The QL was the first mass-market personal computer based on the Motorola 68000-series processor family. Rushed into production, the QL beat the Apple Macintosh by a month, and the Atari ST by a year. While clock speeds were comparable, the 8-bit databus and cycle stealing of the ZX8301 ULA limited the QL’s performance. However, at the time of launch, on January 12, 1984, the QL was far from being ready for production, there being no complete working prototype in existence. Although Sinclair started taking orders immediately, promising delivery within 28 days, first customer deliveries only started, slowly, in April. This provoked much criticism of the company and the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority.
Due to its premature launch, the QL was plagued by a number of problems from the start. Early production QLs were shipped with preliminary versions of firmware containing numerous bugs, mainly in SuperBASIC. Part of the firmware was held on an external 16 kB ROM cartridge (also known as the “kludge” or “dongle”), until the QL was redesigned to accommodate the necessary 48 kB of ROM internally, instead of the 32 kB initially specified. The QL also suffered from reliability problems of its Microdrives. These problems were later rectified, by Sinclair engineers, especially on Samsung produced models, as well as by aftermarket firms such as Adman Services and TF Services — to the point where several QL users report their Microdrives working perfectly even after almost 17 years of service (for Samsung QLs) — but in any case much too late to redeem the negative image they had already created.
Although the computer was hyped as being advanced for its time, and relatively cheap, it failed to sell well, and UK production was suspended in 1985, due to lack of demand. After Amstrad acquired Sinclair’s computer products lines in April 1986, the QL was officially discontinued. Apart from its reliability issues, the target business market was becoming wedded to the IBM PC platform, whilst the majority of ZX Spectrum owners were uninterested in upgrading to a machine which had a minimal library of games. Sinclair’s persistence with the non-standard Microdrive and uncomfortable keyboard did not endear it to the business market; coupled with the machine’s resemblance to a ZX Spectrum, they led many to perceive the QL as something akin to a toy. Software publishers were also reluctant to support the QL due to the necessity of using Microdrive cartridges as a distribution medium.
Linus Torvalds has attributed his eventually inventing and developing the Linux kernel in part to his having owned a Sinclair QL in the 1980s. Because of the commercial failure of the machine and lack of support, particularly in Finland, Torvalds became very used to having to write his own software rather than relying on programs written by others. His frustration with the Sinclair would also lead to his purchasing a more standard PC in later years on which he would develop what would become the finishing piece of the GNU Project.