8-Bit Software

The BBC and Master Computer Public Domain Library

Back to 8BS
Or
Return To On Line Magazine



Why, when the BBC is undoubtedly the best computer ever made, did Acorn lose its grip and let it all go down the toilet? Invitation for discussion. From Chris Richardson 03/08/1999.

The BBC was in its time the best machine about. It is still an invaluable bit of kit that many people could not manage without if only for cost and reliability. I know because I am regularly supplying replacement bits to all sorts of people, businesses and private individuals. I am seriously attached to the Master that I use (for heavens sake, please don't tell Gill though)

What happened? Why has Acorn withered away into insignificance when the machines they made were fantastic?

I know that I would have preferred to purchase a RISC PC. I also know that on my meagre wages as a Health Service worker, I could not afford or justify one, the thing I am using here cost 50% of what Tomorrows World in Hull were going to charge me for an Acorn thing.

Acorn field all their BBC related queries at me, I do not charge Acorn, yet they would not offer me any sort of discount on one of their newer machines. Why?

I genuinely hate the PC and software that I use to publish this document and am sure that Acorn have probably done better.

So, why have I not got an Acorn and why do I struggle on with this plate of spaghetti? Somebody, PLEASE tell me! I think I need help!

I asked the question on the BBC mailing list, here are the responses.

If anyone objects to having the text they posted to the list reproduced here, please let me know and I will immediately remove it.



Michael Foot
My view on this is from what I've observed in New Zealand and from what I've heard via the Internet. I don't know how this compares to the U.K. or other countries.

I think the reason Acorn haven't succeeded can be summed up in one word - Marketing. The expensive price of an Acorn machine is also a factor here, but I believe this is not the main reason.

When the BBC computer came out it was, of course, backed by the BBC. The BBC (corporation) was able to produce TV shows with the machine in it and generally advertise the computer very well, whereas Acorn themselves did not do as much marketing. I've found that although people know what a BBC computer is, very few of them know it was manufactured by Acorn. Sometime in the mid 90s I even had one guy ask me why it was even worth looking a machine produced by a company with no track record (Acorn). He then said that he'd be better off looking at known brands such as BBC...

When the Archimedes came out, it was well ahead of everything else. It even had a 32 bit operating system 8 years before Microsoft produced W95. Even though the Archie had a BBC logo on it, it was completely up to Acorn to market this new machine.

I feel that Acorn have been stuck in the rut of targeting their machines at schools way too much. Now I know that they didn't have money to do big advertising campaigns, but in NZ you never heard about Acorn and apart from one period you could not buy their machines from any of the large computer retailers. You had to go to Acorn themselves to find one. That one period, when they did do an advertising drive, it was very short lived. They were selling them through a well known retail chain but the
sales people did not know anything about the machines and therefore they got pushed out of the limelight or weren't even switched on half the time. And besides, kids didn't want an Acorn that ran educational software when they could have an Amiga which had lots of real games.

The only reason I was able to keep up with what was happening in Acorn was by going out and looking for the latest news - not something people would do when they were seeing ads for PCs, Macs and Amigas etc. everywhere.

What's everyone else's opinion on this? Am I close to how everyone feels?



Roy Collett
Like Apple Computers they lost out by being too focused on their own product and ignored the competition. Microsoft, always sold an inferior product, but never stinted from telling people it was superior that and they should not buy from the competition. In a word - marketing. 

John Simpson
Michael's point, that Acorn were out of their depth in marketing terms without the BBC name, is backed up when you look at the success of their other non "BBC branded" products:

- Electron
- Communicator
- Unix workstations
- Netstation

etc



Paul Capewell
>  You could add ARM microprocessor to that list???

John Simpson
I assume you're joking ! :-)

Its reasonable to argue that ARM has been a success mainly because Acorn made it into a separate company and therefore freed it from Acorn's terrible marketing.



