Martin Angove's Utterly Pointless Pages

The Acorn Users page

My Theory of Computer Users

When I started using Acorn computers, some way into the 'home computer revolution' of the early eighties, the Beeb was one of a number of alternatives, each with its strengths and weaknesses. It was quite normal to have friends with many different computer systems. Mostly they bought them as a justifiable alternative to a games console ("it can help me with my homework").

I had friends with Sinclair ZX80s, ZX81s, Spectrums (biggest subgroup); Commodore 64s, Vic 20s, 16s and +4s; Oric 1s, Atmoses; Amstrad CPCs; Atari 400 and 800s; a Dragon 32, and Acorns - Electrons and Beebs. A little later I came across Sinclair QLs , BBC Masters, Amstrad PCWs and PC 1512/1640s. It was at this time that the 'PC' was becoming the 'standard', and although these later computers enjoyed a brief period of popularity, the bandwagon was already doing 70mph on the other side of the Atlantic, and revving up over here.

The Beeb was getting very 'long-in-the-tooth' by 1987. The 'PC' was an established standard with 8088 and 8086 (XTs and compatibles) being commonplace. '286es were what people bought who wanted that little bit more power, and the '386 was strictly for servers. The Beeb's competition had moved on, and 8-bit was becomming less common. Although Amstrad was now producing the Spectrum in +2 and +3 variants and the PCW series (both Z80 based), and Commodore still sold the C64 (6502 based), the Amiga was a far better computer, and ran a truly 16-bit processor; the 68000. Atari had dumped its own 8-bit micros in favour of the 68000 too, in the guise of the ST.

Apple had, of course, been using the 68000 in the Mac for a while, and by 1987 the Apple II (6502-based) was over. Even Sinclair was using the 68000, in a limited way. Its QL computer launched in 1984 used the 8-bit databus version of this 16-bit processor. By 1987 it was obvious that it wasn't going to make large sales, but it was still difficult to guess which one of the four 'big players' would eventually dominate.

In 1987 I was beginning to feel restricted by my hugely expanded Beeb, and was looking around to see what I should save up for. Here is (more-or-less) how I rationalised the problem.

Atari's ST...

...was probably the least sophisticated of the options. Its graphics were not significantly better than the better 8-bit machines on the market, ranging from 'high res' (640x320x1 bit I think), only available on a special monitor, to the 'colorful' 320x160x4 bits. Its sound chip was a slightly updated version of the one in my Beeb. It did have a 12 bit pallette (4096 colours), a built-in MIDI port, half a meg memory, and a 3.5" drive, but these were not significant advantages. The 8 MHz 68000 was a significant advantage, and at £399 (ish) with TV modulator it was cheaper (just) than a new Beeb, but there was always...

Commodore's Amiga

Those of my friends who were sufficiently interested in computers to be considering upgrading from their Beebs, Spectrums, C64s and CPCs were mostly considering the Amiga. It too had half a meg, a 3.5" drive and a 68000, but there the similarity to an ST ended. The graphics went all the way up to 'Hold and Modify' mode which allowed 4096 colours on the screen although it was not truly a 12-bit mode. It didn't have the MIDI port, but it did have digital sound and, although its 68000 ran at a somewhat odd 7.44 MHz, it also had a 'Blitter' chip to help move memory around. It was slightly more expensive than the ST to begin with, but soon matched it in price.

The only person I knew who was considering an

Apple Macintosh

was my brother, and that was because he used one every day in his work as a Graphic Designer (still doing that, commissions accepted, email me to get in touch).

The Macintosh too was based on the 68000, and came from a well-respected stable, but it was priced way out of the reach of most people I knew. It only accepted proprietry peripherals, and the base version came with a 10" screen capable of something like 640x480x1 bit. It was also marketed as something of an exclusive machine. You couldn't buy them mail-order for a long time, and had to make a pilgrimage to an Apple Center. This alone was enough to put most of us off.

