Coleco. John J. Anderson.
From the glossy pages of Time magazine, the photo depicted an arresting tableau. There was Coleco president Arnold Greenberg, surrounded by a bevy of cloying Cabbage Patch dolls and sitting next to an Adam computer. It was a terrific shot.
However, as you used to read in the pages of Highlights for Children, something was wrong with this picture. But what? Arnold was smiling warmly, the Cabbage Patch kids were beaming through their pudgy cheeks, and everything looked pretty darned rosy. Then it dawned on me.
The Coleco Adam wasn't smiling. In point of fact, the little fella looked particularly glum. The story, in a sentence, of Coleco in 1983 was that Arnold couldn't get Adam even to say "cheese.'
Things have been pretty tough for Adam since he left the Coleco Garden of Eden for the cold hard world. You could argue that God himself was pretty big on hype in the Old Testament, but when it came to delivering the goods. He came through. His shipping schedule was six days, no backorders. Granted, the documentation is still coming in.
Not so for Coleco. Their Adam seems to have fallen from the Garden without even getting a bite out of Apple or a kiss from Eve. In the wake of its fall from grace is a trail of broken promises, unfulfilled expectations, and extremely skittish stockholders.
From the start, it seemed too good to be believed. But then, most miracles are. An 80K computer with mass storage, a built-in word processor, and a letter-quality printer for $525. Most agnostically-inclined pundits remained skeptical that Coleco could deliver on those promises.
And boy, were those promises made. Coleco spared no shovel in piling on the hype for its little miracle. At summer CES, you could barely approach the Coleco booth. The whole extravaganza was worthy of Walt Disney. If, in fact, you did get close to them, you noted that the Adams were on display behind cases of tinted glass. They were to be seen through a glass, darkly.
The glass helped soften tooling marks on the prototype Adam shells.
If you used your powers of observation, it became clear that each unit was handmade. In addition they sported dummy tape drives. Something was afoot.
In fairness to Coleco, they did not invent the common practice of debuting products before they actually exist. In microcomputers, to do otherwise would be to break with a veritable tradition. However, in the case of the Adam, there wasn't very much inside the case of the Adam--save a souped-up Coleco Vision game system, running a rather buggy prototype word processor.
Coleco Vision Success
The Coleco Vision is a popular game system for good reason. Its graphics and sound are above average, and some very good games are available for it. As Atari derailed itself and looked on, the Coleco Vision became the number one selling premium game system.
The idea of making the Coleco Vision into a full-fledged computer was planned by Coleco from its inception. Coleco began work on the project quite shortly after the games unit was introduced. And Coleco Knew that as a maker of vacuummolded baby pools, it would be up against a credibility problem in the arena of microcomputers. So it set its sights accordingly.
Amid the current brouhaha, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in theory, Adam remains a very strong contender. If it were to come to full fruition, the Adam could still be a hot item. Based on the Z80 that anchors the Coleco Vision, the Adam has more standard features than any other machine in its class, and in many cases even out of its class. It is an integrated system, and has two MPUs in the main console, one in the keyboard, and one in the printer.
All these components together constitute the Adam Computer System. Each can function independently of or in tandem with the other processing units. This makes multitasking possible and elevates the system to the ranks of other "smart' machines.
The Adam sports 80K of RAM, expandable to 144K. Word processing is resident in ROM and is designed to work directly with the Smartwriter daisywheel printer supplied with the system. Of course, Adam also has a ROM cartridge slot, and plays all ColecoVision games. If you already have a Coleco Vision, you can buy an add-on system to make it into a full-fledged Adam.
No computer system is truly complete without some sort of mass storage device, and Adam has one. They call it a "digital data pack,' and though it looks like a conventional audio cassette, it uses cassette technology different from that employed in any other microcomputer. Each specially engineered cassette is capable of storing 500K and works between eight and sixteen times faster than conventional cassette storage for the Atari, TRS-80, or Commodore.
