Today's Atari Corp.
A close-up look inside
By Nat Friedland, Antic Editor
Readers of Antic have always been curious about what goes on inside the Atari company and how it develops new products. Now, for the first time, this valid curiosity can be satisfied. Antic editors were recently admitted into Atari headquarters and allowed to take photos anywhere in the building, and even to record conversations with engineers and programmers.
Strange as it may seem, this welcome for Antic to report on the entire Atari facility marked a historic first. The previous Atari management was quite secretive, to put it mildly. For example, when Antic first began publishing in 1982, Atari Inc.- then a division of Warner Communications-was not immediately enthusiastic about this magazine printing the word "Atari" on the cover as an explanation of what computer we were publicizing.
Although Antic gradually developed accurate and detailed information "sources" inside the old Atari, we were never officially given any special consideration for advance information even on technical topics which would only be of interest to hardcore Atari enthusiasts such as Antic readers.
During the heyday of the old Atari, around 1982, the company had approximately 10,000 employees worldwide and some 70 buildings all over Silicon Valley. The fastest-growing company in the history of American business, Atari dominated the international videogame market and grossed $2 billion in one year.
Today, after surviving the most spectacular losses in the history of American business, The Silicon Valley presence of Atari Corp. consists of a single Silicon Valley building with about 200 employees. Worldwide, Atari now has 1,000 employees and an assembly factory in Taiwan.
However, the company is still setting records. Atari is clearly "the Chrysler of high-tech, the biggest comeback story in the history of the computer industry --exactly as predicted in the September 1984 Antic (Page 7). At this writing, Atari just went public for the first time with a stock issue that sold $51 million in one day.
THE NEW ATARI
When Jack Tramiel took over Atari in June 1985, with a team including many of his former Commodore management associates and his three sons, the flow of information steadily became freer. In mid-November 1985, the newly renamed Atari Corporation broke the ice with its first press conference--which included an exclusive Antic interview (February 1985,page72)-announcing that the 130XE and the 520ST would be unveiled at the January 1985 Consumer Electronics Show.
Antic even got a private preview of the new computers the day before they were shipped from Silicon Valley to the CES (April 1985, page 17). But although the new Atari management team was a lot more accessible than the previous executives had ever been, they still left no doubt that developing the new Atari computer models and establishing them in the marketplace was a much more urgent priority than telling Atari's story via the press.
But now, with the success of the ST and XE computers an established fact, Atari has become more open than ever before. For the first time, Antic was permitted to use cameras and tape recorders throughout the entire Atari building--although we did agree in advance that we wouldn't photograph incomplete products if requested by Atari. The following is a report of what we saw and heard at today's new Atari Corp.
ON TO SUNNYVALE
Low, wide and modernistic, 1196 Borregas Avenue used to be one of the two Atari headquarters buildings on the street in Sunnyvale. It is surrounded by a vast tract of similar hightech company buildings that are typical of Silicon Valley's corporate architechture.
Sunnyvale is just about at the center of Silicon Valley, which is generally considered to extend from San Jose to Pale Alto, roughly 40 miles south of San Francisco. This section of Borregas Avenue dead-ends into Highway 101, Silicon Valley's main expressway, just south of Moffett Air Force Base with its giant hangars and the "Blue Cube" center fpCparonic tracking of satellites.
Turning into the parking lot at the Atari sign, about one block from Highway 101, I pull into a visitor's space and meet Antic ST Program Editor Patrick Bass in the lobby. The front desk is manned by a receptionist and a security guard. We sign the log-in sheet and are issued visitor's badges.
Our guide arrives, Neil Harris, Atari's Marketing Communications Director (See the February 1987 Antic article, Atari's Own BBS). After Neil okays our entry with camera and recorder, we follow him through a double door into a sprawling, airy workspace full of employees at desks and modular workstations. "This is a typical Jack Tramiel open work area," comments Harris. "He doesn't like to have employees separated by a lot of little office cubicles."
Harris's office is at the far end of this wing. En route we pass a series of wall maps of the U.S. and the world, with color-coded pins marking the locations ofAtari users groups, scheduled Atari Fairs, national and overseas distributors and sales offices.
