Computer World Show in London.
In fact the device, called Pluto, is making me wonder whether graphics might not be just as versatile, useful, and profitable an area as microcomputers have shown they can be.
Pluto is a video plotter capable of drawing 100,000 pixels per second. It uses 192K of very fast storage to do this, and has its own Intel 8088 chip (the one inside the IBM PC, the Digital Rainbow, and the Victor 9000) to control it.
The really interesting thing about it is not just the detail, nor the speed, nor even the fact that each pixel can have its choice of any of 256 colours.
It is the 600 sterling price tag which the little box was carrying, when it appeared at the show in London recently.
The really worrying thing about it is not the fact that this is less than the cost of an arcade games machine with a considerably lower screen precision and considerably slower computation--but the things that people are planning to do with it.
According to designer Graham Rowan, head of IO Research in London, the device has been keenly examined by writers of ordinary business software. They have, he says "all gone away talking rapidly about the things they plan to do by enhancing their business programs with fast changing graphics.'
The reaction is one micro pioneers will recall from the days when we all saw our first microcomputer running Tiny Basic--the reaction which says "Hey, this isn't marvellous; it's useful!'
On top of that, Rowan has been approached by advertising graphics designers, CAD specialists, entertainers, and a wildly varying host of different types all united only in their conviction that this is what they have been looking for without knowing it.
In particular, a local company called Robocom is connecting its BitStik to the Pluto. BitStik is nothing more than a swanky games joystick, used to move a rectangular "frame' around a display screen. The frame can be enlarged, and can be focussed onto the smallest detail on the screen. Then, that small detail can be expanded to fill the whole screen. Again, the frame can be focussed on a small detail, and that detail enlarged.
The BitStik can be used to draw, to position pre-drawn details, and to position color fill. Coupled with the incredibly accurate and fast color display of Pluto, the potential for designers makes the integrated circuit design machinery of the last ten years look primitive.
So far it has been interfaced to most popular micros available here, and the designers say that adding a new machine is the work of a few weeks only.
The other big step forward for visitors to the PCW Show, was the arrival of Micronet 800.
There is no relationship between Micronet in America, and Micronet 800 in Britain, other than the name and the fact that they are aiming to do the same thing--provide an information handling and forwarding utility.
The basis of the British scheme is the famous Prestel (now called Teletex in fashionable circles) network which British Telecom, the old Post Office, set up in vain hopes of turning the country's TV sets into terminals.
It has at last dawned on them that it is easier to turn a pretty smart computer into a teletex receiver/transmitter, than to use an ordinary domestic television as a data display/responder.
By joining forces with an enterprising local businessman called Richard Hease, the Prestel authorities may have brought their baby out of its birth coma at last. Hease has fingers in publishing, and in computer retailing, being the first distributor to be appointed by Clive Sinclair here. Normally, Sinclair restricts himself to selling through the mail, or a chain of stationery stores, W. H. Smith.
His plan is to have a big database of free software, predominantly games, and to sell a 1 sterling per week subscription to owners of popular micros, which will enable them to use Prestel as their program storage area.
Any program held on Prestel can be downloaded, say the Micronet 800 people, in far less time than it takes from tape, and very reliably. The key to the scheme, of course, is the cost of connecting a computer to the phone.
The big breakthrough that Hease and his colleague Bob Denton hope will be ready for the official launch in January, is a 50 sterling modem plus interface, suitable for the Sinclair ZX81 and similarly cheap micros.
And for the bigger machines, they hope still to keep the hardware solution to around 100 Sterling.
If the plan works, and Micronet 800 manages to recruit the necessary 10,000 subscribers by June, Prestel will take one of its spare computers out of mothballs, where it has spent the last year waiting for the expected boom in teletex. Hease will when be able to start using the network to sell business software on a "try it on the screen, order it through the network' basis. Electronic mail will be free after business hours, but profitable during peak time.
At the Show, Micronet 800 were demonstrating several simple software download routines, which actually appeared to work.
Even more impressive to the visitor, however, was the Acorn stand, where the maker of the BBC Microcomputer was demonstrating local networking.
Acorn's Econet was evolved in response to classroom needs--where one machine is useless, and simple multi-keyboard access even more so. Econet gives every Acorn processor (it makes two, the BBC and the Atom) access to a central file server with hard or floppy disks, and freedom to use an area of that disk system as its own. In addition, it allows the file server to monitor each node, copy the screen at that node, and observe what system calls are being made. If necessary, the master system can be transferred to any node.
Best-seller of the show was an Acorn machine, the expanded Model B of the BBC micro. It was in plentiful supply, despite a chronic shortage of machines from Acorn. Where, asked angry users, were these machines coming from, when they had all been waiting up to nine months for their own models?
The answer, it seems, was that certain dealers, who were out of patience with Acorn's slowness in building up volume production, had taken matters into their own hands. They had ordered the upgrade parts, paid money for the readily available Model A, and had done the conversion themselves.
This perfectly plausible explanation failed to satisfy many, who went about muttering about black markets and corruption in official circles. Others, more practically minded, switched their orders to a machine called the Dragon.
This was also selling well at the show, being essentially a Tandy Color Computer for 200 sterling. The machine is so essentially a color computer that it will, if you take a color computer cartridge and file off the bumps, run most Tandy cartridge games.
It proves how wrong Tandy has been by being so reluctant to let anybody other than a Tandy store sell Tandy micros. Britain is sparsely supplied with the Texas company's outlets, and sales are proportionately lower than in the U.S. Everybody knows this, it seems, except Tandy, whose British executives resolutely insist that its products sell entirely on merit, and that distribution has nothing to do with it.
The show itself was a great success in its own right. People through the door were counted at over 50,000, making this the biggest micro show in the world now, and all that is really needed is a better venue.
The Barbican has space enough for the exhibitors, but not for the visitors-- not surprising, as the building was put up as a multi story car park, before it was discovered that there was more demand for exhibition space than car parking.
Organizers of the show still fail to arrange a trade-only day. Pressure from disgruntled exhibitors will certainly lead to that mistake ending next year.
Finding another venue, however, won't be so easy. It is a matter of dubious legality, but a rival exhibition organizer is able to prevent any other computer show besides its own from behing held at either Earls Court or Olympia stadia, under the terms of its contract with the hall owners.
The owners have a virtual monopoly of suitable sites in London. Until somebody with the money needed to challenge this monopoly in the courts steps forward, PCW must choose between London and comfort. And for the next year, at least, London will be the higher priority.
Photo: The Pluto video plotter can draw 100,000 pixels per second. 16,000,000 colors is a bit of an exageration; 256 is more like it but still a lot.
Photo: Pluto generated the image on the screen faster than you can read this caption.
Photo: Bob Denton of Micronet 800 aims to sign up 10,000 subscribers for 1 per week to download software, mainly games, from a huge central database.
Photo: Econet from Acorn allowed both Atom and BBC machines access to a central file server (left foreground) of hard or floppy disks.
Photo: The Dragon 32 is a British-made computer that is software compatible with the Tandy (Radio Shack) Color Computer.
Photo: EOS (Electronic Office Systems) has an immense stand (booth) at which they were showing an impressive array of hardware and software, mostly for the IBM PC.