But Electron User's coverage of the event was much more positive, funnily enough...
EDIT: Transcript of article in Computing Today magazine, November 1983, pages 88-90:
- Opinion: Editorial comment
Two events involving the Electron took place last month, and have earned Acorn both brickbats and bouquets from the editor.
From little Acorns mighty oaks do grow, and Acorn have certainly come a long way since the early days when the company was a twinkle in the eyes of a few of the then Uncle Clive's employees. Now a major force in the British computer industry, and obviously destined to be one of the survivors in the cut-throat battles that now rage over the destination of your pocket money, they have unfortunately not advanced as far in the field of public relations as they have in electronics. At least they haven't judging by the press launch in August of the Acorn Electron.
One of the mixed blessings in the life of a journalist is the Press Launch. We tend to get inundated with invitations to various binges to announce the arrival of new computers, peripherals, software, companies, marketing strategies, and sometimes apparently just to remind us that a business still exists. Often the PR company organising the reception has sent out invitations to all and sundry, and the product has no relevance to the target readership of the magazine, so the lure of free food and drink has to be resisted and the invite turned down. Sometimes you guess wrong, and come away feeling that you've wasted a couple of hours on something of no use to the magazine.
But when a PR company (and wild horses wouldn't drag the name of the Quentin Bell Organisation from my lips) sends out beautifully embossed invitations to meet Acorn Computers 'At Home' to see the new Electron, a major new computer from the people who brought you the BBC Micro, surely this will be time well spent?
How wrong can you be.
GONE TO LAUNCH
Since we're giving the Electron our usual extensive review in the January issue of Computing Today, let's, for a change, review the launch rather than the computer. The bigger the company and the product, the larger the hotel that is hired, and Acorn did things in style by hiring the Ballroom at the Park Lane Hotel, Piccadilly. An unusual touch as we went in was in the ritual issuing of identity badges (useful after over-indulgence in the wine). Normally they are cards with typed or written labels, but here guests typed in their name and company into a computer which then produced a badge on a printer. (The fact that BBC Micros and not Electrons were used rather gave away the fact that the Electron has no printer port.)
After milling around for a bit to allow late-comers to arrive, we were asked to go through into the main hall. This was when the phrase 'At Home' started to make sense -- one whole wall of the room had a life-sized facade of a house, Ideal Home Exhibition style, built in front of it. We took our seats, the lights dimmed, and out through the front door came Cliff Michelmore. He made his introduction, a slide-tape demonstration started running (projected on a screen on the garage door), and...
A loud female voice at the back of the hall interrupted, shouting that she didn't understand, the launch was patronising her and anyway she couldn't make sense of the jargon. As she walked forward we saw it was Wendy Craig; ho, hum, a put-up job. Mr Michelmore, whose rate of delivery implied his autocue was running a bit slow, invited her up to the stage for a 'user-friendly' explanation of computers in general and the Electron in particular.
[Photo of Wendy Craig and Cliff Michelmore sitting in front of the Acorn house. Caption: "Here we see the Acorn House, with Wendy Craig as the Devil's advocate and Cliff Michelmore scratching his head. A lot of journalists were scratching their heads too..."]
[Photo of Acorn Electron and power supply. Caption: "The Electron is a nice piece of hardware -- and it can choose cocktails, too..."]
We were then treated to 40 minutes of rehearsed repartee in which we learned the history of Acorn (but what does the Electron offer?); we had a simulated dialogue between Wendy Craig and herself on the screen (but what does it *offer*?); we discovered that the computer can give cocktail recipes if you tell it what drinks you have (so can any other computer given the right program; *what* *does* *it* *offer*...?) In short, we learned a great deal more about Quentin Bell's estimate of the intelligence of computer journalists than we did about the Electron. At the end Mr Michelmore explained that he had just given a user-friendly lecture for the computer novice, and that most of us there didn't fall into that category. So why waste our time with it? I felt patronised and insulted and so did many other people I spoke to afterwards.
Back outside, as we sipped our 'Electron cocktails' and watched Chris Curry of Acorn fending off feminist reporters asking if the Electron image was really one of dizzy blondes, there was at least the chance to get the information from the press pack: assuming you were lucky enough to get one. The Electron is better at cocktails than counting invitations because they ran out of press releases. An additional touch of madness was the inclusion in each pack of a piece of green Electron rock, specially made with the words down the centre. The cost of the whole launch must have been immense, and I can't help feeling it would have been cheaper, and better for the Electron, if Acorn had simply given everyone a computer at the door and said, "Go away and play with it." Then Quentin Bell could get on with some useful work: a colleague rang them recently to ask for as many photographs of the BBC Micro as they had. They sent *one*, because they'd "run out".
