The New Atari
With Sigmund Hartmann
President Of Atari Software
Tom R, Halfhill, Editor, and Selby Bateman, Features Editor
The New Atari
With Sigmund Hartmann
President Of Atari Software
Tom R, Halfhill, Editor, and Selby Bateman, Features Editor
|Sigmund Hartmann was born in Germany, educated
in Belgium and the
United States, and is one of the few people who have worked for the
volatile Jack Tramiel three times-twice at Commodore, and now at Atari.
Before joining Commodore for the first time, Hartmann worked at TRW, a
major high-technology corporation. His first stint at Commodore as
general manager didn't gel, so he returned to TRW. In all, he spent 18
years at TRW, working as an engineering manager for NASA space projects
and running a division which included hundreds of engineers and
programmers. In 1983, Hartmann rejoined Commodore to head Tramiel's
newly formed software division. But in early 1984, after a management
dispute, Tramiel shocked the industry by leaving the company he had
founded in the 1950s and buying Atari-ironically, a firm he had nearly
destroyed in the home computer price war of 1982-83. Several top
executives and engineers loyal to Tramiel left Commodore in the months
afterward and followed their former boss to Atari. In late 1984,
Hartmann crossed over, too, taking command of the remnants of Atari's
COMPUTE! caught up with Hartmann in November at the COMDEX/Fall computer show in Las Vegas soon after his move. Hartmann was accompanied by two of Tramiel's sons, who now hold top positions at Atari. Although Hartmann had just begun to immerse himself in the herculean task of rebuilding Atari, he agreed to discuss the company's future plans and the new computers it hopes to introduce at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January. It was almost two months before CES, and Hartmann had few technical details, but he was willing to sit down for 20 minutes and sketch out the most important points in his heavy European accent.
Atari is pegging its comeback on the release of three new machines in the first half of 1985: a 128K RAM, upward-compatible version of the existing 800XL; a powerful 16/32-bit computer built around the Motorola 68000 microprocessor found in the Apple Macintosh; and a superpowerful, full 32-bit machine with perhaps as much as 1000K of RAM (one megabyte). All will be massmarketed, and the latter two are targeted to cost less than $1,000.
At least one of the advanced computers also will feature a new operating system licensed from Digital Research-CP/M-86K-and Digital Research's GEM (Graphics Environment Manager). GEM shields users from the operating system with icons, pulldown menus, and a mouse controller, as on the Macintosh. (COMPUTE! will have more details on the new computers and operating systems after CES.)
One week before this interview, Atari had slashed prices on its existing hardware and software to boost Christmas sales and raise much needed cash. List prices (before dealer discounts) were cut to about $120 for the 64K 800XL and $199 for the 1050 disk drive. Prices of other peripherals and software were substantially reduced, too.
Although this interview was conducted in a limited amount of time, Hartmann's comments reveal much about his own plans and Jack Tramiel's new direction for Atari.
- Q&A -
Hartmann: Can I give you a preview of why I joined the company? The major reason I joined Atari is because, knowing Jack, working for him-this is my third time with Jack-and knowing the type of individual he is-that he is a successful individual-I joined a team of people which I worked with previously. And those people are the ones who took Commodore to one billion dollars. So if you are a smart guy, what you do is you join that team, the winning team, and now you take the new company up to a billion-plus. We learned a few things and we should do better than a billion dollars, for certain. So that is one of the major reasons, and Jack and I were always close. Plus the timing was right. And that's why I took the job.
Since I am heading software worldwide for Atari, which includes AtariSoft, the strategy
is to continue to sell software for non-Atari products. So we want to continue to sell all types of software packages for the PC, for the Apple, for the Commodore, for every machine. In addition to that, we will also sell, under AtariSoft, peripherals which are non-Atari peripherals. So we are going to be totally in the business of selling software products but also peripheral products and accessories for non-Atari machines.
C!: What kind of peripherals might that include?
Hartmann: Printers, disk drives, etc. OK? So that is the strategy which we are going to follow. In addition to that, if you look in the past of the Atari Corporation, the old Atari, the main emphasis was to be recognized as a game company. We definitely want to change that. We are definitely going to be and will be a microcomputer company. And if you look up microcomputer, it says you've got to have the computer technology, you've got to have software with it, and you've got to have peripherals. We are going to concentrate on all those three areas.
