What ever became of Acorn Computers?

by P.R.Banks

N.B. This is an opinion piece. While I did know several Acorn employees a lot of what is contained within this piece is speculation on my part. I present it only as an outsiders view of what went on with the company. The full story is probably much more interesting and stranger.

Acorn 'died' about the time I stopped maintaining the Comp.Sys.Acorn FAQ list and the Acorn Machine list. Indeed the shutting down of the company is the reason I stopped doing the FAQ. In a way I feel a bit of a traitor for that because people were and are still making the machines. Even some research and development is going on so the platform isn't entirely dead yet. But somehow once Acorn went I felt that I couldn't continue to watch the now dead corpse continue on in a zombie like fashion. I'd rather remember Acorn for what it was, a small innovative company that produced machines that were among the finest made and the last of the big forces in 8 bit home microcomputers outside America to fall.

The chonology goes something like this. Acorn, after some years of seemingly doing nothing, finally updated from their 6502 based systems with the launch of the Archimedes series in late 1987. This literally saved the company from bankruptcy - they had significant debts incurred from a failed attempt to enter the american market two to three years earlier and the long development time of the new 32 bit technology was costly. At the time it lept ahead of anything else available because all but the server machines of the time were 16 bit animals and slower.

They built on the Archimedes series culiminating with the release of the RiscPC in April 1994. Acorn saw an opportunity with collaborating with Oracle over the set top box and Java based technologies. However they felt the Acorn name would hold them back because it was viewed as a stodgy education machine manufacturer. This I feel was their first mistake - they broke the company into four semi-independant divisions which meant a fourfold increase in the management structure and overheads along with a need to establish a new name for themselves. Certainly they had divested themselves of the old 'baggage' that the Acorn name carried with it but they also had divested themselves of the reputation for hardware excellence & innovation that name carried too.

These four sections continued on for a while. Acorn Network Computing concentrated on set top boxes for Oracle and thin client technology. Online media went into more advanced set top box designs for video streaming and cable television applications. Acorn Education concentrated on taking existing designs and refining them for educational use - they then formed a partnership with Apple and sold both Acorn and Apple machines. Again something of an interesting choice because the message it sent was that Acorn itself wasn't fully endorsing it's own hardware - effectively they yielded up more and more of the educational market.

Acorn Risc Technologies continued development of general computing hardware. Their high point was the collaboration with Digital and the creation of the StrongARM processor and upgrades in September 1996. We went from a 40 MHz maximum speed processor to 200 MHz in the existing RiscPC chassis with just an OS upgrade and some software tweaks. Quite a testament for a then two to three years old computer design.

The StrongARM highlighted the RiscPC's deficiencies. It had a very slow and narrow RAM sub system as it's biggest failiure with the StrongARM processor being choked back and forced to work with a 64 Mb/s RAM transfer rate. (16 MHz RAM on a 32bit bus) It was clear that the RiscPC needed a successor design. Work did begin on one and Acorn itself realised the folly of the subdivision of the company and began trading again under a unified Acorn name. However they didn't trim down the management instead remaining four companies under one name.

This continued for about a year and a half. The set top box craze hadn't taken off as predicted by many pundits so neither Acorn Network Computing or Online Media were bringing in a lot of revenue. Acorn Education was quietly turning fully Apple and Acorn Risc Technologies sales were bottoming out as their hardware became increasingly outdated. The group as a whole wasn't making money and I think they pinned their last hopes on a big launch of the Phoebe.

Now the Phoebe itself was a nice specification. StrongARM 233 MHz processor but with level two caching (The StrongARM in the RiscPC subsists from Level One cache only), an updated RAM subsystem using 64 to 66 MHz SDRAM with a 128bit wide bus. There was talk of a new PCI bus for pheripherals as well as two DEBI expansion slots for backwards compatibility with older Acorn machines. Effectively the design was a high end workstation for the time. It would have been on par with PCs of the day for RAM speeds. Given the StrongARMs' power performance having that finally unleashed with a high speed RAM subsystem would have made it a powerful beast.

Initial benchmarks put the machine at between two to six times faster than a StrongARM RiscPC. It was going to be an exciting upgrade - indeed I was all ready to pre-order the machine assuming I could get it out here in New Zealand. Unfortunately it never came to be. Pre-orders of the machine in the UK were disappointing. This was made worse by virtue of the fact that they, a month from launch, asked for pre-orders to be placed but then wouldn't confirm or supply details if these machines could be ordered outside of the UK. This meant the fairly healthy European and Antipodean contingents on the net couldn't place their orders.

Making matters worse the initial prototype, while functional and bootable, had glitches still that needed time to be sorted out. Management, based on the poor pre-orders, pulled the plug on the project despite having spent two million pounds in development. Their reasoning was that it would take another two million to gear up for production of the machine and they didn't want to 'waste' more money.

Frankly I think that was a decision not motivated by a desire for the success of Acorn. Internal politicing at Acorn had replaced senior managment of the company away from people who had been with Acorn for any length of time. The final manager was a man who I think had a brief of shutting Acorn down but in as profittable fashion as possible. What was curious was that Acorn itself was very well backed assets wise - they still had a 33% shareholding in armltd which had been going from strength to strength. Indeed suspicion was that a company would buy out Acorn simply as a cheap way of getting the armltd stock which by now was worth a lot more than Acorn's value.

I think, given a month more and actually launched, the Phoebe would have been another positive milestone for Acorn. It was the first design done in the companies history that had not been designed with education in mind. No concessions to price were made particularly - the mandate was purely performance. Oddly enough this is what the enthusiasts, and the educational sector itself, had been crying out for for some time. Acorn, aside from the launch of the Archimedes series, had always been fighting an uphill battle with slower machines (on paper anyhow) that simply worked more efficiently and did more with less.

The Phoebe would have given them a design that put them on par with PCs again and had the headroom for the next two to three years of processor development in the ARM line of chips. And with the transition to PCI we could have finally taken advantage of the PC's hardware proliferation and had cheaper pheripherals - all that needed doing was driver software. Yet it still left room for cheaper expansions and custom designs through the DEBI bus.

It was going to be an exciting time. Sadly now we will never know. Acorn closed down and the remaining assests not sold off became the company e14 (Element 14 or Silicon). Exactly what they are doing now I really don't know, I haven't had the heart to find out. For me it was a sad day when Acorn finally died. It had always been a company I admired with a philosophy that I simply got. They made good durable hardware that was frequently innovative in design and then proceeded to sell it on it's merits. They had a quintessentially British reserve about their equipment so that they almost were painfully shy about bragging about how good it was.

In the long run this was probably quite bad for the company but it endeared them to me. It was a refreshing change from the more American over sell style and it exuded confidence. Unfortunately it also meant they simply couldn't compete in the American market. The mindset shift was too much and they were simply babes in the wood there. I am reminded of the bittersweet ending of 'Big Trouble in Little China' :-

'We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn't we Wang?'
'No horseshit, Jack.'
'No horseshit.'

So long Acorn, it was a fun time watching you grow and innovate. For a time the pillars of heaven shook but now the world has been turned upside down and unnatural people roam free - commiting grave offences against the gods.

Philip R. Banks
Send Email

Return to the Atrium
Return to the Fortress Entrance