Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 25/07/2006Congratulations to Xara on 25 years of business. Xara is one of those quintessentially British companies that finds a niche and sticks with it -– not always entirely voluntarily -– but any IT outfit that manages a quarter century in this country deserves a round of applause.

Tuesday 25/07/2006

Congratulations to Xara on 25 years of business. Xara is one of those quintessentially British companies that finds a niche and sticks with it -– not always entirely voluntarily -– but any IT outfit that manages a quarter century in this country deserves a round of applause.

You may know Xara better than you think. It started off as Computer Concepts, a two-man outfit flogging software for the Acorn Atom –- the forerunner of the Acorn Proton, better known now as the BBC Micro. CC wrote a word processor for the Beeb called Wordwise that quickly became an industry standard; the company continued to produce Acorn software into the now-mythical age of the Archimedes. This led to graphics software, which led to Windows software, which most recently led to open source -– go and have a look.

I nearly ended up working on a project for them, back in the heady days before the Acorn Risc Machine had become the embedded ARM and the Archimedes was still a thing of wonder rather than an evolutionary dead end. It was the late '80s. Computer Concepts had looked at the Amstrad PCW8256 word processor and wondered to itself whether there was a market for something like that but capable of doing proper graphics. They called in Alfa Systems, the small yet sparkly design company for which I worked, and we all trooped over to the Computer Concepts sumptuous Dockland workspace to sharpen our pencils and read our way through the datasheets. The Acorn Risc Machine was really very clever indeed, we discovered, and Acorn had done all the right things in producing a set of support chips that helped make a complete computer at minimal cost. There was enough processor umph in the system to easily cope with the task in hand, and between CC and us there was enough software smarts to make that part of the project tractable too.

Technically, it could be done. Aesthetically, it was tempting –- we could see how to make something that was elegant, inexpensive yet more powerful than the dearer alternatives. Financially, though... well, we tried our best, but none of the figures quite made sense. Yes, it would be cheaper – a bit. Yes, it would be better -– quite a lot. But none of that promised to make a market appear out of nowhere the way the Amstrad PCW 8256 had managed. It was almost as if the dedicated appliance market had been and gone, and PCs were entering the 'just about good enough' zone for just about everything.

In retrospect, we were dead right. With the exception of Apple, all of the other late 80s platforms morphed into niche machines (Amiga in video, Atari ST in music) and then vanished – and Apple stared into the abyss more than once. But I remember how badly we wanted to build something that nice, and how much we wished it would work – and how proud I'd be now if we'd tried and got something as swish as we were imagining to market.

But then, I wouldn't be writing a congratulatory note about Xara-cum-Computer-Concepts surviving so long. Saying no is a much underrated survival skill, as is not spending money. They're almost as important as their opposites.

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