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Amstrad was one of Britain’s brightest businesses in the 1980s. While most British electronic companies suffered setbacks, Amstrad’s profits grew from £1.4 to £160 million.

Founder Alan Sugar was rated among the country’s top entrepreneurs. What made Amstrad great and what makes Alan Sugar tick?

These questions are not answered by David Thomas’s The Amstrad Story.

Thomas’s omissions do not make the book worthless. It has the three i’s required of any lightweight business reader it is:

  • interesting,
  • inspiring and
  • informative.

Flawed Amstrad textbook

Despite its inspirational qualities, it is flawed as a textbook for budding Sugars.

The book offers no insight into Amstrad’s recipe for success. It offers no insight period. The book chronicles Sugar’s business activities with anecdotes and comments from Sugar and his business partners.

Part of the problem is Sugar’s reluctance to open himself up to public scrutiny. The man has a well-known dislike for journalists and likes to keep his personal life to himself.

As a journalist on the Financial Times, Thomas somehow managed to bypass this obstacle and gain access to some of Sugar’s thoughts and a great deal of the more favourable aspects of Amstrad’s growth period.

Puffery

Yet, for the most part the book reads like public relations puffery. Alan Sugar vetted it before publication. Only Thomas’s insistence on recording Sugar’s bad language verbatim saves it from reading like Pollyanna.

At no point did Thomas talk to Sugar’s rivals — he offers no critical analysis of Sugar or Amstrad.

Sugar interesting, no saint

As a journalist working in this area through most of this period in the UK, I knew of many who had much to say about Alan Sugar that was far from complementary.

Criticism, constructive or otherwise, would not diminish Sugar’s achievement. It would help us understand it.

In particular, the book does not tell us enough about how Sugar started.

It seems he left a warehouse one day with a van full of electronic goods and returned that night having sold the lot — I’d love to know how.

Shady? Who knows?

By not telling us the whole story, Thomas leaves readers with the impression there might be something shady in Sugar’s early business dealings. That isn’t fair on the readers and it isn’t fair on Sugar.

For my money the most galling feature of this book is its Cambridge-educated author’s habit of painting Sugar as a Del-Boy or Arthur Daley-type character. Why Sugar’s design notes are reproduced along with spelling errors is beyond me.

English snobbery

The same goes for verbatim quotes complete with bad grammar or foul language. It is as if the author admires Sugar’s gumption and business brain but has to show him up as being an ignorant lout at heart.

This Del-Boy theme repeats elsewhere and it stinks of the worst kind of British class prejudice. It is a reminder of why British industry is in decline. While other nations venerate people who create new wealth the British prefer to venerate those whose ancestors made it.

Unintended revalations

Perhaps in this roundabout way the author unwittingly pulls back the curtain to show what drives Sugar: a wish to succeed and prove himself the equal or better of those born to a higher position.

If making money is a way of measuring these things, Sugar proved himself.

Despite these criticisms the book has value. The stories of how Sugar planned his computers and how he eventually acquired Sir Clive Sinclair’s business are both worth reading.

Sugar’s ability to cut through distractions and get straight to the point — usually money, is spellbinding. And those nuggets of Sugar’s managerial wisdom that peek out from underneath are pure gold.

Gist, Plaxo and Xobni all aim to cut through the social media cloud and pull together a comprehensive digital address book.

Although each tool has its pluses, none has a magic formula making it the must-have contact manager organiser.

Gist filters your in-boxes putting incoming messages in a single place. Its strong point is sorting things in order of importance. It works with email, Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook. Gist doesn’t always get this right, but it’s an improvement on the usual overloaded in-box.

Gist is free at the time of writing.

Plaxo does a reasonable job of syncing to contact management applications. It can also pull in some of your social networking messages.

Plaxo is free, but you need to buy the premium service to sync with Microsoft Outlook and mobile phones. My Plaxo account is full of duplicate entries – annoyingly you can only merge these if you pay for the premium version.

Xobni looks good, but it’s an Outlook add-on and doesn’t replace the contact manager. It provides better index cards and links entries so you can quickly find a contact’s colleagues.

Google’s contact management tool – part of Gmail – is second-rate. It provides little information and adds no value.

Of the three tools looked at here, I recommend Gist as a way to cut through the noise. But for now, Outlook remains the smartest contact manager.

If James Bond were a journalist and not a spy, Q would give him a Livescribe Pulse Smartpen.

It’s a larger than average ball-point pen with a built-in microphone and digital audio recorder. This allows you to record audio while taking notes.

An audio recorder built-in to a pen makes it ideal for interviewing people. But it gets better.

The Pulse Smartpen also records handwritten notes and links them to the audio. This allows you to set bookmarks, so you can recall passages of audio instantly by tapping the pen.

And it connects to a PC to back-up your audio and handwritten notes – where you can use the files with conventional software.

