Report from CES, with emphasis on CD-ROM. (Outpost: Atari) Sheldon Leemon.
The annual summer Consumer Electronics Show has traditionally been the site of a flurry of new product announcements, but careful observers know the difficulty in sorting the products that will really turn up on dealer's shelves in time for Christmas from those that will be just a faded memory come next Groundhog's day. Even a relative newcomer to Atari an take heed from the example of the 65XE, the 65XEP, the 130ST, the 7800 game machine, and the 1450XL. But real veterans remember that the history of Atari vaporware stretches clear back to the 815 dual disk drive, which we were told in 1981 was "due in the third quarter" (though in all fairness, the year wasn't specified).
Now You See It . . .
Since our Fuji friends have been replaced by J. Tramiel and Sons, the pace of now-you-see-it, now-you-don't has picked up considerably, beginning with the controversy over whether Atari was even going to attend this year's CES. First came the word that they had withdrawn, leading to a wide range of speculation. Did Atari want to change its image as a consumer (read: "games") company? Or did the cost-conscious Mr. Tramiel just want to save himself half-a-million bucks and book his orders from the comfort of a Chicago hotel suite? At the last minute Atari announced that it was back in the show, leading to more speculation. Was J.T. just trying to get a bargain rate for exhibit space by threatening a no-show? Did he do it to throw his competitors off guard by playing posum?
Whatever the reason, Atari did show up at CES, though its exhibit was a mere shadow of its former self. Instead of a huge display area with row after row of 2600 game machines, each showing a different new video game, the new Atari was stuck in a 20 by 20 meeting room, containing one 2600 machine, one 5200, a couple of 130XEs, a 520ST, and a 260STD. A 260STD? Of course! What would a CES be without another Atari mutant to show off? The 260 was said to be the prototype of the mass market version of the ST line. Those of you following Atari's marketing plans will remember that the 520St is to be sold by computer specialty retailers only, in a bundled system including monitor and disk drive, for $800.
But while specialty stores can offer service and support, they can't order 50,000 pieces at a time as K-Mart can. The 260ST was created to pique the interest of the mass merchants, who so far have been less than eager to get involved with the ST line. The model shown, the 260STD, has 256K RAM, the GEM operating system in ROM, and a built-in 3.5" disk drive, and fits in a keyboard unit small enough to stock dealers shelves. The projected price of this unit is $500 ($400 without the disk drive).
Room Per ROM
This, of course, stirs up the old GEM-on-ROM controversy. At first, Atari announced that the GEM OS would appear in ROM, freeing up nearly the whole 512K of RAM for applications. As the release date of the computer approached, however, Atari announced that the first units would have GEM on disk (because it had not been completely debugged, and because the current version could not fit in 192K of ROM). This reduced the usable RAM in the 520 by over 200K. Then, Atari officials stated that GEM might never be in ROM on the 520--that might be left to yet another mode. If that was the case, though, the 260ST with GEM on ROM would have almost as much free RAM as the 520ST with a disk-based GEM (so much for product differentiation). This controversy appears to have been laid to rest, at least for the moment, by Sam Tramiel's announcement that Atari will try to have GEM on ROM by the fall, that every 520ST will include sockets for those ROMs, an the 520 owners will be able to purchase the GEM ROMs when available for a "nominal fee."
CD-ROM for Atari
Atari also gave a demonstration at CES of one of the most intriguing peripherals shown in many a year. Elsewhere in this issue, you will find a discussion of the compact audio disk that looks like a teeny silver 45 record and plays an hour of music per side with incredible fidelity. These discs can be used to store incredible amounts of computer data. Atari, in conjunction with a company called Activenture, is developing a device known as a CD ROM. Activenture's vice president of engineering, Tom Rollander, was at the Atari booth demonstrating a prototype model of a disc player that was hooked up to a 520ST. Using the computer, he was able to access all of the information contained in a 20-volume encyclopedia that was stored on part of a single disc.
In fact, the text of the encyclopedia and a special index took up only a quarter of the disk space, leaving room for 3500 full-screen, high-resolution illustrations to be added later. As Mr. Rollander explained, the easiest way to increase the storage density of a magnetic disk is to make the head that reads the information smaller. The "read head" on a CD is a beam of laser light, and you can't get much smaller than that. As a result, a single disc can hold 500Mb of data. To bring that staggering figure down to something that an 810 owner can comprehend, that is the equivalent of about 5932 single-density disks. Moreover, since a laser disc is not a magnetic medium, you don't have to record every single byte of data sequentially with a magnetic head. Instead, the whole disc is stamped out at one pass, like an old vinyl record. In volume, the cost of reproducing a single disc that contained every piece of Atari software ever written would be about 75 cents.
With a base of information this vast, the crucial question is how quickly a particular bit of data can be located. With the system demonstrated by Atari, the answer is very fast indeed, due to a special indexing technique. Using large mainframes, Activenture located every unique word in the encyclopedia and formed a pointer to the location of that word within the text. The mainframe then sorted each word and its pointers alphabetically. The result is 60Mb of index, pointing into 58Mb of encyclopedia text. Because the index is in alphabetical order, finding any given reference is a matter of a simple binary search.
Using this technique, Rollander was able to find every reference to the word toothache in the entire encyclopedia in less than three seconds.
Searches of phrases involving more than a single word took only a few seconds longer. The software demonstrated allows the user to browse through the whole encyclopedia, easily moving forward or back by line, paragraph, page, article, subheading, or volume. In addition, it allows the user to search for a word or phrase by article title, text, or bibliography, and to look for words or parts of words that are next to each other, within a certain number of words of each other, or in the same paragraph or article.
Although the system shown looked fairly experimental, Atari officials stated that it might be available as early as this fall. And though similar CD ROM players have been selling in the range of $2000, Atari appears to believe that they may be able to market one for about $500. Even if this is just a case of misplaced optimism, CD ROM technology is something to keep your eye on.
Support for Atari computers from third parties has been soft recently, but there were some encouraging signs at the show. Batteries Included, traditionally a Commodore-oriented outfit, has come up with a beautiful version of their Paperclip word processor, geared specifically to the Atari. And while others were waiting for Atari to come out with its promised 80-column card/monitor, BI has forged ahead with an 80-column adapter in the form of a cartridge that plugs into the XL or XE, making use of the parallel bus. The prototype they displayed was about the size of a normal game cart, and worked like a champ. This product should be available later in the year, at a cost of $79.95 ("80 columns for 80 bucks" is their motto), and efforts are under way to support the hardware with revisions of Hometerm and Paperclip, as well as with cooperative ventures with other software houses.
Even at the Commodore booth, I saw signs of hope. A company called Digital Vision was showing a video digitizer system on the Commodore 64. This compact unit will sell for $130. It takes composite video from any source (such as a camera or VCR) and converts it to a digitized computer display. "Is it available for any other computers," I asked? "Yes, it should be ready for the Atari in about two weeks" came the reply.