The other side. (microcomputers in Britain) (column) Guy Kewney.
The Other Side
There are, maybe, some 500 IBM PC users in Britain. Not one has bought the kit from IBM.
That in itself is only slightly strange. Where things start getting weird, however, is in the various silly battles that are going on, with people falling over their own toes in an effort to flatter, court, woo, and even intimidate IBM.
What companies say in public (that is, when a journalist asks) and what employees in the company say to each other, don't often match. IBM's way round this is to say nothing to journalists. Other people, however, talk to IBM and then they talk to journalists, and from that, quite often, one can glean some idea of what is going on.
Not this time. From the leading software producers in Britain, you can be told alternately that "IBM will not launch the PC in the UK, ever' or that "IBM will launch tomorrow.' I could eat for a week if I got a free lunch for every time I've been told that. So what--it's always like that when IBM prepares a new product.
This time, however, it is a good deal sillier. Like: "We have a wide range of IBM branded software' (a Peachtree employee talking) "which has all been rewritten to UK standards of accounting and business practice but I'm afraid we couldn't sell it to you, even if you had a PC.'
The reason? Apparently IBM will not grant Peachtree UK a dealer license to sell the PC if Peachtree supplies software to IBM PC users who buy direct from the States.
No, I don't believe it either, and my contacts inside IBM (who don't talk to journalists) are equally at a loss to explain this one. After all, if you could guarantee to have some ready-debugged software for your machine, with a couple of months' user maturity, ready when you launched, evern Osborne might launch a 16-bit machine.
The people IBM really are getting hot under the collar about are those who take very large advertising spreads in the trade papers, using phrases like "official dealer' who haven't even (say my contacts who don't talk to journalists) phoned IBM to ask if, one day, they may be dealers.
My own feeling is still to wonder at the enthusiasm for such a high-priced bit of hardware with so few special features, with nothing much to run beyond VisiCalc and a translation of Wordstar--and if you're a fan of the PC, remember that you will have to spend the equivalent of over $5000 to get one here, at least until IBM announces the beast.
Software for the IBM still comes through very slowly. Software for "any Z80 based machine that runs standard CP/M,' however, continues to pour through the faucets. The latest is virtual APL.
It is always a bit hard to start writing about APL to anybody who doesn't use it, because APL users don't just use their language, they worship it, write diaries in it, and define anything from trade exhibition stands to printed circuit boards, as well as merely writing programs in it.
To the serious APL freak, however, the limitation of using the language on micros wil always be the smallness of the workspace--the well-known Micro-APL, for instance, offers about 22K in a standard 64K memory map.
At the APL '82 conference in Heidelberg, at which IBM made part of the headlines by releasing APL II, a small British firm called Sigma Software Unit produced a 225 sterling interpreter which offers a megabyte of workspace. Not unnaturally, they caught the other half of the headlines.
VIZ-APL, as Sigma's product is called, is to be marketed in the US by EASI APL Systems Inc., a "recursive' acronym since it includes itself. It achieves the magic by the old trick which IBM invented, of using "virtual memory,' but does it on diskettes, which is quite a new trick.
Director Geoffrey Roughton of Sigma says that the interpreter got "the best beta testing you could imagine at heidelberg, with all the world's top APL enthusiasts doing their best to catch it out.'
Apparently the speed of VIZ-APL is comparable with normal Micro-APL unless you do a lot of backward and forward jumps in your program. So don't do it.
More On the BBC Micro
On the British hardware front, the British Broadcasting Corporation's micro has just ended a ten-month famine by moving instantly into glut.
Acorn, the builders, are tearing their hair out, since the machine has been in such short supply (people waiting six to eight months before finding that their credit card application has been cancelled because they had moved in the interim) that just nobody will believe their advertising campaign saying the thing is available.
Acorn is also about to get a severe shock, if and when the user group takes it to court for trying to charge 10 sterling extra for the operating system upgrade ROM.
The initial manual had more page omissions than pages, and the original Machine Operating System was rather similar in design concept. It wouldn't run disks until July, and only now are users starting to get the necessary firmware to do this.
Not unnaturally, users feel that the original machine, as supplied, fell short of spec, and they don't see why they should have to pay for the privilege of getting what they ordered in the first place.
I think Acorn would agree, except for the fact that version 0.1, now replaced by 1.0, is no the last version to need replacing. Version 1.0 is being burned into EPROM, pending the final ROM design (nobody cay say when). And the EPROMs are slower to produce, more costly, and set a nasty precedent, if Acorn supplies them free.
Over The Rainbow
By the time you read this, the ROMs may be ready. Also by the same time, the Rainbow may be seen in the offices of lovers of Digital Equipment CP/M.
The world's second largest computer company (as it has been for aboue nine months, now) has immensely impressed the market with the cleverness of a system which can run both the new fangled, fancy, non-existent 16-bit software, and also, in case you actually want to do any data processing, the old style, reliable CP/M-80 8-bit stuff.
The world's second largest (etc. etc.) has signally failed to impress, however, with its understanding of this remarkable beast.
At the Personal Computer World Show in London (the biggest micro show in Europe) (see report this issue) the project manager was to be seen frowning over one of the disk drives.
"Let's get thi right,' said he. "I can see what files are on the second disk, can't I? What do I type?'
You type (all together now): DIR, space, B, colon, return.
"Ah, I see. DIR, space, B, then, what did you say?'
I quite like DEC's plan to sell the Professional as a "truly friendly' machine, but it's one thing to try something out and find it wanting, and it's quite another thing to decide that you know between anyway, and needn't even find out. That company's plans to "restructure this market' soun suspiciously like gettin the world into step with DEC.
And they obviously are simply not aware of the difference between a friendly machine without any software, and a rather fragile and unforgiving CP/M beast that comes free with a ton of the stuff.
Finally, your visit to Europe this winter, on behalf of the secret intelligence people: You will want, naturally, to blend unobtrustively into the background. Briefing will fit you up with an identity with a nice name like Smith or Schmidt rather than John Doe. Your American accent will pass unnoticed, since most Europeans speak English with that flavor.
The only problem, is: What cover? What occupation should you assume?
I have the answer. You should not, in 1983, pose as a refuse collector over for a symposium, nor as an automobile tycoon looking for an Irish factory to launch a stainless steel wondercar. No, the thing to be is an American software catalogue operator thinking of setting up a warehouse near London Airport.
I didn't know there were so many software catalogue outfits in America until they all came over here to research the market. If you already run one, and were thinking of starting up in Europe, forget it, obviously. But at least, you've missed the crush.