The second golden rule of business could read as: shipping always beats perfection. A rule David Levy – International Chess Master – et Al. learned the hard way during the ’80s. A talented team at Intelligent Software (IS), led by Robert Madge, contributed to designing one of the most advanced and innovative British home computers, and a commercial disaster at the same time. So, how did they do it? It all began in 1982.
What the Brit created during the ’50s’ golden age of sportscars, they did it again in the ’80s with the newborn home computers’ industry. I like thinking about the Sinclair Spectrum, Tangerine Computer Systems Oric Atmos, Grundy NewBrain, or the Acorn lineup as the MG TC Midget, Austin-Healey 100, or Jaguar XK120. These computers are like runaway success sportscars, beautiful, fun to drive, glamorous, and on a budget so the man of the street can afford one.
Naturally, the success of the Sinclair Spectrum sparked the envy of many, and it was not long before Lokumals Ltd, a Hong-Kong-based trading company, and a UK-based electronic consumer goods supplier Domicrest Ltd, approached IS and commissioned them to design a competing home computer at a reasonable price. IS, founded in 1979 by Levy and Kevin O’Connell, was a credible candidate to achieve this feat. Indeed, the Software/AI company successfully gave birth to several computer chess software and electronic chess players in the past. According to Madge, IS had few early plans for a home computer in the drawers, but dismissed them as simple improvements over the Spectrum. Rightfully, IS concluded that they had to think big to avoid obsolescence on arrival. A motto turned into a leitmotiv. The IS design team went bold indeed and wanted a home computer that could offer the best of what the technology could provide, and even more. In particular, huge memory capacity and programming abilities were paramount to the team.
And the new computer shall have at least 64KB of memory, an ultra-high graphic resolution with as many colors money can buy, 80-column text, advanced four-channel stereo audio, an embedded word processor, a plethora of expansion ports and peripherals, a robust programming language, and an integral joystick! As a double-click down the specs, the Zilog Z80A CPU was chosen along many other standard components to achieve a sub-200 Quid target price. But 1982 standard parts cannot deliver the goods, especially for the graphics and audio. Therefore, IS shall design two custom ASICs (by Nick Toop and Dave Woodfield). The die was cast.
Geoff Hollington, the lead of one of the designer’s teams charged to embody these specifications, hated the Acorn lineup, namely the Atom (the Electron was still in conception). He, and Nick Oakley, wanted a computer design that appeals to the technophobes and computer illiterates, so it may trigger an impulsive buy. By 1983, Geoff had the design in, and the company announced to the press what became the Elan Enterprise. Don’t get too attached to the names, though. The Elan Enterprise was abundantly rechristened: Mephisto PHC64 in Germany, where it was sold by Hegener & Glaser, Lansay Elan in France (Lansay is a toy company), etc. This polyonymy started during the inception years when the computer was known under several code names: DCP, Samurai, Oscar to finally become Elan. And there it was, the Elan Enterprise will go where no other computer has gone before, declined in two versions: Sixty-four (64 KB, ~£200) and One Two Eight (128 KB, ~£300). It is noticeable that from the get-go, the machine could use up to 4 MB of RAM via bank switching. And off you go, punch it in, engage! – promised, this is my last cheese Start Trek pun of the post 😊.
Next is not a joke, although it may sound like one. If you look carefully at the pictures I took of the PCB, you can read © 1984 FLAN COMPUTERS LTD 3-01. Now, this is hilarious for a French speaker. En effet, when you qualify something as flan, it means that it is a bloody lie, cheese, or it is a bluff. Even so, I now believe reports of Flan as one of the computer’s names. Unbelievable. It seems that it was an easy hack of Elan, removing the bottom of the E turned it into F. Abracadabra!
You may or may not like the Geoff team’s design. But one thing is sure to me is that contrary to what you can read about it on the web, I am confident they did not copy the Amstrad CPC color scheme. First, because many other computers of the era used red, green, and blue keys in their design. Second, because to me, it is consistent with the needs of the built-in advanced word processor, using marked function keys. This built-in wordprocessor is, by the way, the de-facto program editor and shell of the computer. A vast improvement compared to other miserable editors such as the one of the Apple 2. For the more significant extension modules, such as floppy drives, disk controller (EXDOS), speech synthesizer (Speakeasy), etc., the designers opted when possible for a build-up approach, à-la then-popular micro Hi-Fi stacks.
What stroke me first when I held the Enterprise is its lightweight and small size. Press photos are not giving justice to the machine’s form factor. Maybe it is because of the low profile of the computer. Regardless, the Enterprise’s plastic shell is well made and tightly held by fourteen screws. One of these screws is located under the label, so it is straightforward to spot if an Enterprise has been ever open. The keyboard is in one piece easy to remove. Unfortunately, they used a membrane that connects to the circuit board via two ribbon expansions that are extremely painful to re-insert during re-assembly. I’ve seen this approach in the ZX-81/Times for example and is very prone to breakage and fault. They apparently tried to save costs here.