The PC Clone

In 1987 the clone market was still a little ill-defined. You had basically three choices; a genuine PC from IBM; a 'real' clone from the likes of Compaq or Dell; or a 'compatible' from the likes of Olivetti or Amstrad.

Genuine IBMs were phenominally expensive, and the clones weren't much cheaper, so most people ended up buying a compatible, or in most cases, an Amstrad.

The Amstrad 1512 and 1640 (one-thousand series with 512k or 640k memory) had been around for a while, but were still the major players in this market. A typical price (in 1988 - I don't appear to have any magazines from 1987) was £559 for a single-floppy (360k) 1512 with mono monitor or £845 for a twin-floppy 1640 in colour. (The advert I have up at the moment doesn't have prices for non-HD Amstrads). This wasn't far off the price of an ST or Amiga with monitor, although the floppy was 360k and had to be used to boot DOS as well as whatever program you wanted to use. The ST and Amiga followed the home computer trend of having most of the OS in ROM.

All this ramble is leading up to the thing that made me stay with my Beeb just that little bit longer, saving up for another Acorn machine.

The Archimedes

May 1987 (if I read my magazine dates correctly) saw the launch of a machine that many saw as Acorn's saviour. It was probably launched a year later than it should have been - it could have had a much better chance against ST and Amiga if they had not already cornered a large section of the 'upgrade' market, but it was - get this - 32bit.

Remember, this was a time when the vast majority of PCs were based on the 16 bit 8086 and 80286, and the ST and Amiga were 16-bit 68000 based. You could get 32 bit processors - the 80386 was 32 bit, and was available in some high-end systems, but a typical '386 PC cost over four grand with 1meg and a large (>80meg) HDD. A 32-bit (68020/30) Mac was just as expensive.

The Archimedes' pricing fell into that uncomfortable ground between the low-cost ST and Amiga, and medium spec PCs. Exactly the gound that the Amstrad currently dominated. A 512k version with one (800k 3.5") floppy and a mono monitor came in at a recommended £849 (this is a year earlier than the Amstrad examples quoted above), and the raw processor speed was at least four times as fast (8MHz 32 bit versus 4.77MHz 16 bit). It had 640x512x8bit graphics, an eight-channel digital sound system, a three-box design and, best of all, BBC Basic.

There was no competition as far as I was concerned, I could wait a while while I saved up (a year as it turned out), and so could many other people.

Anyway, the fact is that many people have stayed with Acorn, and a few others have joined the camp. I've split them into three main groups and several subgroups as outlined below.

  1. Educational

    This type is split into three subgroups;

    1. The Brainwashed

      Typified by the phrase "We can't train our pupils for the modern workplace on out-of-date, non-standard computers". This type of user frustrates me, click here to find out why.

    2. The Harassed

      Typified by the phrase "I don't understand the things, and as long as my pupils reach the Attainment Target I don't need to".

    3. The Enthusiast

      Members of this subgroup may also belong to one of the 'individual user' groups below. Typically believe in teaching their pupils about a subject rather than training them for a task.

  2. Industrial

    There is only one of these;

    1. The Bloody-minded

      These are probably Enthusiasts or Techies (see below) who, having made the decision to keep Intel out of their homes, and being in a position to make such decisions at work, do the same there. The have to be bloody-minded just to stick with it in the face of all accepted norms, and to put up with the appaling lack of software in certain areas. It is useful to be a Techie if you're an Industrial user, because you can write your own little program to perform that vital business function, and then claim that it beats the PC versions hands-down.

  3. Individual

    This type is split into four subgroups;

    1. The Left-overs

      These will probably have bought their Acorns because it was what they (or their children) used in school. They will have low-end machines, A3000s, A3010s or at best A3020s. They may still have a Beeb or a Master. They have lost contact not only with other Acorn owners, but also with anyone much who owns a computer. If they do know a computer user it will either be someone in a similar situation to theirs, or someone taken in by the hype who has (fairly recently) bought a 'Multimedia PC' and just about knows where the 'Start' button is on Win '95.

