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Who killed the Atari ST?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


Who killed the Atari ST? A drama in three parts
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

Part 1:

A reader called from Ohio the other day and asked about a strange computer. He said he'd never heard of it until he saw it mentioned in one of my columns.

The name of this computer? The ST.

Must be something new, right?

No, the ST has been around for three or four years.

Then it must be an oddball design, right, something nobody would want?

No, the ST is probably the most universal of all personal computers. It runs IBM PC programs and Macintosh programs in addition to its own software.

All right, it sounds like a great deal. So how come practically nobody's ever heard of it? Who's keeping the ST from the American public?

The answer, strange as it may seem, is that the manufacturer of the ST itself is the guilty party. Despite the fact that it is an American company, the maker of the ST has virtually ignored the American market in order to sell the computer in Europe.

As a result, the ST is one of the leading personal computers in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands, while remaining a specialty item in the United States. And in an odd twist to this tale, the ST has been quite successful in Canada, apparently because the manufacturer's Canadian branch decided to treat Canada as a sort of secondary European market.

The manufacturer is Atari. Yes, that's the company that invented the home video game. But the ST is not a home video game and is not related in any aspect of its design to the little consoles that you hook up to your TV to play Pac-Man or Frogger.

The ST was born in mystery, in a drama that a soap opera could hardly match.

The story starts when Jack Tramiel, the man who owned the Commodore company, left Commodore and bought the Atari company from Warner Communications. Tramiel immediately started planning a new Atari PC that would replace the standard Atari computers of that day. Those computers used the same central operating chip (the computer's "brain") as the old Apple II, and were being outclassed by the newly introduced Macintosh and other home computers.

But one thing those older Atari computers were famous for were their colorful graphics. Not even the Macintosh could come close to those $100 Atari computers for the lively colors and sharp pictures they produced.

They outclassed other computers of their era because each little Atari computer packed extra circuit chips that handled all the graphics. The graphics chips were designed by a whiz named Jay Miner.

Atari didn't need to search very far to find what it wanted in its new PC. Not far from Atari's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., Jay Miner had been working in secret to create a mysterious new computer using even better graphics chips than the ones he had made for the old Atari computers.

Miner's new PC was going to have a screen as colorful as a TV picture with twice the sharpness of a TV. He showed it to Atari's engineers, and they knew they had a winner.

All Atari had to do was buy Jay Miner's new company and sell his computer as the next-generation Atari PC. Atari would save a lot of its own development costs, and Miner would be freed from the job of marketing his new design—code-named Amiga—on his own.

It was an excellent plan. But Jack Tramiel, who was fond of saying "business is war," had left his enemies at Commodore with too much ammunition. While Atari was looking the other way, Commodore sent its own engineers out to Sunnyvale to look at Miner's new baby—and Commodore promptly bought the new firm.

Miner's super graphics PC was introduced to the world as the Commodore Amiga. It was an instant hit.

Tramiel swore he'd get even, and set up a development team with a solitary mission: Come up with a computer, and do it fast.

For a few months at the Atari company, the lights in the engineering department never went out. Tramiel was at war.

Part 2:

Jack Tramiel needed a computer fast. He needed it cheap.

But he needed it good.

And because of the way Tramiel looked at things, he needed it different.

When he'd been running the Commodore company, he'd let somebody else worry about making carbon copies of IBM PCs. He had made something else—little C64 computers and their big-brother C128 models, as different from IBM PCs as sapphires from sandpaper. They had fanatical followers all over the world.

But Tramiel was at a different helm in the mid-1980s. He had sold out his Commodore holdings and bought the Atari company, and he needed something to compete with the IBM PC and its clones. Mostly, he needed a computer to compete with the Macintosh.

The Mac was almost a perfect home computer. It was so easy to use that you didn't even need to read the instruction book. You just turned the computer on and had fun.

BUT IT was the "almost" part that bothered the Mac's critics. The Mac had a terrible keyboard—a toy keyboard, some of the engineers at Atari called it. With its tiny screen, the Mac even looked like a toy, they said. And the first Macintosh, the one that caught the eyes of Atari's designers, was slow at everything it did.

Inside the Mac beat a new kind of heart—a central processing chip made by Motorola. It was a hybrid chip, with both "16-bit" and "32-bit" features, which made it very efficient. By contrast, older chips were "8-bit" designs.

Tramiel wanted a version of the same chip for his new computer, and Motorola was happy to oblige. It was one more arrow aimed at its rival Intel, maker of the IBM PC chip.

Tramiel set his design engineers to work. Within a few months, they had come up with a new model. It was the "Sixteen Thirtytwo" computer, the ST. Insiders at Atari say it was no coincidence that the name was also the initials of Jack Tramiel's up-and-coming son, Sam.

The ST's display wasn't limited to two shades of one color, light blue and dark blue, like the Mac's; with the ST, you could use a super-sharp black-and-white monitor or a color screen. Both screens were bigger than the Mac's little picture.

The keyboard had all the keys that Apple had left off the Mac. And unlike the strange disc drive that was built into the Macintosh, which worked like no other drive in the industry, the new Atari sported a 3 ½ -inch IBM-specification drive—the one that laptops and PCs were about to adopt.

