Clive Sinclair set the IT World spinning during the 1980s with his sub-$100 computer. He talks to Robert Juman Blincoe about his desire to start a portable PC revolution, and to teach Intel a lesson in the process.
Sir Clive Sinclair doesn't suffer fools gladly and this includes the processor developers at Intel. He's also not keen on customer choice being stifled in the computer market and roundly condemns over-priced, over-powered machines. But he's not calling the rest of the IT giants incompetents.
It is in this climate that the man who ignited the personal computer market with sub-$100 machines in the early 1980s is planning a return to the business. He claims he can bring out a portable machine within two years that will be less than half the price of whatever is on the market at the time. It will also deliver the performance that corporates and consumers want.
The processor is key to this. Sinclair has very strong ideas about how chips should have evolved, and though it is doubtful that Intel will be called to account for not doing things his way, he has long thought that the chip giant has dragged processor development, and the desktop PC, off in a wrong and power-wasting direction. This view, combined with the appearance of Linux and exciting leaps in display technology, has spurred him to consider re-entering the computer business.
He sees his return, or the arrival of someone else with a similar vision, as the salvation that the market needs. The dominance of Microsoft Windows and Intel processors is one that concerns Sinclair. He hopes the US Department of Justice's case against Microsoft and its control of the software market will lead to PC suppliers unbundling of Microsoft's products from their systems and allowing customers to choose which software they want. Of course, this still leaves Intel processors dominant. He said the lack of consumer choice bothers him, and that the overblown, memory-sapping software, combined with overpowered, over-priced processors, is a problem.
"It really needs something like a dedicated Linux machine to break the mould " he said. "I think the situation is frightening. The manufacturers should be forced to unbundle. People shouldn't be effectively obliged to pay for having Microsoft software. There ought to be a choice - one price for Microsoft and one price for Linux."
"Linux looks like one way in - a Trojan horse. Apparently it's a good operating system and a lot of software suppliers are now supporting it. They wouldn't do that if they didn't have a lot of confidence in it. I think it will be very interesting to do a Linux machine. The standard PC is expensive because of the Intel chip. It is elaborate and consumes a large amount of power. The software is also very demanding of memory."
The machine Sinclair has in mind could be considered a reworking of the Z88, the last computer he developed. The portable Z88, released in 1988, did not achieve the kind of sales its inventor had dreamed of, but he's obviously still fond of its concept. The technology he's now waiting for will give him the chance to resolve the issues that made the Z88 fail: "It wasn't the success I'd hoped for partly because of the limitations of display and because it was completely non-standard. That's still a possible route to take if it's good enough, but if you can use an OS that's out there, then at least you've got an audience that's familiar with it. Linux looks to me as if it might be the one."
Which One Will He Choose?
Though he's obviously well disposed to Linux, Sinclair won't rule out other OSs. "Others are interesting. Psion's is also well-known and very successful," he said. His approach to researching any new project is exacting. He enthusiastically hunts down the solutions to the problems he thinks exist. He demands precision and accuracy from all accounts of developing technology. His knowledge of electronics lets him know what is and isn't possible. If you've not done or seen things his way, you'd better be able to justify why not. If you're telling him something new, you'd better give the whole story.
Before Sinclair created his ZX80 and ZX81 home computers, he wrote about complicated self-build machines or the more pricey systems from Tandy and Apple. Sinclair's budget computers boosted the PC market beyond recognition, giving rise to a new generation of people who went on to work in every aspect of the TT industry- games developers, corporate information strategists, internet visionaries and joumalists. This was the generation introduced to programming, touch-insensitive keyboards, and temperamental 16K RAM pack upgrades.
Sinclair has been looking at the computer market with a view to using current and up-and-coming technologies to create a low- cost alternative to Wintel machines. A suitable OS and display technology, combined with a low-price, powerful processor, and he'd be in business. The ARM chip, forecast to be used in 70 per cent of all cellular phones produced next year, is an example of the kind of processor Sinclair thinks will help smash the prices of Wintel machines. "ARM is an option as it's a low-cost processor with a high performance. Processors are always coming along, but it looks attractive."