Rick Galbraith
Do You know how much marketing exposure Acorn got in Canada? Practically zip.  There were some computers put in schools and other sponsoring institutions, like libraries, in the province of Ontario, but that was because of an Ontario government program.  Our library in the little northwestern Ontario town of Dryden (Now a city of 10,000) had a bench with seven of them, even the librarian used one in his office. They were put in in 1986, and were used quite heavily, mostly kids playing Elite.  Only one had a printer. I was an adult in my mid thirties at the time, and wanted to learn computing.  Thank God for the BBC, it was easy enough to learn after a little mini course.

I bought my BBC, second-hand but never used, in 1990, from a library in  Keewatin (next to Kenora), another Northwestern Ontario community an hour and a half closer to Winnipeg, Manitoba. (In northwest Ontario you measure distance by travel time by car to Thunder Bay or Winnipeg. Those two cities are eight hours apart, at 90 plus kilometres per hour.)

My Beeb sits, rarely used but well loved, right beside my 486sx.  You can guess what the sx stands for, just as it sounds. Did I say that?

Cheers,
Rick.

ps: I still want a RiscPC, or at least a new system with Risc OS. Guess I'll have to order one from the U.K. when I have some dough. (er, moo-lah, cash, you know, funds in the bank?) 


Ben Newsam
As a matter of interest, which OS does it use in Canada? How many pixels in each screen mode? There was a special version of the OS (and a slightly different machine) for use in the USA. They spent, ISTR, 11 million pounds on marketing in the US, and sold a grand total of 50 machines.

The different OS was required because of the 60 Hz scan speed of US TVs. The modified machine was required to satisfy radiation requirements, there was a metal shield inside the case.



Mark Usher
The different OS can be found at
http://www.fortunecity.com/skyscraper/hirez/422/

Now what I'd be interested in hearing about was the Spanish version. Apparently this was produced for the Mexican / S. American market and ended up being built under license in the US. 



Ben Newsam
I have an actual ROM labelled "USMOS 1.0". It has been modified as follows: Pin 1 (top left) is bent flat, as is the second pin down the right hand side. A small wire connects pin 1 to the first two pins on the right hand side. Quite how it would work in emulation, I do not know. 

Mike Mallett
Just my views ....

> Why, when the BBC is undoubtedly the best computer ever made, did Acorn lose its grip and let it all go down the toilet?

Although I was a keen BBC user it did have many rivals. Probably one minus was its limited RAM but in other ways it beat
many other machines ...

>It is still an invaluable bit of kit that many people could not manage without if only for cost and reliability.

True for some specialist use like hardware interfacing ....
 

>I know because I am regularly supplying replacement bits to all sorts of people, businesses and private individuals. I am seriously attached to the Master that I use (for heavens sake, please don't tell Gill though)

> What happened? Why has Acorn withered away into insignificance when the machines they made were fantastic?

Although a great BBC fan I was never keen on Acorn as a company - for many reasons most of which I have forgotten !

One cause was the the move away from the midrange home machine to a clear split between 'work' computers and 'game' consoles. At the top end the PC and the Mac ruled and no-one could really beat their momentum.
 

> Acorn field all their BBC related queries at me, I do not charge Acorn, yet they would not offer me any sort of discount on one of their newer machines. Why?

Exactly !

> I genuinely hate the PC and software that I use to publish this document and am sure that Acorn have probably done better.

Well I'm a real PC man - just a sign of the time. I can't see why you hate them ....



Rick Galbraith

>As a matter of interest, which OS does it use in Canada?
OS U1.1 ; could be in US or UK mode.
DFS 1.20; NFS 3.60
Also, LOGO 1.00, View A2.1, Viewsheet 1.0,

>How many pixels in each screen mode?
The statement is made in the user guide, "In all screen modes which can support easily defined graphics the range of values for a, b, c and d is always the same: 0-799 vertically, 0-1279 horizontally."
Not that I believe that. There was a game of dodgems on the intro disc, and you had to specify *US, followed by break, to put your machine into U.S. mode, or the cars were shifted off the lines by half a screen width.  So, I don't know whether that was true.