Neil shows off his advance model of the Print Technik video digitizer. Antic has been receiving reports of this super-sharp digitizer from European trade shows for months, but this is the first unit we have seen in the U.S. Harris has a videocamera set-up by his ST and takes a headshot of me sitting in front of his desk. (When the disk of this portrait is brought back to Antic, Patrick and the technical staff use DEGAS Elite to convert it into a Monty Python cartoon. Very clever, indeed. Too bad the perpetrators are all fired!!)
Next door to Neil's office is the oversized closet that houses the Atari Base bulletin board with its five sets of 520STs, hard disks and modems. Across the way is the desk of Atari Users Group Coordinator Sandi Austin. "Most of the people in this part of the building are in Marketing or they work for Diana Goralczyk in Customer Relations," says Harris. Customer Relations phones are (408) 745-2367 or (408) 745-5753.
We walk through this wing and into the equally large work area on the opposite side of the lobby, where the Accounting Department is housed. Throughout this floor, it is striking how many STs are in use on people's desks.
"ST computers have pretty much replaced terminals, telexes and other micros throughout the company," says Harris. We use dbMan for our order processing database in customer service inventory. STs track the sales for our executives like Mike Katz, Sales-Marketing Vice President; Augie Ligouri, the U.S. General Manager; Ian Kennedy, our General Manager in Canada. Atari secretaries use ST Writer for word processing. Greg Pratt, the Finance Vice President, uses the VIP Professional spreadsheet. We're replacing all our mainframe terminals with STs--using either Atari's new DEC VT100 Terminal Emulator Cartridge or PC InterComm software from Mark of the Unicorn."
Another striking fact about Atari's in-house equipment is how many laser printers are in use. A variety of different brands are on desktops and the laser units almost seem to have replaced dot-matrix and daisywheel printers at Atari. "We've found that two of the best buys in laser printers right now are the Quadram Quadlaser and the Canon LBP-82," says Harris. "We use them in Epson or Diablo emulation mode."
At a rear corner of the downstairs floor is the creative Services Department, where the various Atari manuals and package designs are developed. We are enthusiastically shown a powerful, new, enhanced version of the NEOchrome paint program for the ST.
R & D UPSTAIRS
Atari's upper floor is the tour stop that will be of most interest to the majority of Antic readers. This is where Atari's engineers and programmers work on forthcoming products.
Coming up the rear stairs, the first thing we see is a prototype 3-piece computer. The keyboard is simply a mockup with individual ST keys stuck into a big sponge pad. The computer is in a separate closed box with a detached video monitor--the standard IBM-type arrangement. On top of the computer box is what seems to be a schematic diagram showing open slots for add-on boards.
"You need to understand that we experiment with a lot of prototypes up here that never make it to market for a variety of reasons," says Harris. "We won't talk about anything you might see on this floor unless Atari is reasonably committed to a release date for it."
Nearby are units that underline Neil's warning. One example is a rare PS3000, an ST color monitor with a built-in disk drive. About 1,000 of these experimental monitors actually were manufactured and sold through specialty computer retailers. We aslo see a prototype 1040ST with a 10-megabyte hard disk built in. Called the 1040STH, this version is not going to be released.
We move on to meet Atari's three-person final testing group. They use video recorders to keep track of exactly where new software crashes. The team is currently working on the Microsoft Write word processor. As we see it on the ST monochrome screen, the program looks fast and detailed, with a true WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) graphic display. We are told that Write is a port of Microsoft Word, in current Macintosh version 1.05, and it will support most popular laser and dot-matrix printers.
We see some of the new 8-bit products that are due in 1987. There's the SX212 Hayes-compatible 1200 baud modem which is to sell for $99.95. We also see the sharp, clear text display of the XEP80 plug-in 80-column card ($79.95).
As we walk by the equipment-crowded worktables, we see a lot of large, strange circuit boards featuring chips marked 68020. The Motorola 68020 chip is widely rumored to be the microprocessor for an upcoming Atari 32-bit computer which would support the Unix operating system.
Harris is more willing to talk about some of the other offbeat boards we see. Here is the original hand-assembled circuit board for the first prototype ST. "Unfortunately, a lot of the chips have been taken out for other projects," says Neil. "This board really should be left the way it was, as a piece of history."
