As Dan Goldstein said in last November's Comment, 'our consumer population has taken to the home computer like no other public in the world.' And yet, if you cast your eye over the catalogue of companies going into liquidation and receivership, the UK's micro manufacturing industry has a tendency to insolvency that's also like no other in the world. The latest of these to hit the headlines is, of course, Acorn Computers. And like the big trees that grow from small acorns, who'd have believed that a company with a turnover of £54.9m for the six months up to last December could be so easily toppled?
So what went wrong, and more importantly, what are the lessons to be learned from this catalogue of disasters?
To start with, it's easy enough to look at the micro marketplace in the UK and see a clear two-tier structure developing. On the one hand, there's the business community that moves in the upmarket heights of IBM, Apple, Apricot and DEC. On the other, you've got the general consumerism of home and education, where the favoured machines cover a remarkably narrow band of prices between about £125 and £400. And as far as this is concerned, the general consensus is that the marketplace is now more or less saturated. It's hardly surprising, then, that companies like Oric and Dragon Delta, with machines that to all intents and purposes weren't hugely different to any of the other eight-bit micros on the market, found it tough going.
But Acorn were different. With a virtual monopoly in the educational arena as a result of the BBC's licensing agreement and the Government's generous educational discounts, the company was in an extremely cosy position. So much so that when he was asked why Acorn weren't reducing the price of the BBC Micro, Chris Curry said: 'Why should we? We're selling them as fast as we can make them.'
So for a couple of years, Acorn did very nicely, thank you. Unfortunately, just around the corner was an ambush of new machines like the Sinclair QL, promising the Earth and delivering rather less, but still showing rather effectively that £400 could buy you more than 120 chips, 32K of memory, a reasonable BASIC and a 'BBC' tag.
The Beeb was under threat, but the only form of retaliation Acorn had at their immediate disposal was a cheaper micro called the Electron: it sold well but not, it would seem, well enough.
The first message to come out of all this must be that resting on your laurels while accumulating turbo Porsches isn't very bright. Neither is having fisticuffs with your nearest and less than dearest, because any new micro firm has a hell of a job on its hands if it's to grab a share of consumer attention these days, and dents in your own street credibility don't help one iota. What's needed is foresight, imagination, and plenty of capital to invest in the new chip technology and operating system development essential for the new generation of micros. Acorn had the latter, but missed the boat when it came to the other, less financially-dependent qualities.
So far, the lateral-thinking spearhead is coming from the States in the shape of Commodore's Amiga and Atari's ST range, machines that cast aside the home versus business argument and just perform impressively - with added benefits for the computer musician. Unfortunately, aside from a lot of hot air from Sinclair, there's no evidence of similarly forward-looking designs coming from the UK in the near future.
Still, once the jigsaw pieces have been put back together, at least Olivetti's virtual takeover should make a few Acorn heads a little less arrogant and a lot less complacent. At this stage, it looks as though the Italian company's plans are to make Acorn's products the worldwide educational norm: hardly forward-looking, I agree, but a pretty safe bet given the Beeb's preeminence in this respect.
We can only watch and see what happens next.
Editorial by David Ellis
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