2 July 1987: A 22 year old Michael Dell goes head to head with Alan Sugar over the future of PC computing – especially what do to with a whopping 1 megabyte of RAM.
Despite weather more conducive to sitting on a beach than traipsing round the admittedly well air-conditioned Olympia Number Two Hall, the PC User Show got off to a busy start yesterday leaving organiser EMAP confident of beating its target of 30,000 visitors over the three days.
The large number of journalists present, combined with sundry public relations executives and three City analysts, crammed into the press office to hear what should have been one of the most interesting debates on the personal computer ever staged in the UK – if only because of the all-star nature of the panel.
First, though, John Butcher, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Industry, made a welcoming speech in which he revealed that the first quarter of 1987 saw UK manufacturing output of electronic data processing equipment up 32% on the same period last year. He then went on to admit that 1986 had lagged substantially behind 1985, but even so the trend is positive.
Having backed Open Systems Interconnection, Mr Butcher went on to promise that he would, contrary to the usual practice of Whitehall representatives, stay for at least 10 minutes of the discussion. Obviously, time flies fast in Whitehall, as Mr Butcher was off almost immediately.
He was followed shortly afterwards by those who were the first to realise that little was going to come out of the debate.
In his first public appearance for some months, Amstrad’s Alan Sugar announced the donation of £25,000 over two years to a graduate student at the City University Business School. But that was his last show of generosity as he lashed into the press, Americans and City analysts in that order.
‘The press know nothing, the North American consumers know nothing, and City analysts know nothing’ – to paraphrase Mr Sugar. It was not the sort of performance to endear him to anyone, and even Mr Sugar’s customary sense of humour seemed to desert him. However, he told the audience, "our results will speak for themselves."
The other panellists, Jeff Earl of Toshiba, Tom Cairns of Zenith Data Systems, Mark Plant of Microsoft, a strangely-quiet Jamie Minotto of Tandon and 22-year-old Michael Dell, founder of US mail order outfit PC’s Limited and its UK subsidiary Dell Computer Corp, were always likely to be submerged by Sugar’s presence and so it proved, despite a few timely interventions from Dell – already nicknamed Dell boy by some of the more downmarket journalists – one of which led to Sugar’s comment on North American consumers.
Out in the main hall, the main talking point amongst exhibitors was whether Michael Dell can sell in the UK as he has in the US. Mail order computers have a poor reputation this side of the Atlantic.
And, talking of mail order computers, gossip at the show was that Sir Clive Sinclair’s latest machine, the Z88, is not to be made by Thorn EMI after all. Unabashed, Dell Computer has one of the bigger stands at the show. Those who have seen the 20Mb, 1Mb RAM, high resolution monitor, 80286-based 286-12 at £1,299 are impressed, but the name is still unknown to the casual visitor.
As a result, other cut price 286 and 386 vendors were attracting more attention. Euromicro Ltd of London N8’s prices challenge all others with its 386 machine at £1,995 and its small footprint 8MHz AT-alike at £995. But, better value for money is available from CAS Computer Point Ltd of London SE23. Its 386 model at £2,250 includes a 14 Samsung screen and a 40Mb hard disk.
Lower down the scale, Opus has the Opus II at £499, and Interquadram, part of Intelligent Systems Corp, the Spark. At an introductory price of £595, this 9lb 80C86-based portable with 384K DRAM, Supertwist LCD, and 3.5 floppy drive represents something of a breakthrough.
But, excluding Toshiba’s new range and Computer Frontier’s new Tava Flyer, other portables were few and far between.
The cheapest PC on show is the Amstrad PC1512 at £449. Of course, that is more than Dixons is currently charging. The new PC1640 range and the new printer and Infomaster database made the Amstrad stand the busiest at the show on the first morning. So maybe Alan Sugar can go on lashing out at everybody after all.
Meanwhile, rivals Tandon Computers has cut the prices on its PCA AT-compatibles again; the PCA10 which comes complete with 1Mb of RAM, serial/parallel port, Hercules compatible board and a 1.2Mb floppy drive, is now £1,695 instead of £1,795. Down to £1,795 from £1,995 is the PCA20 and a reduction of £200 means the PCA30 is available for £2,095. The PCA40 has taken a further reduction of £100 to become £2,395 – in January it would have retailed for £2,995 – while the recently launched PCA70 remains the same at £2,995. Tandon sub-systems have also seen price reductions with savings ranging from £440 on the 40Mb hard disk and controller, cutting the price to £685, to £15 off the 360K floppy disk drive.
The biggest companies on show – DEC and IBM – are not present and nor, unusually, are their products.
However, Unisys has a new 40Mb hard disk sub-30 millisecond disk access version of its PC/microIT. Featuring 512K of RAM, floppy disk drive, mono monitor and controller, it costs £3,215.
Normally, it is new products that attract attention at shows, but with the exception of Amstrad, the stands at PC User that had the biggest crowds were those offering demonstrations. Hence, Ashton-Tate, showing dBase III, and Kode International’s Xitan subsidiary which had a demo of Ventura desktop publishing, were the busiest.
Surprisingly, in view of the recent hype surrounding the subject, desktop publishing systems are not out in force at the show.
Word processing software is, however, on show on the Samna, Microsoft and Sentinel Software stands. Sentinel is showing version 1.1 of WordPerfect Library, the recently announced Commodore Amiga and DEC VAX – without the VAX – versions of WordPerfect, and WordPerfect Executive, an integrated package for business executives, costing £199.
The most lurid stand at the show is that of Pink Software Ltd. The Camden Town, London NW1 company launched a new version of TurboCAD, its Computer Aided Design system for the low end of the market. Version 1.5 carries a powerful macro facilty which Pink says far exceeds those of top end systems and enables users to build up a library of programs to perform complex tasks. Pink also says that a complete beginner could understand a TurboCAD manual and for once this is not pure marketing hype, unlike the lurid pink they use to advertise the product. Even the programme display is in pink but thankfully that can be switched off.
The PC User Show is on at Olympia today and on Thursday, July 2.