Outpost: atari. (column) John Anderson.
Is it possible that there is a touch of spring in the air? Could it be that those are buds on the trees? Can the sun be turning warm and rich with promise? Is it time for a young man's fancy to turn to thoughts of--yes--the viability of Atari marketing?
Maybe you are the kind of devout Atari follower who is offended by any critical comment aimed at the makers of your impressive array of hardware. I'll bet the last place you would want to encounter these is in the Outpost. If so, please skip ahead to our next topic.
"What's good for General Motors,' they used to say, "is good for the USA.' Well that may or may not have ever been true, but it seems now that a good part of the USA is worried about Atari. From the Wall Street Journal to Rolling Stone magazine and ABC news, word has it that Atari is "demoralized,' due in large part to the plummeting of Warner Communications stock in early 1983. It has lost 1.3 billion (yes folks, that's billion) dollars in share value since the end of last year, and when pressed for a reason, Warner points a shaky finger at Atari. It is only fair: when Warner was making more profits from Atari than all of its other subsidiaries combined, that was Atari's doing, too. They can now at least take the heat.
The thing that has Wall Street really skitterish is the fear that Atari will suck other video game interests down the drain with it if it goes the way of the Titanic. Companies such as Mattel are already hurting through no fault of their own. The key word is "saturation.' Has the video games market reached "saturation'? If so, it is time to sell out and head for the lifeboats. Unsinkable Atari may have struck an iceberg, and America's economic waters are frigid. Backers and brokers first!
While remaining one of its most loyal fans, I have been a follower and sometimes vocal critic of Atari for some years now, observing its occasionally erratic market behavior. It is amazing to me, first of all, that Atari has survived its own remarkable rate of expansion. It is a credit to the company that it has held together through periods of growth so rapid that a more rigid organization might have shattered. And Atari did more than that--it continued developing quality products.
But the company has made some wrong turns lately. One of the least productive and most destructive affairs to befall Atari recently is the vituperative feuding between its Home Computer Division and Consumer Electronics (home video game) Division. This rift has compromised the effectiveness of each, and the proof is in the latest products.
At a time when categories of home computers and home entertainment machines are meshing, Atari has introduced the 5200 Supersystem, which is a somewhat redesigned Atari 400, undercutting and completely incompatible with it or any other Atari computer. This was a serious marketing error, especially coming from a company that prides itself on marketing savvy.
The reason? Well the only one that I can posit is fear on the part of the powerful Consumer Electronics Division that it would be made obsolete or absorbed by the Home Computer Division, if the 400/800 became the games "heir apparent' to the ubiquitous VCS model 2600. Witness the introduction of a keyboard peripheral for the VCS that will be upwardly incompatible with any other Atari product. It just doesn't make sense.
Although the Supersystem is selling, it is up against some very stiff competition, and its poorly designed controllers detract seriously from game playability (they are even slower than those on the Bally Astrocade). I would much rather play the 400/800/1200 versions of its game cartridges to avoid the sluggish 5200 joysticks, which make Pac-Man play like he's stuck in quicksand. Whatever was on the design team's mind (I suspect the design of a single controller to act as paddle and joystick, and opening up the possibility of an analog trackball), they went wrong here.
Then there is the model 1200 XL computer, the Home Computer Division's "next generation.' If it had been announced at $499 instead of $899, it would have been a welcome addition to the Atari computer line. As it stands, it is strike two for Atari. The 1200 has met with nearly universal insouciance in the microcomputer community, and for good reason. It has an extra 16K in a designer case, without a right cartridge slot, expansion slots, or a third and fourth controller jack. It has no standard parallel or RS-232 ports. Only substantive price cuts will help its image in any tangible way.
And what of the Atari 600? Well, it seems we may never see such a product, because word has it the Atari 600 has been postponed indefinitely. The reason? Nowhere to fit it into the product line. With the 800 now discounted to as low as $450, the 600 can't fit between the 400 and the 800 in pricing.
