Don't Be Dead

By Dave E & Simon Ulyatt

Originally published in EUG #60


A jocular and only half-serious email missive from a new reader of the EUG magazine arrived in the EUG inbox recently and accused your cuddly Editor of numerous cases of "shameless self-promotion" through the EUG columns. The essence of it all indicated that, manipulated by yours truly, the forum of ideas which was once EUG had become little more than a pulpit where rhetorical questions like "Aren't I just a great Editor?" and "Isn't EUG the most brilliant 8-bit User Group out there?" were posed by me to also be answered by me in the affirmative.

Hopefully, this isn't the view shared by everyone. I must confess however that editing EUG issues, combined with a submission rate which now seems destined to fall with every new issue, has led to me becoming very active in the 8-bit Acorn world. At times it has felt like it has been left to me alone to keep the bona fide BBC series ticking over with its disc-based newsletter. Although this may have resulted in me proudly wearing an expert's cap sometimes, I sincerely hope not to have knocked the efforts of 8-bit User Groups based on other 8-bit retro machines.

Why this humility? Well, here I present an article I wrote in May 2001 (Four months ago) for the Oric User Group magazine Rhetoric. By reprinting it here, and with a largely negative review of the magazine to appear in EUG #61, I seek to persuade all from the outset that I have understood the reader's criticisms and do not seek to "blow my own trumpet" at Rhetoric's expense but merely to offer something interesting to BBC/Electron users to read and offer some of that most important of all text - feedback.

Without further ado, the article which appeared in Rhetoric #17, together with the Editor's reply...

As It Appeared...

As EUG begins to close down, Dave Edwards discusses the Herculean task
of running an 8-bit user group and how it is always ultimately the
readers who seal its fate

As a reader glancing through your local user group magazine, it's hard to appreciate just how much work you're looking at. As a reader for many years of, and now ultimately the editor of, 8-bit magazine EUG (for the BBC series computers), such a bold statement comes from experience. Although it hardly seems necessary to point it out, the past decade with its PCs, internet and bawls that 8-bits are dead has left an all-pervasive legacy for the coming millennium: original boxed machines from ZX80s to Amiga 1200s are now being snapped up by collectors desiring only to preseve the meagre machine capabilities in mothballs and antiquity; machines in use irreparably break down; and user groups supporting them go to the wall.

Unfortunately, and despite being around for over ten years, the Electron User Group (EUG) is so doomed. When the glossies gave up on the BBC series in 1991, it was established, producing bi-monthly disc-based magazines carefully formatted to work on the BBC B, B+, Master and Acorn Electron computers. I was one of the 200+ readership it boasted soon after conception and although, being the work of only a small number of contributors, it could never quite produce as broad a range of articles geared to the machine as its professional predecessors, nonetheless on it ploughed. Much the same as your quarterly Rhetoric.

Although the BBC series are very different machines to the Oric family, sharing only the same 6502 processor, each comes complete with its own chequered history of the boom and bust forever just behind the shoulders of all UK 8-bit manufacturers. Acorn Computers Ltd exported not to France but instead Germany, New Zealand, Australia and even America.

In the UK, its BBC Bs and Masters became familiar sights in classrooms up and down the country. The amazingly flexible BBC BASIC language, the huge numbers of educational programs available and the active promotion by BBC television were the selling points when Acorn rode high. The bad idea to release a cut-down BBC (the Acorn Electron (Elk)), the inability to meet orders for it, the fact that the claims of compatibility over all machines were dubious and finally the non-downwardly compatible BBC Master Compacts (and Archimedes) were their poisoned chalices.

At Christmas 1983, Acorn Computers planned to stock up the high streets of the UK with expensive BBC As and Bs and the cheaper new Acorn Electron to rival the prevalent, but ill-reputed (due to the difficulty of programming earlier versions), Oric 48K. The Oric, in a desperate attempt to clear stocks, was the cheapest of the bunch, weighing in almost a hundred pounds less than the *16K* Model A (a computer outdated almost before it was released by the Model B!)

