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Talking Head
(Sinclair User, July 1984)

Was the premature launch of the QL deliberate? Bill Scolding asks Nigel Searle, head of the computer products division at Sinclair Research.

SINCLAIR RESEARCH has attracted a considerable amount of criticism recently, both from the sceptical computer press and an outraged public who, whether they are waiting impatiently for their new Spectrums to be repaired or waving QL order confirmations yellowed with age, think it is time the company put its house in order.

It seemed, then, an opportune time for Sinclair User to seek an interview with managing director Nigel Searle, the man responsible for all business activities of the computer products division. A date was arranged and the letter of confirmation which followed referred mysteriously to Searle's intention to speak on "innovations in the QC area". The QC area? Had Sinclair finally come clean, and, somewhat belatedly, renamed its new offspring the Quantum Cock-up? No doubt all would be revealed at the meeting.

In the event, much to no-one's surprise, little or nothing was revealed. From the beginning things did not bode well. Searle, like the QL, arrived late, accompanied by excuses. There had been, apparently, a crisis, the nature of which Searle declined to disclose. The mind boggled.

The by then seriously abbreviated interview began with matters relating to the new computer and its peculiar exterior EPROM, added at the last minute when Sinclair discovered that the operating system would not fit into the planned 32K. Searle was reluctant to indicate the exact quantity of QLs so far delivered but said that only hundreds had been fitted with the outboard EPROM so, presumably, that gives a fair idea of the number of orders fulfilled.

The new improved QLs with internal ROM would not be ready until sometime in July and Searle implied that the company was waiting for feedback from the first QL users, who had been given the number of a telephone hotline for when they need to let off steam. Criticisms of the machine might pinpoint shortcomings which could be remedied before full-scale production began. It is unlikely, then, that most of the 13,000 orders received before the end of April will be met before mid-July.

Why did Sinclair Research launch the QL in January, promising deliveries by the end of February, when it must have been clear that those could not be fulfilled? At that stage even the operating system was incomplete. Searle was ready for that one:

"We were over-optimistic and were two months out in our calculations. Next time we will be two months more accurate in our estimates. Most companies have, at some time, been guilty of promising more than they can deliver. Sinclair Research has done it for the last time."

Was Searle aware that there were rumours to the effect that the QL was launched prematurely to improve the company's end-of-year accounts? Those rumours suggested that when Sinclair puts a quantity of shares on to the Stock Exchange later this year the amount paid for those shares will reflect the profit made by Sinclair in the previous year, ending June, 1984. Customers who paid £400 for a QL in advance will have contributed more than £1 million towards the company assets, it has been suggested.

"That is totally untrue," Searle replied firmly. "The accounts are unaffected by the money which has been placed in the trust fund. None of the sales can be counted until deliveries have been made."

Turning to the subject of QL software Searle became animated at the prospects: "Hundreds of titles will be available soon. Even publishers in the U.S. have expressed interest and some are working on software now."

He anticipated that a significant percentage of software will be developed under licence from Sinclair Research, which is offering generous royalty deals to interested houses. The company still planned to maintain its monopoly on the manufacture of cartridges for the QL and Searle believed that that would not cause difficulties in meeting demand.

No definite dates for QL peripherals could be given, although he was confident that some would appear before the end of the year. Sinclair did not plan to develop all the add-ons and had been approached by other companies with which it was considering the possibility of joint ventures.

The mention of the recently published book by Boris Allan, The Sinclair QL Companion, brought a chuckle from Searle. Though hesitant to advance an opinion on it, he admired the speed at which it had been produced. "If we could get computers out as fast we would have no problems."

Moving away from the QL towards other Sinclair products, Searle revealed that the company has no immediate plans to produce new software for the Interface Two. "There are steady sales at the moment but it is not going to change the world." He seemed to think it had been a mistake: "When it was launched I believed the market was moving towards firmware rather than software. Events have proved me wrong."

He confirmed that the ZX printer had been discontinued and would be available only while stocks last. Sinclair did not intend to produce another printer.

Finally, the subject of faulty Spectrums. With some retailers saying that the number of returned machines was as high as 40 percent of Spectrums sold and few claiming it was less than 25 percent, did Searle admit that there had been a serious fall in quality?

He confessed he was unhappy with the situation: "There are more returns than I would like but I think the problem has been magnified in some people's minds".

He suggested that many perfectly good Spectrums were returned by inexperienced first-time users and denied that the figures were as high as those quoted. "If they were, I would be out of a job."

Sinclair Research was, nevertheless, anxious to rectify things, particularly as there had been a conflict recently in the company between those who advocated quality and those who demanded quantity. Searle had acted as referee previously but now feels the time has arrived for a concerted drive towards a better product.

"Computers are not yet mature products but they will be soon, and quality is already improving substantially. The returns are liveable with but we must be damn sure that we get as good in quality as we have done in price."

With that Searle excused himself and rushed to face another crisis. He had given away little and neglected to mention the "innovations in the QC area". It is, of course, possible that QC referred to Quality Control. What a pity.

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