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News Features Index > Profile in Home Computing Weekly 19 July 1983.


Home computing Weekly 19th July 1983 page 37


PROFILE
Program
encounters
of the Forth
kind
Jupiter Cantab is so sure that
Forth beats BASIC that it made
a computer, the Jupiter Ace,
and a range of software,
specially for it. But can it make
its mark in a world of Basic
programs? Steven Vickers
talked to Candice Goodwin
about the case for Forth

These days, anyone who launches a home computer that, like the Jupiter Ace, has a black anc white display and doesn't use BASIC has to be either very out of touch with the micro market, or pretty sure of what they're doing.
You couldn't really accuse Jupiter Cantab's founders of be. ing out of touch. Both Steven Vickers and Richard Altwasser worked for Sinclair, and Steven wrote most of the firmware (ROM-based software) for the Spectrum.
Despite the fact that both the ZX81 and the Spectrum turned out to be market leaders. Steven and Richard weren't satisfied with working for Sinclair. "We felt that running computer companies should be in the hands of engineers, not entrepreneurs", said Steven.
One of their major grouses was the programming language, BASIC, used by both the ZX machines and all the other popular home micros. Steven says of BASIC, "it's not the language that beginners should start on, you can't write long programs on it easily".
When they came across Forth, Richard and Steven felt they'd found the answer. "It had enough structure for long programs and it ran very quickly. We saw it as a way of setting people free from the bonds BASIC imposes on them."
Forth was first developed in 1971   by   an    American,    Charles
Moore, who wanted a language that would control radio telescopes easily. He really wanted to call the language Fourth, for fourth-generation language, but he was working on an IBM computer which only allowed him five letters for a file name.
Forth programming is based around the concept of a series of words, each word defining an action to be carried out by the computer. You start off with a series of the words already built into the computer - the equivalent of the GOTOs, PRINTs and so on in BASIC - and then define new words in terms of a sequence of old ones. Each word, then, is roughly equivalent to a subroutine.
Forth runs faster than BASIC because after the program has been written, each of the key words is converted to a two-byte address, ready for the computer to execute immediately. In BASIC, however, the computer has to do most of the conversion while the program is actually running.
Steven and Richard decided that the best way to give Forth to a wider audience was to design a computer specially for it. Richard had been putting components together for a while, and he had a working prototype by the end of 1981.
But because they were both busy putting the final touches to the Spectrum,    they   didn't   make



the break with Sinclair until spring 1982.
Their base was Richard's house in Bar Hill, just outside Cambridge, where they worked first in an upstairs room and then, when Richard's son was born and the room was turned into his nursery, in the garage. "Richard's wife gave birth at practically the same time as the computer was born", Steven recalls.
The aim was to have the final version of the Jupiter Ace ready by September 1982. By working 12 hours a day, they did it . But at the same time of the launch, there wasn't much software for the new machine. The need to write some software forced Richard and Steven to look more carefully at who would be using the Ace. They started off with a general idea that it would be "a machine that would more structured and powerful programs." So they didn't add refinements like a colour display and a full typewriter keyboard. But Steven now feels that "we haven't directed our efforts precisely enough."
Top confuse the issue, the Ace's first collection of programs included a number of arcade-type game. But Steven says, "we shouldn't be pushing it in the games market. I find computer games addictive, but not in a good sense. By the end of the game, I wish I hadn't bothered. It's time computers did something useful."
So now Jupiter Cantab is concentrating on programs for the educational and business market. They've already had orders from research labs, universities and polytechnics, and   from   several
schools who an using it to control equipment like the Cyber robot from Cyber Robotics. But the company' now working on some maths anc physics programs to boost the Ace's educational appeal.
As for the business market ... could the Ace, with it small rubbery keys and its low profile, really catch on? Steven admits that they are "working on the case to make it more acceptable to business", and a deluxe model can be expected in a few months' time. But he maintain that "the possible applications for things like spreadsheets are quite powerful."
Jupiter Cantab now has a new base and a slightly different line-up. It recently moved from Richard's house into Cambridge itself, to 100-year-old premises in Cheshunt Building, Bateman Street. Richard has now resigned as a director, in order to spend more time with his family, and his brother Steven has replaced him on the board. There's also a marketing director, Geoffrey Walker.
The ace itself is selling steadily, and Jupiter Cantab's commitment to it is evident in plans to bring out products to support it - a 16K RAMpack has already appeared, and a printer interface is due out in a few months.
But for Jupiter, the Ace isn't just any old computer. As Geoffrey Walker put it, "Forth programming is liberating. It's what you really wanted to do with a microcomputer."
Or as Steven Vickers said, "Comparing Forth to BASIC is like comparing a Gothic cathedral to a mud hut."

Steve Vickers and Richard Altwasser: two for Forth