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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 computers

Opinion 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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You touch on an interesting topic. You are either flattered by use of your word, or you feel it's an infringement of your intellectual property.

Toys R Us were suing many companies, because they had devised variations of the name for their own ends. Now, Google are trying to protect their brand name - they actually don't like their phrase being used in everyday language.

As for Electron User, I owned a BBC, and I enjoyed buying it towards the end (Mar 89 onwards), because it had loads more listings than Micro User, especially games. And most of them did work on the Beeb, or required only a few modifications.

As for Let's Compute, I actually subscribed, and have all 12 (or is it 13?) issues fading off somewhere in UK. Mike Goldberg's games programming series was my reason for getting it. I considered the mag a very brave attempt at making computing fun, at a time when the tide was already turning towards Sega and Nintendo consoles.

I can see the word Quercus being linked with 'quirky' which kind of describes our scene, and most of the people within it. And I mean that in the nicest possible way :-)

Steve Scott

 is a RISC OS Usersascott on 7/1/04 1:25AM
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Perhaps the new RISC OS Laptop should be called 'Qercus' :-)

I also believe the word 'Qercus' too be way too open to abuse because: "Now I speak in the new lingo; "What do you drobed, qercites think about the Iyonix from Castle?""

could easily be 'derogatized':

"What do you drobed, queers think about the Iyonix from Castle?"

Bad choice of name, imho.

 is a RISC OS Userpiemmm on 7/1/04 9:15AM
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Thanks to Martin Hansen for an interesting and thought-provoking piece. Personally, I'm not sure I agree about the utility of 'Qercus' (no disrespect to John Cartmell). Normally a new brand name - which is what we are talking about - requires the expenditure of massive amounts of marketing money to take root in the public consciousness, and even then success is not guaranteed (remember Consignia?). Our platform does not have this kind of money, and even if it did, might be unwise to spend it in that way. I agree with Martin that a generic name for the platform, embracing its increasingly divergent formats, is desirable. To rehabilitate Acorn, which is at least known to the computer-using public, might be less difficult than launching a completely new brand however.


 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 7/1/04 9:16AM
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It comes back to the same old chestnut: Should the name 'Acorn' have been dropped? Personally I think it shouldn't have. The fact that the word Acorn in the title of AU and AP may have held the mags back to some degree is due to the fact that the name was dropped by others.

If the 'Acorn' brand had been embraced to begin with then the whole situation we now find ourselves in might have been very different. RISC OS Ltd could have been AcornSoft Ltd, the OS > AcornOS and the machines badged as Acorns (Acorn Iyonix, Acorn Omega, Acorn Alpha etc..).

We would have had an established and known logo, a brand name for the machines running AcornOS and most importantly the machines and entire market would have had an identity, Acorn. Currently we lack all of this. Cheers!

 is a RISC OS UserThe Doctor on 7/1/04 10:20AM
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Compare and constrast:

"What do you drobed, qercites think about the Iyonix from Castle?". "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who knows where his towel is."

 is a RISC OS Usermonkeyson on 7/1/04 10:27AM
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In reply to TheDoctor:

The problem is that the Acorn name has been associated with basically just the education market (which was actually one of the big rocks around the neck). AU never helped itself by not bundling the mag with new hardware (in the way Archive did do) and the publishers becoming disinterested.

Personally, I'm not bothered by the new name. I would thought though a simpler idea would have just been to rebrand Acorn User to AU (and just have AP in it in the same way as AU subsummed other RISC OS mags) - far snappier IMO.

 is a RISC OS UserNodoid on 7/1/04 10:47AM
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Great article. I'd love to see more of this kind of thing.

I'd just like to pick up a few points.

Martin suggests that Electron Users was doomed from the start because of the use of the word 'Electron' in the title. I disagree totally. The scope of the magazine was to provide Electron users with their own magazine. Something that was their's and not just a mention in Micro User. And it did this job very well for seven years. I'd hardly regard this as a failure. The long term future laid with Electron User's 'big brother', Micro User. In fact, following the trend, Micro User should have dealt with all Acorn computers and periodically spawned off sister magazines. Perhaps it is because the BBC range was on the way out as the Archimedes came in that we never saw an Archimedes User.

