THE Sinclair User prediction for the autumn is that although the Microdrive has been launched they will he rarer than swallows in winter until at least the beginning of next year. That is not one of the most difficult predictions ever made in this column. The sales method chosen for the new add-on means that the growth in sales will be gradual rather than the usual mad scramble associated with earlier launches of Sinclair Research equipment.
We congratulate the company on the way it has been able to learn from its past mistakes. We did not expect, though, that such an education would result in such an unusual method of making sure that nobody's expectations were raised unnecessarily. Most companies in the position of Sinclair Research would have ensured sufficient items to meet the expected demand, tailoring supply to demand. Sinclair has approached it from the other side and made demand fit the supply.
Such a course of action is only possible and indeed only sensible when a company finds itself in the position of Sinclair Research. As in the past it has another product which is exceptional, which means that previous experience, both in the company and outside it, can give only an inexact guide to likely demand.
Initial orders for Sinclair computers have far outstretched supply when they have been first launched. It would seem sensible therefore to make sure that production and stocks are high enough to cope with the expected demand.
There is no guarantee, however, that even with a smooth production line and large stocks that demand would not again be far larger than expected and that the problems of 1982 would be repeated.
The alternative is to follow the example of Sinclair and keep a tight rein on demand by limiting the number of order forms which are sent to possible customers and delaying general release on retail sale until it has been able to gauge the possible market. In that way it is able to build production and overcome problems which almost inevitably occur when making something new, while avoiding causing disappointment and frustration by limiting sales to the amounts it knows can be dealt with within 28 days.
The chosen few are so limited at the moment that we at Sinclair User have yet to meet anyone who has received an order form, let alone placed an order.
It is a sales method which has limited applications. The firm involved must have some way of contacting its expected clients and there must be little or no competition. Sinclair scores on both points. Through its long-established policy of selling by mail order it has the names and addresses of thousands of owners of Spectrums and there is no-one else producing anything like the Microdrive.
It can thus afford the time to keep its possible customers waiting in the knowledge that there is nowhere else for them to go in the immediate future.
The concern must be that many people might not see any point in investing in the Microdrive and its associated interfaces while there are so few around. The network facility is of little use when there are very few other enthusiasts with whom to communicate and many people will want to see what professional software is available on the cartridges before deciding to take the plunge and spend £80.
With the amount of such software being sparse for some time that leaves the RS232 interface as being the only reason for buying the system immediately. To follow that line of argument to its logical conclusion would mean a very slow take-off for Microdrive sales. With initial orders being slow, production would not be increased so fast as it might otherwise have been. That would lengthen the time people would have to wait for an order form, thus making more people reluctant to buy one - and again production would be restricted.
Obviously that would not be good for sales and even worse for Sinclair Research, which will be wanting to recoup research and development costs as quickly as possible.
It is not, however, something which we expect to happen. We believe there is a ready market for the Microdrive and its interfaces and that, provided it does not suffer from the usual unseen teething troubles and that output can be increased rapidly, there will be plenty of demand, with early machines possibly being re-sold at a premium and there being a ready market for order forms.
Such a situation would, of course, cause the information on the likely demand for Microdrives to be inaccurate. If everyone who receives an order form buys a Microdrive to re-sell it or sells the form to someone who wants to buy one the response will be greatly over-stated. No doubt Sinclair Research will be keeping a close watch on that.
Bearing all that in mind, it would appear now almost certain that no other computer will he launched in Britain by Sinclair until early next year. The Microdrive and the company's closer involvement in the development of software should keep it busy for the next few months. We also understand that there are no plans for introducing the Timex Sinclair 1500 on to the British market. The idea was considered but later rejected as it was thought impossible to fit between the ZX-81 and the Spectrum.
With interest in the ZX-81 appearing to wane in Britain it could also mean that Sinclair will be concentrating purely on the Spectrum and letting the ZX-81 drift into retirement. Despite the many uses which have been found for the ZX-81, and our Users of the Month are ingenious in their efforts to explore the possibilities of the machine, the games-dominated market prefers colour, a little sound and larger memory.
One market which might alter those calculations about the little machine is education. As a headmaster said in our letters column in the last issue, while children's appetites for computers and programming were being whetted at school, their parents still could not afford any of the machines at the moment and thus could not continue the interest at home.
Should the price of the ZX-81 fall further, and the recent Starter Pack offers seems to indicate that it could, then a large market, untapped so far, would be discovered. Link such a move to the determination of Sinclair Research to improve the level of software for the education market and the ZX-81 may find a new lease of life.
It could lead to a new generation growing up with a completely new conception of what computers should look like and of what they should be capable. No longer would a proper keyboard be expected as a basic requirement or that it should be so large that it would be impossible to put into a schoolbag easily. In the meantime we shall wait to see if the Microdrive can live up to expectations.