From the age of about 9 or 10 I was interested in electronics and electrical circuits, building my own devices with spending money, and reading Everyday Electronics magazine, I first got interested in computers in 1977 when an after school class run by one of the teachers allowed me to program a machine to work out how far a falling body would fall in x number of seconds (I still have the printout of the calculations from that machine).
Whilst attending a Motor Mechanics apprenticeship in 1978, I was able to get on to a mainframe computer and I was hooked, but it was five years later (7th November 1982) that I bought a ZX81 computer and played the breakout game I bought with it. I read the manual that came with the computer and was hooked, I taught myself programming from the ZX81 manual. I did not know of anyone in the area who even owned a computer or knew what they could do so I had nobody to discuss computers with, they were a bit of a specialist subject back then. I started working flat out learning how to write software I then graduated to the Sinclair Spectrum and then to the Sinclair QL.
In 1985 I went in to WH Smiths in Preston and saw a typing tutor for sale for £29.95. I told the shop assistant who I regularly chatted to, that the software was over priced and that I could write better myself. He challenged me and I set about writing Touch Typist to prove my claim.
Two weeks later after working flat out I took a program in to show him and he was amazed that it was better than the one he was selling, he said that I should market it. I then set about writing new features and expanding the software until it was ready for sale. I managed to get an Enterprise Allowance grant of £40 per week for one year to start up self employed writing software, later on that year I attended a computer show in London as an exhibitor selling my one product. I sold about 19 copies in one day.
Within two years Sector Software had achieved a turnover of £90,000+ with programs such as Touch Typist, Taskmaster, Spellbound, Flashback, Ferret, Page Designer 2, Writeturn and QZ (QL to Z88 link).
Back in the 80′s, before Microsoft wrote Windows we had our own multitasking/task switching front end for the Sinclair QL called Taskmaster, this gave you multiple programs running in their own windows, all the programs multitasked, this meant that they all ran at the same time, you could set your database printing out labels and still use your wordprocessor or any other programs at the same time. Also included in the package was a file handling program similar to Windows File Manager, a pop up notepad and pop up calculator which once closed with a two key combination transferred the text out of the notepad or the result from the calculator to the underlying program. This allowed, for example, the ability to be working in your accounts package and, with a simple keypress up popped up the calculator, you could perform your calculations and then by pressing two keys the calculator closed down and as it disappeared it typed the result to the input box on your accounts package, the notepad worked the same way. This software also gave you a macro recorder and player language which could operate ANY program running in your machine thus automating common tasks. A software based printer buffer which was configurable to use spare ram saved our customers the cost of buying the only other alternative at the time which was hardware printer buffers which were expensive. When you switched on your QL, Taskmaster remembered what programs you were using when you closed it down and they were loaded up ready to go.
In 1987 we released a spelling checker for the Sinclair QL by the name of Spellbound, this checked your spelling in real time as you typed, this is a feature that many thought that Microsoft invented in their recent Microsoft Office software, we were doing this ten years earlier than Microsoft. Our spelling checker did not only work within a wordprocessor though, by linking itself in to the keyboard input queue it worked exactly the same in ANY program running in the computer, for example you could be in your accounts package, spreadsheet or even a game and still turn on the spell checking by simply pressing a two key combination, all your spelling from that point onwards being checked as you type, pressing two keys switched it off.
I noticed an increase in the demand for tuition from people wanting to learn to write their own programs this became an integral part of the services provided by Sector Sofware.
After realising that many people were experiencing difficulty programming databases we released Flashback, this was a pop up database which could be called up at any time with two key presses, it was very simple to use and configure. When it was closed down Flashback would either simply disappear, or it would transfer the current record in to the underlying program at the programs cursor position.
Around 1987 we started our own Bulletin Board. For those who do not know the term, this is a system where our computers answered the phone after 6pm through to 9am the following morning. This allowed people to use their computers to log on to our computers, leave messages, talk to others and download software. It was an online meeting place for computer users with modems to dial up in a similar way to the way the Internet is used nowadays.
In the mid 1980′s I attended ZX Microfairs at the Horticultural Halls, Westminster, London as an exhibitor and then decided to hold my own shows in the North West. Seven very successful computer shows were held at Stokes Hall, Leyland, Lancashire at the rate of two or three per year. These were the first computer shows in the area. I did not continue organising computer shows due to many others getting on the bandwagon and starting competing shows in the area, these were box-shifter shows as they still are today, my shows were attended mainly by the people who wrote the software, you could chat to the authors direct as they sold you the programs. Nowadays you have to travel to London or Birmingham to see a proper computer show where those exhibiting are the writers of the software rather than people selling games etc. Computer shows nowadays consist of mainly box shifters, PD suppliers and pirate MP3 sellers. Maybe I should have continued organising them myself.
