Outpost: Atari; Jack Tramiel, a look back, a look ahead, and the Amiga Lorraine revisited. John J. Anderson.
It has been nearly a year since I have manned the Outpost, and it feels good to be back. Rest assured that Dave and Sandy Small will return next month, to continue with their Atari machine language tutorial. But I just couldn't resist stepping back into the Outpost to report on Atari's condition following Warner's abrupt sale of the company.
Many of you Atarians who have contacted me through the magazine or visited the Creative Computing SIG on CompuServe (PCS-22) know of my continuing loyalty to the Atari machine--and that changing times have not changed those feelings. But undeniably, times have changed for Atari computers. After suffering losses of over a billion dollars in the past two fiscal years, Warner Communications frantically started hunting for a buyer. Their unlikely find was none other than Mr. Jack Tramiel, who as CEO of Commodore International, personally helped Atari bite the dust in the price wars of 1982. Mr. Tramiel founded Commodore and built it from a storefront operation into a billion dollar company.
He left his brainchild in January, traveled the world for a couple of months, and then negotiated the purchase of Atari Corporation (now under the umbrella of Tramiel Technologies Ltd.) in July. It should be noted that Warner Communications retained the coin-operated arcade game branch of Atari, as well as Ataritel, the experimental telecommunications group. You remember Ataritel, right? Its great claim to fame is that it has survived for nearly three years without ever announcing a product.
So the very man whose name once spelled doom for Atari is now its last chance for salvation. No small irony there, but also cause for hope, i would assert. If there is one thing Mr. Tramiel knows about, it is marketing, and lousy marketing helped kill the old Atari. It may be that Jack's hubris will get the better of him this time, and that nobody can save Atari. Jack may also be the one person in the world who can turn the company around.
I was impressed with his very first moves as CEO and chairman. He laid off almost all middle and upper level managers and treated Atari's recovery as if it was the start-up of a wholly new company. This, I believe, was the only successful way to plan a comeback. If too much of the old Atari remained, the deck would be fatally stacked. The company truly needed a totally fresh start, the the first thing Tramiel did was to see that Atari got it.
Nobody is really sure what Jack Tramiel will do to and for the Atari product line. It seems likely that the Atari 800XL will continue to be sole, at least through early 1985. As for everything else, all bets are off. It is now highly unlikely that the 1450 XL, with built-in parallel bus disk drive and modem, will ever seethe light of day. Jack is savvy enough to know that the 1450 is last year's product. He wants to get next year's out the door as soon as possible. And the 1450XL is not it. Hence we'll be hunting for another machine to top the Outpost column masthead. We have a hunch, but more on that up ahead.
The only thing we are quite sure of is Tramielhs confidence. "We'll be number one within a year," he told Infoworld. A Look Back
The Atari was my first computer, and it was probably somewhat due to the Atari that I got a break in the world of microcomputer journalism. Atari was the forst computer company I ever wrote about for money. Most of the comment was praise, but I was first critical of Atari in an Infoworld editorial way back in 1981. Atari was at the time taking full page ads in trade papers telling pirates that "the game is over." Talk about a terminal case of the smuggies and a wrong-headed approach to public relations. Aside from criticizing this, I decried the company's noncrediting of individual programmers on their software packages and wrote that Atari tended toward "schizophrenia" because of its size and the way it competed against itself. I suggested that a new approach was necessary if the company was to avoid a marketing problem and an image problem.
When I finished my first Outpost:Atari in November of 1982, Atari was finishing up a smash hit year. Video games were the American rage, and Atari was the video game company. It seemed they could do no wrong, and top-level managers began to believe in their own infallibility. It seemed, too, that the decision had been made to allow the superlative 400 and 800 computers to languish, while the company spent millions promoting games.
Right up until the end, that stupendous miscalculation prevailed: witness the unbelievable introduction of the model 7800 videogame unit weeks before the old company's demise. Meanwhile the computer line had been cheapened and made less compatible with itself. Nobody near the mechanism of decision-making (if there was any such mechanism at Atari) ever had much of an idea of what a product line should really be about. And about the last thing they ever would have done was listen to somebody who did.
After a year manning the Outpost, I had grown depressed. My marketing criticisms had become a monthly soap opera and were more caustic each time around. My feelings about Atari the company became counterproductive to the column. My dealings with Atari corporate were at an all-time low, and it seemed as if there was a new public relations director almost weekly. Atari had begun to lose money, you see, and no amount of Maalox would help. The panic stampede had, by then, warmed up to only a weekend jogger's pace, but already everybody had his sneakers on.