>There was a special version of the OS (and a slightly different machine) for use in the USA. They spent, ISTR, 11 million pounds on marketing in the US, and sold a grand total of 50 machines.
They sold at least thirty in the bush country of Northwest Ontario, and many others. Olivetti maintained a BBC rep in Toronto well into 1995. However, the U.S. branch did suffer an early demise.  I understand that a number of machines did make it out to Texas, or maybe that was just rumour?

>The different OS was required because of the 60 Hz scan speed of US TVs.
It wasn't noticeable on the Kimtron SCB monitors sold to schools and institutions, but the OS did have a faulty table of values, creating jitters on the average Zenith monochrome monitors.  I never noticed the problem until after burning out two SCBs, and graduating backwards to the Zenith.   The Canadian user group did have a member that revamped the OS with a better table of values.  But what has happened to this will probably be a mystery, since most of the members have gone on to other things, like Macs and buggy pentiums.

>The modified machine was required to satisfy radiation requirements, there was a metal shield inside the case.
Which shield some enterprising members removed when adding sideways RAM, etc. Machine still causes interference with T.V. if, like us, you use a makeshift antenna.



This added 12/10/1999 It is an article originally published in the Solinet magazine, nothing to do with 8BS. The article was sent to me by its writer Edmund Burke. If I remember Ron Marshall's (Editor of Solinet)  wishes correctly, he says all the articles remain the property of the writer, so I guess he will not mind me reproducing it here as Edmund has sent it to me for publication here. All comments within the text from 'ED' are by Ron Marshall (I assume)
 

TURNING THE TIDE

Feedback from Edmund Burke (0181 549 1165) to Chris Robbins' History article in issue 12.5.

[This article was originally published in “Solinet”, the on-disc magazine of the BBC Micro user group. It was a response to an article by Chris Robbins on the early days of software. It appeared in Issue 13.2, March, 1998. Comments in capital letters are from the Editor, Ron Marshall. Anyone with a BBC Micro who is interested in joining Solinet can contact Ron at the following address:

41 Westbrook Drive,
Rainworth,
Notts NG21 0FB
Tel 01623 795053
e-mail: ronmarshall@lineone.net
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Perhaps it's just as well that Chris Robbins' survey of the history of software only covered the early days. It would be too embarrassing for owners of the BBC Micro to ask what happened to the mighty oak promised by the Acorn logo! (I reflect on it wistfully every time I get a letter from Ron...) Even the non-historian can't fail to take stock of the facts which form the sequel to "the early  days". These made a vivid impression on me quite recently, since I have been learning BASIC on the Beeb whilst my kids have had the  run of the Pentium machine.

Do you remember the contest for the world land speed record last summer?  Microsoft News called it "the race of the century". But I can't help wondering whether the term could apply equally well to the contest for control of the British computer market.We lost! There can be no doubt that in those preThatcherite days of nationalised institutions, the Beeb was intended to take its place alongside the boat race and the last night of the proms. The historic reputations of the BBC and of the University of Cambridge were staked  on a venture which, as far as the symbol of the acorn is concerned, failed to grow into a mighty oak.

(INDEED, FOR SOME YEARS THE MODEL B WAS POSSIBLY BIGGER THAN THE BOAT RACE. THE INDUSTRY WENT QUITE WILD, WITH SEVERAL DEDICATED MAGAZINES AND A WHOLE TV SERIES ABOUT IT. A MODIFIED B WAS SOLD IN QUANTITY TO THE USA. UNFORTUNATELY, ACORN TOOK A DIFFERENT ROUTE TO  IBM, WHICH STUNTED THE GROWTH OF THE OAK. ED.)
 

For the members of SOLINET, admittedly, the Beeb is still a viable machine. And if you're a one-man band running a small business, a working knowledge of BASIC can save you a fortune in software. But the writing was already on the wall, for bigger businesses, in the BBC User manual: the chapter on error handling includes tips on making software foolproof for other users in an office, and Ian Sinclair similarly shows you how to devise "mugtraps" with the same problem in mind. You can't really advertise for staff who have a miraculous insight into your own style of programming.

