'A word processor so simple my PA could use it': Joyce turns 30

How Alan Sugar's PCW8256 got tech into the hands of the masses


Archaeologic The Amstrad PCW8256 turns 30 this month. In eighteen months it did for the typewriter what the car took thirty years to do for the pony and trap.

Alan Sugar’s specification was simple – “A word processor so simple Joyce could use it”. Joyce Caley was his formidable PA and "Joyce" became the codename for the project – and the product name in Germany.

Joyce rode on the coat-tails of the previous Amstrad computers, which had been huge successes: The CPC464 (codenamed Arnold – an anagram of Roland, the name of the chief designer – and designed to imply it was being built by GEC), and the CPC664 (known as the IDIOT – Includes Disc Instead Of Tape).

The design team was pretty much the same as it had been for the previous computers, with the project being run by Roland Perry, hardware design by Marc-Eric Jones (MEJ Electronics) and the software by Chris Hall and Richard Clayton of Locomotive; the four having all been at Cambridge together.

Youtube Video

While the PCW 8256 is often derided as being a low-tech device – Z80-based, running CP/M when not word-processing and with a monochrome display – its key to being cheap lay in using the largest uncommitted logic array ever built: a single chip which controlled the CPU, display and, crucially, the printer. What customers thought was a separate external printer was in fact just a printing mechanism with the electronics mounted inside the main unit.

3-inch disk. Image: Blake Patterson

The high level of integration also guided the engineering choice to use 3-inch disks. At the time, it was clear that the Sony 3.5-inch format was gaining traction, but the Hitachi 3-inch units used the same, simpler bus as proper 5.25-inch drives and made for simpler electrical choices. Simpler is cheaper and in a mass market product, cheaper is better.

Locomotive had written the BASIC interpreter for the CPC464, but it was previous experience which led to the core software for the PCW8256. LocoScript was codenamed “Zircon” – as in fake diamond. The team had previously worked on the 1976 Data Recall Diamond; a fabulously expensive device. LocoScript was both the application software and the OS, giving a level of performance you would not get on a Z80 if you had to go through abstraction and APIs. This meant columns could be made to slide on the big green screen, it was easy to navigate the floppy disc and it offered a much greater level of What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get

Joyce predated the widespread use of graphical interfaces and the computer mouse. Macs existed, but only in rarefied circles and its 68000 processor cost more than a whole PCW. Just being able to highlight text you wanted to cut and paste was revolutionary when most PC programs wanted a combination of control, secondary and tertiary keys for each step to mark the start of a block, the end of the block and the copy or cut. LocoScript reduced nine key presses to three and made the whole process a lot more obvious.

The integral control of the printer also opened up the ability to make sure you knew what was going to come out. In the days of the Epson FX-80, it usually took a few printing attempts to get the line lengths right. There was also support for other printers, using the optional and rare RS232 serial interface.


Other stories you might like

  • Cheers ransomware hits VMware ESXi systems
    Now we can say extortionware has jumped the shark

    Another ransomware strain is targeting VMware ESXi servers, which have been the focus of extortionists and other miscreants in recent months.

    ESXi, a bare-metal hypervisor used by a broad range of organizations throughout the world, has become the target of such ransomware families as LockBit, Hive, and RansomEXX. The ubiquitous use of the technology, and the size of some companies that use it has made it an efficient way for crooks to infect large numbers of virtualized systems and connected devices and equipment, according to researchers with Trend Micro.

    "ESXi is widely used in enterprise settings for server virtualization," Trend Micro noted in a write-up this week. "It is therefore a popular target for ransomware attacks … Compromising ESXi servers has been a scheme used by some notorious cybercriminal groups because it is a means to swiftly spread the ransomware to many devices."

    Continue reading
  • Twitter founder Dorsey beats hasty retweet from the board
    As shareholders sue the social network amid Elon Musk's takeover scramble

    Twitter has officially entered the post-Dorsey age: its founder and two-time CEO's board term expired Wednesday, marking the first time the social media company hasn't had him around in some capacity.

    Jack Dorsey announced his resignation as Twitter chief exec in November 2021, and passed the baton to Parag Agrawal while remaining on the board. Now that board term has ended, and Dorsey has stepped down as expected. Agrawal has taken Dorsey's board seat; Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor has assumed the role of Twitter's board chair. 

    In his resignation announcement, Dorsey – who co-founded and is CEO of Block (formerly Square) – said having founders leading the companies they created can be severely limiting for an organization and can serve as a single point of failure. "I believe it's critical a company can stand on its own, free of its founder's influence or direction," Dorsey said. He didn't respond to a request for further comment today. 

    Continue reading
  • Snowflake stock drops as some top customers cut usage
    You might say its valuation is melting away

    IPO darling Snowflake's share price took a beating in an already bearish market for tech stocks after filing weaker than expected financial guidance amid a slowdown in orders from some of its largest customers.

    For its first quarter of fiscal 2023, ended April 30, Snowflake's revenue grew 85 percent year-on-year to $422.4 million. The company made an operating loss of $188.8 million, albeit down from $205.6 million a year ago.

    Although surpassing revenue expectations, the cloud-based data warehousing business saw its valuation tumble 16 percent in extended trading on Wednesday. Its stock price dived from $133 apiece to $117 in after-hours trading, and today is cruising back at $127. That stumble arrived amid a general tech stock sell-off some observers said was overdue.

    Continue reading
  • Amazon investors nuke proposed ethics overhaul and say yes to $212m CEO pay
    Workplace safety, labor organizing, sustainability and, um, wage 'fairness' all struck down in vote

    Amazon CEO Andy Jassy's first shareholder meeting was a rousing success for Amazon leadership and Jassy's bank account. But for activist investors intent on making Amazon more open and transparent, it was nothing short of a disaster.

    While actual voting results haven't been released yet, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky told Reuters that stock owners voted down fifteen shareholder resolutions addressing topics including workplace safety, labor organizing, sustainability, and pay fairness. Amazon's board recommended voting no on all of the proposals.

    Jassy and the board scored additional victories in the form of shareholder approval for board appointments, executive compensation and a 20-for-1 stock split. Jassy's executive compensation package, which is tied to Amazon stock price and mostly delivered as stock awards over a multi-year period, was $212 million in 2021. 

    Continue reading
  • Confirmed: Broadcom, VMware agree to $61b merger
    Unless anyone out there can make a better offer. Oh, Elon?

    Broadcom has confirmed it intends to acquire VMware in a deal that looks set to be worth $61 billion, if it goes ahead: the agreement provides for a “go-shop” provision under which the virtualization giant may solicit alternative offers.

    Rumors of the proposed merger emerged earlier this week, amid much speculation, but neither of the companies was prepared to comment on the deal before today, when it was disclosed that the boards of directors of both organizations have unanimously approved the agreement.

    Michael Dell and Silver Lake investors, which own just over half of the outstanding shares in VMware between both, have apparently signed support agreements to vote in favor of the transaction, so long as the VMware board continues to recommend the proposed transaction with chip designer Broadcom.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022