But all this was small stuff to Tramiel. What really mattered was that his new computer worked like a Macintosh while doing everything faster. It used a special, built-in interface designed by Digital Research, one of the oldest software companies around. It was called GEM.

GEM gave the new Atari a Mac look. It had little pictures on the screen, called icons, and all you had to do was point at them with the mouse and click the mouse button twice to do something with them. You could drag the pictures around the screen, and—just like the Mac—you could drag them to a drawing of a trash can to toss them out.

This mouse-and-icon combination worked almost exactly like the Mac's setup when running programs, too. When you were writing a letter, you could "lasso" a paragraph with the mouse and move it anywhere you wanted. And, like the Mac, you could run DAs—desk accessories—at any time while you were using a regular program.

At this point, you may be wondering what Apple thought of this. Was imitation the sincerest form of flattery—or thievery?

You guessed it. Apple began to fume.

But in one of the oddest decisions in the short history of home computers,

Apple decided to go after Digital Research instead of Atari. Digital Research told Apple it would change GEM. But the GEM that Atari was using wasn't altered, because Digital Research confined its changes to a new, PC-compatible version of GEM.

As a result, the new Atari retained the powers and features of the Mac, and the PC version of GEM started life with a handicap.

But there was an omen in the GEM dispute. The way Apple bypassed Tramiel's company in its complaint about the ST's interface, Apple was treating Atari as if it didn't even exist.

Within a few years after Tramiel proudly showed off his ST, computer users were beginning to wonder if Apple was right.

Part 3:

Darwin reminded us that only the strong survive.

But Darwinism said nothing about the good. Sometimes the good are left to struggle and lose.

That is especially true in consumer electronics, as fans of Sony's lamented Beta VCR system know too well. And it may be about to happen in the field of personal computers.

In an industry dominated by two main forces—makers of IBM compatibles (including, of course IBM itself) on one side and Apple Computer, maker of the many Macintosh models, on the other—a third type of personal computer stands squarely between them. It has many of the best features of both, and it even surpasses them in a couple of important ways.

And almost nobody knows about it.

The computer is the ST. When it was brought out a few years ago, it had so much going for it that it seemed like a natural success. It quickly gained a status among industry insiders as the easiest-to-use and most powerful PC that people like you and me could buy.

The rich could have their $8,000 Macintosh II computers, while the everyday Joes and Janes could have their $1,000 STs.

Not only was the ST easy for a novice to figure out, it was, in many ways, a joy for a programmer to work with. As a result, software writers quickly found ways to make the ST do what it was never intended to do—run programs written for those two big rivals, IBM and Macintosh.

That has tripled the power of the ST. The IBM emulator lets the ST run nearly every MS-DOS program, although at a slower-than-normal speed. (However, a new version has just been introduced that actually makes the ST faster than an IBM PC during emulation.)

The ST'S Mac emulator is even more impressive. It runs Macintosh programs including such exclusives as HyperCard and Microsoft Word—faster than the standard Macintosh does, and shows them on a larger and sharper screen.

Want more?

The ST's own software—the non-IBM and non-Mac type—includes a gee-whiz desktop-publishing system called Calamus that ranks as high as any for the Mac world, and yet is much cheaper. It uses the ST's own laser printer, which is both one of the least expensive and yet one of the fastest laser printers you can buy.

Amazing, right?

But what's more amazing is that Atari, the American company that makes the ST, has chosen to leave the U.S. market in the cold. Instead, for the last two or three years it has pushed the ST in Europe. As much as 90 percent of all STs have been sold there.

In most American cities, even large ones, it is impossible to find an ST dealer. Many stores that used to carry the ST have dropped it because the manufacturer did not support its own products in the same way that Apple or other companies do.

But the ST is not an orphan yet. Atari announced a year ago that 1989 would be the year that it would make a comeback in the U.S. market, and it has been trying to do just that. With the year almost over, it's clear that the goal has been missed, but Atari executives say they'll be trying even harder in 1990.

As proof, they point to four new products:

  • A laptop ST, which will be out in a few months. Like Apple's portable
  • Macintosh, the ST laptop will be a sellout, in the view of many in the industry. It will be less than one-third the price of the portable Mac, while being able to run Mac programs.
  • A pocket computer called the Portfolio, which runs IBM-type programs and is the size of a videocassette. It is now available, and can be bought at a discount price of about $350.
  • A super-PC that falls somewhere between the Mac II and the NeXT computer in speed and power. This computer is now being sold to software developers.
  • A souped-up ST with thousands of colors. It will also have an ultra-high resolution black-and-white display, much sharper than anything from Apple.

These new products may help the ST bounce back. But cynics take a dimmer view. They say the most Atari can do at this point is to keep the 100,000 owners of STs in the U.S. happy by rebuilding its dealer and customer support. Without these ST loyalists, the cynics say, Atari will end up as an American company without an American market.

Further, they say, if the balance of trade with Europe falters, even the overseas market could tumble, and that would leave the ST as a weak contender both here and there.

And the weak, as Darwin taught us, are doomed to perish in competition with the strong.


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