Microsoft seem to have proven that the long-term solution lies in a standardised, idiot-proof graphic user interface, rather than widespread adult literacy in programming. The standardisation itself reminds me of going on narrow gauge railway trips on holiday in Wales. Someone, somewhere along the line, has to set the standard gauge, and that was where Microsoft effectively wrote the sequel to Chris Robbins' history article.

What interests me additionally about the aftermath of the software revolution, detailed by Chris Robbins, is the hidden cultural revolution which it brought about. There's more than a touch of Wallace and Grommit in the history of the Beeb - one can almost whiff the pipe-smoke of the carpet-slippered don, keeping alive the English tradtion of the gentlemanly amateur. But it seems to have got steam-rollered by the massive clout of really professional American marketing.

Maybe my casual observations don't provide the whole picture - and I'm more than willing to be corrected if I've got it wrong. But these are the facts as I see them:

1) The BBC User Guide was for a cassette system, because the disc drive scenario wasn't up and running.

2) Ian Sinclair's "Introduction to the BBC Micro", published in 1983, was also for a cassette system because, as he says in the Introduction, the BBC disc operating system was "still unobtainable, though widely advertised, at the time when this was written in mid- February, 1983)".

3) In 1983, however, MS-DOS reached version 2.11, providing support for a 10MB hard disc, 360KB floppy discs and sub-directories, and support for the extended character set.

4) In 1986, the year in which SOLINET was founded, MS-DOS 3.2 provided support for a hard disc of up to  32MB, for networks and for  3.5", 720K floppy discs.

5) 1986 was also the year in which R.I.M. Sadek published "The Complete Disc Manual for the BBCMicrocomputer" in which he notes in the Introduction:"The BBC circuitry was designed to take the now ageing Intel 8271 chip and its support components...". In keeping with our historic traditions, we Brits finished our game of bowls - but we didn't defeat the Armada this time round.

Well, where do we go from here? I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest we face the sad fact that disc drives are going to be a long-term problem. And now for an outrageous suggestion:  should we start planning to create a SOLINET web-site for members who also have a PC and use the internet?

The suggestion may seem crazy, since it is logical to ask what point there is in keeping a BBC Micro if one communicates over the net through an IBM-compatible PC, which won't take BBC discs, which won't run BBC BASIC and has to be linked to the BEEB via KERMIT.[NB. Comment October 1999: I didn’t know at the time of writing the article that BBC BASIC for the PC is available from Rakewell.]

(SEE MY ARTICLE (SOLINET 8.3 1993) ON HOW I CONNECTED A MASTER 128 TO MY PC, USING A SERIAL LEAD AND COMMS SOFTWARE (PROCOMM-PLUS IN MY CASE, WHICH I STILL HAVE SOMEWHERE). 'TERMINAL' (BUILT INTO M128) CAN ALSO BE USED. THE ARTICLE DESCRIBES HOW TO MAKE THE LEAD A ND USE THE SOFTWARE. I EVEN PRODUCED THE WORDWISE-PLUS MENU ON THE PC. IN ADDITION, I HAVE A NICE 'BBCBASIC' WHICH RUNS PRETTY WELL ON A PC AND SEVERAL MEMBERS HAVE HAD SOME SUCCESS WITH THAT. I HAVE SOFTWARE FOR TRANSFERRING TEXT FILES
BETWEEN BBC AND PC (SOLINET SPECIAL 1). ED.)

Well, believe it or not there are IBM programs which now host classic BBC games as nostalgia spots - but that's a side issue! If we  go back to Chapter 27 in the User Guide (on Error handling) there's no escaping the long-term necessity for some such system as Windows 95: "However if you are writing a program for someone else to use, and you do not want them to be bothered with error messages then you must take the precautions to deal with every possible erroneous situation which might arise." Windows 95 solves that problem by locking everyone except the expert out of the backstage DOS and machine. (OK, Ron disagrees about the Windows user being locked out of the system, but he's an expert, which puts him in a different category...)