But demand for each machine, or at least so the Acorn newsgroups tell us, was unparalleled and Acorn Computers never forgave themselves for the sales they lost. Personally that Christmas, I wandered (as a youngster) between aisles piled high with BBCs, Elks, Orics, Spectrums and Amstrads while my parents listened to, and accepted, misinformed salestalk that BBC software, because it was written in the standardised BBC BASIC language for a similar 32K machine, would work on an Electron too. Similar stories cross all formats. Even now, computer manufacturers are lax about producing downwardly-compatible machines. Invariably, a glut of software produced before each later release refuses to work on new machines.

That said, lots of software did become available in time and the literature on programming the BBC machines could fill a small castle. Much as many Oric owners reading this will, so had BBC and Elk owners an affinity with their own machines which they had patiently learned how to program. When the professional packages stopped being produced, not many immediately sold their computer in order to buy a replacement. In fact, with BBC Masters (and with the help of a plug in cartridge all Acorn Computers' machines) having immediate access to a very powerful word processor, there was very little to upgrade for. Typing a three letter command and RETURN was infinitely preferable to waiting ten minutes for the Archimedes or 386 PC to retrieve its own version from hard disc. It was here that at least the three BBC user groups - 8BS, EUG and SOLINET - were at their height, inundated with letters calling such machines The Emperor's New Clothes and utilities that did the same as these 'stronger' machines - and did it much faster! 8-bit was far from dead in 1995.

PCs still boot much more slowly than an 8-bit. Word processing is still governed by the speed of your fingers, not that of the processor. People still love their old machines. What happened? The answer is the internet. Several enthusiasts of each machine began collating their software collections, writing emulators and putting them on line. Nowadays, the connected BBC or Electron owner has a smogasbord of games, utilities, demos, articles and mailing lists available to him. As the population has hooked up to the world wide web, it has weaned them from original machine to software emulator on their PC's hard drive. BBC and Electron emulators operate flawlessly and most are completely free to download. A few mouse-clicks and your PC becomes your old retro friend, another few clicks and you have the convenience of a quick response to any questions you may have on the BBC scene from the excellent noticeboards run by and for enthusiasts. You can see all those professional games you could never afford plus hundreds you have never even heard of. You can even get hold of all those fingerbreaking type-ins from each paperback metaphorically stuffed into the small castle earlier.

It's not easy to imagine that any aspiring retro computer owner is now dissuaded from writing to or for an 8-bit user group using their original machine. It is inconvenient and unnecessary to have two computers instead of one. Most ideas for games have already been done, been done well and are now instantly playable. Enthusiasts like myself have even worked through early programs incompatible with all machines and rewritten them so they no longer have any problems. The answers to most questions are out there in easy-to-reach parts of cyberspace.

The editor of any user group is challenged with dragging his on-line readers out of the apathy and good fortune the PC emulation format offers them. To do this, he needs a constant stream of submissions, be they articles, letters or programs. Each issue of every user group magazine I have ever seen has appealed for them. Most have failed due to lack of them. Some have even failed because the editor has succumbed to the apathy himself and folded the magazine. My own take was to offer free issues in return for submissions, a healthy smattering of brand new articles, reviews, programs and demos in each EUG magazine, a regular bimonthy publication date and the continuing cheap price of £1.30 per issue. But I couldn't even tempt the enthusiasts who run the BBC and Electron software archive web sites!

Has all life really been wrung from such machines? In contrast, mass-advertising on the internet (in early 1999) quadrupled membership overnight. Yet almost none of these new readers contributed anything despite all appeals. As editor number three, I also expected submissions from the ex-editors well aware of how hard running the user group was. Ditto. Rhetoric is in a similar situation and this is my own contribution in response to their appeal. Without input, the only means of sustaining the quality of the magazine is by the editor doing the majority of the work alone. This means scouring the internet for news, many hours at a keyboard typing, page-setting and programming and finally spending a day writing and mailing envelopes. Getting no feedback from readers can be the icing on the cake if all this work is already under-appreciated by falling subscription rates.

