In September of 1981 while in England I happened upon a computer show. I said I was with the Northwest Computer News and got a press pass. Our local computer club newsletter was a 12 page tabloid size newspaper. I interviewed many vendors and took notes. After a trip to England I talked with the editor and she wrote this story for the October 1981 issue. Here are the photos I took.

Michael Holley

London Computer Faire

Footmen in bright red livery, gentlemen politely sipping tea from cup and saucer or beer from glass seemed the major touches of ethnicity to Mike Holley, a Northwest Computer Society member, as he attended the Fourth Annual Personal Computer World Show in London recently. The Fair was held September 10 through 12 and is the largest in the United Kingdom. Much like our West Coast Computer Fair, major manufacturers familiar to us presented their products as well as British, European and Japanese manufacturers with products that are not available in the U.S.

Filling two floors of show space, the main floor was oriented for home/hobbyists while the upper floor offered products with more appeal to businesses. The main floor seemed to attract the lion's share of interest, it was crowded with lookers. The upper level was not able to attract as many people. By the end of the second day, 8,000 people had attended and they expected a very large crowd for the final day.

Mike was impressed with the number of British manufacturers. It seems the industry is healthy and active. One company doing well is Acorn which markets a product called Atom. It sells for about 150 or about $350, 120 as a kit. It is a 6502 colour (sic) computer much like the Apple with general purpose software, Microsoft standard BASIC, keyboard and peripherals. Clive Sinclair's single board computer is very popular, especially with its attractive price, 50 in kit form. Based on the Z80, it is a bare bones system with just five integrated circuits and very portable.

Nascom ran into cash flow problems and was acquired by Lucas Electronics, a multinational. They produce an interesting Z80 computer, for sale just as a main board without a bus. They sell modules that can be added. A little box with floppy disks and controller board is available and the CRT sits on top. They sell all the basic kit parts for as little as 125. Other things like 10 boards, disc controllers, memory and software may be purchased and added separately. A smaller company is offering an Ohio Scientific superboard look-alike. It too comes as a kit.

Data Applications offers a color computer similar to the Apple. It has both hobby and business orientations. It is based on the Z80 with CP/M. Most of the companies are getting CP/M.

Companies more familiar to us like Radio Shack (Tandy), Texas Instruments (Texas), Commodore (Pet), Atari, Apple, NEC, Sharp, and many others showed their latest and greatest. On the first floor, the big booths were Tandy, Apple and Pet. NEC was displaying their business computer upstairs, one they recently introduced to the US.

The systems above and below were very similar, the only differences were in the marketing methods. On the second floor they had three-piece suits and below they were casual.

Commodore's Vic 20 is like the Tandy Color Computer, a keyboard in a box. A reviewer said the basic Vic costs 190 ($400) stripped. It has 6502 processor, standard Commodore BASIC, full sized keyboard better than the Tandy, cassette interface, and optional peripheral interfaces. Disk drives are yet to come. It is in the group with the TI-99, the Atari 400 and is very nice. A TRS-80 Color Computer has not been introduced to the UK market yet because of the differences with television broadcasting standards, but when available it will sell for about 350 versus 200 for the Vic. Commodore is low-balling to attract a major portion of the market before Tandy enters.

The Sharp MZ80K in the UK is different than that sold in the US. It is more like the HP85. A nice little package with a keyboard, small monitor, built in commercial tape drive with automatic rewind and high resolution graphics. The monitor is green phosphor, with 40 characters per line, 320x20 pixels resolution. They also have floppy discs and printers to plug in. The Radio Shack Model 1 is still available and selling for considerably less than the Model 2. It was dropped in the US because of the FCC rulings. There are no similar rulings in the UK yet. It costs 300. The Model 3 costs 600.

Because their television has higher resolution (20 percent better), the color graphics are much better than ours. The Apple requires an adaptor board to convert it. There is a company that sells a Texas Instruments converter, too, but it just lowers the performance to the US level.

