Does that name sound familiar?By Martin Hansen. Published: 6th Jan 2004, 23:36:28 | Permalink | Printable
Martin Hansen draws parallels between our 8bit ancestors and today's computersOpinion Collectors of memorabilia often get very excited about the first issue of a new magazine. Personally, however, I've started to develop a worryingly and somewhat morbid fascination for last issues.
Recently I made a 100 mile round trip to Derby to pick up a working Acorn Electron with Plus 3 disc drive, acquired through ebay. The deal brought with it an unexpected bonus in the form of a massive bundle of Electron User magazines. I used to buy copies of this magazine, but dumped them when I went to work abroad in 1986 along with my no-issues-missing Acorn User collection each of which, incidentally, are now going for around £20 on ebay. Damn it.
How strange to see these old friends again. But then my weird desire kicked in. What happened in the closing days of Electron User? And, how does that compare and contrast with the Acorn User and Acorn Publisher final fling, and editor John Cartmell's vision for the future: Qercus?
Like the Electron, which was always a poor relation to the BBC micro, Electron User was a lesser version of The Micro User and Acorn User magazines. In fact, its first issue appeared in October 1983 inside The Micro User although it soon became a monthly of 64 pages, give or take 12 pages or so, depending on the enthusiasm of those advertising therein. I returned to Britain a year later, in 1987, and resumed buying the odd copy from news-stands.
The last copy that I can recall having seen before is the June 1988 issue. I bought an Archimedes A410/1 in August that year and Electron User faded from my thoughts. How curious to now, 15 years on, see that the magazine continued with a slightly reduced page count of 48 pages, still brim full of type in listings, software releases, and a bewildering and expanding array of hardware add-ons from "Pres" right up until July 1990. Eighty-two issues in total.
In the penultimate issue, a news item informs everyone that the company still backing the Electron, Pres, had bought licences to convert fifty Superior software Electron games from cassette to disc. In what must have been a difficult story to report, Electron User faithfully records a spokesman as he goes on the record to state that the titles brought out on disc had flopped.
Not only the magazine's, but the platform's main supporter is dying. The corpse is displayed in the next edition. It, actually, looks pretty much like business as usual aside from a short but firm item announcing the closure. Readers are urged to move to either "The Micro User" or a rather childish looking new magazine called "Let's Compute" which, I feel confident, bombed.
Comparisons with the current line being drawn under two of our scene's magazines, Acorn User and Acorn Publisher are interesting. For the seeds of Electron User's demise were sown right at its inception; it was ultimately handicapped simply by having the word "Electron" in its mast-head. That word tied it down to one machine and its fortunes from then on were pegged to those of a device which surely, even in 1983, was clearly of limited life-span.
Likewise Acorn User and Acorn publisher have latterly been held back by the word "Acorn" on their front covers. Like it or not, many people are turned off by the word "Acorn" and if it's the first thing they see then they don't get as far as opening the front cover to read about how the world that was once Acorn is still not only alive and well, but thriving and going places.
See "Acorn" first and, for many, it's the only thing you see. Do magazine titles inherently have to be specific to attract readers short-term, at the cost of failing as long term enterprises?
It's not that editors Steve Turnbull and John Cartmell have not realised there is a problem, but what can you latch onto when there is not even a collective word for what your magazine is about? Something specific that at the same time unspecific is needed. It's a riddle that "The Micro User", inadvertently, almost managed to solve. (It was, to begin with "The BBC Micro User" until the BBC felt the magazine was taking liberties and insisted that the "BBC" bit be removed from the title). But that magazine also is dead and gone.
So what do we call the collective of the Iyonix, Virtual RiscPC, and the various and possibly diverging versions of RISC OS? Even parts of Windows XP have become a part of the collective in order to support what we currently call emulation. I say "currently" because Virtual RiscPC is starting to show increasing signs of moving on past that which it is supposedly an emulation of, and this creature, which no platform has witnessed before, also needs to be included.
John Cartmell has, sort of, got the answer. You invent a new word; Qercus. He no doubt principally sees this as being an ace banner for the cover of his new publishing phoenix. It is ambiguous enough to not pin him down as the words "Electron" and "Acorn" did to magazines past, flags up his product alone when entered into a web search engine and he can also, initially, define exactly what he wants it to mean and what he wants it to include.
But just as "Hoover" was originally a brand name that everyone now uses when they properly mean "vacuum-cleaner", I suggest that "qercus" is perfectly suited to being the new collective noun for what we are about. As in, for example, "I'm into qercus computing", or "I'm going to buy a qercus friendly computer next week". Such phrases bind us together rather than separate, as arguments over emotive words like "Acorn", "emulation" or "MicroDigital Omega", for example, do.
There are some interesting issues over ownership of a new word. Technically, "Hoover" with a capital "H" refers to a product brand, whereas "hoover" with a lower-case "h" is understood to mean any vacuum-cleaner, and not necessarily a "Hoover" branded one. Hoover originally came about, of course, because it was the surname of the man most associated with the product. It was not an invented word, as "Iyonix", "Drobe" and "Qercus" are.
I have no idea how John Cartmell would feel about his invented word being used in this way. Is it free publicity when a word you've invented starts being used all over the place? Is it a complement and a flattery? Is it good when you've already got that word on the top publication for what that word describes? Can you, in practice, even if you wanted to, stop other people hijacking your word and using it in their daily speech?
Electron User got it wrong. The planned replacement, "Let's Compute!" was doomed from the moment the title was chosen. It was a naff and vague phrase that, none the less, already invoked all sorts of baggage, most of it unwanted. It had an unattractive slipperiness to which something meaningful could never be successfully attached. As if the Electron User death scene were not horrific enough it then included a still-born, "Let's Compute!".
Whether by accident or design, John has, I think, started something that could end up being more than just his magazine. What makes it right is that he's done it from the perfect standpoint of someone with no strong divisive interest in any of the competitive parts within the whole. I hope the word catches on, not least so that I can sensibly start to talk with other people about the part of modern day computing that interest me, without using the word "Acorn". Qercus is a good word. Thanks, John.
Now I speak in the new lingo; "What do you drobed, qercites think about the Iyonix from Castle?". Try it out the next time some Windows geeks are around to overhear you. It's fun because they haven't got a clue.
I'd like to thank Gavin Smith for his recent excellent article on "Acorn", as a brand name, on his AcornEvolution website which really got me thinking about the ideas discussed in this article and also Richard Flatman, who kindly bundled in, for free with my ebay purchase, the massive pile of Electron User magazines which first inspired these jottings.
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