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Dead medium: The ICL One Per Desk
From: (Charlie Stross)
Source(s): Sources: I own one, plus its manuals. Also, the original review (cover feature) on the OPD in

Personal Computer World, circa 1984; discussions on

alt.folklore.computing with people who own or remember

them (including one person who worked next to the guy who

was ICL's *only* telephone support dude for the One Per

Desk); and a BBS in the UK that specializes in Sinclair

QL's but has an OPD corner.

Is it a computer? Is it a telephone? Is it a tape


No, it's the ICL One Per Desk (aka the ComputerPhone).

The IBM personal computer was slow to take off in the UK,

where the personal computing scene lagged about 24 months

behind the US for most of the eighties. Moreover, the

Apple II never gained a dominant share of the market.

Thus, many weird and eldritch designs for personal and

business computers thrived before the dead hand of

standardization clamped down in 1985-1986.

The British computing scene was dominated at the time

by Clive Sinclair,whose ZX series of 8-bit home micros had

out-sold everything else on the market. In 1981, Sinclair

began work on a new system, the QL or "Quantum Leap."

Equipped with a cut-down Motorola 68000 (actually a 68008)

and microdrives (Sinclair's miniature tape storage units,

similar in design to a scaled-down 8-track audio tape),

the Sinclair Quantum Leap was intended to be both a home

and a business computer, and to take Sinclair into the

world of 16-bit computing.

ICL, a large British mainframe company, wanted to

gain a toehold in the business computing market. However,

they had no experience of designing, building, or

marketing personal computers. While the other business

computer makers (such as Apricot) were working on (non-

IBM-compatible) MS-DOS machines, ICL decided to build an

incompatible version of the Sinclair Quantum Leap.

The ICL One Per Desk surfaced in 1984, and sank again

around 1987, having sold a few thousand units. It was

marketed in Australia by the telephone company as the

'ComputerPhone' and met with a resounding lack of

interest. Indeed, the ICL One Per Desk probably ranks as

the vermiform appendix of business computing == less

useful by far than an IBM PC-jr or an Apple 3.

A One Per Desk is essentially a Sinclair Quantum Leap

at heart == it boasts the same 68008 processor and

operating system. However, its microdrives have been

ruggedized and tuned for improved reliability by ICL's

engineers (who, in the process, adopted a new format which

renders them wholly incompatible with the Sinclair

version). It has an incompatible expansion bus and can

load software in the form of plug-in ROM cartridges and

microdrive (tape-loop) cartridges. It has a single serial

port == unidirectional, for sending data to a line

printer. Thus, it is totally impossible to get data onto

or off of a One Per Desk (other than via the modem).

The main application suite bundled with the OPD was a

version of the Psion Xchange integrated package supplied

with the Sinclair Quantum Leap. However, the One Per Desk

couldn't run ordinary Sinclair QL software; ICL had made

just enough changes to the system to render it

incompatible with its parent architecture, and supplied an

inadequate cut-down BASIC interpreter.

However, the most interesting aspect of the One Per

Desk is its telephony integration. Marketed in 1984,

shortly after the privatization of British Telecom, the

OPD was one of the first machines designed to plug into

the newly demonopolized UK phone network, and the first

computer sold in the UK with an integral modem. At that

time, the transition to a free market was incomplete; for

example, it was not legal to sell telephone answering

machines in competition with BT (who leased them for a

hefty profit). Thus, the One Per Desk's telephony

capabilities were curiously limited.

The OPD came with an internal modem (300 baud and

1200/75 baud) and telephone handset, and could plug into

two lines, acting as a sophisticated featurephone. Up to

twenty pre-recorded announcements could be stored, and it

could collect call logging and duration information == but

although it could play a message in response to incoming

calls, it couldn't record or store voice mail.

The One Per Desk was also capable of connecting to

Prestel (British Telecom's videotex service) and of acting

as a terminal for ICL's mainframes, thus making it a handy

peripheral for those centralized computing services.

One Per Desks were also capable of calling each other

and exchanging documents as 'electronic faxes' via direct

modem connections, but had no built-in LAN connectivity


Towards the end, One Per Desks were marketed with more

memory and 'real' floppy disk drives == but as the

Sinclair Quantum Leap failed to gain a following as

anything other than a games machine, and the ICL One Per

Desk was crippled by total incompatibility with anything

else on the planet, it never really went anywhere.

The point of the One Per Desk as a study in dead media

is that it showed a tantalizing glimpse of the way

personal computing *might* have evolved. For a machine

released in 1984 to have integral messaging and modem

capabilities was pretty radical. The idea of the One Per

Desk == to be a centralized desktop information resource,

with total access to online services, mainframes, and

other One Per Desks -- is one that is slowly being

realized today by PC's with built-in modems and internet


Charlie Stross