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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 August 2007, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Nostalgia for a techno cul-de-sac
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Amstrad PCW (Pic: Boffy B)
The machine that launched a thousand novels
Today Amstrad is best-known for its charismatic boss, Sir Alan Sugar, and has been sold to broadcaster BSkyB for 125m. But in the 1980s, it was responsible for home computing milestones.

With its monochrome screen, strange-sized disk and off-grey/white plastic, the Amstrad PCW was not a machine built for aesthetic qualities.

The computer - with the motherboard and other innards in the same box as the monitor - occupied a strange era, the 1980s, when it was obvious to most that computers were going to take over the world, but were doing a fairly slow job of infiltrating the average home.

In this time before the internet, computers were mainly the preserve of the early adopter, the techie and the person with a lot of money to throw about.

But Alan Sugar's PCW, nicknamed Joyce after his secretary and featuring either 256k or 512k memory, plugged the gap between the obviously moribund electric typewriter and the impossibly sophisticated PC.

Digital Retro author and technology writer Gordon Laing says this niche was vital in the progression of home computing.

"It represented fantastic value at a time when an IBM compatible or a Mac would cost a comparative fortune - that's why they were so popular with students and authors. I'm guessing it went the way of all non-IBM compatibles. The fact is proper PCs became affordable."

It was a complete dead end - they were glorified typewriters
Barry Fox
Technology writer
Everyone from small business owners to bedroom novelists fell in love with the PCW. Teachers wore baffled expressions and consulted the rulebooks as the children of PCW owners turned up with printed-out homework.

As well as a simple-to-operate word processing program, Locoscript, one of the best qualities of the PCW was an apparent inability to crash. There were no egg-timers, just a green (or orange/brown) rectangle, winking and waiting for you to type.

The public response was enthusiastic, with sales of the PCW range, comprising the 8256, 8512, the 9-series and others, estimated to have been as high as 1.5 million.

Although it was primarily a word processor, and one with limited capabilities at that, the PCW had desktop publishing, art and even games.

As well as the text adventure games of the "use the sword to kill the ogre" type, there were also valiant efforts at more graphical games. These included Bounder - guide a tennis ball over a landscape fraught with danger - and Head Over Heels, an isometric platform game featuring two animals, one a dog able to jump high and fire doughnuts out of a gun, the other vaguely cat-like and able to run fast.

Lorry driver market

With the benefit of hindsight, the Amstrad PCW marked both a technological backwater and an important milestone. Not one making it a seminal computer for today's buffs, but rather a landmark for the ordinary computer-illiterate punter.

"Alan Sugar's market was lorry drivers and their wives," technology writer Barry Fox says. "It was a complete dead-end. They were glorified typewriters.

"But they made life a lot easier for a lot of people, say for people to write a letter to their bank manager. They were terrific for that. It helped people get used to the computer."

And Laing says that he's in contact with people still using theirs.

With the 3-inch disks used by the PCWs now requiring specialist kit to be transferred onto modern media, the famous Amstrad machine has a curious legacy, says Fox.

"The problem was that it didn't have any easy way of connecting to anything else. I will bet there are a lot of people around the world with wonderful works of literature, half-written books and manuscripts, and letters and accounts sitting there trapped on these disks."


Below is a selection of your comments:

What's with all the eulogising? The PCW was a dreadful little machine - and the printer chewed up all the paper if you didn't watch it like a hawk.
Jen, Manchester, UK

I got around the non-standard disks by buying a second drive that took normal PC disks. The upgrade kit included a mini hacksaw for cutting a new hole in the casing for the disk to fit!
David Spofforth, London, United Kingdom

My mother (well into her 70s) still uses a PCW and refuses to migrate to a PC. It took her long enough to learn how to use LocoScript and she doesn't feel up to learning say MSWord. Not that you actually have to learn much about Word but there you go. She's had her Amstrad for at least 12 years and it's not dead yet: there will be trouble when it is!
Hugh S, Coventry