In terms of the existing machine, we have an 800XL machine which you've heard about. That 800XL was cost-reduced. Because of the way we cost-reduced it and eliminated some of the components, we had an opportunity to increase the reliability of it, so we cost-reduced it and maintained compatibility. And as you know, when you reduce parts in a piece of equipment, the reliability goes up. What we did is we took some of the components and made them a gate array. Gate arrays are more reliable types of devices, OK? So we reduced the price to below $120-I think you know that. But in addition to that, we geared up our manufacturing to produce a few hundred thousand or more a month. So it's going into high production. And there is no intention of phasing that machine out. It's going to be going on for quite a long period of time. So it's going to be huge for the after-market.
From what I can see, with our new pricing structure, we are already seeing a trend that people are buying it. They're buying our disk drives, which we reduced the price also now, which is below some other company which we are competing with. So Jack did what he said he would do. He started the trend of moving the company to where it is going to be a superprofitable company.
C!: Those are very attractive prices and you've answered a lot of questions for people.
Hartmann: But in addition to that, we are also coming out with another 800 machine which will have 128K of RAM, which is really what you need, OK?
C!: Will that be compatible with the older Atari computers?
Hartmann: It's going to be upward-compatible totally with the 800XL machines. We're going to stick with a consistent capability in terms of compatibility. We do not want to lose that software base out there.
C!: What other improvements will this machine have?
Hartmann: There are other ones but I cannot tell you now. . . . The big thing is to give you more memory.
C!: What is the price going to be?
Hartmann: It will be probably just a little higher, but I do not know now. It's like the philosophy of Jack Tramiel is to make certain that the end-user gets tremendous value for his money. So the price is going to be way low in comparison to our competition, for example.
C!: Is there going to be a different name for this?
Hartmann: Yeah, we'll have a name for it, but right now we don't have anything. At CES we'll have a name to identify it.
So much for what I call the low-end machine, except for one other thing. In terms of the software for the 800XL, what I'm looking for-and I did discuss a lot of this with third-party software developers-I'm hoping we are going to come out with a whole slew of thirdparty software pieces, but the major emphasis being placed not on recreational or game software, but productivity software and educational software. Because as I pointed out before, if you look at Atari in the old days, it was mainly recognized as a game [company] and they had some excellent game software. I'm pushing the pendulum that other way-education, productivity software. And still do games and recreational software. But the best we can buy we can get. I'd rather have less and have quality.
Another very important emphasis which Jack is placing on all of his guys is quality. He feels that quality comes first for a very simple reason. We didn't start this company to be there for one year, go public, and then get out. We are here for the long haul, and in order to take it up to the billions which we want to take it, you need to establish yourself as a quality house. So Jack is really tough on everyone. He wants to make sure we do not ship a product which does not meet the highest quality standard. Very important. And that goes true with software, peripherals, and so on And that is so much for the 800-series machines.
Now, let's go up to new products. Jack announced that we would have two machines coming out and we'll probably demonstrate at least one of them during CES. That is our 16-bit machine. Now again, everyone says "16-bit" and starts to look at what processor we'll be using. The processor which we're using is really a 68000 Motorola processor, which is really-if you look at the advertising by Macintosh, by Apple-a 32-bit machine. But we don't want to play games, so we say that it is truly a 16-bit machine. From a viewpoint of what you can do with it, it isn't a full-blown 32-bit, so we call it a 16-bit machine.
half a million
Now, that machine is going to use as its foundation the GEM hookup. Digital Research came out with GEM. You've heard of Crystal, it's like the Macintosh type. It's a graphical representation of what I call an extension of an operating system. It gives you icons, it gives you graphic representations, pull-down menus, and everything, with a mouse-you use a mouse with it. It's like the Macintosh. Now, we signed a deal with Digital Research, and worked with Digital Research for quite a while. We're using, actually, their operating system, the CP/M-86K, that's the operating system which we're using, OK? And we're using their GEM program. And we're working very closely with Digital Research to get that product completed so that we can demonstrate it at CES.
C!: But CP/M-86, isn't that an operating system for the eightbit Z80 chip?
Hartmann: That's K, CP/M-86K. That's what they call a Macintosh-type operating system.... In my opinion it's just fantastic.
C!: GEM isn't running on any computer right now, is it?
Hartmann: Oh, yes, you could see it, they have it at Tandy ... pull-down menus, mouse, everything, like the Macintosh, basically. [Editor's note: This is the MS-DOS, IBM-compatible version of GEM.] We believe if you look at the machine in terms of resolution, graphics, it's going to be very powerful. It's going to have features which in my opinion are going to be better than what the Macintosh features are. So that machine will be available, and we'll demonstrate it in January, and within a few months we'll start to ship it. When I say "a few months," it's tough to predict exactly. I would say within three months or so we'll ship it, I would say not later than that.
