AFTER the hectic activity of the last three years, with a new computer every year, there are signs of 1983 becoming the year of consolidation. After the long-awaited Microdrive finally makes an appearance, nothing is scheduled until next year. The next machine is then likely to be the much-heralded portable business machine, making use of the flat-screen television and Microdrive technology.
The apparent slowing in Sinclair activities probably has less to do with the company's inability to think of new ideas than it has with its desire to ensure that it is better-placed to avoid the problems and criticisms which it faced when the ZX-81 and the Spectrum were first put on sale.
It gives the impression, however, of a certain amount of complacency, the result of a lack of serious competition at the bottom end of the market.
It could be said that that argument does not stand close examination. A company which cuts the prices of its leading products by 25 percent and 20 percent is scarcely complacent and unworried by the competition. On the other hand, while much of the vast expansion of the home computer market has been the result of the fall in the price of programming power, there is still a large number of consumers looking for quality as well as low price who are willing to pay a little extra for it. There are limits, therefore, to which price-cutting will satisfy the new computer owners who are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
With the basic ZX-81 now available for less than £40, it will not be long before consumers begin to consider factors other than price - factors such as case of use, programming power and the number of special functions which can be obtained from a machine without the bother of difficult conversions or complicated software.
Compare that to what is happening in the States.
Although it has been denied officially on both sides of the Atlantic, Timex is looking to make a hybrid ZX-81 and Spectrum to be known as the T/S1500. With 16K RAM on board, it is intended to have a Spectrum-type keyboard.
In addition, there is the U.S. version of the Spectrum, to be called the T/S200. Although no details of the specification have been announced, it is known that most of the bugs discovered in the ROM by people such as Dr Ian Logan are to be corrected and another port to allow pre-recorded cartridges to be used is to be included, thus ending all those saving and loading problems. Sinclair says it has no plans to bring either machine to Britain.
A possible argument for the upgraded Spectrum not being adapted for the British television system would be that software would have to be re-written. At present, no details of the new memory organisation for the machine have been revealed, so that it is not known whether existing Spectrum software would be compatible.
The present thinking is that with the cartridge port it is likely that some parts of the memory would be taken over for it, thus making any software using those particular addresses unworkable. Thus some, but by no means all, software would need changes. The advantages to be gained by having a debugged ROM and easier saving and loading would easily outweigh such problems.
Those difficulties would not exist with the T/S1500 but the comments of Sinclair are easier to understand. Until Timex is willing to say that such a machine exists, giving price and launch details, there is no point in Sinclair announcing plans for it. That will change when Timex makes its announcement and there can only be advantages for putting such a machine on sale in Britain.
At a time when competitors, despite their difficulties, are beginning to move into the market it would provide an extra incentive to join the family of Sinclair users. It would remove the problems of coping with the ZX-81 keyboard and the unstable RAM packs.
It is a pity that it was not until the machines faced the fiercer competition in the more mature U.S. market that moves were not made to make such improvements. Neither of the new computers is revolutionary in concept but they are logical steps to improve on successful products.
Past experience, particularly in the field of pocket calculators, has shown that it is impossible to maintain a leading position in any sphere of life by standing still. Competitors have a habit of seeing what can be achieved and, learning by the mistakes of the pioneers, are able to provide something more acceptable to the consumer.
In Britain, the home computing market was created by Sinclair Research and the competitors have taken some time to get themselves properly organised. In the U.S. the market was already there. The machines were more expensive but they were used extensively in the home and set the standard for what people expected their computers to do and how easy it should be to use them. Timex thus thought it would be worthwhile to upgrade the machines.
While suggesting that it has been more competition which has prompted the moves, none of the improvements would have been unacceptable to British users and would have helped to answer some of the complaints which people make about the machines. If Sinclair wishes to stay in the popular end of the computer market it had better start taking notice of those comments before the competition does and leaves Sinclair with a smaller share of a potentially large market.
It is always possible, of course, that Sinclair is fully aware of the situation but had preferred to concentrate on the frontiers of computer development, leaving the less exotic tidying work to be done by Timex, thus saving itself time and expense.
It would be a pity if the fruits of that endeavour were to stay in North America, leaving the rest of the world with the first thoughts.