CHRISTMAS is fast approaching and we will soon he in the pantomime season once again. No-one who saw it will easily forget last year's hit production of 'QLinderella'.
It was a wonderful show, combining as it did elements of drama, suspense, humour and excitement. It was not without its sad moments too and provided a mixture of hope and disappointment for quite a few people. In the Sinclair version there was a reverse of the usual order of the plot. In the first scene QLinderella appeared at the Ball and made a stunning entrance. She was greeted by cries of admiration from the whole assembly. Prince Consumer thought her utterly charming.
Sadly, after only 28 days her finery turned to rags and she disappeared leaving only a silicon slipper behind. Nothing daunted, Prince Consumer pursued her eagerly, but had some difficulty in finding her. And when he did get the occasional glimpse he could have been forgiven for wondering if this was the same ravishing creature he first saw at the Ball. Some of the town criers now began to pour scorn on her and hinted that perhaps she was not a real princess after all but a mere kitchen maid ...
The tale is not yet ended and the curtain is just going up for the next Act. Will the story have a happy ending? Will Prince Consumer find and marry QLinderella? Or will he perhaps settle for one of her ugly sisters?
Oh yes he will!
Oh no he won't!
It is almost a year since the QL was launched and the machine is only now in the shops. We have seen a saga of slipped delivery dates, misleading information, poor support, poorly finished hardware, bugged software, flawed or missing documentation and to add insult to injury the company has already announced that supplies are likely to be limited for the immediate future.
For many computers, that would almost certainly have spelled total disaster.
However, few other machines have the advantage of having a Fairy Godfather like Sir Clive Sinclair. Whatever the difficulties may have been it is impossible to ignore the magic of a company with such a brilliant track record of low priced technical innovation and the proven ability to produce and sell computers by the million. For that reason alone, the QL remains a potential winner.
It is to be hoped that the production problems are now a thing of the past. There are QLs available over the counter and the company has said it plans to increase production to 50,000 units a month with further manufacturers shortly to join the existing source. With more than 20,000 QL owners already there is the beginning of a healthy user base.
Software is still limited in variety but the building blocks for the chart toppers of the future are already appearing - assemblers, disassemblers, editors and alternative operating systems. The Psion QL Chess program has already won this year's Microcomputer Chess Championship which augurs well for the quality, of QL software.
Sinclair is keen to establish the credibility of the machine for serious use and has approached a number of leading business software producers - Digital Research, Quest, Sagesoft, MicroApl, Scicon and others - who are expected to produce new languages, accounting and communications programs. The QL delays may, however, have discouraged some of the smaller producers who have been engaged in a slow bicycle race waiting to see if the computer really will take off. There are books by the bushel. Upwards of fifty QL titles have been published or are due to appear shortly.
From that point of view the prospects look good, but there are still a number of doubts. Eventual success will depend on the ability of the QL to find the correct niche in the market. Some people feel it falls uneasily between two stools. Enthusiasts might buy it as a cheap 68000 development system and for languages like BCPL and Unix which may soon be available. In general, though, it is probably a little expensive as a home/games machine.
Then there are the small business users. The QL may offer features only available elsewhere at several times the price, but then business users are less impressed by the bells and whistles of advanced technology and more interested in boring old things like ruggedness of design, proven reliability of hardware, manufacturers back-up, widely available standard software and other similar unexciting considerations. Unlike hobbyists or home users they are not very tolerant of shortcomings.
That leaves the elusive professional user, the person who wants to use a computer for 'real work' as a professional tool. It may well be that, as with his earlier machines, Sinclair will create a new market. New users will not be prejudiced by the supposed shortcomings of the keyboard and the microdrives, or unduly worried by some of the odd omissions in the software, provided the machine is reliable and does the job.
The keys to success are good software - likely to be forthcoming - and a commitment by the company to the highest standards of quality control and customer service. Sinclair Research must be only too painfully aware of that after last year's little drama. The micro market is no longer the wide open field it once was and if Sinclair cannot meet the challenge, there are others hot on his heels who will.