The first computer show in the North West was big news, it was featured in the Lancashire Evening Post as well as other local newspapers, Radio Lancashire brought their outside broadcast van to the show because it was something so new. They interviewed me live on the radio amongst the stalls before they went around the show with a radio microphone, talking to people asking them questions like “what it was like to attend a computer show” and “what have you bought”. Little did I know how from these first beginnings that computer shows would swamp the area. The first one was attended by about 2000 visitors which at the time was an amazing response, many shows today would like to have that kind of attendance.
In 1988 I bought a Commodore Amiga and started converting my typing tutor ‘Touch Typist’ to this machine, Touch Typist was a best seller on the Sinclair QL and soon became even more so on the Amiga. Touch Typist was later converted to the Atari ST and the Acorn Archimedes. I became a regular exhibitor at computer shows from Scotland to Germany and Belgium. I was exhibiting at Schloss Bedburg (Castle Bedburg) in the town of Bedburg in Germany one year and saw a Sinclair C5 parked outside the castle, I could not resist the temptation to take it for a quick spin around the castle grounds, luckily I was not caught before I parked it up where I found it.
After obtaining a licence from British Telecom, Sector Software released STD Index on the QL, Amiga and IBM PC, this was British Telecom’s dialling code database of UK and foreign numbers on computer disk with our own search engine, this was very useful for reverse searching numbers.
Demands for formalising the computer skills of our students led to Sector Software becoming an RSA (Royal Society of Arts) registered Test Centre. This allowed us to deliver courses run by RSA, the CLAIT (Computer Literacy and Information Technology) course was ideal as a starter course in computing and was adopted for our students.
Our next software release was Wordsmith on the Amiga, this was a crossword, anagram and puzzle solver for crossword and competition addicts. This was also used in some schools to help children find rhyming words or words on a particular theme I later found out.
Because of a personal need for an instant reference to the contents of technical articles Shopper Index was written. This was a database of Amiga Shopper magazines contents in a very fast stand alone search engine. This gave readers of this magazine instant access to years of Amiga Shopper magazine articles, letters, reviews and tutorials all wrapped up in our very fast search program. The editor of the magazine used the software to keep track of past reviews and advice given in the magazine articles and letters.
Tandy’s educational arm Intertan then contacted us to arrange for us to write a link to their WP2 computer. This worked in a similar fashion to our Z88 link, allowing up and downloading of data contained in the WP2 for archiving on a home computer or spooling the documents to the printer.
After being sent a digital camera by Fuji in 1997 and one from Sanyo in the same year I set about writing software to link these to a computer.
One project which has been written but is currently on hold is our software for HM Prison Service which calculates prisoner’s sentences. This software calculates a prisoner’s release dates for either consecutive, concurrent or mixed consecutive and concurrent sentences. This takes into account time spent in custody (police or otherwise), ADA’s(additional days awarded) ADAp’s and a host of other variables. Data entry is simple and fast, the calculations are even faster taking no more than a few seconds to calculate a complicated record.
This program was originally written on the Commodore Amiga and was converted to run on IBM compatible machines, we have to wait for the Prison Service to decide how to correctly calculate remand time on concurrent sentences before the final version of the software can be released. You may remember the time when 500 prisoners were let out early when they found out that they had been calculating their release dates wrongly. This software knows all the rules and the amendments to the rules issued over the years. Output is to the standard sentence calculation white/pink/or blue forms complete with sentence chart.
Our best selling Touch Typist software is being rewritten for the IBM compatible market. It is being converted from our Amiga program by the same name. Touch Typist is a typing tutor which has sold over 15,000 copies on the Commodore Amiga as well as the Sinclair QL, Atari St and Acorn Archimedes. Touch Typist is not a trivial program, apart from the graphics, instructions and lessons, there are 3500+ multistatement lines of source code to handle the logic of the program which need converting. If any IBM owners want an idea of the type and quality of this program then you can have a look at the review of the Amiga version which can be seen in Amiga Format issue 101 page 62. One reviewer said that “compared to Mavis Beacon and Intellitype (it’s closest rivals) Touch Typist is a lot more straightforward and rewarding to use”, need we say more.
Touch Typist was released on CD ROM for Microsoft Windows and a short while later it was released as a software download that allows payment and unlocking online, the whole process of downloading the software, paying for it and starting to learn to type takes just a couple of minutes.
During this time we have written various custom software packages for local businesses to handle customer details, invoicing and data conversion.
I do some website design work but that is not one of our main activities, instead we specialise in gaining visitors to existing websites by a multitude of techniques from simple Search Engine Optimisation through to operating our own specialist software to market websites, urls, personal profiles, blogs and social media accounts.
I have been operating in the virtual world of Second Life since January 2007, in there we organise meetings and training sessions, we build, write software and generally learn all there is to know about Second Life. This platform is excellent for some businesses and we have made many new friends, customers and business contacts through this medium.
I am currently writing various pieces of software which will be sold as downloads in the near future, but our main workload has been filming, editing and producing podcasts for ourselves and for other people. Video podcasts or Internet TV is the future medium for businesses wanting to make an impact on the web.
That’s a potted history to date