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Tales in Tech History: Amstrad And The House Sugar Built

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Amstrad once competed against the likes of Commodore and Sinclair Spectrum, and was a leading British tech star

Before he became a finger pointing “you’re fired” character on a television series, Sir Alan Sugar was the founder of a company called Amstrad.

Indeed, the Amstrad name is a contraction of Alan Michael Sugar Trading, and it is fair to say that the company has sold a wide range of tech products in its time.

Golden Era

Amstrad was founded back in the 1960s (1968 to be exact with the name AMS Trading) by then plain old Alan Sugar, an east end businessman and wheeler-dealer.

Sugar made his name by marketing and sourcing tech goods cheaply from the Far East, packing them up into useful devices, and making them affordable to the European consumer market.

amstrad-cpc464The company began life selling cheap hi-fi systems, amplifiers, televisions and even car stereo cassette players in 1970s.

But it was the 1980s that proved to be the company’s golden era, and Amstrad was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1980 and never looked back as growth skyrocketed.

During this decade it began supplying home computers such as the CPC 464 to European consumers and competed head to head with two of the biggest players of that time – Commodore and Sinclair Research.

Amstrad was also known  for its PCW range of home computers, which were essentially nothing more than a word processor, coupled with a printer.

sinclair-zx-spectrum-540x334Then in 1986 it purchased Sinclair and all its related products, including the ZX Spectrum, for just £5 million.

Alan Sugar’s business acumen was demonstrated as Amstrad more than recovered this outlay by selling off surplus Spectrum machines, as well the next generation ZX Spectrum +2 that came with a built-in tape drive and the ZX Spectrum +3 (with a built-in floppy disk drive).

In 1986 Amstrad also branched out into selling affordable personal computers running MS-DOS (with the GEM graphics interface), which proved to be highly popular and allowed Amstrad to capture a staggering 25 percent of the European computer market.

Amstrad later began supplying Windows-based computers, using 286 & 386 processor technology.

In 1989 a satellite television company called Sky launched in the United Kingdom, and from day one Amstrad was one of its main suppliers of set top boxes (alongside Pace Technology).

Drifting Focus

The 1990s however proved less kind to Amstrad and it tried (and failed) at the video game console market with the Amstrad GX4000, which was lumbered with older technology under the hood compared to rival gaming consoles.

And despite Amstrad purchasing a number of rival PC makers, such as Viglen Computers, the firm began to find the PC market increasingly tough, and it started to concentrate more on portable computers rather than desktop PCs.

Amstrad even sold a PDA that was similar to the Apple Newton, called the PenPad, which proved to be a commercial flop.

The pressure in the PC industry was not letting up and Amstrad began to drift away from the PC space into the communications arena, acquiring firms such as Betacom and Dancall Telecom.

In 1997, Amstrad plc was wound up and its shares were split into Viglen and Betacom instead (Betacom plc was renamed Amstrad plc).

During the early 2000’s Amstrad’s main focus was selling devices that combined a telephone and an email system called E-m@iler. Again, it didn’t prove popular.

Amstrad ended up being acquired by BSkyB in July 2007, and in 2008 Sugar stepped down as Amstrad chairman.

alan-sugarSugar had taken Amstrad through an eventful life, moving across different industries and selling a wide range of products. Some point out that when competition became too tough in one sector, Sugar would simply move into another field.

But there is no denying that Amstrad was a real tech player in the 1980s but it failed to fully exploit its potential as a British tech powerhouse.

Sugar certainly had his hands full after he drifted into owing a football club and then becoming a property tycoon, netting himself a knighthood, a BBC TV series, and eventually the title of Lord, indicating that technology in many different ways can elevate people from humble beginnings to  high-level success.

Everyone has to start somewhere. Do you know the jobs taken by famous tech personalities?