Also, on the subject of brand names becoming the name of choice for a range of products: Surely 'Acorn' and not Qercus should have been the name (and perhaps it is). When asked what type of computer I have I'd be happier saying I have an Acorn rather than a RISC OS machine (or a qercus). In days gone by IBM compatible PCs were simply known as IBMs. How the name shifted over time to become 'PCs', I'm not sure. Perhaps due to IBM shifting their product range to target different markets or simply because 'PC' has fewer letters than 'IBM'.

Back to the point about Acorn though. I have no idea what people are referring to when they talk about the baggage that the name Acorn brings. Acorn were an innovative, British company that produced great computers. Are people frightened that others outside our community will associate out 'Acorns' with the computers they used and hated at school? So what? Educational software sucks and that was Acorn's past. Doesn't the fact that we still use the computers (and their compatibles) show that the computer design and OS themselves were sound? And I'm certain that the look, feel and useage of my computer bares no relation to the Acorns I used in school.

Be proud of your acorn!

-- Spriteman

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 7/1/04 11:06AM
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"a simpler idea would have just been to rebrand Acorn User to AU"

That idea is pure gold ;-)

-- Spriteman

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 7/1/04 11:13AM
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To g0tai:

You wrote "Perhaps the new RISC OS Laptop should be called 'Qercus'"... What do you mean? One like the ones around already based on WindowsXP with VirutalRPC-SE emulator, or do you mean an ARM/XScale based piece of hardware running RISC OS?

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 7/1/04 1:09PM
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I agree with spritemans comments about what Acorn was but the main word there is "was". That being so Martin's original comments about "Acorn" being a hinderence not a help is perfectly valid. If we want the RISC OS style of machines to succeed in expanding their market size then you have to attract new users. Those users believe, rightly or wrongly, that Acorn is a has been, an ex education machine now totally replaced by PC's, and lets face it they are quite literally 100% correct. They will see "Acorn" on the newsagent shelf and giggle without even opening the pages. However, a brand new name will attract the curious and therefore potential new users.

Dropping the Acorn name has nothing to do with a lack of pride but a need to be practical not emotional.

As for the doctor comments. Well perfectly valid, and yes I agree if everything had been branded/re-branded as Acorn a few years ago we could have continued but that did not happen. So it's time to move on, look forward and not cry over the spilt acornmilk.



 is a RISC OS Usermripley on 7/1/04 1:40PM
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Excellent article. The problem I still have with Qercus as a name for RISC OS in general is that it seems to me a little self-consciously, superficially 'stylish' in the same way as the renaming of abbey (the bank), the bp logo and a good few other companies who have restyled themselves in lower-case and smooth curves. Whilst it's all very 'cool', I somehow get the feeling it's just a fad (either that or English will eventually utterly lose capitals, which is I suppose still distinctly possible).

Do we want to go the way of the 'cool', transient re-inventions of today? If so, Qercus fits in nicely. The benefit I see in Acorn is its comforting depiction of stability, with its long history and connotations of schoolroom security. It all depends who you want to attract, really.

Then again, as a magazine title it's obviously going to catch your eye, and John's manipulation of search-engine techniques etc. is very clever. I just wouldn't really feel comfortable describing my computer as a 'qercus' when it could be something frankly less weird like Acorn (or more neutrally, if more boringly, RISC OS).

 is a RISC OS Userhutchies on 7/1/04 1:45PM
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Nodoid: >Personally, I'm not bothered by the new name. I would thought though a simpler idea would have just been to rebrand Acorn User to AU (and just have AP in it in the same way as AU subsummed other RISC OS mags) - far snappier IMO.

You are certainly the king of spin! Why were you not consulted during the renaming exercise? :wink:

mripley: >Those users believe, rightly or wrongly, that Acorn is a has been, an ex education machine now totally replaced by PC's, and lets face it they are quite literally 100% correct.

