Sinclair - Generations of Micro Men from Silicon Fen

Abstract


I speak with Grant Sinclair, nephew of the inventor behind the UK’s first affordable mass-market home computer, to hear of his new invention - the Poco. Reviewing the Sinclair family and its success over the last 54 years, I look at how the rise of the Cambridge based Sinclair Radionics (founded in 1961) helped to shape this new generation of microelectronic innovation.

In Depth


Sinclair – two syllables synonymous with leading-edge design, innovation and efficiency. I spent the morning with Grant Sinclair, nephew of the inventor behind the UK’s first affordable mass-market home computer, to hear of the continuation and evolution of the Sinclair ingenuity, and its products thereafter.

Grant was in the privileged position to be at the centre of the personal computer race of the 1980’s when the Sinclair ZX81 (Sinclair Research) battled with the BBC Micro (Acorn Computers) for the premier place in the UK’s then emerging home computer market.  Despite the intense rivalry between these two Cambridge based companies, he describes the relationship between Chris Curry - co-Founder of Acorn Computers - and his father Iain Sinclair, as that akin to the closest of friends.

Grant describes himself as being influenced by several family members along with leading tech entrepreneurs of the period, learning personally from the likes of Chris Curry and Sir David Potter of Psion - pioneers of the leading Symbian mobile phone software platform, he explains.

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Starting with the Sinclair family tree, Grant describes his father and uncle (Sir Clive Sinclair) as two men of differing talents. His uncle the pragmatist when it came to the sales and marketing strategy around the nascent Sinclair ZX Spectrum.  For example, when it came to pricing and packaging he had a singular focus on “hitting the right price point to secure sales [at around] a tenth of the price” of the competition, along with a “particular obsession about making things smaller and smaller.” His father, Iain Sinclair, on the other-hand, was focused on industrial design, on getting products “looking, feeling and working as great as possible.” You can find evidence of this in the 100 or so dedicated gaming computers Iain designed for Saitek Ltd of Hong Kong from 1980 through to around 1995, Grant explains, who marketed the industrial designs under several of their own brands including Kasparov.

Grant developed his business acumen at his father’s London-based company Iain Sinclair Design, which was founded in 1964 and is still going strong today.  He recalls a fond time in 1994 when their low-cost Flashcard invention had been launched and just won a BBC Design Award.  The company went from generating zero revenue from the invention to sales amassing over 2.5 million units and an order book mountain as a result.  “We were knee deep in orders for several years and struggled to keep up with demand”, reminisces Grant.   As he had to be on standby 24/7 to build multiple working credit card-sized Flashcard torch prototypes in time for trade and press show launches, it was only natural that Grant became involved in overseeing the manufacturing and marketing process as well.

Then of course came the meteoritic rise of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which sold more than 5 million units over 10 years, according to multiple sources.  In fact, it can be easy to under-estimate the impact the ZX Spectrum had on the industry at the time.  Richard Altwasser, the original engineer behind ZX Spectrum stated in an interview with the BBC that it, in fact, sold “more than three times the volume” of the BBC Micro, shipping more units than any other personal computer in the world at the time.  From a personal point of view, Grant recalls the impact this seminal computer had on his early development.  He remembers, aged 10, demonstrating coding on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum to a crowded Personal Computer World trade show audience of hundreds and later at Kings College Music School in Cambridge, where he used it to perform very early digital music at a public, end of year music event.

It’s not surprising then, that this year, in the continuation and evolution of Sinclair ingenuity, Grant registered London-based Sinclair Mobile Ltd for the sole purpose of marketing his own inventions.  The company’s first major public release – simply entitled the Poco (small or little in Italian) is a multi-functional micro computer, powered by a Raspberry Pi chipset, with an action camera, gaming console, high resolution 24-bit music player and an internet-ready web browser.  As leading gadget blog Engadget puts it "This Raspberry Pi handheld wants to be every gadget in the world".

The development of today’s Poco originated from the Poco Pro Camera concept design, with the need for a small form factor and a lighter frame complete with a premium AMOLED display.  Taking notes from his father’s background in industrial design and his uncle’s miniaturisation of electronics, Grant looked to the already established and flourishing Raspberry Pi community for further inspiration.  The result is that the Poco comes equipped with a Raspberry Pi compute module embedded with an ARM-based processor, which Grant says “reduces the time to market” because the Raspberry Pi community has already developed and tested the technology through a myriad wearable applications.

Much of Poco’s hardware design is in fact based on pre-existing designs from the community, simplified and miniaturised wherever possible, but never combined in such a form for such a purpose.  According to Grant, the advantage here is that “everything is already done” and that “the software has already been written” and this ensures that the Poco is actually achievable in a reasonable timeframe and truly cutting-edge.  In fact, thanks to the adaptive and agile nature of the Raspberry Pi community, Sinclair Mobile have just announced that they have already begun working on a newer, “simplified” and low cost version of the Poco which will take advantage of the just launched Raspberry Pi Zero.

When we asked Grant why he chose ARM architecture, it really came down to two things – sense and sentiment.  Sense in that ARM processors provide “much capability with energy efficiency in a small package”, and the sentiment of nostalgia from “the fact ARM is from my hometown [Cambridge]” and was “a spin-off from Acorn – a sizeable part of the Cambridge Phenomenon’s tech cluster”.  In fact, Acorn’s other Co-Founder, alongside Chris Curry, was Hermann Hauser whom is quoted as describing the Poco as a device “you would expect from a Sinclair product, it looks very cool.” Jason Bradbury from The Gadget Show concurs, tweeting to his 263,000 followers on Twitter, “this looks cool.”

