Computers: PCW defies silicon snobs: Roland Perry, designer of Amstrad's million-selling word processor, defends it against the sneers of its detractors
Friday 26 November 1993
But many Politically Correct computer types insist that after 8 years on the market the Amstrad PCW must be obsolete by now. It is old technology, they argue, and the world has moved on to bigger and better, not to mention more expensive, things.
Why is it that everyone wants to talk the Amstrad PCW into being a computer? It is a word processor; designed to be a word processor, with no ambitions be anything else. It does not want to do spreadsheets or calculate your company results, but it does a good job of your word processing - and provides a printer as part of the package.
Even eight years and a million or more PCWs ago, the silicon snobs looked down their nose at the processor chip powering the PCW. It was not enough that it cost only a dollar and did the job. It was based on out-of-date technology, they said, and that was all that mattered. Off the record, the story was rather different. The most common reaction was: 'I've no idea who would want to buy it. But I'll have one right away.'
Over those eight years advances in production engineering have reduced the cost of most computer technology to a fraction of what it was. However, the temptation succumbed to by suppliers is to sell better and better computers for about the same price. Fuelled by the availability of bigger and better hardware, software suppliers do their best to use up all the extra performance, leaving users back where they started. So today's basic corporate buy is 20 times as powerful and has 20 times the storage capacity. But still costs about pounds 1,500 and to many eyes does much the same.
As a result, apart from clearance bargains, it is still impossible to buy a PC-compatible computer for less than about pounds 700. Add a half-decent printer and assume it comes with some adequate bundled software and once again it hits the pounds 1,000. Meanwhile the PCW sails majestically along, still costing three hundred and something pounds, including software and printer.
This rather destroys the proposition that a well-chosen PC could work as well as a PCW and be hardly more expensive. This is people's own money we are talking about; their hard-earned savings or the parent teacher association's profits from a couple of jumble sales. But if you could get a 'real' computer for about the same price, it would offer the users a clear advantage over the PCW's text- based word processor. Wouldn't it?
This assumes that new is always better. New Nicam stereo doesn't improve the plot of Neighbours. A newfangled iron doesn't make ironing any more attractive. Some advances in technology are not worth the extra cost. They simply are not compelling enough for the consumer to pay two, three or four times as much for something which fundamentally does the same thing.
The PC snobs even suggest that if you cannot afford at least pounds 1,000 and do not want to buy into the money pit that is Windows, the PC's add-on graphical operating system, you do not really deserve to be creating documents at all. What nonsense] The PCW is a phenomenon, because it was designed to address a part of the market that mainstream computer manufacturers do not understand. It was designed for the vicar who wants to rewrite his sermons or the retired person who would like a new hobby and enjoys writing, or the student who needs to write up his or her thesis.
All of these people have several things in common. Their primary concern is not what technology they are buying, but what it will do for them. They are buying this product as a luxury not a necessity, although later they often find it becomes one. They do not want, or cannot afford, to spend pounds 1,000 for a computer, software and printer.
Although pounds 350 is easier to come by today than eight years ago, the problem that needs solving is the same - word processing on a tight budget - so why shouldn't the right solution be the same?
Others may want one day to replace their PCW, even though they seem indestructible. If they want to be more adventurous than buying another PCW, they will be in for a shock when they compare the price-performance offered by the opposition. But choosing a replacement computer is only a quarter of the task. Once you have decided on a computer, then you have to pick the software and of course the printer.
The process of buying all of these bits, never mind putting them together, can be overwhelming. Remember, the market we are talking about is people who are not interested in computers. They do not have any inclination to learn about 'printer drivers'. Why should they?. They simply want to plug it together and switch it on, just like they did with their PCW.
After all, that does seem like a reasonable request by someone who has not been brainwashed by an industry that is happy to accept that things 'aren't quite that simple'. Try explaining to a PCW user why it is so difficult and they will look at you blankly and say: 'It all worked out of the box with my Amstrad.'
If the PCW had one fault, it was that it made designing an easy to use word processor look too simple. Too simple to the user, that is. But no competitor ever tried to muscle in on the market. Maybe they thought the margins too slim or the quantity too small; although a glance at Amstrad's trading figures in the mid-1980s, or asking Dixons what their biggest money spinner was, would soon have dispelled that notion.
And with the majority of the public still yet to buy their first computer, or even word processor, that market should go on for years to come. The greater danger seems to be from ever more sophisticated electronic typewriters. They better look the part because, yes, the PCW is perhaps styled just a little too much like a computer.
Roland Perry designed the Amstrad PCW. He now runs a technology consultancy company in Oxford.
PCW9256 - 256K memory, 720K floppy disk drive, 12-inch b/w screen, Locoscript 1.5, dot matrix printer: from pounds 329 inc VAT (Ryman). PCW9512 - 512K memory, 720K drive, 14- inch b/w screen, Locoscript 2, daisywheel printer: from pounds 389.99 (Dixons).
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