It sounds magical. And in practice it feels like it. I used the pen to conduct a couple of interviews and can report it delivers on its promise.

Prices start at around US$150.

Livescribe Pulse Smartpen does journalism

I love how the pen doesn’t get in the way of an interview. People happily talk to a note scribbling journalist – it’s another thing entirely when you shove a microphone in their face.

The sound quality is surprisingly good. One interview took place in a noisy room – yet the Smartpen picked up my questions and the interviewee’s answers without a lot of the background noise.

It was less successful when I did a trial run in a busy café. In a quiet room it works well. An external headphone and microphone are packaged with the pen. Livescribe says this gives better quality recordings but I didn’t use it as it would be off-putting for interviewees.

In practice I found it hard to remember to set bookmarks in mid-interview. After a couple of pages of notes I set bookmarks at the top of each page – this made it easier to navigate when I went back over the interview.

It’s not paperless

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen only takes me part way on my paperless journalist quest– but it does cut the amount of paper I need to store.

When you write with the pen, it puts ink on a page in the conventional way. But to get the best results you have to use the pen with special notepaper – called Dot Paper – which is more expensive than normal paper and only available from Livescribe.

Dot Paper has the buttons needed to control the pen printed on each page – which means you don’t need to struggle with controls on the pen itself.

You can download you your digital handwritten notes to your computer. Which means you don’t need to keep notebooks once they are full.

Negatives

Dot Paper notebooks are expensive and they are not widely available here in New Zealand – as a journalist I can see myself quickly running out of the special paper. Thankfully you can print out more paper using your own printer if you need some in a hurry – but this is even more expensive than the official paper.

The pen also uses special ball-point ink cartridges – these are only small and at a guess I’d say they probably don’t last as long as normal ball-points.

Paperless positives

One surprising plus was the relatively long battery life, I found the pen works for days without needing a recharge. Also the 2GB of Ram is plenty, I haven’t come close to running out of space.

The pen docks into a USB cradle and downloads data quickly to a PC – usually it just takes seconds. The Windows software bundled with the Smartpen is better than I expected and the small lcd display on the pen is excellent.

Pushing the envelope

The basic Livescribe Pulse Smartpen stores notes as images. Handwriting recognition isn’t included in the standard package, but a $40 add-on from Vision Objects does the job. I’ll be testing this shortly.

I’ve tried feeding the audio from the Smartpen to Nuance’s Dragon Dictate voice recognition software with little success. I’d be interested to hear from anyone else attempting this.

You may call it a blog post, article or something else. A journalist would call it a story. Here’s how to write a good one.

Start your story by telling the reader what it is about. You do this briefly in the headline. Then again in the introduction or intro, which is a stop press paragraph.

Ask yourself:

  • what is this story about,
  • what information am I trying to get across and
  • what points must I make to do this?

Sum up the story in your mind in one simple sentence. This is your intro.

Its job is to tell the reader what the article is about and draw the reader in. As a rule, readers prefer brief intros.

Write so a reader who only gets as far as your intro still has a basic grasp of your story.

How a journalist starts

Newspapers teach journalists to start with a single sentence of between 15 and 21 words. This is what you should aim for, although at times you’ll need to use more words.

As an aside, proper nouns made up of multiple words only count as a single word when you’re calculating the ideal intro length.

You can have one sentence in you first paragraph or two or three. Either way keep it short and crisp.

Next comes the how — how did it happen or, more usually in your case, what happens next?

This is background information or explanation.

After the explanation comes amplification. You amplify the point or points following on from the intro.

Make these points one by one and in descending order of importance.

Last, after making all the main points, tie up any loose ends — ie., add any extra or background information deemed necessary but of lesser importance.

Developers have neglected personal contact management in recent years. Microsoft Outlook still dominates, Google has never had a serious offering.

Now Mozilla has entered the fray with Contacts, a Firefox contact management plug-in.

It’s still at version 0.1, not even a beta at this stage. Which means Contacts is clunky and could cause crashes or other problems. Mozilla recommends you don’t use it with your normal Firefox profile.

The still-unfinished software promises to pull all your contacts together from a variety of sources. There are importers for:

  • Twitter
  • Gmail
  • Gravatar Avatar Images and
  • Native address book (on your computer)

The first three worked on my system. The Gmail importer works when you log into Google . The Twitter importer needs a Twitter password stored in your Firefox password list. The first two work almost instantly, the Gravatar importer takes a few minutes.

At this stage, the contact list isn’t much better than Gmail’s and I found many duplicates and unidentified contacts in my list.

Eventually, Mozilla contacts will allow you to auto-complete names and email addresses when filling on web forms.

For now, it has limited functionality, but there’s potential here. I’m particularly impressed with the data portability – keeping one set of contacts on my desktop and laptop.