    2. The Convert

      Hasn't been using Acorns long enough to be an Enthusiast (in the sense I've outlined below), but bought one because there was something (usually just one thing) it could do that no other platform could match. Either that or the Convert is close friends with an Enthusiast and is good at ignoring (or has been insulated from) Microsoft's hype. The application that most often has made converts is the excellent (though expensive) Sibelius.

    3. The Enthusiast

      This is the group that I probably fall into these days, although I used to count myself in the next group (a 'techie'). It is by far the largest group of individuals. People in this group have enough technical knowledge to appreciate the general differences between RiscOS, Windows and MacOS and, most importantly, have enough idealism to do something about it.

    4. The Techie

      Every enthusiastic Acorn user must have a little bit of a techie in them or they'd have deserted the camp ages ago, swayed by superior marketing. The true Techie though, knows more about the internal workings of the hardware and software than most people know about their spouse.

Why "Training" is not a good idea

The Problem

When I started at my current place of work (which they have forbidden me from mentioning) there were five 'PC' computers in the building. Two belonged to directors, one held the music selection software in the library, one ran an advertising spot scheduling program, and the other ran Word Perfect 5. There was also a proprietry system based on a 68020 running PICK for accounting and scheduling. (A few clues there!)

At the moment there are 40 computers on two networks. One network runs Novell, DOS 6, and a proprietary text editor in the Newsroom. I hardly ever have to 'play' with this network of seven user terminals, three others and one server. The terminals are 486 DX33s with 4 meg, no HD or floppy; booting across the network from the DX2 66 8 meg, 1 gig (ish) server.

The other network runs MS Windows for Workgroups 3.11, and our parent company decided that we would standardise on MS Office as our 'standard' software. Apart from Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access, a couple of machines run Publisher, a few more run a specialised spot-scheduling database, and they all run MS Mail.

Very few of the staff had had any prior experience of the software, but they are generally willing to learn by trial-and-error. This takes them as far as they need to go to write a letter or add up some numbers. These I have no problem with. As far as they're concerned, they type a letter, print it out and go. They rarely even save them. If they do, it goes into MS Word's standard directory (another reason I hate Windows). Occasionally I roll up and have a tidy-out. These users I have few problems with other than 'the printer doesn't work' (turn it on) or 'my disc doesn't work' (you shouldn't have spilled coffee on it - I'll run it under the tap for you).

No, the ones I have most trouble with are those who have received some 'training' on a particular package.

Some common problems

Trainer says: You can add a picture to your presentation by clicking on 'Clip Art'.

Trainee rings me up and says I've got a disc from our artist with a new logo on it, but when I try to add it to my presentation I can't find it in the clip art.

I do one of the following 1: explain how to find pictures on drive a:, 2: explain that Powerpoint has never heard of Adobe Illustrator, EPS, TIFFs or JPEGs or most formats really, 3: Ask if it's a Mac disc, 4: If it was 2: or 3: I offer to convert it to a suitable format and put it in with the clip art.

Trainer says You can use 'save as' to make a copy of your presentation on floppy to transfer to another computer.

Trainee rings me up and says It keeps telling me that there's no room on my disc, but I've just got a new one out of the box (we buy pre-formatted as a rule).

I explain that all those nice clip-arty pictures mean that their file is physically too large to fit onto a floppy disc, but offer to transfer it to the presentation room computer for them via the network. I have to do it myslef as inevitably the presentation is due in five minutes and there's no time to explain that their computer references a shared directory on the computer in the presentation room, and all they have to do is use 'save as' with drive 'p:' instead of 'a:'.

The Trainer says To print the document, click on the little icon that looks like a printer.

The Trainee says I clicked on the icon, and it said it was printing, but nothing came out the printer. I tried three times and still nothing!

I take a deep breath. This problem is caused by one of two things mostly. First, someone has configured a different printer and because clicking on the icon prints using the last settings, the document came out three times on a printer across the room. This happens even if the printer dialogue box is used because people don't check the printer name at the top. Secondly, those awkward Americans insist on using non-standard paper sizes, and Word often defaults for no apparent reason to 'Letter'. The highly intelligent printers realise they're loaded with A4, and refuse to print anything.

