There is a ghost of an acorn abroad today - Acorn Computers has been relaunched. But it is Acorn in name only. Thanks to the BBC Micro, the original Acorn is part of the DNA of every computer child of the 80s, and the Acorn Risc Machine processor design lives on in hundreds of millions of devices around the world. Like so many companies in the Cambridge Phenomenon, Acorn went through spectacular booms and busts: its truly brilliant ARM-based Archimedes computer still has a hard core of enthusiasts, unlike the network computer it built for Oracle.
But all that's left of the company itself now finds itself employed as a badge on a series of laptops imported by a Nottingham firm with, it has to be said, almost no interesting features. The only claim to innovation the company can provide is that the screens are particularly shiny thanks to "Acorn Vybrio Technology" which gives them "a glass like finish for vibrancy and brilliance." I hate shiny laptop screens, but it seems to be the limit of invention these days. Even HP has just launched a new notebook with one major new feature, the "HP Imprint finish, a ground-breaking hard-coated, high gloss surface" according to the press release. Not sure I want to break ground with my laptop, but it's nice to have the option.
In retrospect, the Cambridge computing scene was a microcosm of the whole industry. There were violently opposed camps -- sometimes literally so, with the heads of Acorn and Sinclair Research coming to blows at one infamous party -- with legions of devoted followers able and willing to argue the religions of 6502 versus Z80 long into the night and well past sanity. Technology after technology in varying states of readiness were pushed out to a wondering public in the hope that something might stick. Meanwhile, the dull and boring stuff was eating up the market of people who couldn't care less what chip was in the things as long as they could write and print a letter to the bank manager.
Even now, I can't quite understand what was in people's minds. Amstrad knew how to get it right with its best-selling PCW8256 word processor - built out of what anyone else would call obsolete components but which Sugar saw as extremely cost-effective and efficient.
The day that launched, the Sinclair engineers looked at the specifications and the price and said to themselves "That's brilliant, it's perfect.", which it was - it deserves to be in the Design Museum as an example of superbly produced innovation. Four chips - one custom, two RAM chips and the z80 processor - drive screen, disks, keyboard and the printer mechanism. Of course, the product is profoundly unsexy, cheap and utilitarian, so nobody cares that it's twice as clever in its own way than a Macintosh. The Sinclair engineers knew and appreciated that - and went straight back to doing peculiar gizmos that couldn't be built and nobody really wanted.
It's appropriate, if painful, that the Acorn logo should end up on boring stuff that people can use: the Cambridge Phenomenon might have spawned brilliance, but its the dullards that make the best use of it.