TWO OF the leading figures in the development of the ZX Spectrum, Richard Altwasser and Steven Vickers, have cut their links with Sinclair Research and set up their own company.
TWO OF the leading figures in the development of the ZX Spectrum have cut their links with Sinclair Research to set up their own company.
Richard Altwasser, who designed the hardware, and Steven Vickers, who wrote the programs for the ROM working memory, have formed Rainbow Computing Co. Apart from publishing a book of programs for the Spectrum, the company plans are a closely-guarded secret.
"It is necessary for us to be very cagey and apart from the one thing which we have announced, we would like to leave anything we are doing secret until it is ready for launching," says Altwasser. He adds, however, that something will be announced before the end of the year.
|'We had plenty of freedom working at Sinclair but at the end of the day if a decision needed to be made there was one man who took that decision'|
They decided to make the move now because their major project for the last nine months, the Spectrum, had ended and, like many other people, they wanted to be their own bosses.
"We had plenty of freedom working at Sinclair but at the end of the day the company was run by one man and if a decision needed to be made, there was one man who took that decision," Altwasser says.
He and Vickers add, jokingly, that they had also been tempted by the money Clive Sinclair was making.
Altwasser, 25, gained a degree in engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge and went to work for a micro-based automation company in Worcester but found the organisation too limiting. After 18 months he left and joined Sinclair Research in September, 1980.
He did some work on the development of the ZX-81 and after its launch in 1981 he was made responsible for computer research, which involved him in the design of the hardware of the Spectrum.
Altwasser has also been writing software for the ZX-81 and his 'Cambridge Collection' has sold 30,000 copies.
Before joining Sinclair he had a little knowledge of computing, owning a TRS-80 and having run a course in teaching Basic.
Steven Vickers (left) and Richard Altwasser in front of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Vickers' knowledge, however, was much less. "Two years ago I did not even know what a ROM was," he says.
Vickers, 29, was also at Cambridge, gaining a degree in mathematics at King's College before doing his PhD at Leeds. In 1980, after writing to a number of computer companies, including Sinclair, for a job, he joined Nine Tiles, a software consultancy based near Cambridge, which had written the ROM working memory for the ZX-81.
His first job was the adaptation of 4K ZX-80 ROM to make an 8K ROM for the ZX-81. He also wrote the manual for the ZX-81 and went on to write most of the ROM for the Spectrum, as well as assisting with the manual.
Both say that they found working for Sinclair very exciting - "providing you can cope with the pressure without having a heart attack." The main difference they found between Sinclair Research and other companies in electronics was that "deadlines were very real deadlines". Vickers says:
"There is a definition of a deadline; that it is the date before which something should not be completed but that is not the case with Sinclair."
Development of the Spectrum was typical of the way in which Sinclair Research works. A rough specification was worked-out with the minimum requirements, including colour, high-resolution graphics and improved tape storage interface.
That was set last September with a final deadline of the Earl's Court Computer Show in April. By that time the Spectrum had to be ready to go into production, which meant that not only had all the development work to be done at Sinclair Research but also all the suppliers had to be chosen and the production lines at Timex had to be tooled-up.
That had to be done in conditions of great secrecy and very little information leaked-out about the machine, although Altwasser says he was surprised by how much was known about it before the launch.
In the end, with many nights of working late, the deadline was met and the Spectrum launched on time.
Other benefits of working for Sinclair were that there was no shortage of money for research and, as it was a small company, it was easy to obtain quick decisions on new ideas and new ways of doing things.
"When I went for interview I asked about money being available if a piece of equipment was needed and was told that a request was never refused, but that they might advise about something which would be better," say Altwasser.
For the future, Vickers and Altwasser say they are concerned to prevent a Japanese invasion of the British market. Their plans for doing that, however, are to remain secret.
Asked if their name denoted any link with the Spectrum, Altwasser replies that the only connection was that it has been one of the suggestions for the new machine which they had liked, so had decided to use it.
One of their major concerns is that they should be able to keep pace with the latest developments in their field.
"There will always be the fear that something you have designed will be out-of-date as soon as you have finished it," he says.
They also think that the present generation of computer technologists will find increased pressure from today's schoolchildren. Altwasser says that teenagers are now able to grasp ideas with which he had difficulty less than three years ago.
He adds that at the Earls Court Computer Fair he saw some children with leaflets about the Spectrum. As a joke he decided to ask them about it and was told enthusiastically about its capabilities.