I still have my PCW 8256 in my lounge. Back then I built a special desk that when closed looked like a drinks cabinet but opened out with expanding shelves to make a computer table. Haven't actually opened it in years but I suspect the machine would be as reliable today as it was back then. It was great fun having to look up the control codes in the booklet to perform formatting functions on letters. So much more sense of achievement than just clicking B for bold in Word. Who can forget the TV advert with people throwing their typewriters out of high office windows into skips? A masterpiece!
David Ford, Surrey

I have fond memories of the PCW, using it to write my thesis. Though it was basic, the greatest facility it had over the typewriter was the 'delete' button.
Mike, Norwich

What a blast from the past! I am an electronics engineer & can remember repairing these machines to component level as well as Commodore, BBC & Sinclair. They were well made & come from an era when electronics was made to be repaired unlike today where nearly everything with a plug on it is made deliberately not to be repaired.
Dave B (Brit ex pat), Keswick, Canada

I still have some PCW disks somewhere, with my A-level work on them. I loved the PCW, because it saved so much time, and I'm sure that my teachers preferred the printouts to my handwritten scrawl too. Locoscript was so easy to use that it really was idiot-proof.
Karen Lawrinson, Bolton, England

"Teachers ... consulted the rulebooks as the children ...turned up with printed-out homework" This was exactly the case in the second class I remember attending at County School. The lack of vision of the teachers now astounds me, whereas at the time it just annoyed me as I had to write my home work out having typed it once already. Children need to be able to write, but to type fast and accurately is even more important these days - I only scrawl once or twice a day.
Andy Simpson, London

This was probably the last of Alan Sugar's successful products, and Amstrad has been limping along since then. It was a groundbreaking piece of kit which, as the article says, filled a niche, but it was a stinker to use for those of us who'd used 'proper' word processing applications (WordPerfect, WordStar, DisplayWrite) on PCs - not only was the PCW eccentric in its interface, its disks were unusable in any other machine, and even if you could transfer the files across to a PC it was the devil's own job to get them read by another application. The PCW represented a short-lived triumph of proprietary technology.
Fred Riley, Nottingham

I had a PCW 9256 and completed my 20,000 word undergraduate thesis on it no problem. at a time (late 80s, early 90s) when others were arguing over the latest crash of their Windows PC, I did my thesis, and 4 years worth of other reports etc. all on my trusty machine, with the reliable, if VERY noisy dot matrix printer sitting on top of the screen. I even remember buying it - 399 for the LOT. Was an ideal purchase for a student at that time. Definately an important moment in computing history.
David, Dunlop, Ayrshire

I think that the 8bit machines created by Amstrad are fantastic. I still regually use my CPC6128 and CPC464 for playing the classic games. Those were the days when games could run on less than 64k. Can't do that these days...
Andy Taylor, Whittlesey, UK.

Good old PCW8256 and Locoscript, capable of doing exactly what you wanted it to without crashing, taking ages to load or getting grumpy. I did most of my school coursework on there, in between writing daft BASIC programs. If all of todays computers were half as elegant, the world would be a happier place.
Andy Elms, Brizzle

I recall at the time that the PC was just transitioning from the 286 to the 386 chip set, was still woefully underpowered and obviously had a long way to go. The PCW offered simplicity and more importantly, stability in a complex and fast evolving PC world. I loved mine, it did the job as advertised with little fuss, something that is often lacking in todays systems.
David Ellis, Raleigh, Nc, USA

But before that..... in 1973 long before personal computers had arrived I was given an Amstrad Integra 2000 amplifier for my hi-fi system. It was small and wedge shaped and produced a wonderful sound, and probably half a dozen friends also bought one after they heard it. At the time, Amstrad was a small start-up based (if memory serves right) in Dalston, East London. I took the amp to their workshop once for a minor repair, and it was very much like Fred In A Shed - no sign then of the Sugar dynasty!
Kevin, Portsmouth UK

Considering the costs of PCs at the time PCWs were ahead of their time - the whole idea was to sell everything in one box - the monitor, processor, disk drives, keyboard and printer - instead of the public having to work out what to buy it all came in one package. Easy to set up and get started unlike PCs of the time.
Jane P, Haywards Heath, UK




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