AT LAST, the long-awaited Microdrives have arrived and that is official. We, the privileged members of the Press, have been introduced to one by Sir Clive. We had to be introduced because the finished article was not exactly what we expected from the earlier descriptions and the pictures which were shown in advertisements until only recently.
As seemed almost inevitable, it has aroused mixed reactions, many no doubt having had their expectations raised by the wait of more than a year since the 'revolutionary' storage system was announced. It will take some months, however, before a true assessment can be made of its worth and whether a decision to buy the Spectrum on the basis of the Microdrive was justified.
One difficulty which has already arisen is the possible non-compatibility with the Micronet 800 adaptor. That will limit the amount of information which can be downloaded from the Micronet system at any time.
With the time it has taken to get the two major developments in the Sinclair market this year off the ground it should have been possible to find compatible areas in which they could be attached to the Spectrum. Both will result in a large expansion of the uses of the Spectrum on their own but together the possibilities would have been multiplied.
It is a good idea for a company to keep its latest developments secret so that competitors do not have the opportunity to close the gap on its technical advances. It is not a good idea to keep associates so much in the dark that clashes of this kind occur.
On the more positive side, the Microdrive ROM which removes the bugs on the original Spectrum ROM and also allowed users to write their own versions of Basic are to be welcomed.
While the appearance of the Microdrive is a major event in the Sinclair year, it is likely that other developments in the last month will have a more lasting and important effect on the market.
The Microdrive is another addition to the growing list of improvements and expansions available to the users of home computers but the new ideas in other areas mark a major shift away from the traditional market base.
Since Sinclair Research began selling its first computer by mail order, that has been the traditional distribution channel for both software and hardware. A few specialist shops opened to begin the move towards over-the-counter sales and W H Smith gave that a big boost slightly more than 18 months ago when it began selling the ZX-81 in selected branches.
Other retailers, however, have been slow to show their enthusiasm for expanding the retail outlets, possibly because their experiences with machines other than Sinclair did not encourage them.
Two developments from Prism Micro Products are likely to ensure that retail outlets begin to expand rapidly. Prism is a sister company of ECC Publications, which publishes Sinclair User, but we make no excuse for considering that the company plans could lead to a revolution in home computing.
The rack-jobbing system and the Romox cartridge terminals are detailed in the news pages. Both will have the effect of making software much more easily available to the consumer and thus put home computing on the way to becoming a major leisure interest.
As shown in the recent Economic Intelligence Unit report, the United Kingdom has by far the biggest market for home computers in Europe. Easier access to software and hardware will make sure the U.K. maintains that position.
Both systems take many of the difficulties of selling software away from retailers. In the rack-jobbing system the retailer has only to be sure that sales will be sufficient to cover the costs of providing selling space. Decisions about which lines to stock and which to cease to stock will be taken out of their hands.
The Romox system will have similar benefits, with the added advantage that decisions by software houses about which programs to publish are made less crucial. New lines can be transmitted to the terminals and it can then be left to the consumers which they wish to buy, giving them a greater choice. It will also reduce the security problems of holding large amounts of valuable programmed cassettes.
As the recent theft of machines from Prism showed, thieves are beginning to appreciate the value of goods in the home computer market.
As stated here in previous months it is moves like these which are needed if home computing is to become as popular a leisure pursuit as photography or video.
A result of these changes will be that mail order will no longer be an important feature of the market. It will no doubt be retained by the smaller companies with confidence in their products but for the most part sales will be through retailers with a distribution agreement with one of the growing number of distributors.
Another point made in previous issues is that the market appears to be following the example of the record industry, with software companies turning away from writing their own programs and marketing those of others. A more accurate blue-print would appear to be that of book publishing. That suggestion has been reinforced both by the Prism moves and the establishment of the first agent for software writers.
Neil Gibson and Co is offering to assess programs and arrange the best deal with a software house. The software house will then deal with marketing, having an agreement with a distribution company which will then deal with the retailers.
All that should be good news to enthusiasts who live outside the main population areas who have had to suffer the vagaries of mail order without having the opportunity to see what the games look like before buying. London has been well-served with shows at which most of the software producers have shown their products and the north has been similarly well-served with shows at Manchester and Leeds. People in Wales and Scotland, however, have had either to travel long distances or to trust to small retail outlets.
For Scottish enthusiasts that should change in September when the first large ZX show is being staged near Edinburgh. Sinclair User will be taking the roadshow there with its advice stand and displays of games from the magazines and others should be able to provide a good day for the Sinclair-starved people north of the border.