Despite this however, EUG remains liable to a last-second reprieve from my sentence of death if interest can be stirred up within the next six months. Perhaps you will read this and disagree with some points. Maybe it will help to emphasise how precariously a user group walks the tightrope of existence. Possibly you will even be interested in the BBC or Electron computers. Hopefully, you will send something to either EUG or Rhetoric to stimulate further discussion. If not, then perhaps 8-bit really is dead.

Dave Edwards

The Editor's Response

Thanks Dave for the interesting and slightly saddening article. I think your words echo what the majority of us have been thinking, or at least worrying about for a while.

I agree that, at times, it's very difficult to carry on, especially with the apparent (to the editor anyway) lack of interest or motivation of the 8-bit community to actively support publications such as ours. In this day and age, with the advent of information and software on demand via the internet, then maybe the age of the printed magazine, and social user group, has had its day rather than the machines themselves. Of course, there will always be a few die hard supporters of long-forgotten formats, but I fear that more casual users will never be interested enough in actually subscribing to/paying for/contributing to conventional user groups and magazines.

After all, if you have a collection of ten or more different computers (as many of us do), it's hard to justify spending a lot of money on information and software when it can be obtained and downloaded for free with minimal effort. I guess we have become spoilt for choice in the availability of resources. A few years ago, before internet access became available to me, then I would scour shops, car boot sales, markets, etc looking for old Oric titles - and very rarely would I find them - but any that were available I would snap up quickly. In those days any software would be played to death and really appreciated. Now, just by browing eBay, you can find a good selection of titles every week, or even download the software for free...

On the subject of machines falling into the hands of collectors, then it has its plus points and negative points. Recently there was a Telestrat machine on eBay for sale. There are genuine Oric group members who would love to get their hands on a machine like that - and as there are so few of these machines about - that these things are eventually obtainable (at a price). [Incidentally, I am really surprised that the seller of the machine isn't in contact with the group].

I agree that it's sad that some machines are just being archived and won't be used by people that appreciate them, and are just now regarded as 'collectibles'. It would be hypocritical of me to say too much about the retro-collecting market, as this is how I personally make my living - so I guess I am guilty of this myself. I suppose taken as a whole world market, there are more machines and articles of software around than there are people that want to enthusiastically use them, so in that respect, preservation has its plus points.

A strange thing happened to me a few weeks ago. I found a copy of KNIGHT LORE on the Spectrum. As I sell old machines on eBay, I decided to load it up in order to test the game and the machine before selling it. After waiting three or four minutes for it to load, I found myself playing it for a good hour, and really enjoying myself too. True, I have a Spectrum emulator, and the KNIGHT LORE file on my PC, which will load and play in two seconds - and it's just as good as the original version - though playing on the emulator just isn't any fun. It's just like playing a really bad PC game instead of a really great Spectrum one.

A lot of the enjoyment of 8-bit machines for me, is the anticipation of playing, seeing something that is impressive for its format, finding something that is rare and has been hunted down. Not something I can get for free and just give ten seconds of attention to. If we can get people to go back to their original machines, and to put up with the inconvenience of using cassette/floppy drives, TVs as monitors, etc then we are halfway there. It's only a small step from powering up and old machine and playing a few games, to start writing, programming and getting back into it.

I really hope that your article actually prompts people to think about what you and we do, in the hope of hanging on to what we've built up, and the friends that we've made along the way.

If EUG or Rhetoric is no more, then the time will come when there is no new software for people to obtain, there are no knowledgable group members to ask when you need some advice on programming or repairs, or no news of progress, or developments.

I think personally, that if we can, we should make the internet work more for us rather than against us. After all, I doubt that you'd heard of the Rhetoric group before we communicated via eBay, so maybe there is hope.

Good luck with the group, and long may it continue.

Simon Ullyatt
Rhetoric co-editor

And Finally...

Zipping back to the present, it's worth noting that there were no comments or replies to either article or response.

Dave Edwards