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How user groups kept the Atari ST alive

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How user groups kept the Atari ST alive 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

When you think of personal computers, two kinds come to mind right away—the IBM PC and all its clones, and the Apple Macintosh. But there are two other kinds that seldom get any attention from the press.

They're the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. Although both are largely unknown, the Amiga is widely used for certain kinds of graphics. As a result, if you spend time with devoted PC users, you're more likely to find someone who owns an Amiga.

But the ST is right out there in lala land, stuck with two big problems.

The first is the fact that nearly everyone knows that Atari makes video games, and so most people assume that the ST must be some sort of game computer. Atari could have surmounted this misimpression by advertising the ST for what it actually is—a powerful PC that works like a Macintosh yet costs about half as much.

But that brings up the second problem. In the six years since the ST was introduced, Atari itself hasn't known what to do with its amazing invention. The company hasn't advertised it (except for a few, ineffectual ads when the ST first came out), and it has stood by as dealer after dealer dropped the ST from the store lines.

Despite this, the ST—unlike other unusual PCs from such companies as Texas Instruments, Coleco, Timex and Osborne—the ST has refused to die. Much of the credit should go to one man, Bob Brodie, who has spent the last few years as Atari's user group coordinator.

Brodie was the point man in Atari's efforts to supply greatly needed support to the hundreds of lonely ST user groups across the country. Brodie was recently promoted to director of communications for Atari, a job that should give him a better chance of restoring the ST's chances of success.

But a great deal of credit belongs to the user groups themselves. They have constantly pressured Atari's top management to reverse course, and many of the users have even publicly ridiculed the Tramiel family, which bought the ailing company and still runs it and holds most of the stock.

What has happened in the small world of ST computers is almost unthinkable in the multibillion-dollar domain of Apples and IBMs: Customers rallied among themselves to keep their favorite product alive.

There is little doubt that without active user groups providing help for their members and for other, smaller user groups, Atari would have let the ST fade from the American market in favor of more lucrative countries such as Germany. (The ST is very popular in Germany, where consumers do not identify the name "Atari" with video games.)

One way that user groups for any computer maintain interest in their PCs is to sponsor computer fairs. For ST fans, the big event of the fall is a weekend Atari computer festival in the nation's capital sponsored by the Washington Area Atari Computer Enthusiasts. My wife and I, both ST users, attended the fair to find out how the ST is doing in a world filled with other kinds of PCs.

What we saw was proof that the ST would be around for many years to come. we also saw that Atari's management is beginning to take the American market seriously, with four new models planned for the coming year—the TT, a much more powerful version of the ST; the STbook, a notebook computer with a battery life of five to eight hours; the STylus, a notebook computer that has a pen for user input instead of a keyboard, and a fourth model that Atari's top programmers refused to discuss at the festival.

We also saw a desktop-publishing program called Calamus SL, which Mac users themselves say is superior to anything available for the Macintosh, along with other professional graphics programs that rank at the top of graphics programs for any kind of PC. Also on display were custom STs that ran faster than any other stock PCs you can buy.

But what we didn't see made just as big an impression. Except for a wonderful display of graphics programs for children, we saw no video games. If this is a portent, the ST may indeed be both alive and well.

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