David Tebbutt, MicroScope 03/83 item 01 - scanned
UFO SPOTTER'S VOICE ON LINE THREE AGAIN (column) - help desk
When we first started Caxton we thought it would be a good idea to advertise for would-be software authors. But we never expected the three hundred or so people who contacted us with a view to becoming a 'Freddie Forsyth' of microcomputing. The reason I mention this is because it was during this time that we encountered our first 'grockles'. The word is used in Devon to describe a tourist but we adopted it as a label for people whose behaviour is eccentric or irritating. The first grockle we can remember is the one who telephoned to say that he'd written a superb package that was just what we were looking for. "What does it do?" I asked. "Ah, before I tell you that, I want a signed contract that commits you to publishing it." And he meant it.
The man just could not understand that we couldn't commit ourselves to anything without knowing what it was. "If I tell you what it is, you'll rip off the idea." "Well come and meet us and see if you like us then you can decide whether to tell us or not." The story became part of the Caxton folklore, little did we think that 'phone calls like this would become weekly occurrence.
Another favourite we've received in various guises a couple of hundred times is from people who think they can make a killing from rewriting a popular package with one or two frills of their own. The 'phone call is usually along the lines of 'Would you be interested in a better version of VisiCalc?'. Adam Osborne hit the nail on the head with his favourite saying, "Better is the enemy of good, adequacy is sufficient, anything else is irrelevant." Granting a certain degree of poetic licence, I think he's right. If something works adequately, leave it alone unless you're going to make such a vast improvement that your product is almost unrelated to the existing one. It's amazing how many authors think a slight speed improvement, screen layout change or extra feature gives them a chance against established successful products.
It's an odd thing, but many of the grockles have very similar voices. People who remember Peter Cook's EL Wisty will know the voice. Even older people may remember Kenneth Connor's "Ho, ho Teddy" to Ted Ray many years earlier. When I worked with Peter Rodwell at PCW, we christened it the 'UFO spotter's voice'. Anyway, it is distinctive and nearly always gives us a few milliseconds warning of the sort of 'phone conversation we're in for. One day when I was out of the office, Bill picked up the 'phone to hear this characteristic voice say "Hello, is that Caxton Software?" Bill said "Stop messing about David." To which the voice replied, "But my name's Nigel."
One of our favourite callers was a young lad who'd written a horoscope program for the ZX81. Since he sounded like a nice kid Bill suggested all sorts of ways in which he could get this program marketed and expressed his regret that we couldn't handle it. Two days later the lad was back on the 'phone to say, "I discussed your comments with my mum but we've decided that we would prefer you to publish the program."
Once we were on the road with a couple of products, we opened the doors to a whole new range of callers. The most common was the user or dealer who called us for a talking manual. The conversations usually went something like this: "I've just received your program and I'd like to know how to get it running." We'd reply "Have you looked at the manual." To which they'd respond "Well, you see I've got to give a demonstration to my client/boss in ten minutes."
There are lots of variations on this particular theme. "I've read the manuals from cover to cover and it definitely does not tell me how to paint a screen." "Have you looked at page fifteen?" "I just told you, I've read the whole... oh, wait a minute, I must have missed that page." The best of these was the man who said "I've read the manual and understood every word but I just can't seem to put it into practice." It was the first time this person had ever seen a computer and he was totally panic-stricken. Once he knew he couldn't foul anything up and that we would talk to him if he really needed us, he went on to develop a very sophisticated application.
One of the most irritating calls came from a man who had been referred to us by his dealer. He'd got a message like 'BDOS ERROR ON DRIVE A: R/OI. The dealer really should have twigged that his client had a write-protected disk in drive A. Fortunately, these calls are rare. We have had the odd arrogant person who insists that a package is total rubbish because it won't load on his machine. There are two versions of this one - either he is trying to boot from the issue disk which doesn't contain any system tracks or he is trying to load an Osborne disk on an Apple, for example. It would be wonderful if there was a standard for minifloppies like that for 8-inch disks.
One man came to us recently because he'd accidentally messed up a rather important file. Since he was really in a jam and I was feeling a little benign that day, I offered to fix it for him. What I thought might be a fairly trivial job turned out to be rather more complicated but having embarked on it, I finished the restoration. Just to be on the safe side I returned his disk with a back up of each of the three files I'd used: the original, the dump and the restored file. About ten minutes after he received the disk he called me to say "I decided to purge some of the unnecessary files and I must have got carried away because I deleted the restored ones as well." Like a twit, I hadn't kept a copy of his files myself. And, yes, to his eternal gratitude, I did restore his stuff again.
The final tale is my favourite to date although we'd quickly go broke if all our customers did this to us. Bill had the honour of receiving a grockle 'phone call last week. "Hello, I wonder if you can help me." "l'll try," said Bill. "I've created a file but I've forgotten what I called it." "Have you listed the directory." "Er, how do you do that?" "Type DIR then hit return." "Yes, I've done that. Oh it's listing all the files on my disk." "Can you see the one you're looking for?" asked Bill. "No, no, no, no, (pause), no, no, no, no, (another pause), no, no... no yes here it is. Thank you."