The Trainer says Rather than sending a plain text message as mail, you can use Word to make it as pretty as you like, then click on 'File... Send...' to mail it.

The Trainee says I have tried to send a memo to X (on another site) and the I've just got a message saying it couldn't be sent.

I explain (in simple terms) that one 'k' of plain text turns into seven 'k' of Word document, and that if everyone were to send messages in this way the modem would be constantly engaged.

Mail abuse is a problem within our group of companies. It's one thing to complain about spamming, but spamming a plain text message (such as a dodgy poem one administrator sent on Feb 14th) is not as bad as the three other spams that led to complaints...

Mail spams at (I'm not allowed to mention the name).

  1. The first came as a bit of a shock. Someone tried to set up a competition based around Euro '96. The Seven Hundred and Thirty k message was sent twice to everyone on his postoffice list. Now, MS mail is intelligent enough only to send one copy via modem and redistribute it at the other end, but it appears that each time the message is opened, the attatchment is copied into a private folder. You could watch the free space on our mail server disappearing; it had only a 200 meg drive (since upgraded).
  2. The second was an even greater shock. I came into work one morning and booted up my PC. When mail went to fetch new messages it took rather longer than usual. I went for a wander upstairs and discovered a couple of other early arrivals were sitting in front of their machines wondering why they were frozen. Half an hour later, the first machines were freeing up, and it was possible to see what had caused the problem. One of our sister stations was relaunching, and someone thought it would be a good idea to let everyone know.
    This he did by preparing a slide in Powerpoint and mailing it around. The slide contained the new station logo in black and white, and a small amount of text. Most of the machines that received the message on our site refused to view the slide at all. Only those with 16 meg managed it; he'd scanned the logo at something like 1200 dpi and 24 bits. This simple slide came to a whopping 9.8 meg. Imagine the time to send it to the twelve other postoffices!
    I managed to produce something very similar in Windows Write. It came to just under 8k (including graphic).
  3. By comparison, the third massive spam was a mere tiddler, but it came so soon after the 9.8 meg one that people were worked up for it, and resented receiving one meg in their mailboxes that in the days before mail would have been faxed to a secretary and pinned on the noticeboard for a couple of days. Even one meg was excessive, I got it down to 300k quite easily, and if only Word / Write would use GIFs natively it would have come to 50 or 60k.
  4. Then, on February 14th (St Valentine's day) people all over the group received a message from a certain 'Cupid'. It was only a couple of k, but it caused a massive reaction across the group as a result of which spamming is about to become akin to stealing from the company; a major disciplinary offence.

The Trainer says You can go back to a document you edited yesterday by clicking on its name at the bottom of the 'File...' menu.

The Trainee says I click on the file, and it says 'file does not exist'. I went into 'Open...' and there are no files on the list.

I explain for the tenth time that they are using a shared directory so that they can share information with others in the department, and that if the machine where the files are stored is switched off they will get this problem. Actually, this is not always the problem; often they're trying to access a file they saved to floppy without putting the floppy back into the drive.

This is one of the major problems at (my company); apart from the mail server we don't have a central file server; shared directories are shared from one of the machines in a department. The colour inkjet has a dedicated printer server, but other shared printers are simply shared by the computer to which they are attached.

The Trainer says You can use <CTRL><Escape> to switch between tasks

The Trainee says I tried to print and it says 'not enough memory'.

I make a trip upstairs to discover three copies of the scheduling database minimised, one copy of Powerpoint and 5% system resources free. No wonder Word won't print.

The Trainer says You can embed an Excel spreadsheet in a Word file, and if you discover a mistake when you're writing the letter you can edit it there and then.

The Trainee says My computer's too slow.

I say You can't run Word and Excel together in 8 meg when you're also running mail, the Office toolbar, and acting as a print server.