(I DO NOT THINK OF MYSELF AS EVEN nearly AN EXPERT, EDMUND, BUT HAVE NOW HAD A FEW YEARS EXPERIENCE AND WILL ALWAYS TRY. DOS is EASY TO GET AT, BUT DEPENDING ON YOUR SYSTEM, PROBLEMS can ARISE WHEN RUNNING DOS IN A WINDOW. INSTEAD, CLICK "Start - Shut Down" AND CH OOSE "Re-Start in MS-DOS Mode" (return to Windows with "EXIT<enter> before quitting). DEPENDING ON YOUR PATH, YOU MIGHT HAVE TO GO T O THE DOS DIR TO SEE IT ALL. QBASIC SHOULD BE  THERE, BUT IS not MUCH LIKE BBC BASIC. OUR NORMAN FAY HAS A GREAT DEAL OF EXPERIENCE  WITH THAT AND BBCBASIC TOO. BY THE WAY, IF YOU ARE USING A FAT32 SYSTEM WITH THE LATER WIN95 OSR2, do not use QBASIC - IT, AND SOME  OTHER DOS UTILS, OF WHICH I CAN SUPPLY A LIST, CAN CAUSE TROUBLE WITH THE SYSTEM. ED.)

Incidentally, you may recall that the User Guide employs a teaching method known as "teacher-assisted deep-end immersion" .It was also manifestly designed originally for users upgrading to be Beeb from other machines, and was then peripherally edited to include beginners. But these were seen as watered-down programmers who had a lot to learn on the bottom rung of the ladder. In the chapter on "Read, Data, Restore"(22)the  program on choosing a car to suit your pocket doesn't work, and you're referred to the chapter on error handling to sort it out. That doesn't work either. So I have written a possible solution (I'm sure there are many such in the Solinet archives!) using two procedures (the Program title is LOTUS). Can this be made shorter by nesting the loops?

Anyway let's get back to the history theme. The modern software provider goes to the opposite extreme of the Beeb User Manual. I get the impression from current software literature that it's now a matter of flattering and nannying the user, of creating a culture of computers for dummies. And I would suggest in protest that this is precisely where the rationale of SOLINET as a potential web site comes into play. I'm personally deeply attached to those donnish, carpet-slippered, forthright eccentricities of the gentlemanly amateur - but there is no place for them in the politically sanitised chat-rooms of most net providers!

When all's said and done, the Internet isn't international. The American approach, which dominates it, is really just an update on the Wild West, in which aliens have taken over from Indians and frontier psychology has shifted from the wagon train and the camp fire to a surrogate new world of "extropy".

Extropians believe in using the internet to help you become "transhuman". So it looks as though the history of computing, having gone through the classical phase of pure logic in programming, is now cresting a tidal wave of romantic poetry: according to the current issue of ".net", the internet magazine, "The five Extropian principles (version 2.6) are: boundless expansion, self-transformation , dynamic optimism, intelligent technology and spontaneous order."

A SOLINET web-site would be the British way of saying let's have a bit of common sense.
 

Edmund Burke.



Paul Relf (E4J) 17/11/1999

The discussions about the failure of Acorn are very interesting, and have variously been done to death in the readers pages of Acorn User for the past few years. However, now that Acorn is gone, the market seems to be picking up and new 'cheap' machines are due any day now from RiscStation Ltd. (www.riscstation.co.uk) They use RISC OS 4, but underneath they still have old favourites like *CAT, *EX etc. Also BBC BASIC is still there, with all the commands extended as was always promised in Master Series manuals. Perhaps now Acorn is gone, an ARM Ltd type success story might emerge... In fact, 2nd hand A5000s or 540s (I have a 540) are really good and reliable (and now cheap).



 
 Back to 8BS
Or
Return To On Line Magazine