Was Alan Sugar the UK's Steve Jobs? How the Amstrad CPC 464 changed computing

Thirty years ago this week Amstrad went up against Apple and launched the back-to-basics home computer

For Lord Alan Sugar, 11 April 1984 was a glorious day. After months of hard work, he took his place in the sumptuous surroundings of Westminster School and, with dozens of journalists sitting before him, lifted the lid on what would, perhaps, be his most famous creation: the Amstrad CPC 464.

As with like inventor Clive Sinclair and his ZX Spectrum before him, he was looking to make his mark in the fledgling home computer industry. He wanted to draw upon everything he had learned from the moment that he had formed Amstrad in 1968 and transfer that into a market that was showing itself to be hugely profitable.

But while Sinclair was his major rival for punters' cash in Britain, there is an argument that he also shared much common ground with Steve Jobs. Although those who worked with him would beg to differ – "It doesn't compute with me at all," says Roland Perry, Amstrad's former group technical consultant, of the comparison – the underlying principle of both men was to make computers as simple as possible.

Both had dragged up their companies by the bootstraps – Jobs in a Californian garage with co-founder Steve Wozniak; Sugar selling car aerials on the streets of London's East End from a van he bought for £50 – and both were keen to be involved in all aspects of their businesses.

"People used to ask whether I'd see Alan Sugar that much. I was like, nah, not very often – only about every 15 minutes," laughs Perry. Both also fell prey to making early misjudgements. With Jobs, it was the approach to former Pepsi president John Scully which led to his subsequent firing. With Lord Sugar, it was his naivety in hiring "two long-haired hippies", which could so easily have derailed his entire foray into computers.

Writing in his autobiography, What You See Is What You Get, Lord Sugar tells of two men who insisted that they could write an operating system for the CPC in just one month but, of course, they couldn't. Stress levels rose, a coder was discovered drunk at home and unable to work and the result was reams of unusable, unintelligible code.

It's a rather ironic tale given that a large part of Jobs' success was due to his hippie leanings (his new-age thinking had him labelled "a goddamn hippie with BO" by his co-workers at Atari). But whereas Jobs took LSD and followed a fruitarian diet, Lord Sugar was impeccably suited, and the respectable-looking tycoon looked out for business opportunities. This kind of thing was a real eye-opener.

The CPC 464 had just two items - a keyboard and monitor The CPC 464 had just two items - a keyboard and monitor

"We'd learned very quickly that this computer business wasn't just a case of chucking a bunch of chips into a box and putting a plastic cabinet around it," he wrote. "We were entering a new world."

And what a new world that was. UK playgrounds were sliced in two by a silicon curtain: fans of Sinclair machines on one side, admirers of the Commodore 64 on the other. Acorn, Apple, Atari, Dragon, Mattel, NEC and Oric were also trying – and in some cases succeeding – to make their mark. They were the days before mass-market dominance of the PC and it led to lots of eclectic machines and emerging powers.

Lord Sugar came into this cold: his biggest success was with Amstrad's hi-fi systems. Amstrad's hi-fis had no interconnecting wires, just a mains cable and sold in droves. Showing that consumers loved simplicity. Lord Sugar wanted the same for the CPC.

"The audience was the lorry driver and his mate," says Perry. "Alan Sugar had an image of people trudging down the high street in the rain looking for a Christmas present. He assumed they would think, 'Amstrad's hi-fi was OK so I'll buy this computer'."

To keep things as simple as possible, the CPC 464 had just two items: a keyboard and monitor. The components, including the tape deck, fitted inside the keyboard and the power supply sat within the monitor. A couple of wires connected the two and they were powered by just one plug. One flick of a switch and the computer was ready to use.

"Alan Sugar didn't want people rolling around on the floor figuring out where to insert things," says Perry, who had been brought on board after Lord Sugar shouted "You're Fired" at his hippies. "It had to be assembled quickly to maintain the enthusiasm."