Also popular are talking computers but there are complaints about the American accent. Votrax and other companies offer plug in boards. Mike tested the Texas Instruments Speak and Spell but could not tell if it had a British version. UK educators would surely be distressed to have words like colour, theatre, and centre misspelled. Mike did see a help file that had some translations.

Software availability is basically the same. Microsoft Basic is just about standard, and other American software companies like Lifeboat are active in the marketplace with the same products they offer here. The major difference is price. Things that cost $1,000 here cost 1,000 there, more than double.

One British software company had a big booth and offered a fancy programming language that would take a description of your database and write a program for it. The reviewers say it still has a long way to go. The popular games like Space Invaders and Asteroids have taken over pubs, and high school kids do the same things they do here.

Educational institutions have about the same access to computers for the classroom, mostly limited by the cost. Sharp, Apple and Pet are popular but the Government is backing a British made computer. The schools go ahead and buy what they like best, especially the inexpensive items.

The United Kingdom is gearing up for a major project that is innovative and exciting-so innovative that it probably is not possible in the US. The computing industry is teaming up with the BBC to develop a small computer that will be used in conjunction with a 10 part television series on using a computer. The BBC Computer has just been announced; it will sell for 235 ($470-500) and will be available around the first of the year. It is a 6502-based machine but was specifically designed to handle other processors. They will have a Z80 processor and another 6502 processor kit available for more capability. They have a kit for networking the things called Econet and an interface to connect several together for data transfer or to share disks and peripherals. It is a reasonably sophisticated machine. It will use Microsoft Basic so other computer owners can follow along with the series. The television series being coordinated by BBC to be broadcast this year is a national event with the Academy of Science. It is an extensive home study course on computing.

Another case where they are ahead of us is with Prestel. Prestel is offered by the telephone company (part of the post office there). It is a large database, several thousand pages of data that you access with a special television and the telephone. You can dial up hotels for reservations, reserve a room, see the Dow Jones averages and get other information. It is an indexed system so you can get help accessing the directories. The cost is prohibitive. However, the special television is 1,000. There are companies who are selling little boxes to attach to your regular TV for 170.

The system is not really tied into computers for timesharing yet but Prestel has made arrangements with Practical Computing to give the magazine several thousand pages on the system. The hope is that computerists can make access to the database quicker and better. They plan to allow storage of programs so people who have computers can share information. The 170 output device has a cassette so you can store and review data. The project hasn't really taken off yet but it looks like it will. An area where they are behind is with modems. They don't have modems. The British Post Office who runs the Phone Company believes that they are the only ones smart enough to produce modems. So they have no modems. At the computer Fair, however, there was one modem from Micro Peripheral Corp. of Mercer Island, WA. It was being imported by a company over there and they were dialing up the Source, Telenet and other US databases via satellite. They were advertising access to US databases. The modems aren't quite legal yet but the post office is expected to rule on them within a few months. The modems were selling for 200.

Even with the depressed economy, there is still a demand for high technology consumer items. Kiosks and magazine racks everywhere may have 20 to 30 magazines about electronics and computing. A lot more information is available to the public. The industry recognizes that they must keep prices low because people don't earn as much. A typical engineer earns 9000 as opposed to $25,000 in the U.S. People tend to buy the cheaper machines. There are thousands of low end and kit machines sold. Pet and Sinclair are popular and there is a lot of software available.

The retail stores are sometimes clustered in neighborhoods and the U.S. companies market differently. Radio Shack, for example, who only offers house-labeled items in the U.S., carries a full line of computers in their stores in England. The shops are small and often have selling space in the basement or loft. One area will be devoted to complete packages and another for kits and parts. The clerks are somewhat more professional.

Overall, Mike's impression of the computing industry in the UK was of remarkable similarity with ours. There are few significant differences. But it is fun to go to a computer fair wherever you are in the world.  

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This page was last edited October 25, 2008