Even more damaging to the Atari Home Computer Division is the downright hostility that it has displayed to third-party support. It seems that marketing resents, and seeks to eliminate or absorb, those who develop third-party hardware. Interfacing is kept intentionally nonstandard, expension slots are phased out, and potential interfacing controller jacks are removed. One of the more enlightened sales points of the original 800 was its modularity--it would never be obsolete, said Atari, because the operating system was on a plug-in board, as was RAM memory, and all could be replaced in a matter of seconds.
Well the new 800s are not modular. In fact, the memory slot area on the new 800 machines is no longer accessible! This means a new 64K OS for the 800 is not on the docket from Atari, and operating systems from other sources will be discouraged.
These moves constitute a very serious underestimation by Atari concerning the attitude of the home computer consumer. While the home user is in most cases not a computer "hacker,' he should not be patronized, either. He might want modularity, 80 column capability, or bank-selectable RAM. He may see uses for the machine that nobody has yet dreamed, and should have every opportunity to realize those applications.
This is the kind of open-ended flexibility that made the Apple the most popular microcomputer of its day. It is the kind of attitude that Commodore is taking to get the model 64 off to a strong start. It is an attitude that Atari has continually misunderstood, discouraged, and somehow confused with piracy--"it's our machine,' I imagine them saying, "We'll design the peripherals.' They should really rethink that outlook, and quickly.
For if Atari misses with its next swing, reports of its death may not be so exaggerated. This is a fickle business, and the early lead of the VCS, as well as the inspiration that bred the magnificent 400 and 800, has now been spent. Atari must play it smart now. It can do so only by responding to the needs and desires of an increasingly discriminating and well-versed buyer.
Well enough of that. It is well known that the Atari is my favorite microcomputer, and it is time to underscore the positive side of that opinion.
Light Pen Revisited
Though it was years ago, I can still vividly remember my frustration. I was new to the Atari, and starved for programming applications to help me get the most from, and learn the most about, my machine. And there I was, having typed in a program from a magazine four hours on end, to discover not only that it didn't run, but that it couldn't run as it was printed. Sometimes I would be able to institute my own fix, and other times I couldn't. Sometimes the magazine would acknowledge the problem in a subsequent issue, and print a fix. Sometimes the flaw would never be addressed.
As a lasting result of these trials, I try very hard to make sure that everything that makes it into this column is correct when it gets here. It is hard for me to prove that assertion right this minute, however, because of a reversed figure, dropped program line, and lack of attention to the unique features of the Atari 400 in the March home-brew light pen column. This has caused a lot of consternation. All I can do is tender my sincere apologies, and set out the corrections.
The first person to bring these problems to my attention was my friend Greg Leslie, sysop of the GREKELCOM Atari BBS in Oklahoma City (give them a call 24 hours a day at (405) 722-5056). The patches for the 800 are as simple as a pair of switched wires and a missing program line, but that's quite enough to cause aggravating foulups for many readers. The touch ring on a pen constructed as originally indicated will not work, returning a PADDLE (0) value of 228 no matter what.
The touch switch is actually part of a circuit that feeds a small voltage from the wire loop, through the user, and into the body of the pen. The voltage feeds into pin 9 on port 1 of the computer, causing the PADDLE (0) value to dip below 228. With the pen body grounded, no voltage can flow. The following swap is needed:
Inside the pen, disconnect the loop wire from the wire that leads to pin 9. Then solder the loop wire to the end of the resistor that is not connected to the phototransistor. There should be another wire soldered there which goes to pin 7 on the DE-9 plug.
The wire that is friction-fit against the metal pen body needs to be disconnected from the emitter of the phototransistor and soldered to the wire that leads to pin 9 (the disconnected lead described above).
Now, if all is well, the wire loop will be connected to +5v (pin 7), the pen body will be connected to the paddle input (pin 9), and the switch should work as advertised. A revised Figure 8 appears here as Figure 1.
As I first mentioned, it may be necessary to dampen your finger for best results. Pen sensitivity may also be improved by increasing the brightness control on your TV or monitor.
