Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 5 NO. 4 / DECEMBER 1990

"Every revolution was first a thought in one man's mind."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays


Donald Thomas

Revolutionary Leader Donald Thomas Fights To Promote Atari In America


There's a war going on in the United States, and if you're an Atari computer user, you're part of it." Thus reads the opening line of The Revolution Handbook. "By being united," writes Donald A. Thomas, the manifesto's author, "we cannot be ignored."

This call to arms - spread over electronic networks, discussed within user groups, printed in newsletters, stamped on letters - marks a campaign, single-handedly fathered by Thomas, to inexpensively promote Atari computers in the United States. The stocky, bearded redhead with the physique of a linebacker began recruiting other Revolutionaries in September 1989 when his frustration with Atari U.S.'s lack of stateside advertising peaked. Additionally, he was worried about Atari computers disappearing altogether in this country, and the effect that would have on sales at Artisan Software, the ST software company he owns.

Atari Corp. And The Revolution
Thomas alludes to lack of funds being the main reason why Atari President Sam Tramiel has, to date, opted not to actively promote Atari computers in America. However, says Thomas, "if you awoke in France or Germany, you'd see an Atari market, rather than one dominated by IBM or Macintosh, the way it is in this country." Atari Corp. boasts numerous subsidiaries abroad, of which Atari U.S. is just one.

The company is close-mouthed regarding Thomas' efforts. Sam Tramiel refused to comment, but offered Thomas as his spokesperson regarding The Revolution. Tramiel is in the strange position of having his customers usurp his business plans. On one hand, any publicity the Revolutionaries generate supposedly benefits his sales, but on the other hand, he's being pressured to spend advertising money where the consumers, not the company owners, think best. And to top it all off, he is Thomas' boss. Thomas works for Atari U.S. as a Computer Marketing Manager.

So for Thomas, Atari absorbs his life: days spent at Sunnyvale, Calif., helping customers who have problems with their Portfolios, Atari's pocket-sized DOS portable; nights and weekends at home in Manteca, Calif., leading The Revolution from an office bulging with four STs. Thomas hopes that Atari will, in time, offer its support for his afterhours efforts. Meanwhile, although he doesn't have a lot of money to throw into a promotional campaign, he keeps The Revolution alive with energy public relations knowledge and experience, and imagination.

The Revolution Handbook
The Revolution's methods are inexpensive and unique. Funded primarily by profits from Thomas' Artisan software company and members donations, the grassroots campaign operates a week1y schedule of activities published in The Revolution Handbook, a 32-page pamphlet sent to every Revolutionary, along with an official membership card, an Atari pin, a decal and a rubber stamp proclaiming "Join The Revolution - Use an Atari Computer." The Handbook instructs Revolutionaries to use this stamp on all their outgoing mail and to stamp it only in red ink.

The first half of The Handbook describes the movement, and the attitude that Thomas wants to pervade the actions and statements of Revolutionaries. Declarations like "Never participate under an alias to boost representation" and "One individual can destroy the efforts of all of us by participating with wrongful actions or under false pretenses" permeate the document. These can be interpreted as either humorous or militant. But Thomas insists they are self-protective and are intended to avoid the dissemination of misinformation about Atari. He adds, "I like to sustain a high degree of integrity."

The latter half of The Handbook is devoted to a weekly calendar of ideas for educators, celebrities, computer widows and widowers, software publishers, computer dealers, systems operators and other authoritative Atari users, including president Tramiel.

Most of the calendar items are realistic, like joining and supporting local user groups and Atari dealers. Some, however, like writing George Bush on President's Day to enlighten him about the existence and capabilities of Atari computers, sound outrageous and appear to have little effect.

The Roseanne Barr Show was targeted for a similar letter writing campaign In late January 1990. According to the shows publicrelatons coordinator, such letters would probably be forwarded to Barr herself, but Cathy Spears, Barr s personal assistant explains that any letters from Revolutionaries were probably considered criticism, not fan mail, and therefore not sent to Barr. After a morning spent asking around, she called me back and said, "No one seems to know what you're talking about." Furthermore, Spears says it is highly unlikely there was any correlation between The Revolution and the Roseanne episode in which she lost her job due to computer illiteracy.

In "The Ultimate Challenge" during mid-July, Revolutionaries were encouraged to write PepsiCola Company and request the creation of a commercial with Michael Jackson "in an environment that promotes The Revolution." When asked how the company responded to this letter-writing campaign, Gary Gerdemann, PepsiCola's manager of public relations, responds, "When did this happen?" Gerdemann says he couldn't find anybody with any knowledge of receiving any letters or anyone who had ever heard of the Revolution."

When I told Thomas about the lack of response to Revolutionary letters, be said he "hoped that maybe one of the letter-writing campaigns would pan out," and that he feels the updated Revolution Handbook will rekindle the Revolutionaries' flame. He explains that the original Handbook "had to have some degree of controversial concepts for people to talk about," but the soon-to-be-released revision should give a new. "level of legitimacy" to the campaign with its seven new chapters geared toward computer-phobes, its California-tailored calandar and its slick paperback cover. Thomas is so certain the second edition will roll, he took out a loan to finace the book.

The second edition will be sent to Atarians who are "joining The Revolution in droves," Thomas boasts. He estimates that current membership numbers in the thousands.

And according Bob Brodie, Atari Manager of User Group Services, Revolutionaries really are writing letters regularly, as suggested in The Handbook, to Atari President Sam Tramiel. Traniiel channels letters he receives to the appropriate department head for response, and, invariably, the letters from frustrated Atarians end up in Brodie's "In" box. (Editor's Note: Once in a while the START editorial offices do receive correspondence with the Revolution stamp affixed on the envelope.)

