David Tebbutt, MicroScope 12/84 item 01 - scanned
CAN ICL STAY ON THE DESK? (column)
Six years ago when I was with ICL, I stumbled across one of its five-year plans. This supposedly secret document had been left on a window ledge in some high-up's office. Being an honest sort of chap, I sat down to await said high-up and didn't dream of peeping between the covers. When I had been kept waiting for half an hour I started to get peeved so I took a minor sort of revenge I flicked through the plan. I was astonished to find no mention of any microcomputers. We were in the middle of a revolution in computing and ICL didn't seem to even be aware of it. To cut a long story short, I resigned and joined Bunch Books (publishers of this very organ) and we re-launched Personal Computer World.
ICL finally got into microcomputers on the back of Mark Potts' Rair computer. Later on it tweaked the DRS-20 to run CP/M, thus establishing a minor toe-hold on the microcomputer business. I think that both these moves were designed to hold on to users rather than spearhead a strong drive into the microcomputer marketplace.
Now with the OPD (One Per Desk) ICL has done something imaginative and highly relevant to today's needs. For this we can thank Robb Wilmot and Sir Clive Sinclair who have been buddies for some time and, indeed, it was on one evening three years ago that these two gents cooked up the idea of a one-per-desk computer cum telephone system. At the time there were dreams of a built-in flat screen but this went by the board in favour of a more conventional VDU. Some of the Sinclair bits stayed (microdrives and three chips) but much of the contribution is ICL's.
The software especially is ICL's baby although the Basic is something of a copy of Sinclair's SuperBasic. The system software allows the user to start a job, then dive off to another task then, leaving both of those jobs running, start another - perhaps while making a phone call and receiving a data transmission at the same time. The idea is tremendous. Busy people work that way. They really do need to jump from task to task as the day progresses. "Ah. But there must be a catch" I hear you say. Yes, I thought that too. I expected the price to be high - say around £2500. I was wrong. At around £1150 for the machine plus £150 for the Psion Xchange software, OPD offers a formidable combination. The threats, if any, will come from companies like IBM and AT&T who will find it irritating to see a company like ICL stealing business from them.
The delivery vehicle for this product is the telephone. Everyone needs a phone, maybe two. With OPD you've got two although you don't have to use them both if you've only got one socket. The machine has even got a speech synthesiser which can answer your callers. It can't take messages but you can at least tell your callers where to find you or when you might be back.
ICL's success with this innovative concept rests on three things. One is its ability to sell and market the thing. The second is the reliability of the microdrives, and the third is the activity of the competition. Taking these in order: ICL has a supersalesman near the top of this project. He has been flying round the world setting up deals with telephone companies and major corporate clients. If all ICL's salesmen were like him then the company would have few problems. (He would be very embarrassed if I mentioned his name.)
Marketing - well, I've not exactly been bowled over by ICL's efforts in this area although the 'communicating office' did catch my imagination. The main thrust of the OPD advertising will be of the product as a 'personal assistant'. The microdrives gave me a few problems when I got hold of a prototype but by the time of the launch they seemed just fine. The important thing to remember is that they're intended primarily as a backup device for the memory. They are really too slow to use for regular data storage and retrieval.
In general I feel that this concept is so exciting that many dyed-in-the-wool ICL people will have trouble adjusting to this leap into the fast moving microcomputer industry. Fortunately I can say, hand on heart, that they have no competition at present. ICL has the field all to itself. It is a wonderful opportunity for the company, and as a Briton (and ex-employee) I wish the company every success with this new product. But, by golly, ICL has got to move fast and keep moving to hang on to its lead.