That's not all. Line 130 is missing from Figure 12, and should be exactly the same as line 130 in Figure 11: 130 Y = PEEK(565).
In addition, there are some hardware differences between the Atari 400 and 800 models which cause the light pen to be read from port 4 on the 400. If you have a 400, plug the pen into port 4 and substitute PADDLE(6) for all references to PADDLE(0) in the demo programs. From there everything should be peachy.
Jeepers. I'm sorry about that. I hope it didn't cause too many readers to throw their light pens in the trash. It really can be done, and with impressive results. Greg told me he was quite happy with his pen once he had worked out the gremlins, and that it compared favorably to some commercial models.
And I promise I'll check possible patches for the 400 on all hardware projects to come! I've had a lesson on those differences here, as well as the need for triple-checking of figures and listings.
Have you ever wished you had a program editor for developing Atari Basic or assembler code? The Atari Program-Text Editor, available from APX, has long been the only sophisticated tool available in this category. Now a new and powerful entry, ERedit brings over 25 separate editing commands to the disposal of the Atari programmer.
Among its standard features are commands to search for strings, search and replace strings, move, copy, insert, and delete portions of the files; full cursor control; file comparison; formating of disks; locking and unlocking, as well as renaming of files, and renumbering.
In addition, the editor provides indepth help functions for each of its commands, and best of all English error messages when the master disk is accessible in drive 1.
The program supports multiple drive systems as well as printers.
Once you use an editor such as ERedit to aid program development, you'll never want to work "raw' again. The tedious and sometimes dangerous editing processes (beware the infamous keyboard lock-up syndrome) are made fussless and trouble free.
ERedit is a new product, and its retail price was not fixed at press time. It requires a 24K system with at least one disk drive. For more information contact EHR3 Inc., 174 Summit Ave., Summit, NJ 07901. (201) 277-6785.
Another product that can be of massive help during programming is Basic Commander, from MMG Micro Software. It contains a mini-DOS, allowing the user to list, save, enter, load, run, delete, lock, unlock, and format disks, without needing to invoke the main DOS program. "But many mini-DOS programs are on the market with similar features,' you may say. Well, Basic Commander also features automatic line numbering, block delete, and transparency during use. "All well and good,' state the skeptics, "but ERedit and Monkey Wrench do those things just fine.' Yeah, but do they allow three user-programmable function keys for simultaneous macro definition? This program does, and it is a very convenient potential.
For example, you might assign the keystrokes CONTROL-L to the string "LOAD D1:', CONTROL-S to the string "SAVE D1:', and CONTROL-R to the string "RUN D1:'. Cursor placement can then be determined within the macro so that the user need only type the file name and RETURN to execute the desired command. Or the string can just as easily be embedded within a bit of code. Who says the IBM can do things that the Atari can't?
This is another of the category of features that a programmer learns to lean on during program development, and would from that moment on miss dearly were they not available.
Basic Commander lists for $34.95. For more information, contact MMG Micro Software, P.O. Box 131, Marlboro, NJ 07746.
DOS Access from Forth
Valpar International has added yet another package to its growing ValForth series, which is without a doubt the foremost Forth implementation available for the Atari computer. This new package is ValDOS, which allows access to conventional DOS files from the Forth environment. Think of it: no more incompatibility between Forth screens and DOS files.
The ValDOS package is documented in the same professional manner as previous ValForth packages, and retails for $45. This includes a file editor that allows Forth code to be saved in DOS format.
For more information, contact Valpar International, 3801 E. 34th St., Tucson, AZ 85713. (602) 790-7141.
Reference Books Revisited
In the December 1982 Outpost, we took a look at reference books for the Atari computer owner. These ranged from books for the child or beginner to advanced technical notes for machine language programmers. Let's add to that list the following new titles:
Photo: The infamous 5200 controller, with the slowest action in the West, East, or in between. It is also next to impossible to get one back together once it's apart.
Photo: Figure 1. This supercedes Figure 8 in the March Outpost.