Friday, 9 October 2009

Sinclair vs Acorn Footsoldier Memoirs

Watching BBC Four's
Micro Men last night took me back a few decades to when I was a lowly footsoldier for Sinclair in the 1980s. There's no doubt, the company rivalry that took place in Cambridge was mirrored in every schoolyard in the UK. And the drama was good, the BBC got the feel of the whole, crazy techwar down to a tee; from the seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurialism to the acceptability of smoking; to interspersing real 80s footage with the drama; to the personal obsessions of the rivals.

But what of the footsoldiers? Being only 12 to 15 at the time I was oblivious to the internal politics but well aware of the day-to-day conflict. There's no doubt, the rich kids got the Beebs and the scruffnecks got the Speccies. Worse still, school patronage of Acorn disadvantaged the more ordinary kids because schools often wouldn't let them do computer science homework and projects on their Speccies whereas the richer kids could do their homework on their computers - moreover, teachers would take school BBC micros home over the weekend so their middle-class kids could get extra time for free. We had to pay for our disadvantage!

OK, so how important was all this? For us, it meant something because we were developers and not just users. Our machines were platforms for our future careers where we learnt primarily problem-solving skills that would equip us for life. Consider how these 'toys' were the springboard for the British video games industry to the point where 80s kids still dominate these companies because modern children almost never learn to program. And consider how many of the younger generation of software developers still say, "yeah well I learnt to program on an old Amstrad CPC that was tossed to me in my teens..."

The true beauty and power of these machines was their simplicity - which is also what fuelled the tribalism so effectively. The Spectrum was a terrible computer, I went through 4 or 5 before I got one that worked! It had an awful keyboard; a slow BASIC language; a painful printer; chronic expansion potential and embarrassingly blocky colour. But at least it wasn't a BEEB with it's overpriced, snotty-nosed elitism; painful 6502 processor; weedy 32Kb RAM; boring motherboard and pebble-dashed casing. Yuk ;-)

If you really want to relive some of this you need more than an emulator - so why not check out Libby8dev : A spare-time tribute home micro built with A powerful Z80, RAM, Firmware and glue logic on Veroboard. Yep, I figured out how to do the entire glue logic with a single microcontroller! For only £9.99 I'll send you an AVR + firmware IC and it'll be a doddle to build. Then you can join the team and share in the world of shoe-string development with its crazy highs and lows; missed deadlines and geektastic experience full of wires, hacked circuits and solder-singed eyebrows. You also get the weekly project memoranda in courier 10-pitch!