IN 1980, Clive Sinclair surprised the world and set himself back on the road to fame and fortune by introducing the first computer for less than £100. There had been programmable calculators costing less which had been on sale for some time but that was the first time a machine which could properly be called a computer had been put on the market.
It had only 1K and its black and white graphics were limited, but it was a computer. If Clive had done nothing after that he would have been assured of a prominent place in the development and spread of the use of computers.
Three years later, however, we have the 16K Spectrum for the same price of £99.95. Sixteen times the RAM, far better graphics and colour, are all now available. At that rate of progress it is amazing to think what might be possible in the next three years.
The next stage is probably fairly easy to predict. It is widely expected that the new machine planned by Sinclair Research will be a portable computer intended for the business market. In the home market, however, the next steps are likely to be an improvement on the Spectrum. All Sinclair users know that there are plenty of areas in which the Spectrum can be improved. Better sound, the ability to obtain more complex graphics, and a standard keyboard would be likely to feature on everyone's list, along with a debugged ROM.
It is unlikely, though, that Sinclair would be willing to make small-scale improvements to a successful machine. Any new computer would thus be different in many ways from the Spectrum, while still being based on the technology which has already been developed.
For an idea of what the addition to the Sinclair range might be like it is a good idea to look across the Atlantic at what Timex is planning to do. The major changes which are expected in producing the TS2000 are the removal of the ROM bugs and the addition of a ROM cartridge port to ease the problems of loading pre-recorded programs.
If in Britain better sound and graphics and an improved keyboard are included, there is the basis of a new computer to compete in the home market.
From there we must move into the realm of even greater speculation based on the experience of previous developments in electronic products and the innovation of Sinclair Research. For a start we have the other developments in the company, particularly the flat-screen television and the Microdrive.
It has already been announced that both would be part of the portable business machine, so there is no reason to suppose that they could not also be part of a home computer.
By increasing the size of the screen to that of a portable television, it would probably be possible to have a computer which looked just the same as a small set with a keyboard.
It should not be too difficult to take the Microdrive interface on board which, as it includes a RS232 interface, would allow a normal printer to be used with it.
Put all that together and you have a machine looking similar to what everyone assumes a computer should look like but with vastly increased power and at a fraction of the cost.
There is only one consideration which could stop that picture developing. While many people have criticised Sinclair machines for not looking like proper computers, it has certainly been one of their advantages that they have been easily recognisable. The closer the company moves to the expected formula of a computer, albeit with more power and at less cost, it loses some of its character. It is just another machine in a very crowded market.
Sinclair is no doubt aware of that and with its award-winning designer, Rick Dickinson, is probably working on ways of avoiding that situation. One idea from the Sinclair User think tank is to have a cased keyboard containing the computer with a hinged lid containing the screen but we are sure that the Sinclair research department has plenty of ideas of its own.
With improved chip development, it is also likely that memory will become cheaper in much the same way that prices of calculators fell dramatically in a very short time. The first result of that will be a steady fall in prices, as is beginning with the Spectrum.
That will probably mean the early end to sales of the ZX-81. Few people will be willing to buy a basic machine of that kind, no matter how small the price, when a machine with the capabilities of the Spectrum might cost very little more.
There is probably a base price for computers of about £30. When a machine reaches that price it would be better to increase the facilities rather than to reduce the price any further.
Another outcome of those developments would be the end to the split between the business and home markets. With more power for less money it is inevitable that a manufacturer will make a product which can handle the needs of a small business, yet cheap and compact enough to be within reach of the home user. Sinclair Research could be the company to offer such a machine.
One thing is certain. In another three years the home computer market will be vastly different from what we know today. Computers in the home will be more accepted and those who bought the ZX-80, ZX-81 and the Spectrum will be seen as pioneers of a new leisure industry. There will be vintage computer clubs for the nostalgia market - and the acceptance of powerful machines as part of the furniture.