Some Revolutionaries Of Note
Brodie describes Atarians, many of whom are now Revolutionaries, as "fanatical" and "brand loyal." Thomas assesses Atarians, himself included, thusly: "There are dog owners in this world and there are breeders. We are the breeders."

These top breeders may live as close as next door or as far away as New Zealand. But no matter where a potential Atarian lives, Thomas adamantly believes that once consumers buy Atari computers, they, too, will become devotees, like Trekkies, of a specific product.

But Thomas believes Atarians have a serious problem: They closet themselves where the public never sees them. Says Thomas, "We need to emerge as proud and satisfied users of our valuable systems." He contends that computer shows should be held in shopping malls and other heavily-populated places, where computer users are, "not in Holiday Inns."

"There are dog owners in this
world and there are breeders.
We are the breeders."

So Thomas' troops take up the fight to bring Ataris to the public eye. His youngest revolutionary, 11-year-old Christopher Haag from Livonia, Mich., is from a family of Atarians. Haag's 14-year-old brother Charles R. and his father, Charles H., are also devotees. Chris and Charles became interested in Atari computers and, eventually, in The Revolution, through their father. Son Charles seems disgruntled at the lack of recent Revolution activity. Apparently, the letters that are usually available for downloading from bulletin boards and sending to the likes of Sam Tramiel and others to encourage the promotion of Atari computers haven't been online for "about four months." Haag does stamp all his outgoing letters with the "Join the Revolution" slogan, though.

Sixty-five year old Lee Ellis, a retired journalist living in Indio, Calif., first read about The Revolution in an Atari publication and thought it was a great marketing idea. "Atari's the best kept secret in the United States," he says, gloating with love for his computer. This dedicated Atarian says he does write letters boosting his favorite pastime on a regular basis. Recently, he read a column by syndicated financial-columnist Sylvia Porter in the business section of his local paper. Perturbed by her comment alluding to software for IBMs and Macintoshes being the only "serious" software available, Ellis wrote to Porter explaining the capabilities and low cost of Ataris. He also suggested she enlighten her readers to the existence of Atari's ST. Recalling an incident when he phoned a Mac dealer for a price quote, he compares buying a Mac - where the cost of a keyboard is additional - to buying a used car and being asked, "Did you want tires or a steering wheel with that?"

Bob Thomas & Associates
Contrary to popular belief, however, Atari has hired a public-relations agency to promote its computers. Danielle Morris, of Bob Thomas & Associates (no relation to Donald Thomas), says the agency campaign team is currently promoting the Lynx and is planning its soon-to-be-released Atari business-computers promotion. While Morris is not at liberty to discuss what the campaign will entail or when it will commence, she did state that the agency is "all for anything (Donald) Thomas is doing" and that the ad agency neither supports nor opposes The Revolution.

Donald Thomas says the new ad campaign isn't enough to convince Atarians that the company has changed its near-legendary reputation for an apathetic and defeatist attitude toward marketing its wares in this country. There doesn't seem to he any pressure from the company for the PR agency to hasten the publicity process. While many Atarians believe the answer is to just run a few commercials, Thomas, a former ad man, points out that it's not that simple. He's well aware that Ataris are priced considerably lower than their competitors and that Atari's budget doesn't allow for advertising comparable to that of IBM or Apple. Thomas also sees that Atari's smaller user base doesn't enable the company to finance publicity that would flood the market. "A million dollars won't take you very far in a national TV and newspaper publicity campaign," sighs Thomas.

A Labor Of Love
Thomas knows computer users invest heavily in their hardware and software, so, afraid that their favorite computer could vanish, hardly noticed, Atarians are supporting Thomas' Revolution to promote their favorite machine. Thomas adds that he isn't masterminding The Revolution or selling software in order to make a lot of money. "The only way I could own a sizeable company would be to sell IBM or Macintosh software," he explains. "But I believe in the Atari system so much I don't want to do that. I want to focus on this one system."

The Revolution has begun and continues to make its mark. Thomas has seen dealers advertising in various Atari computer journals endorsing his campaign. and says requests for "Join The Revolution" stamps are rising. After a daily commute of three to four hours, Thomas works evenings and weekends on The Revolution. The ultimate Atarian explains, "It's fun for me. I'm a hobbyist who's built his business around his pleasure. I'm not a warped individual who's out of the blue. I'm an enthusiast faced with a corporation that hasn't been able to turn its (business) luck around." He sighs deeply, and despite his exhaustion, swears, "I don't love the computer because I work at Atari. I work at Atari because I love the computer."

E. J. Koch is a San Francisco Bay Area-based freelance writer

Your how-to manual for Revolutionary tactics, The Revolution Handbook, is on disk in the FREE WARE folder.

Double-click on the archive file REV__ARC.PRG and choose Extract when the dialog box appears. Select a destination disk and three files will un-ARC directly onto that disk.

You can either run the README.PRG, which automatically loads HANDBOOK.DOC (make sure README.PRG, HANDBOOK.DOC and HANDBOOK.LGO are in the same folder), and use its viewing commands to read the manifesto at your leisure, or you can double-click on HANDBOOK.DOC and read it from the Desktop.

You also can download The Revolution Handbook from GEnie and CompuServe.

NOTE: This software is copyrighted by Artisan Software, and is freely distributable. START assumes no responsibility for the performance of this program.

The Revolution Handbook has been completely revised and is now available in hard-copy form. If you subscribe to START and think The Revolution is a good idea, Artisan Software will you give you $5 off the Handbook's regular $14.95 price. To receive your discount, send the address label from any issue of START and a check or money order for $9.95 to:

  Artisan Software
  P.O. Box 849
  Manteca, CA 95336

You'll also receive a membership card, an Atari decal, an Atari lapel pin and a "Join the Revolution" stamp.