Outpost: Atari; for the future, Atari's new missions are profitability, reliability and creativity. Arthur Leyenberger.
This month we have a surplus of new hardware and software to report on and barely enough room to cover everything. Therefore, I will spare you the small talk and get right down to the serious business at hand.
Atari Announces No New Product News Before Its Time
I have just returned from the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Everything I have ever heard about Las Vegas is true--and more. If Disneyland is the fantasy world for the young, then I would argue that Vegas is the fantasy world for adults. This desert Ortgeist was an appropriate setting for software and hardware companies gambling on their future with new offerings.
Without any "significant' new product announcements by Atari, it was difficult for me to come up with a clever title for this segment. The possibilities were: "No News is Good News,' "No News is No News,' and "All the News That's Fit to Print.' Trouble is, the first one has a negative connotation, the second is not very catchy, and the third is already taken. All of these titles, however, do capute the essence of Atari's new posture: We have made serious mistakes in the past. They will not happen again. And we are in the home computer business to stay (including hardware).
The important. Atari news of the show was their new attitude as evidenced by these and other candid remarks made by James Morgan, chairman and C.E.O. of Atari. According to Morgan, the three major causes for losing a half billion dollars in 1983 were 1) rapid and unchecked growth, 2) following the industry phenomenon of getting to the market quickly rather than strongly, and 3) subscribing to the Silicon Valley ethic of making products that are easily made rather than products that the consumer wants. (Check out the sidebar for a very frank and intelligently written letter by Morgan.)
For the future, Atar's new missions are profitability, reliability, and creativity. The steps being taken to attain these laudable goals are the reduction of overhead cost by 40%, operating the company professionally by delivering what has been promised, and critically focusing the creativity and talent of the company.
Atari users may justifiably be skeptical at these words since we have heard similar promises before. As far as profitability and creativity are concerned, we will have to wait and see what Atari offers in the future. In terms of reliability, however, a local retailer who sells Atari computers and software has told me that out of the 100 Atari 800XLs he has sold so far, not one has been returned as defective.
There is no denying that Atari intends to make the 600XL and 800XL the workhorses of their computer line and their ticket to financial recovery. The key is making a reliable computer that is compatible with the thousands of existing programs. This has already been accomplished with the Translator disks.
There is also no denying that James Morgan is at the helm, and he should be given credit for being a quick study, especially having come into a new industry. The Atari ship ws so far off course that it will take time for Morgan's assessment and new direction to be seen. Having attended a meeting with James Morgan, I think it is obvious that he has a game plan. Although no new computers were announced at the show, there was evidence to suggest that Atari is about to make a comeback.
One example of this is a new game called The Legacy. A result of a six month effort in Atari's Advanced Games Research Lab (I did not even know they had an advanced games lab), The Legacy is the first of the next generation of video games. These games are designed with the home user in mind and therefore take advantage of the home environment.
The Legacy is not a shoot-'em-up or an arcade clone but, rather, an original game that combines separate interactive game modes. It takes place in a world decimated by nuclear war. All that remains are toxic wastelands known as the dead zone and a handful of survivors. Although the survivors are attempting to rebuild the world, they learn that the original holocaust is not complete. A computer error has made a follow-up attack imminent. The player's goal is to pilot technologically advanced ship on a mission to find and destory the missile silos.
This game is totally different from the usual game fare to which we have all become accustomed. Strategy and timing are the important ingredients here.
Software From Synapse
Atari's most significant software news was the announcement of the trilogy of home management programs purchased from Synapse. Originally introduced by Synapse at CES in June, the products include database, spreadsheet, and graphics programs. SynFile+ is the database program that is the successor to the popular Filemanager+ program. However, the name of the product and the company who produced it are the only similarities with the older program. SynFile+ has been entirely rewritten in Forth and completely restructured. The specs are impressive: up to 16 files may be opened at once; 66 fields per record are allowed; thousands of records may be maintained in a file; table look-up capability; and compatibility with Filemanager+, Atariwriter, and other "Syn' products. Very impressive to be sure.
Another program in the series is called SynCalc. This is a menu driven spreadsheet program that offers individual column widths; special format options like comma insertion and centering; multiple spreadsheet linking; and compatibility with VisiCalc format files. Logic, sorting, and financial functions are also supported.
The third package is called SynTrend and is composed of two parts: Syngraph and SynStat. Based upon my hands-on use, I would say that this package is "Synsational.'
Compatible with the other products in the Syn series, SynTrend can produce bar, pie, line, and scatter plots. The program is menudriven, and compatible with VisiCalc files. It supports multiple disk drives. Also included are descriptive statistics and multiple regression analyses.
Each of the "Syn' programs distributed by Atari retails for $99.95.
Other software announced by Atari included the Music Learning Series, a new Diseny video adventure called Captain Hook's Revenge and DOS 3 for the dual density 1050 Disk Drive. DOS 3 is now packaged with the 1050 and will be given free to all current owners of the drive. This is yet another indication that intelligent life exists at Atari.
There was hardly a surfeit of hardware news, but that is consistent with Atari's new policy of not announcing products until it can deliver them. I applaud this strategy and wish more companies would follow suit. The 600XL, 800XL, and 1450XLD computers were on display. But the long-awaited 1450 was, in Morgan's words, "exhibited only as a demonstration of the company's intent to market a high-end computer in 1984, although the specifics of such a product are currently under review.' Absent from the hardware catalog was any word about AtariTel. As Morgan explained it during an analysts' meeting, the first AtariTel product is somewhat lackluster. Rather than introduce the line with a thud, the second, more exciting product, will be announced as the first entry during the second half of the year. We are asked to go along with this switcheroo because the product is said to be worth the wait.
