Friday, 7 August 2015

Sinclair and the 'Sunrise' Technology

The book Sinclair and the 'sunrise' technology from 1986 is an account of Sinclair's rise and fall in the micromarkets in the 1980s. The book is written sufficiently late to include every noteworthy Sinclair project, yet early enough to be truly contemporary. (The Cambridge Z88 came later, for example.)

It is an interesting document of the struggle to acquire the money, know-how and resources that enabled the eventual production of the Sinclair home micros. I was surprised how small Sinclair's companies actually were. Clive arose from mail order analog radio equipment and amplifier business, DIY geek stuff basically. The book maintains that professional advertising and Clive's calculated presence helped nurture an image of a vastly more competent and large-scale operation than it really was.

The text is sufficiently well researched, although sometimes it seems only a few key interviewees supply the most crucial characterizations. What seemed less professional is the way the authors appear to constantly take small swipes at Sinclair. The authors are intent on showing the machines were not a result of Clive Sinclair's direct involvement, yet at the same time point out that the bad details in them (e.g. membrane keyboards) were a result of Clive's single-mindedness. This is already somewhat contradictory. Many of the products' shortcomings relate to the design insights that made the products possible in the first place.

There seems to be slight misrepresentation about the relation of design briefs, the broader conditions and constraints that inform the outcome and the "actual designing" of the technical work. This does not mean that Clive designed or invented the products - yet outcomes are a result of a broader landscape within with the engineering and industrial design choices were made. Clive's personality and business goals, for good or for worse, were instrumental in setting the engineering and design targets.

Funnily, Clive is lambasted pretty much for what Steve Jobs has been lauded for: being a shrewd, vocal and single-minded in following his visions. The difference is that from the viewpoint of big business, Steve Jobs succeeded and Clive Sinclair failed. However, as the book lays it out, it was never really Clive's fate to succeed in a big business way.

When belittling Clive's achievements, it can be asked what would have happened if Clive Sinclair had not arrived at the scene at all. Reading between the lines, the authors think it might have been better for the industry. Clive and the Sinclair brand filled a void at the time: The UK "wanted to believe" there was a new field in which the nation could excel and compete. To the authors this was largely an illusion and Sinclair's worst crime was to undermine UK investors' trust in an emerging field.

At the broadest the book is a critique of Thatcherism, using Sinclair's failure as an example of misguided policy of supporting small companies as a cure to a dwindling economy and unemployment. In fact, seeing Sinclair's career as an instrument of Thatcher's policies is the most troubling outcome of the book to this politically naive reader/speccy fanboy. However, this may also be a bias in the book. Clive's relatively small-scale dabbling in technology might also be seen as a-political.

The Sinclair products, despite their failures were quite indicative of the gadget life the 2000s would eventually become: mobile screens (the flat-screen TV), laptops (tiny computers) and electric transports/scooters (C5). However, as the landscape and infrastructure for such products did not exist, the Sinclair inventions remained rather isolated and superficial demos of what might be. Nevertheless, there still remains a certain prophetic aura about them. It's not that any one of them is particularly novel, but taken together they give an impression of some un-realized Sinclairlandia that never came to be.

As the book suggests, Amstrad is probably the real success story of British computers, but here I must also say that Amstrad is somewhat boring. Who cares about Alan Sugar? Many of the computer legends were quite unmemorable characters. I'm not saying the spectacled red-head was a great role model or a hip character. Yet he and his products brought a kind of color to the otherwise drab field. Thus, "print the legend", I say.

(Thanks to Markku for the book. Here are his views in Finnish.)

Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy, Sinclair and the 'Sunrise' Technology. The Deconstruction of the Myth. Penguin Books.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I also felt that the authors said a lot more about themselves by their petty criticisms of Clive Sinclair failures and grudging acknowledgement of his successes. Even around 1985/1986 when the book was being written, my teenage mind was well able to see how the work Sinclair Research Ltd did would have lasting and far-reaching consequences for all of us who had even a passing interest in technology.

    I think it would also be fair to say that there would be a lot of over-30s at that time who would have missed out on a lot of the fun and challenges of the new computing era had the ZX80 and ZX81 not provided an affordable way in without bankrupting their families.