In this regard, Lord Sugar was again similar to Jobs. The Apple II had been praised by Byte magazine for the ease in which it could be picked off the shelf, taken home, plugged in and used. But then Amstrad was inspired in some way by Apple: its staff would be offered Apple II clones on their frequent sourcing trips to the Far East but Amstrad didn't want to merely rebadge them – it wanted to make its own. "The Apple II gave rise to the idea that Amstrad could include a home computer in its portfolio," explains Perry.

The Apple II: The promise of a true personal computer

Amstrad sought to keep the price of the machine as low as possible – certainly lower than the $2,638 (£1,575) wanted for the Apple II 48K machine. The CPC 464, with a green screen monitor, cost £199; colour cost £299 (the monitor-less Commodore 64 was £195.95 and the Spectrum cost £175). And it more than matched spec-wise. The 464 had a Z80 processor like the ZX Spectrum and 64k of RAM, like the Commodore 64. It had a palette of 27 colours and ports for peripherals such as a printer.

Journalists were impressed. Following the launch, the setting of which Perry describes as "like something out of Hogwarts, like a chapel", they gushed religiously about the rectangular, plastic, budget buy. "After the People's Car," headlined the London Evening Standard, referring to the VW Beetle, "the People's Computer".

They subsequently sold well. Amstrad quickly added two extra machines: the 664 and the 6128, both with disk drives. By 1990, they had become France's best-selling computer range with 50 per cent of the market and 650,000 sales. Worldwide, they had shifted three million. "We had a computer designed specifically for people in certain countries with France, Germany and Spain being particularly important to us," says Perry.

Amstrad also insisted on amassing a software library, called Amsoft, prior to launch. In the same way that apps became important for Jobs, so software was crucial to Lord Sugar's thinking. One of the launch titles was Roland in the Caves, a subterranean platformer. "Alan had this whizzo idea of naming the creature in it after me," laughs Perry, omitting to also mention that the CPC's codename, Arnold, was an anagram of his first name. "There was this whole series of Roland games."

Eight games in the Roland series were made between 1984 and 1985

Many developers nurtured their careers on the CPC. "We spent every waking hour learning to program it and churning out games," says Philip Oliver, founder of Blitz Games Studios and, more recently, Radiant Worlds. "We took a year out of university and made Super Robin Hood on the CPC, selling it to Codemasters for £10,000. It got to number one. Our early success was spawned by the CPC."

Amstrad encouraged people to write software for the CPC. Its manual included the BASIC programming tool as well as simple set-up instructions. "We expected people to go away and write their own programs," says Perry. "We saw ourselves as providing the platform that others could expand on."

Magazines devoted to the CPC continued this trend. "The CPC was like the computer for the everyman," says Rod Lawton, who edited Amstrad Action magazine for four years in the early 1990s. "It could do games, it could do business, it could do education and you could even learn a bit of computer programming. It was the computer for the man in the street."

Although sales of the C64 and Spectrum were far higher - 17 million and five million respectively - without the CPC, Amstrad would not have made its best-selling and affordable PCW and PC ranges. But the CPC remains popular today: enthusiasts continue to produce games for the computer. One small team is working on a CPC version of Street Fighter II. “Programming the CPC today is like some kind of exercise that ultimately improves your skills as a professional,” says Augusto Ruiz. “It's also fun.” Cheap too – CPCs can be picked up on eBay for around £70 and the operating system can be emulated legally and free on Macs and PCs. 

But was he really the British Steve Jobs? "Steve Jobs was a visionary who wanted everyone else to understand the amazing possibilities he saw," says Lawton. "I think Alan Sugar is a pragmatic entrepreneur who has a gift for making exciting technology unexpectedly affordable."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

    £55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

    Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

    Oracle DBA (Database Administrator, 10g, 11g, PL/SQL)

    £45000 - £50000 Per Annum + £5k shift allowance, 12% bonus, benefits: Clearwat...

    Oracle DBA (Database Administrator, 10g, 11g, PL/SQL)

    £45000 - £50000 Per Annum + £5k shift allowance, 12% bonus, benefits: Clearwat...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?