The David Potter Interview

Taken From Your Spectrum Issue 1, January 1984

Psion is the software firm that put the Horizons tape together for Sinclair Research. And if you ever had any illusions about software companies, forget them - Psion is a highly professional outfit. Tough questions were well parried by Psion's managing director, ex-computer science academic - David Potter.

YOUR SPECTRUM: You have a very close relationship with Sinclair Research - do you feel you are bathing in reflected glory at all?
DAVID POTTER: Not at all. We have a good close relationship with Sinclair, that's true. But it has worked to the advantage of both companies. Our software has contributed greatly to the success of Sinclair with both the ZX81 and the Spectrum. We estimate that we have 25 per cent of the Sinclair software market and that's with only a dozen or so titles. But each one of these is a high quality product and most important of all, they are not ephemeral like many of the games for home computers are.

YS: But compared to Sinclair Research you have a very low profile. Is that because you want to keep out of the commercial limelight?
DP: Again it is true we have a lower profile than many of the software suppliers in the micro business. But I would maintain that it is software that sells machines. Sinclair makes sure that we have machines well in advance so that we can get the products to market at the same time as the hardware is ready.

YS: Doesn't that mean that you are relying on Sinclair Research to do a lot of your marketing for you, rather than getting your hands dirty yourselves?
DP: Our first priority is to develop the best software in the world - we should like to become the dominant micro software house in Europe. Yes we could have developed a large distribution arm but we decided not to do that. I think it is a mistake to equate software supplying to pop records or publishing. Movie making is a better comparison. There you have two powers in the market place - the studios that create the product which may cost millions and the distribution chains. We are more like the studio and we leave the marketing to the distributors.

YS: In that case, why don't you have 'stars' in the same way movie studios do? Most of your products are just credited to Psion - no author is mentioned.
DP: I don't think that is the way forward. We are a team of people and I don't think you will find a team that is more dedicated or with a greater sense of commitment and involvement anywhere. The reason for that is that we are

the best. We are creating the equivalent of the cars and aeroplanes that were built in the early days of those industries. We are not flashy, we are concerned with craftsmanship. That does not mean that our programmers are not looked after. They are very highly paid, as they should be in a prosperous industry. You won't find another company with the capital investment per employee and we have development tools that are second to none - including the larger software houses.

YS: So that means copyright ownership rests with the company - programmers do not get royalties?
DP: Yes. We are concerned with building the reputation of Psion, not individuals. I think it is a mistake to take the attitude of some of the publishers that have moved into software and promote the author. Some of them are finding this out the hard way and starting to take our view and set up professional development teams with high quality tools. It is the only way that you can put our sort of products together. A program like Flight Simulation for instance uses lots of very complex mathematics - there are in fact 12 non-linear, partial differential equations in that and a lot of sophisticated transformations taking place in real time. You can't get that sort of thing working without a lot of skill and first rate tools. And it works - we've sold something like 250,000 units of Flight Simulation, and who knows how many copies there are around.

YS: You acknowledge that your products are copied - is there any way you can protect them?
DP: Sure there is a lot of copying going on and I don't approve of it. We will crush any large scale copying activity but I suppose we must accept the odd person to person situation. The best method is to keep the product cheap in the first place, then people will want to buy the proper product with the documentation that goes with it. We had a lot to do with setting price standards, and software on the Spectrum is cheaper than on any other machine. I think because of that the quality and range of software on the Spectrum is in a league of its own.
I think the worst offenders are teachers who think it is quite moral to buy one copy and spread it around the whole education system. As a result the
quality of educational software is awful - no one wants to spend money developing a high quality product that is going to sell only a couple of copies. Teachers don't live in the commercial world and don't see that it has to be worthwhile for a company to get into developing something.

YS: Does that mean that you lose the educational potential of computers - because there is no software?
DP: We are in the early stages of the development of home computers - they are not really functional at this stage. There is no communications available and there is not enough mass storage. But there is tremendous drive for people to learn about computing and that is why Sinclair's cheap computers have been so successful. But we see our products as being educational - take Scrabble - that has tremendous educational qualities. Another of our products that has sold very well is VU-3D which helps people understand about planes and space.

But the point is that they will not just be fun and not just educational - soon they will become essential parts of our lives. I think a lot of people have bought the Spectrum as a cultural tool - to learn about the computer culture. It's very good for that, despite the criticism it has received, and it's a good deal more powerful than it is given credit for. Scrabble uses every byte of a 48K Spectrum and is immensely complex. We were asked to build a Scrabble program for the BBC Micro but I don't think it is possible because the machine can't handle it. There you've only got 32K and lots of that is taken up with the screen processing.
We have purposely tried to bring out software of the highest quality and with Sinclair we have concentrated on sophisticated products that are not necessarily just video games. They are educational in the broadest sense. Flight Simulation can teach you a lot about bearings and radials as well as about navigation, for example.

YS: So what is your policy in selecting products?
DP: It's a very competitive market and I think I would stress high quality. We have to follow what the market wants but in some ways we can also lead it - if we do it well. Looking ahead, and without being arrogant about it, we think we can keep it up.

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