Another annoying aspect of the Enterprise is the use of non-standard connectors. Likely for cost savings, most of the expansion ports are exposed directly from the PCB. Also, these connectors’ pinout is custom. For example, the monitor output is anything but standard. Which, since no monitor cable was shipped with the computer, makes it hard to use if your TV doesn’t have an antenna plug. Wait, none of them have such input anymore. I ordered a monitor to SCART cable from Spain, but it didn’t reach me yet. I’ll review it as it arrives.
Besides these two very annoying aspects, once open, we find a clean layout. We can witness the special care taken to cool the system. On the power delivery section, a big passive heatsink is used (note that the plastic protection cover simply screws between the fins). A copper heat spreader covers the Nick video chips. Since a picture worth a thousand words, I invite you to check out the close-up shots I toke.
I don’t know if my model is unusual, but the transformer has no power plug attached. Based upon the extra-label attached to the wire, this must have been done by design. As you can see in the pictures, the Styrofoam has melted over the years and gunked-up the entire block. Regardless, I went ahead and used my bench power supply for the first tests. Later on, I will use a modern transformer suited for 120V.
Road to Hell
From here, it was a road to deep hell. Although the hardware and the enclosure were ready, alongside the two ASICs – nicknamed Nick & Dave –, the BASIC was a no-show. As mentioned earlier, Madge wanted a computer fun to program with to appeal the bedroom programmers. And in the ’80s, that meant Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC). Or, to a lesser extend, Machine Language, which was fun only to the happy few – if you had a decent Assembler.
IS opted for a safe route for the Enterprise and decoupled the programming language from the computer itself. It means that contrary to an Apple II or a Tandy TRS-80, you could not program after the system powered up. But, like a Sharp MZ-80B or an Atari 800, you had to read-in a tape or insert a ROM cartridge to start writing your code. The Elan team’s rationale was that it would allow the use of other programming languages such as FORTH, LISP, or even Pascal. Nonetheless, this could not help with the delay. The IS BASIC needed to bake for longer.
The Enterprise’s prototype was disclosed to the press in September 1983, for an announced broad availability in 1984. Almost overnight, 80,000 computers were pre-ordered. Unfortunately, the systems didn’t ship before 1985. The same year, you could buy one of these computers: Atari ST or Commodore Amiga (powered by a Motorola 68000), a PC-Compatible (with an Intel 80386), or even an Apple MacIntosh! Intelligent Software bankrupted in 1986 when, according to Levy, Hegener & Glaser didn’t pay a “huge amount of money we were owed.” So, yes, shipping does always beat perfection.
I wrote earlier that the IS BASIC was not ready. That was not a mistake or a typo. IS didn’t plan to use a Microsoft BASIC as the vast majority of its competitors. It makes sense, as Microsoft’s perversion of BASIC is anything but fun to code with on a micro. The Redmond company butchered many BASIC features. Where the IS BASIC aimed higher for the ANSI standard of the time. A choice that certainly was music to the ears of Kemény János György (a.k.a. John Kemeny). While IS BASIC is not True BASIC, it is still a structured and rich dialect of the language: structured programming with procedures and functions, exceptions and their handling in dedicated routines, loops with advanced conditions, if-cases, and in addition of a vibrant graphics and audio support, it has an out-of-the-box Networking stack built-in (more on this later). The main issue with the IS BASIC is its limited speed. According to IS, this is due to the ten-digit decimal arithmetic precision. Fair enough, but damn, it is so slow!
When I first read about the Lansay Enterprise 64 in 1984, it was like standing at ground zero of a full thermonuclear blast! I remember drawling abundantly while reading the rare French specialized press reviews, of which I reproduced here a few pages. It was as if someone wanted to sell me a Ferrari at the price of a Trabant. Surreal, and indeed too good to be true.
Well, of course, I never got one. I waited almost 40 years before I could put my hands on one of these systems. First, because when the Enterprise finally hit the French stores, I embarked on the MSX bandwagon, and I was ready to jump the ship for the Atari ST. But you probably guessed it; the Enterprise was technologically rubbish by 1986. What a shame! Especially if you remember Madge’s not self-fulfilling prophecy: avoid obsolescence on arrival. Ironically, we can still read with obsolescence built-out printed in huge letters on the packaging.
Out of those ~80K pre-ordered Enterprises, a massive stock of ~20K machines produced were shipped to Hungary, along with other improbable countries in much lesser quantities. As you may know, I have tight connections to Budapest, but it is not from Hungary that I got my Enterprise 64. But from Cairo in Egypt. Unfortunately, it is not one of the rare variants with an Arabic keyboard, but it is one of the rearrests British home computer ever made. Not as unique as my InData DAI, but it certainly comes second in line.