Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 06/84 item 02 - scanned

IS MSX GOING TO TAKE OVER?

The grapevine is buzzing with rumours of two more microcomputing magazines to be launched in the autumn. Some bright spark has decided it's time to pitch at the home computer market. Tee hee! Hasn't anyone told them that the newsagents have run out of shelf space?

The magazines in question are apparently to focus their entire attention on MSX machines. I suppose it's not such a bad idea; after all, we already have an MS-DOS magazine in Dennis Jarrett's 16-bit Computing and, in America at least, there have been CP/M magazines. (I think there's just one left now.) The only fly in the ointment seems to be the lack of MSX machines in Britain. I can't imagine that a publisher could be naive enough to have missed this point, so what does he know that we don't?

Well, I've been mugging up a bit on what the Japanese have been up to and guess what? Yes, that's right, they've all gone bananas for MSX machines. The list of manufacturers committed to MSX as a standard reads like a roll of honour from the camera and hi-fi business. They're all in there: Canon, Sony, Sanyo, Hitachi, Pioneer and many more besides.

Just reflect for a couple of microseconds on the penetration these companies have achieved in this country with their home entertainment and photographic products. Do you believe in deja vu? What the Japanese like to sell is consumer products that can be produced cheaply, automatically and to a consistent high quality, and which require little documentation. Cars, motorbikes, hi-fi, cameras and now home computers all fit the bill. Business computers are not consumer products and I suspect that this is one of the main reasons why the Japanese have not really made their mark over here with them. But they have every chance of breaking in effectively with their home offerings.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that parents are going to be hard to convince of the value of a home machine the second time around. I thought that having been caught out once into giving their offspring the equivalent of an arcade game, they would think very carefully before doing it again. From what I can see, some Japanese companies have anticipated this reaction to a certain extent. They aren't going to try to catch the parents with application software; they're just not tuned in to that approach. What they will do is form hook-ups between the computer and the equipment they already supply. Thus we shall see stacking computers to go on top of the hi-fi, music synthesisers as peripherals, end 'frame grabbers' which can interface directly to the video recorder and swipe pictures for further processing by the computer.

Now, let's look at MSX itself. What the heck is it and why is it so important? MSX is an operating system designed to work with a certain hardware configuration. The processor, graphics and sound chips will be common to all MSX machines. The Basic language will be the same, and mass-produced software will be supplied in a format common to all MSX machines. MSX has a healthy pedigree in that it originated from Microsoft, already well known for its range of software offerings including PC-DOS, MS-DOS and Basic.

Software publishers have tended to shy away from cartridge software because of the necessary commitment to high volume production runs. With so many different home computers around, it was clearly easier to go for the simpler cassette approach. Now, of course, they will be able to sell their software in these common format cartridges. The benefits are enormous. Casual copying of programs could disappear overnight, the customer gets a reliable product, and the cost of production will fall. I even hear rumours that some CP/M programs run on MSX machines without modification. The chosen MSX processor is the 8080 whose instruction set was chosen by many programmers because of its upward compatibility with the Z80 end the 8085. If the CP/M rumour is true, then it could bring a little happiness to many authors who are watching their CP/M revenues drying up.

Of course, it may be that I am over-reacting to the news coming out of Japan. Maybe they see Sinclair, Acorn and Commodore as too well entrenched to make the UK worth tackling. But then the Japanese didn't let things like a strong UK presence bother them when they knocked over our motorbike industry. Perhaps Sinclair will become a latter-day Norton or BSA. Perhaps the Japanese won't invade, in which case I know a magazine publisher who's about to catch a cold. Well, two actually.