In terms of horsepower, we were able to collectively estimate that the Poco, using a single ARM core running at 700 MHz, would outperform Sir Clive Sinclair’s Z80-equipped ZX81 215 times, in a form factor approximately 15 times smaller.  It is expected with faster quad-core models in development that this figure of compute performance is likely to soar to much higher levels.

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It’s also worthwhile noting the educational value of the Poco.  Grant explained how he came to learn of microelectronics, reverse-engineering and then miniaturising devices, sourcing and reading computer magazines and manuals from all over the world and learning by taking apart any electronic device he could get his hands on, all without a formal qualification.  What was truly inspirational however was a visit to Mobile World Congress 2012 in Barcelona.  His visit to the Teardown booth “worryingly showed anyone exactly how to make a device such as an iPhone, or other leading consumer products.” Though, like with his uncle, this was the path to the miniaturisation of his devices that ultimately led to the Poco.  As such, Grant plans to make a clear body for the Poco so children are similarly able to reverse-engineer its components, say for those that are visual and kinaesthetic learners, with a “plan to release a low-cost kit product” that could be used to “load games such as Minecraft, or classics like Quake, and other gaming and learning emulators”.  There are even BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum emulators for the Raspberry Pi now, additionally with the ability to control a robot.  With cost being a factor, his aim is to now develop a low-cost education device, perhaps leveraging the Raspberry Pi Zero module, for approximately £49 ($74 USD).

Indeed, self-education is a key philosophy that drives the Sinclair family, with an awareness of the need to provide children, regardless of their background, with hands-on experience in STEM subjects - programming and engineering in particular.  Whilst Sir Clive Sinclair was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Science) by the University of Bath in 1983, he didn’t actually obtain a formal university degree, Grant explains.  Instead, he adopted a path to those of similar success in electronics at that time.  A case in point is Sir Alan Sugar, whose company Amstrad bought the Sinclair logo and rights to license the ZX Spectrum for around £9M ($13.5M USD) in 1986.  Surprisingly Lord Sugar’s career got started when he purchased bulk batches of reject Sinclair Hi-Fi components such as amplifiers, before repairing them and selling them on at market stalls in the late 1960s.  In fact, you could argue Sinclair’s products indirectly aided a whole new generation of electronics DIY hobbyists and programmers, with Altwasser recollecting that during his decade of recruiting software developers he was “continually meeting people who cut their teeth on a ZX Spectrum”.

This year Sir Clive Sinclair is a partner of a new company, Retro Computers Ltd, who have recently launched the Every Child Can Code Initiative, which previously brought the revival of the ZX series with the ZX Vega.  Grant is also working along similar lines through the development of accessible devices and kits, and sees Poco as becoming synonymous with the emerging Maker culture.  Howard Bernstein, known as the influential trip hop music producer Howie B, summarises in describing the Poco as "a Creative tool that can become what you want it to be".

The “high-end and feature-packed” Poco is currently live on IndieGoGo and tendering backers with 21 days remaining at point of writing.  Grant explains that he’s chosen to seek crowdfunding as a means “to get valuable market feedback and to get his name on the door as being first.” Whether Sinclair Mobile follows the success of its predecessors is yet to be determined, but there’s no arguing the spirit and clear progression its founder has shown in taking influence from his past and embracing the guerrilla product development ethos of the maker community.  This is further demonstrated in the manufacturing model being deployed by Grant.  The Raspberry Pi is largely manufactured in Sony’s Pencoed (Wales) plant, and Grant hopes to do the same with the Poco - the goal being to minimise the distance between manufacturer and consumer.

As a last thought, Grant recollects the launch of the Apple Newton in 1993; the first PDA product to feature handwriting recognition, with Chris Curry and Grant’s father in attendance. A friendly argument ensued as to the future of payment systems, Grant explains – Chris believing that cash and cheques would soon be obsolete and that the future would be with the electronic wallet.  Chris’ company, General Information Systems of Cambridge, later went on to develop one of the very first portable ‘Chip and Pin’ card readers and was also involved with London’s Oyster Card cashless payment system.  In fact Iain Sinclair produced the industrial design for one of Chris’ very early credit card sized pocketable payment concepts for Mondex, according to Grant.  While we can’t predict the future, perhaps we can hope that moving forward, end-users, developers and engineers will use the tools of today to make the platforms of tomorrow.  Development models such as the one used by Sinclair Mobile could be an entirely new path for consumer electronics, where companies respond to its changing environment, rather than hoping it can shape and lead innovation.  With the help of crowdfunding sites, and a philosophy of crowdsourcing development, the future is bright for the next generation of start-ups.

Poco Media


You can read more about the Sinclair Mobile Poco on IndieGoGo .

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References


http://www.sinclairmobile.com

http://www.iainsinclair.com

http://www.sinclairzx.com

http://everychildcancode.org

http://www.computinghistory.org.uk

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/poco-micro-computer-multi-function-pi-gadget

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/david-levy/every-child-can-code_b_8095298.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-17776666

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n5b92

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silicon_Fen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Newton

http://www.engadget.com/2015/11/25/this-rasberry-pi-handheld-wants-to-be-every-gadget-in-the-world

http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/article/1374290/inventor-sir-clive-sinclairs-nephew-launches-poco-microcomputer

https://www.designweek.co.uk/sinclair-designs-miniature-hackable-super-computer

http://www.gizmag.com/poco-pocket-camera-computer-music-player/40586

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