Other hardware news included the announcement that the Touch Tablet and Atari-Artist software will be shipped in the first quarter. I can vouch for this, having been using one for almost a month. It lists for $89.95, and the software is similar to that of the Koala pad.
Atari also deominstrated its light pen peripheral and AtariGraphics software. This light pen is the best I have seen for the Atari. It is manufactured by Gibson, the markers of the high quality, expensive light pen for the Apple computer. The Light Pen sells for $99.95 and will be available during the first half of 1984.
Atari also finally announced the 48K memory upgrade for the 600XL computer. Called the 1064 Memory Module, it is expected to sell for approximately $100. It gives full 64K memory to the 16K Atari 600XL computer.
Atari once again showed the AtariLab electronic science kit for the home computers. Developed by Dickinson College, the AtariLab peripheral allows various probes and sensors to be connected to the Atari computer. Data can be collected manually or automatically and can then be analyzed and displayed. The AtariLab Starter Set sells for $89.95 and includes the interface and temperature module. It is ready to ship now. Additional modules, the first of which is the Light Module, will sell for $49.95.
For the hard core Atari user awaiting news of MS-DOS compatible computers, CP/M boxes, and other fancy hardware, the news from Atari at the winter Consumer Electronics Show is disappointing. But for the Atari user seeking future products from a company that many thought would be out of the computel business by now, the news is relatively good. James Morgan has been in command for only four months, and there are already signs of change in Atari's business strategy.
The advanced games R&D lab mentioned above is a healthy sign. The new policies of not announcing new products before they are ready and re-assessing the markets in which the company wants to compete are also positive. And, we will soon (finally) see the Syn software series.
Although Atari displayed very little hardware (outside of the AtariLab) at the show, all things considered, 1984 should prove to be a very interesting year for Atari users. To the predictors of doom for Atari, I qute the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "it ain't over 'til it's over.'
The Atari computer is a versatile machine. Among its many strengths is the ability to combine audio from a cassette recorder with graphics generated by a program. This is accomplished on the Atari 410 and 1010 recorders by storing audio on one track of the cassette and digital data (programs) on the other.
Although this approach has great potential, especially for educational material, it has not been used often. Maximus, a company new to the software business, has introduced two products that use this technique effectively. Called Software Movies, these programs tell a story by using the audio track for narration and presenting cartoon style animation on the screen.
One program is called Safetyline. Here, Max the Cat narrates two stories with a safety theme. One story concerns crossing the street safely, and the other stresses the importance of not getting lost or talking to strangers. The stories are presented just like movies with scrolling title credits, interesting plot, and cute animation.
Additionally, there are two games associated with each story. These games are fun for the child and reinforce the lesson in the story. For example, the Street Cross game requires the child to get Sam, Max the Cat's friend, to school safely. Quickness counts, but points are deducted for trying to cross in the middle of the street. Throughout the game, safety tipe are provided. These tips are also summarized at the end of the game in an unusual and clever way.
The other Software Movie is called Storyline. Here, Coover the Clown presents two familiar fairy tales: Rumpelstiltskin and The Ugly Duckling. Both stories are told well and should hold a child's interest. One of the games associated with Rumpelstiltskin is called Promises, Promises. The lesson of not making promises that you cannot keep is taught within the game context. I know many adults, myself included, who could benefit from this lesson as well.
Overall, I like these Software Movies. My only criticism is that the animation does not use the maximum graphics potential of the Atari. Perhaps future releases will. Also, there are times when there is no action on the screen even though the narration suggests that there should be. This is because the program is waiting for synch marks from the tape.
These minor criticisms aside, Maximus's Software Movies are a novel approach to storytelling and will delight children in the 3 to 7 year old range. I look forward to future "movies' from Maximus. Both programs require 48K memory and are available on either disk and cassette or cassette only versions.
So What Else Is New
Synapse was showing what turned out to be the most interesting product of the show. A combiantion biofeedback monitor and graphics display, Relax is intended to help the individual relax and reduce stress. It is the first of a series of products to use the capabilities of your home computer to monitor and improve your health. Creative will have a thorough review of this interesting and unique product in the near future.
Other new Synapse products for the Atari include SynChron (a personal calendar), SynComm (a telecommunications program), SynStock (a stock portfolio analysis program), and SynTax (a federal income tax preparation program). These products will be available during the first quarter and will retail for $34.95. SynStock will sell for $49.95. All seem easy to use and powerful.
Dimension X, originally shown at the Summer CES last June, will finally make its debut during the first quarter of 1984. Having undergone several revisions, the incredible 3-D action is still present. You navigate over the surface of a planet, piloting a hot rod skimmer, finding, and destroying all enemy skimmers.
CES would not be CES unless Atari had some new game titles on display. In addition to The Legacy mentioned above, some other exciting titles will soon be released. Berserk, which should be in the stores by the time you read this, is a highly playable game. Much like its arcade namesake, it offers an unusual feature for a home video game: speech.
In a voice similar to but much better than the voice in Atari's E.T., such expressions as "Fight like a Robot' and "Intruder Alert' are heard. The game play is excellent.
Other games announced for the computers by Atari were adaptions of Mario Brothers, Robotron, and Donkey Kong Jr. All are slated for second quarter release.
Photo: Storyline by Maximus.
Photo: The Relax System: Headband, Training Tape, Workbook, and Interface.