C!: But you'll be demonstrating it at CES?
Hartmann: Yes, I would say we'll be demonstrating it at CES. OK, then the next question would be, How are you going to sell it? All of our 16- and 32-bit machines will be sold through the mass merchants. The price structure is going to be below $1,000. It is going to be so significant in terms of reduction, that we believe that we will really get a big share of the marketplace. If you look at it, really, with the introduction of the 16-bit machine, we are gearing ourselves to produce a half a million computers a month. That's what Jack Tramiel, what Atari is doing, gearing ourselves to produce that many. And as far as we are concerned, price performance is going to be there, the quality of the product is going to be assured, the software will be available on the 16-bit machine. I've been talking in the last few days to thirdparty software developers, trying to get them to be partners with us. But more important, our philosophy is to give them the development tools, give them all the help possible so they can develop software and they can sell it themselves if they want to. So it's an open system. A similar philosophy with the Macintosh, really, which Apple followed. Different than what I used to do at Commodore. OK? And it makes sense, you have to look at time. When you bring out a 16/32-bit machine, you have no other choice, you have to operate that way.
C!: Are you getting many takers on this third-party software?
Hartmann: The guys I talked to felt that it sounded very interesting. They also recognize when Jack makes up his mind to do something. So they all said they want to continue talking to us. Some of them will definitely port over the system to our machine, 'cause they've got it running on the Macintosh and they will do it for us. And then we'll decide if they want to sell it to us, or give us a license, or if they're going to sell it themselves. But we do have companies which will do it for us. I can't tell you who yet, because I just talked with them in the last couple of days. And when I get back to my office, we'll continue and get all the data, the specifications, and turn it over to the people.
C!: There are supposed to be two new computers out for Atari next year, a 16-bit machine and also a 32-bit. What's the next machine out?
Hartmann: The 32-bit machine, we don't want to tell you yet what the processor is on it. It's going to be coming out about two or three months later, after CES, and you can guess what kind of processor you'll have to put in it. There are many fullblown 32-bit processors. I'll give you a couple of choices which I have in my mind. One is the 68020, which is the Motorola. Another one you can look at is the National, which is the 32032. And then you have Intel and I don't know how many more. But there are a couple of there, and I'm sure you can add a couple of more to them. And we will make our software and write our system in such a way that we can pick either of the two architectures and still make it work. So we have a little time to think about which system to use. We'll make that decision probably within the next four to six weeks.
C!: If we could come down to Atari sometime in December before CES and take a look at these, because we have a very loyal Atari following and I think they're looking for what's going to come. Plus a loyal Commodore following which is interested, too.... Now, the two new computers-these are very powerful computers, more powerful, obviously, than an IBM PC. Will they be marketed as home computers or business computers or something in between?
Hartmann: I'll tell you what Jack says. He doesn't care. He says he sells them. If a guy wants to buy them for home uses, wants to buy them for personal business, wants to buy them to run his business, that's fine. But we'll have the proper support there, we'll have the right software there.
C!: So the 32-bit machine also will be at the mass merchants?
Hartmann: All mass merchants. I'm telling you, below $1,000.
C!: For both machines? How much memory will the 32-bit machine have?
Hartmann: I can't tell you that, but it has to be sufficient for people to use it.
C!: OK, now you'll mass-merchandise them, but if it's available in K marts and places like that
Hartmann: But you have to look at K mart. How about if I tell you K mart may have a computer store?
C!: Like Sears, OK. But will people take seriously for business purposes a computer that's mass-merchandised?
Hartmann: But we are not saying that it should only be for business. Only that a guy can buy a 32-,bit machine.
C!: You're saying an under$1,000 computer for anyone who wants to buy it, mass-merchandised.
Hartmann: And he can either use it for business, either use it for his home-have fun, do anything-it's up to him. We don't want to tell the guy, "Hey, this is only a business machine."
C!: Right, but at the same time, you can also use a 64 or an Atari 800XL for some businesses, but no one takes them seriously because they're sold as home computers.
Hartmann: That's why the software. That's why if you look at GEM, and you look at the application software which we'll have with the machine, it's going to be so friendly and so wonderful to use, it's going to make a lot attractive. You don't need all the jillion pieces of support, you don't need a thick manual, like this thick. It'll be a lot simpler.