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MGT History

Alan Miles was a former teacher and manager. Bruce Gordon was an experienced computer hardware designer. Together they set up Miles Gordon Technology (MGT) in Cambridge in 1986, to produce hardware upgrades for the Sinclair-designed ZX Spectrum. The first MGT product was the Disciple, a multipurpose interface, and next came the Plus D, a Spectrum interface for a disk drive and printer, selling for £50.

By the late 1980s the ZX Spectrum, even the slightly updated 128K and +2 models, was looking very primitive compared to the newer 16-bit machines, particularly the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. MGT believed there was a market for a vastly improved version of the Spectrum which could approach the graphics and audio capability and memory capacity of the Amiga and ST but undercut them on price, ideally selling around the £100 mark.

The design MGT came up with had 256 kilobytes of memory, compared to 48 or 128 kilobytes for the Spectrum, and an advanced sound chip that could produce three voices simultaneously, each in stereo, and was in fact beyond the Atari ST's abilities in this department. The display of the new computer could operate in a format identical to that of the Spectrum, or in one giving twice the horizontal resolution and greater control of the colour of pixels. The built-in BASIC programming language of MGT's machine was similar to ZX BASIC but extended to include named procedures and extra graphics commands. The microprocessor chosen was the Zilog Z80B which was identical at the instruction level to the Z80A used in the Spectrum but operated at a clock speed of 6 megahertz rather than the 3.5 megahertz of the Spectrum's processor.

Robot 'Sam'MGT's new computer was launched in the last quarter of 1989 under the name SAM Coupé, and certainly had novel styling, with a steeply sloping keyboard and a wide area in front to act as a wrist rest. The price unfortunately had had to be raised to £170 to cover manufacturing costs, with a floppy disk drive costing an extra £90.
Much care had clearly gone into the launch, such as writing a good manual, and MGT introduced a cartoon robot named Sam to advertise the product.

A major problem for any new design of computer in the 1980s was a lack of software to run on it until the software houses had written or converted programs to suit the new machine, which they were unwilling to do unless it was selling in significant numbers, and it was not likely to do so unless software existed for it...
From the start MGT intended to circumvent this chicken-and-egg situation by making their computer able to run the hundreds of programs already written for the Sinclair Spectrum.

Having the same type of processor and the same memory arrangement for the display was a big step in the direction of software compatibility with the Spectrum, but for total compatibility the contents of the Spectrum's ROM, which held the BASIC and rudimentary operating system, would have had to be exactly duplicated. This could not be done since Amstrad, who had by this time bought the rights to the Spectrum, owned the copyright to its ROM and were hardly going to release it to a competitor. The best MGT could do was provide a utility to be loaded from tape which allowed about three quarters of programs written for the original 48K Spectrum to run on the SAM Coupé. Programs written specifically for the newer 128K model of Spectrum could not be run.

(As an aside, when Amstrad finally dropped the Spectrum range in the early 1990s they generously allowed its ROM code to be freely distributed for non-commercial emulation purposes. They also permit Spectrum manuals to be distributed in electronic form. This means the Spectrum is one of the few models of computer which can legally be emulated without infringing copyright.)

MGT had hoped to tempt many existing Spectrum owners to upgrade to the SAM as well as attracting new buyers, but things began to go wrong. It had been planned to have several thousand SAMs in the shops ready for the 1989 pre-Christmas rush, but the computer was late arriving and missed out on most of the Christmas sales, leaving MGT with a stock of about 6000 unsold SAMs just after Christmas, when computer sales were traditionally slow. The price of £260 for a SAM with a floppy disk drive was also seen as somewhat high for the market it was aimed at.

Software writers were reluctant to commit to producing new games for the SAM Coupé because of the limited potential market. A few small companies wrote programs specially for SAM and a handful of games from other platforms were converted to run on it, but the Coupé was always short of software. Even the ability to run Spectrum programs was not a huge advantage, since there was little point in buying a new computer just to play the same games you already had for your Spectrum.

To make matters worse there had been some bugs in the original SAM ROM and MGT had to send out around 8000 replacement ROMs to its early customers. The combination of unbudgeted expense, unsold stock and slow sales resulted in a cash flow crisis for MGT and they went bankrupt in the summer of 1990. No buyer could be found for the business so Alan Miles and Bruce Gordon set up a new company called SAMCo to continue selling their machine.

Under the new business name the SAM Coupé achieved low but steady sales and gradually software written especially for it began to appear. However the SAM was fundamentally based around 1980 technology, whilst home computing was moving on to the new and much more capable 16-bit machines, and to the MSDOS/Windows®TM 'standard'. The Coupé was never likely to last long in the 1990s market and on 15th July 1992 SAMCo went into liquidation. Briefly there was a plan for a company called West Coast Computers to distribute SAMs but this failed to materialise and sales of the Coupé ceased, though it remained popular with its loyal users for several more years.

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