Each Adam comes with one built-in data pack drive, and room for inboard installation of another.
The 75-key keyboard is perhaps the most impressive component of the Adam computer. It looks very much like the detached keyboard of the IBM PC--right down to the coiled telephone wire coming out the back. In some ways, it is actually superior to the PC keyboard, It is laid out Selectric style and includes dedicated word processing keys, along with truly directional cursor movement keys. It also features six programmable "smart keys,' which perform flexible functions within specific programs.
The Basic computer language is also provided with the Adam package.
It is not ROM-resident, but loads from digital data pack. The Adam version of Basic is compatible with Applesoft Basic; that means that Applesoft tutorials, books, and programs will work with the Adam. (It does not men that Apple-specific Basic programs, using specific addresses, or any Apple machine language programs, can run on the Adam; they can't.)
Adam includes four expansion slots and an 80-column expansion option, as well as a CP/M option. Using the same expansion box as its dedicated gamester cousin, the Adam can play all Atari VCS games.
The graphics capabilities of the Adam match the specifications of the Coleco Vision as well. This means 256 x 192 pixel resolution, the ability to generate up to 32 simultaneous sprites, and 16K RAM dedicated to screen display alone.
Where Are They Now?
Wow, huh? Sounds pretty good--we couldn't wait to get one. That was six months ago, and we are still waiting to get one. And our enthusiasm is on the wane.
In August 1983, Greenberg claimed Coleco would ship half a million Adams by Christmas. Then the deadlines started slipping by. He said they would begin shipping September 1, then September 15, then October 1, then October 15. The leaves fell. November came. Pinkerton did not return. And the Adam did not ship.
Adam missed Christmas, except for a dribble of units here and there. On December 1, Coleco announced that it was confident that it had solved production problems and would turn out 125,000 to 140,000 systems in 1983. Evidence indicates that even that projection was overly optimistic.
Of those units that did ship, the rumored return rate was absolutely alarming. The Coleco helpline number has been ringing off the hook. Of one shipment of six machines, a Child World manager stated that, as of the week before Christmas, five had come back. He guessed that the sixth hadn't been opened yet and would be coming back December 26th.
Even when it works, the Adam has problems. Its video signal is somewhat smerared, even when connected to a high quality monitor. Its tape drive technology is in its infancy and displays some serious glitches. Its printer is noisy, slow, and doesn't look to have an exceptional mean time between failures. Sometimes communication between the CPU and the printer breaks down. Its word processing system is extremely limited but will be bolstered by a tape "utility pack' to be available later this year. The $30 cassette will give the word processor better editing capabilities.
As a result of Coleco's problems with the Adam, company stock dropped from a high of 65 in June of 1983 to 13 3/8 in the third quarter of 1983. Introduction of the IBM PCjr cannot have helped, but Coleco's real problems stemmed from within. Third quarter earnings dropped to 14 cents a share, and aggressive TV and print ad campaigns were dropped for sheer dearth of the product they hyped.
And if there is one thing at which Coleco is superb, it is hype. Investigation has shown that Coleco annual reports have painted a rosy picture since 1973--and been exaggerated 60 percent of the time. Price Waterhouse, Coleco's accountant in 1977, would give the company only a qualified opinion in that year's financial statement, and resigned the account the following year. In some quarters the brothers Arnold and Leonard Greenberg are known as the "Sunshine Boys.'
Whether the Adam has terminally flashed in the pan is disputed by many in the industry. Some feel that the bid has already been lost, while others hold out hope that the machine may still materialize and find a market.
Meanwhile, the price has gone up. The suggested price for the full system is now $725, and for the Coleco Vision addon version, $450. News of this hike has surely made Commodore very happy.
Photo: Arnold Greenberg, president, and his brother Leonard, chairman, brought the old line Connecticut Leather Company into the age of electronics. It was renamed Coleco Industries in 1961.
Photo: Ad from a New York area retailer in December 1983.