I suppose what I'm complaining about is that these users have been trained to perform a certain task in a certain way, without being taught how it works, even on a superficial level. It's a little bit like having passed your driving test, but not understanding that the car needs petrol so that the engine can run ('my driving instructor's car never needed petrol'). Or maybe it's like a friend of mine who was probably the most intelligent in my year at school; he was brilliant at maths, science, whatever, but was tone deaf. He took violin lessons, but simply learned to put his fingers in the correct places at the right time. Once he took part in a competition, and his violin wasn't properly tuned. Technically he played very well, but because the strings weren't quite in tune, and he couldn't hear it to correct his finger positions, it sounded awful.

This is why it may actually be better to use 'non-standard' computers for education. It forces the teaching of concepts rather than methods. There is nothing in the National Curriculum that states that a pupil must know how to lay out a table in MS Word, or display a chart in Excel. The techniques are similar in other packages, even on other platforms.

Using Acorns may actually be beneficial. The latest 'hip' trend in user interfaces is to be 'project oriented' rather than 'application oriented'. RiscOS has been (pretty much) 'project oriented' from the outset. It is not standard practice under RiscOS to find the application, load it up and click on 'File... Open'. Instead you find the directory where you have stored all the files regarding a particular project and double-click the one you want to edit. I'm not saying this can't be done under Windows (it can, from the abysmal File Manager, or if you have enough technical knowledge to create a program group and icons within that group representing your files or a menu entry in Win'95), but that RiscOS makes it the natural thing to do.

If you do create a new file in, say, your wordprocessor, you can't just click on 'Save' to save it into some default directory hidden away within the application (or worse, C:\WINDOWS). You have first to tell the program where to store the file. Since the entire interface is based around a multi-window graphical representation of the disc, this is a simple matter of digging up the window that contains the directory into which you want to save and dragging the icon from the word processor into this window. Subsequently you can just click on 'Save'. (or press the standard shortcut 'F3<Return>'.)

While I'm slagging-off Windows, here is my biggest gripe of all.

I hate the way that the 'current' window must always be on top

You know what I mean; the worst example is when you're copying files between two windows in File Manager. Sometimes you need to have the windows overlapping, so you select the files to copy in one, then when you go to find the destination directory, its window immediately comes to the foreground, obscuring the files you've just selected in the other window. Or perhaps you want to quote selectively from a mail message in a Word document. It is easier to type out the relevant bits than to copy them because you have many changes to make. The problem is that every time you click in Word to type, the whole application comes to the foreground, and obscures the mail message.

The Ideal Situation

What can be done?

Nothing, really. But it is fun to speculate exactly how many people, who now know how to create a Microsoft Word address database and mailmerge it, will know how to do the same in, say, Corel Java Office.

It is also fun, as has been discussed on the newsgroups lately, to ponder the following; a primary school's governors or some parents are adamant that their children should be taught IT using an 'industry standard' computer when what they really mean is an 'industry standard' interface. Well, first argument asks 'which industry?'. Many of our critical systems at (my place of work) for example still use completely propreitry DOS applications. Research institutes are Unix based with whatever the current favourite front end is. Designers use Macs. Musicians use Ataris and GEM (or Macs or, in the case of music publishing, Acorns).

The second argument is more fun. Take final year a primary school child. They will be 10 or 11 years old. If they stay on to do A-levels or BTECs that takes them to 18, and many secondary schools still have a lot of Acorns or Macs. If they go on to University they will graduate at age 21 or 22 and probably come across many esoteric forms of computer. It will be at least ten years before they see a 'real' computer in 'industry'.

Now think back ten years... that's 1987. If you've read all the above you'll know what I'm about to say. In 1987, the computer used in most businesses would have been an Amstrad PCW or an electronic typewriter for the secretaries, and an Amstrad 1640 or 8086/286 equivalent otherwise. See my adverts from 1988. They would not have been running Windows as MS Windows and MS Windows '286 were abysmal products with no software. They would (in the case of the x86 machines) have been running DOS version 3.2 (or earlier) and (on the Amstrads at least) GEM. PCWs used CP/M. Given that rate of change, what kind of software running on what kind of computer will be the 'standard' in 2007? Who knows?

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