Another curiosity is a cumbersome board that shows what ST circuitry would look like if it was designed on the same logic principles as the Macintosh. Atari engineers put it together as a joke. Patrick gets Harris to pose with the clumsy item. "Hurry up and take the picture," Neil says. "The whole bottom of this board is like a pincushion, you can't hold onto it without getting stuck."
Shiraz Shivji, Atari's Vice President of Research and Development, is having an impromptu hallway meeting. There's Landon Dyer, one of the programmers of TOS, and John Feagans, who is working on a new GEM version of the ST Writer word processor. We hear that the arcade hits Crystal Castle and Battlezone are coming soon in ST versions.
When we ask abouf the hallway posters claiming that the Intel 820386 is a "stupid" chip, the technical staffers insist that the Motorola 68020 chip being worked with by Atari is faster and more powerful than the 386 which is going into the next generation of IBM-compatible computers.
It's a surprise to run into Dennis Friedman, who visited Antic several times while working for Atari in France. Dennis tells us he is based in Sunnyvale now and his current project is the second edition of the International ST Software Catalog. "It will be twice as big as the first edition," he says.
In a rear office we meet Jim Tittsler, who is putting the finishing touches on the ST's IBM emulator box. As he discusses the complexities of IBM vs. ST disk formats, we learn that the box is to be an add-on to the DMA port. It will support the IBM 5 1/4 and 3 1/2 inch disks as well as the Atari 3 1/2 inch format. The estimate is that the emulator will run most MS-DOS software as fast as an IBM, in some cases faster.
Jack Tramiel's office is in a front corner. It's about the only office in the whole building that can be considered comparatively large. The room is currently empty, as the Chairman is looking after Atari business elsewhere in the world.
Down at the other end of the hall, Atari President Sam Tramiel has a full crew meeting in his office, including Richard Frick, Director of Fortune 500 and OEM sales; John Skruch, Associate Director for Computer Software; and Claude Nahum, General Manager of Atari in Spain. Tramiel is just passing through town during a short hiatus in a series of investor meetings preparing for the Atari stock offering. He mentions that Atari is recruiting programmers for the revived videocartridge machines, particularly the 2600.
We learn that Leonard Tramiel, Vice President for Software, is now in charge of third-party as well as in-house software development. He has taken over from Executive Vice President Sig Hartmann, whose new assignment is to establish the ST with Fortune 1,000 companies and add-on value manufacturers as an affordable combination of high-powered workstation and mainframe terminal (with the VT100 emulator cartridge).
Leonard agrees to join us and answer some questions. As we pass a fast-moving animated display utilizing the upcoming blitter chip, he explains that current ST owners will be able to obtain the blitter chip upgrade for about $120. The upgrade will include a new set of TOS ROM chips.
Also coming soon is a new revision of ST BASIC from MetaComCo. The revised BASIC will feature additional commands and faster processing, along with direct control of AES, VDI, BIOS, XBIOS and GEMDOS. The same program will be able to run with or without the blitter chip.
We bring up an idea Antic had for a photo-essay showing every step in the manufacture and marketing of a single Atari computer. "Sorry, we couldn't allow any photographing inside the Taiwan assembly plant," Leonard responds. "Atari's facility is highly automated and our competitors would love to have a look at the robotics."
Patrick Bass asks about TOS error messages and gets a confirmation from Tramiel that error number 35 is a general error message which is given when the ST can't figure out anything more specific that's wrong.
Probably the most exciting new information Leonard tells us is that GDOS (Graphics Device Operating System) is now shipping to independent developers for use in new software. GDOS is already incorporated into DEGAS Elite. Software using the GDOS Normalized Device Coordinates will map its displays on an ultra-high-resolution grid of 32,767x32,767 pixels. This output will then automatically display or print out at the highest resolution available to whatever device the ST is connected to.
This makes GDOS a crucial tool for keeping the ST at the forefront of fields such as graphics and desktop publishine. As new video screens and laser printers with finer detail come to market, the ST's output will automatically adapt to the best quality that can be produced by these new devices.