BY TOM BYRON START ASSOCIATE EDITOR
In late 1985, Atari Corp. explored the development of an amazing ST peripheral that would read disks with over 500 megabytes of storage space--enough for an entire set of encyclopedia. It was the CD-ROM and Atari hoped to incorporate this technology into their new 520ST. Now four years and a few false starts later, the famous computer maker is gearing up for the CD-ROM's U.S. release. With that exciting news, START takes a close look at some of the reasons for the delay, and some of the software in development.
It's a simple law of economics: if a market doesn't exist, then go out and create one, and in the summer of 1985, the newly revived Atari Corp. did just that. Under the direction of Jack Tramiel, former head of Commodore, Atari entered the high-powered 16-bit arena with the introduction of the 520ST. It was a computer that coupled power with a low, affordable price and it was an instant hit.
Riding on the crest of its own sudden success, Atari needed an encore. Almost immediately it explored the commercial viability of a low-cost CD-ROM (Compact Disk, Read-Only Memory), a revolutionary peripheral that, according to Tramiel, "would give people a good reason to buy my new computer." Considering some of the amazing things the CD-ROM could do, Tramiel's words carried a strong ring of truth.
Of course, it wouldn't be that easy, and Atari quickly found that what worked for its computer, wouldn't necessarily work for the CD-ROM.
The Chicken and the Egg
It's been almost two years since Atari formally announced the CD-ROM and the United States has yet to see a finished product. But according to Atari, the CD-ROM is finally ready to ship and, in fact, should be at your local dealer as this story reaches you.
To what exactly the delays can be attributed are varied and complex to be sure, but one in particular stands out: a distinct lack of software.
"It's basically a 'chicken and egg' situation," Atari Corp. president Sam Tramiel told a room full of dealers and developers at last spring's Comdex. "You can't sell hardware that has no software, but on the other hand, who's going to develop software for a product that doesn't have a market yet?"
Is Atari's CDAR-504 Finally Ready to Ship?
Finally, even the lack of software is no longer a problem as new and varied products make the CD-ROM more attractive. And encouraged by strong sales in Europe and the debut of the TT, the new software should create healthy sales in the United States. Dubbed the CDAR-504, Atari's CD-ROM player is reported to have all the features Atari promised it would have: the ability to read disks with up to 540MB of storage, a remote-control that detaches from the main unit and lets you play, pause, stop, reverse and forward scan on a standard audio CD. It can also access track programming, music search, left/right channels and all of the remote's features through an ST desk accessory. The CDAR-504 also includes a headphone jack with volume control and stereo connectors.
But Atari didn't stop there. Because of a special operating-system extension called Meta-DOS, the CDAR-504 can read any CD-ROM disk, for any machine in both the High Sierra and the more recent ISO9660 disk formats. Such compatibility increases the CDAR-504's appeal because it potentially makes available the disks that have made Mindscape's games could probably fit on one disk, for example). Meyer continued, "One of the marketing problems Atari has to the IBM CD-ROMs popular (Apple uses a proprietary disk format). Moreover, the Atari unit will retail for $595, a significant price advantage compared to its IBM and Apple counterparts.
Rick Meyer is Atari's product manager for the CD-ROM and he is well aware of the CDAR's stormy past. Despite that, he remains optimistic that a product will ship as planned.
"Drives are out to developers and the CD-ROM is on the verge of shipping in the United States," Meyer told START. He further explained that he is negotiating with some of the "major software houses" for their retrieval software, a move that would definitely widen the CD-ROM's consumer appeal. Retrieval software is the code that a company writes for all their software so that the computer can read the CD-ROM. If Atari can obtain that, then Atari could conceivably offer compilations of publisher's complete catalogs (all of overcome in the U.S. is how to appeal to the consumer. The CD-ROM is doing very well in Europe, especially in West Germany, where the ST is the number one business computer, and France where the ST is widely used in medical applications. In both cases, the CD-ROM has appeal because it's mainly used as a huge information-retrieval device.
"On the other hand, the ST in the U.S. is limited to home users and special niche markets such as MIDI--Atari must make the CD-ROM appealing in those special areas and therefore needs software that complements these market strengths. The software that's available now and the deals we're still working on should strengthen the CD-ROM's appeal."
No formal rollout for the CDAR504 is planned; it will be like other ST peripherals, sold direct through Atari dealers.
The Software Developers--So Far
As with any new software-dependent hardware, don't expect an avalanche of titles for the CDAR-504. But as the product gets into people's hands and sales increase, you can naturally expect more and more compatible software. Meyer was understandably reticent concerning the software developers--he would tell START nothing beyond the retrieval-software deals already mentioned and even then gave no specifics. As to the software developed in Europe and whether or not we can expect any of it to show up in the U.S., Meyer could not elaborate.
Yet there is software out there and/or in development for the CDAR-504:
- As START reported in "News, Notes & Quotes" in the January 1989 issue, Software Mart has made available a "multilingual visual dictionary" that takes advantage of the ST's sound and video capabilities.
- Hybrid Arts has managed to manipulate its present Macintosh CD-ROM sound libraries so that they'll run on the Atari unit through Hybrid Arts' ADAP digital sound editor.
- Grolier's Encyclopedia will reportedly be available.
- D&C Enterprises, a small start-up in San Francisco, has compiled a disk crammed with public-domain programs, desk accessories and demos for the ST. See the sidebar for more information.
- Whitestar Mageware is developing a role-playing "heroic adventure quest" called The Golden Immortal. The company is planning to show the game at the Fall 1989 Comdex.
- Theoretically, pc-ditto II and Spectre GCR emulators will let the Atari CD-ROM run any and all CDs for the PC and Macintosh.
Will Atari Come Through?
Given Atari's less-than-stellar track record on the CD-ROM, it's easy to be skeptical of the CDAR-504's promised release. Carl Bacani of D&C Enterprises (one of the CDROM developers) is optimistic: "You wouldn't believe what it takes to get products out the door. But I believe it's really going to happen this time." Meyer echos this sentiment: "Like I said, developer kits are available now and the product is doing well in Europe. There are still a few bugs in the operating system, but the drivers are ready and the product will be out on time."