Whatever happened to Chris Curry?
Christopher Curry is at least partially responsible for Sir Clive’s hair loss. It was Curry who, after a row with Sir Clive, jumped ship from Sinclair to set up Acorn with Hermann Hauser in 1978. And it was Acorn that, after getting wind of the BBC’s plans to commission a custom-made computer for a new television show on programming, beat Sinclair to the lucrative contract. The BBC Micro was born.
The legendary BBC Micro sent Acorn’s profits rocketing, but strong competition from Commodore and Sinclair in the home market, and a disastrous expansion into the US, brought the company back down to earth again with a horrific bump. After one of its creditors issued a winding-up order, Acorn eventually sold out to Italian electronics firm Olivetti in 1985.
We were trying to build networked computers at that time – without an internet
Two years before Acorn imploded, Curry set up Redwood Publishing with two former Fleet Street executives. Today, Redwood publishes magazines for companies such as Marks & Spencer, but in the early 1990s Curry claims Redwood came agonisingly close to launching a forerunner to the internet.
The company was initially formed to publish Acorn User magazine, but even in the pre-internet days of the 1980s, Curry wanted to become the country’s first electronic publisher. “Remember, at Acorn we had two things that were unusual,” he said. “We had the Teletext interface, which allowed you to publish very large amounts of data very quickly over broadcast means. And with the later machines, we were building in modems. And my feeling was that what we all needed was some online services.”
Curry built a terminal designed to be used in people’s homes, which had a search engine built in. “We only had a Qwerty keyboard and a small screen,” Curry recalled. “It parsed English sentences. So you put in ‘I want to go on holiday’, or ‘I want to buy a new dress’ or ‘I want to buy green socks’. It would parse the sentence and come up with a list of suppliers that it had checked on its little database. It would say ‘so-and-so provides holidays, do you want to go online with them?’ and if you said yes, you’d be switched online to make your connection with the supplier.
“We were trying to build networked computers at that time – without an internet.”
Curry had the computers and the network, thanks to a dirt-cheap deal to run his Keyline shopping system over Mercury’s packet-switched network. He even had the retailers on board. “We had lots of online suppliers that were ready to go,” he said. “All the banks except Barclays, most of the major insurance companies and all the betting companies. Companies like Tesco were very keen.”
But fate dealt the venture a devastating blow. “It hit the buffers as we got to the launch point in 1992, when John Major destroyed the British economy by trying to stay in the ERM,” he said, with exasperation in his voice. “It wiped out everything at that time. Venture capital disappeared, everything disappeared. Disaster…”
Curry did manage to rescue something from the wreckage of his failed online shopping venture – the smart card-based payment system that was due to be used with the terminals. His current company, General Information Systems, continues to develop smart card systems to this day, and he envisages them being used for more than swiping your way on to the Tube or paying for a newspaper.
“The Government has to find ways of making people cost less when they get older,” said Curry. “One thing is to stay in their own homes when they’re a bit ill, instead of going to hospital. They’ve got be monitored in some way.”
He suggests a smart card system where young people are paid, say, 50p a visit to look in on elderly neighbours and check they’re all right.
“You should have a private currency for the care industry and I’m determined that this should happen,” Curry said. “One or two other people seem to believe it as well, but it’s a struggle.”