A year later, I can't resist getting in a quick "I told them so." If only they had made the 5200 game machine 400/800 compatible and offered an optional keyboard peripheral. If only they had killed the 1200 on the drawing board. If only they had bought out the 1450 last fall. If only they had acted early to change their image. If only they had protected the morale and egos of their most creative minds. If only they had realized that the videogame and the low-end home computer were no longer separate markets. If only they had cut costs without cutting quality. If only the XL series had been truly compatible with the old Ataris.
If only they had done what I was saying all along, right there in this column, they wouldn't have fallen down and gone bing bang boom. And you know what they say about "the bigger they are." A Look Ahead
Hey, I know it's easy to look back and write history and say "they should have listened to me." The hard part is to see into the future and determine where the avoidable mistakes are. The trick is to continue predicting things right. Atari is in a precarious state now with one foot on nJack Tramiel and the other on a banana peel. If it falls again, this time its frail bones will shatter. It will go to that big Chuck E. Cheese parlor in the sky.
In Ridley Scott's vision-of-the future movie "blade Runner," everywhere you look there are Atari billboards and signs. It must have seemed a safe bet back in 1982 that 1982 would be a company to survive well into the 21st century. Videogames made twice as much as movies that year (over $7 billion). Upon viewing the film today, the signs seem dated. Timestamped, you might even say.
What are you going to do, Jack, to revive the battered behemoth? How are you going to get people to stop buying IBMs and Apples and your own darned Commodores and start buying TTL Ataris? Do you know what people want? Do you know some minds who can deliver it? Can you get it down to an attractive cost without sacrificing quality and performance? Can you manufacture it in quantity within a reasonable amount of time?
Certainly not out of the blue, no. You need to find a product worth putting your name on, worth putting the Atari name on. And I've got news for you, Jack. I know what that product is.
What do micro buyers want? Easy. They want 1000K RAM, 10Mb of hard disk space; 3-D color animated graphics with a resolution indistinguishable from broadcast TV; a built-in modem, laser-disk interface, and printer; stereo sound on a par with a Moog; and ease of use like the Macintosh. And they want it for $99.95. Deliver this with a free piece of software like a flight simulator that really looks and feels like flying through the sky, and you can have your wish. You can be number one again. And maybe stay there for a while.
But this is a machine for the drawing board. It's not the one available now to supplant the tired old Atari computer line. What to glue your name onn in the meantime, while you await the dream machine? You've got to get as close to that set of specifications as you can, at as close to the price. Most important, you must be willing to take a risk. If you introduce just another IBM-compatible, you will surely go down the tubes. Sure, IBM compatibility would be nice, but you had better be able to do a whole lot more. Fact is, the IBM standard is mediocre, and most of the public knows that by now. You need something more, much more, much much more. And now I'll give you the name, address, and telephone number of the company to get in touch with. Who'll Stop Lorraine
Way back in the April 1984 issue of Creative Computing (p. 150), I reported on a new computer from Amiga, a company known only as a manufacturer of joysticks and a kludgy foot-controlled joystick called the Joyboard. I had been ready for another big presentation resulting in a big letdown, but I was surpsised. The machine, code-named Lorraine, was a total knockout. I'll stand by the comment I made then: "Suffice to say it is the most amazing graphics and sound machine that will ever have been offered to the consumer market."
The Lorraine is based on a 68000 microprocessor, running at 8MHz--faster than the Macintosh. The CPU is backed up by three custom VLSI chips to handle graphics, sound, and I/O (sound familiar?), and 128K RAM, expandable to at least 1Mb. A 5.25" internal floppy capable of storing 320K is standard. An expansion box, which will contain a second floppy drive, card slots, and space for an optional hard disk is already planned.
As for the graphics of the Amiga Lorraine, well, they nearly defy description. Using bit-plane animation, an approach used by machines costing upwards of $50,000, the Lorraine creates fluid movement in multi-color hi-res. In my earlier report I stated that the "Lorraine is capable of providing multi-color, real-time animated images on a par with (and probably superior to) Saturday morning cartoons." NTSC and RGB video outputs will be provided, as will 80-column text display. Sound capabilities, you ask? Yes, four-channel stereo with speech capability.
The first time we saw the Lorraine at Winter CES it was a landscape of breadboards. By summer CES, the PROMs were in land, but development systems were needed to drive them (pay no attention to that man behind the curtain). By the time you read this, the first working prototypes will be in operation. The Lorraine is a reality in search of marketing.
And without the marketing, even a machine like the Lorraine won't get off the ground--even with a custom chip set by Jay Miner (who, incidentally, designed the custom chip set for the Atari 400 and 800 machines). And that is why you are reading about the Lorraine in Outpost: Atari. In April, I called the Lorraine "finally, the next-generation Atari."
Jack, it is up to you now to be wise enough to see that this is true. Get the cost down to $1000 and perhaps someone like Thomas Dolby to be the spokesman. Then get the machine out the door--with your name on it. And remember, Mr. Tramiel, your name is Atari. Do it proud.