The whole occasion was summed up for me as I was leaving, and stopped to alleviate the effects of the Electron cocktail. Colin Barker of Which Computer had peeled off his Acorn Electron Launch badge and stuck it on the wall of the lavatory. So say all of us.
[Photo of a hand holding a stick of rock with the words "ACORN ELECTRON" on the end. Caption: "And you thought I was joking. A stick of Acorn Electron rock was provided for each journalist -- in lieu of decent information."]
ACORN USER EXHIBITION
Happily I can say much nicer things about the Acorn User Exhibition a few days following the press launch. This was anything but a waste of time: I went intending to spend a couple of hours and ended up staying all day. Spread over two floors of the Cunard Hotel in Hammersmith, this was an occasion to delight the heart of any Acorn user and leave the weak-willed with large holes in their wallets. The BBC Micro figured largely, of course, but there was already a trickle of products for the Electron which will have swelled to a flood by the time sales of the machine take off in earnest.
In fact the exhibition was almost too good, because it was packed with people and could really have done with wider gangways between stands. I visited on the Friday and I shudder to think what it was like at the weekend.
First port of the call was the Acorn stand, to investigate the whereabouts of the review Electron promised four weeks previously. It turned out that they've contacted 18 or so magazines but only had eight computers spare, so don't worry -- it happens to us as well as members of the public! Hopefully Acorn have stockpiled sufficient machines to prevent the all-too-familiar supply shortages that plague new machines; I left the poor man explaining to people where their add-on processor cards had got to.
The Acorn stand was quite impressive from a distance; there was a 'frieze' of monitors around the top with graphics and messages apparently scrolling sideways round and round the stand from one set to another. Very clever.
Software, particularly games software, for a machine with built-in sound effects tends to all sound the same. How many games for the Beeb feature the whoop-whoop-whoop noise that announces an extra life on Acornsoft's Defender? So it was nice to hear something a bit different at the show, emanating, I think, from the vicinity of the Broadway Electronics stand. With great ingenuity someone had made the Beeb sound just like a honky-tonk piano, and the demo was rattling off an intricate piece of boogie. Nice.
Microwriter's stand featured their 'cut-down' version which interfaces with the BBC Micro. The original idea of the Microwriter was a handheld text editor with a five-finger keyboard for rapid entry -- faster than handwriting, claim Microwriter. By removing everything except the keyboard circuitry they've produced a much lighter, and much cheaper, version that allows rapid text entry on a computer.
My only previous experience of the Microwriter was on (yet another!) press booze-up last year on a boat down the Thames, and although I tried hard I couldn't get the hang of the unusual keypad. (It took me years to figure out QWERTY.) But at the exhibition a charming young lady took me through the alphabet, explaining the fairly sensible mnemonics, and within five minutes I was writing short sentences, albeit slowly. I can still remember most of them, too; for P you Press down with all five fingers, for S you only use the Signet ring finger... Maybe I'll buy one sometime and become more time-efficient by writing articles on the train.
Next I paid a visit to the stand of Brainstorm, who are Acorn and Torch dealers. Incidentally Brainstorm are the company who supplied the Torch Z80 disc pack for review in the September Computing Today, and who we ungratefully forgot to credit. Sorry, chaps. Lots of goodies here, including a new Adventure game for the BBC Micro and Electron which they were kind enough to give me a review copy of (after a lot of inconvenient plug-swapping and tape-recorder adjusting). I haven't had a chance to try it out yet, but it's called The Eye of Zoltan and we'll be reviewing it as soon as possible.
Brainstorm also had something called the Incredible Hulk. Not another arcade game, I groaned -- and fortunately it isn't. Hulk is an Expert System program, written in BASIC and capable of some nifty tricks. Richard Forsyth, the author, was on the stand making a few minor improvements and put the thing through its paces for me. The example database used actual figures supplied by the Coal Board for the chemical content of various coal samples, and with the first program module you invent rules that use the composition to deduce the location of the mine. The program checks the results of each rule and recommends whether to keep it throw it out. When you're happy with the set of rules, you load another program module which tests unknown data using the rules and deduces, in this case, the mine location of each sample. In the demonstration the actual origins of each sample were compared with the computer's guesses, which were found to be about 90% accurate: when it's perfected, the Coal Board are going to be one of the first customers for this program, which can handle all manner of problems.
Interested parties can find Brainstorm at 103A Seven Sisters Road, London N7 7QN (phone 01-263 6926).