Though, strangely enough, people I've met who were only barely aware of the launch of the original Archimedes continue to hold that "brand" in high regard.

 is a RISC OS Userdavidb on 7/1/04 6:33PM
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Funny isn't it how we cling to that name?

Lets put it this way - how many of you out there have replaced your box/cog/pill with a little green nut icon for your taskswitcher on the iconbar?

I know I did - a groovy new one that came with vigay's miscsetup

oh sorry some of you may still call it switcher... ;-)

 is a RISC OS Userepistaxsis@work on 7/1/04 6:53PM
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I call it "Task Manager" since that's what it is. And I use my 3D cog for it. :-)

 is a RISC OS Userimj on 7/1/04 7:42PM
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Funny Acorn at one stage, if memory serves me right, "dropped" the Archimedes name because it was becoming better known than their corporate name.



 is a RISC OS UserAMS on 7/1/04 8:04PM
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Qercus sounds like an umbrella for quirky - quite posibly very appt

 is a RISC OS Usergoon on 7/1/04 9:39PM
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No point speculating, do some research, publish some figures. Would you buy this computer/magazine if it were called Acorn/RISC OS/Qskljagoiwhatever/Something else?

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 7/1/04 9:50PM
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No RISC OS users spell it with a C dear....


 is a RISC OS Userepistaxsis@work on 8/1/04 4:58AM
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In reply to Spriteman

Remember Archimedes World!?

 is a RISC OS Userpipalya on 8/1/04 11:57AM
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pipalya: "Remember Archimedes World!?"

Ten years of therapy undone in just three words.

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 8/1/04 4:16PM
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'Qercus' comupters. I like it. A couple of other points:

1. I assume it's pronounced KWERR-kuss?

2. The 'Acorn' brand has become synonymous with "those old computer we had at school" for most people under the age of 30, so one has to explain about schools only replacing Acorns when absolutely necessary (which was very rare), hence the age of the machines, new computers by same company and other companies (a surpirisingly difficult concept for many to grasp, despite the scores of new PCs every week) and deal with many other blanket "But they're old and crap" statements. There is no easy way to redeem the Acorn brand for most people.

Unfortunately, I can't yet afford an Iyonix, and therefore can't properly demonstrate current RISC OS architecture to anyone who could be persuaded, but with a new name, and possibly (dare I say it?) better marketing under said new banner, there's at least achance of survival for the RISC OS market.

 is a RISC OS Userjymbob on 8/1/04 9:44PM
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The Archimedes brand was good, because it could easily be abbreviated to "Arc" just like Macintosh can be abbreviated to "Mac". It would be nice to have a brand something like this - short and easy to remember.

 is a RISC OS Usertimephoenix on 9/1/04 2:38AM
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its there!



 is a RISC OS Userepistaxsis@work on 9/1/04 5:29AM
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Or perhaps Quark. Harking back to the days of naming computers after sub-atomic particles like the Electron and Proton (AKA BBC Micro). But to br consistent that would be the name of a particular model, not the platform as a whole. Mind you, there are worse names than RIAC OS. The other computer on my desk at work (apart from the Satan's Box I'm typing this on) is of a platform that is called Sun-Sparc-Solaris!


 is a RISC OS Usermrtd on 9/1/04 8:46AM
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"The other computer on my desk at work is of a platform that is called Sun-Sparc-Solaris!"

aka A Sun. After all, the vast majority of Suns run SunOS/Solaris and the processor type isn't too important.

-- Spriteman and his Acorn-ARM-RISC-OS ;)

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 9/1/04 9:53AM
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Quark! Now that was a fantasticly good game. Must have another playof it sometime. Cheers!

 is a RISC OS UserThe Doctor on 9/1/04 12:34PM
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"or a rather childish looking new magazine called "Let's Compute" "

Oh god, they actually called a magazine that? I thought it was just a name made up for the Bob and Trev articles :o

 is a RISC OS UserPhlamethrower on 11/1/04 4:53PM
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Yes. See here: [link]

 is a RISC OS Usermonkeyson on 11/1/04 5:20PM
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