Sinclair was not immediately converted to Linux when enthusiasts started spreading the word about the OS. That's not his way. He gave industry analysts a good grilling and has been evaluating it since. He won't commit to saying the OS is definitely going to feature in his machine, but it's certainly in his mind.
Not subscribing to the retail scene
Sinclair will sell his new device by mail order,the way he's launched everything that he's invented, from the ZX8O to the Zeta bicycle motor and his miniature radio. He said his inventions create their own market, which isn't necessarily the kind of product retailers want to stock. However he doesn't subscribe to the idea that retailers are assisting the Microsoft/Intel power base in keeping PC prices high.
"The retailers don't have much choice,they just sell what's provided. They don't determine the product, really. It's a Wintel-defined product and all computer-makers make clones of them. They don't give a hoot about the design, they just sell what's there. They don't know what's possible, what's not possible. They don't have a clue.
"Intel is desperately trying all the time to keep people using very expensive and complex processors. It's what they supply and what makes them money. It's a shame, but you can't blame them."
But what he can blame them for, he said, is leading computer development down a single processor design path. "Years ago, Sinclair Research was looking at parallel processing machines and that's the way things should have gone." "The whole business of having one chunk of silicon as a processor and other great chunks of silicon as the memory is a desperately inefficient use of the silicon. The memory and processing ought to be merged. Instead of having one processor here, and having your memory there, with loads of wires connecting them and slowing everything down, you've got one piece of silicon. And all over that piece of silicon, you've got blocks of processors and blocks of memory."
"You might have, say, 100 processors in the amount of silicon you've got in a present-day machine, but all linked to their memory. Not only would they be faster, because they're all on the same piece of silicon, but there's 100 of them, so you've probably raised the processing speed of the machine 200 to 300 times."
This set-up would offer amazing performance for speed-absorbing problems such as speech input and complex display generation in real time, said Sinclair. He added that Intel knows all about parallel processing because it produces parallel- processing machines, and he doesn't believe the direction it has chosen is some conspiracy to hold computing back just to make more money, but he's annoyed by it. "God knows what Intel is playing at. It's not a conspiracy, just profound incompetence."
He then backtracks slightly, but said he thinks Intel is just making too much money from the way it is doing things. He suggested it is going to take some external player to make it change its ways. The challenge might come from the games markets and the developments that console manufacturers have made in making machines that can handle complex graphics in real time.
"Sony Playstation II is going to shake people up because the performance is so striking. When you've got a Playstation II, which makes a Pentium III look pathetic, people are going to say: `Hang on a second,this games machine makes my computer look weak. What's happening here?' And that's just Playstation II, which in itself is not really pushing the boundaries."
"Because the games market is so huge, somebody could design the sort of silicon I'm talking about - multiprocessor silicon that will blow your socks off." Sinclair is confident his machine will undercut the market when it arrives for these very reasons, and the manufacturers will be unable to chase his pricing because they're too locked into the Wintel way of doing things. "Their costs are tied. The reason the machine I propose will be cheaper is because it will use a lot less memory, use a much lower-cost processor, much simpler power supply and a lower-cost operating system. "It will be lower in cost because of the fundamentals. The people who make com- puters at the moment work on very narrow margins, so they can't cut their prices with- out going out of business."
Sinclair's interest in creating a new computer seems academic as well as commercial. His knowledge of what Microsoft and Intel have created between them is probably based on exhaustive research as opposed to first-hand experience. He doesn't bother using computers himself very often. "The opinion I get is that computers are very frustrating for people. They drive me round the bend - they're such awful machines." He laughs at this. He knows what computers can do - and what they would allow him to do - but it's still not enough for him. All his design work is mathematical, so he uses a calculator. He said it assists him with his sums far better than computers can and has no interest or use for the graphical display a PC would give him. If a computer needs to be used, he'll get someone else to do the work for him. He said his own creations haven't been quite so annoying, though.
"They were nice and easy to use, but they were really only a thing to learn computers on."
Junho de 1999