After last month's less-than-enthusiastic recounting of the "innovative" features of the new IBM PS/2 line, a reader complained that my comparisons to machines like the Amiga, the Atari ST, and the Macintosh weren't altogether fair. For example, why hadn't I mentioned the IBM's superior music capability? "Which one is that?" I asked. "Why, the built-in 32-voice synthesizer, of course," he replied. I explained that though I'd read all of the technical releases from IBM, the closest thing to what he was describing had been an add-on music card that would provide an 8-voice synthesizer and MIDI connectors for about $700. For that price, I explained, you could get a pretty fair MIDI synthesizer with a keyboard. And besides, the card would fit only in the old-style expansion slots, which means you couldn't even use it on any of the new machines but the Model 30. Plus, it isn't available yet.
"Well," he shot back, "what about that Micro Channel? Is that available yet?" I explained that Micro Channel is the name IBM uses to describe the new I/O bus on the Model 50 (and higher models). While that architecture is, by all accounts, pretty zippy, its real importance can be seen in terms of IBM's networking plans. If IBM plans to send graphics information from its Presentation Manager over the network, it has to be pretty fast. Of course, for individual users, who aren't going to be running out to buy the Extended Edition of OS/2 at $800 a crack, the Micro Channel may not be quite so important.
This conversation reminded me that, to an awful lot of people, the word computers means IBM, and Big Blue can do no wrong. The 68000 computers may have been first with 3½-inch drives, analog monitors, and direct addressing of megabytes of memory, but IBM's ability to produce full-color 24-page magazine inserts as well as TV ads featuring the cast of "M * A * S * H" still counts for something. Enough, probably, to retain the loyalty of corporate America.
Whatever else you think about IBM's product announcements, you have to admire the company for keeping quiet until it actually had products to sell. Companies like Commodore and Atari could do well to follow that example. Both announced new computers early in the year, and both may be regretting it about now. At the January CES show, Atari announced its Mega ST line. This improved version of the current STs is to offer more memory, and a blitter chip for faster graphics. At the same time, Atari surprised everyone by announcing a line of low-cost PC-compatible computers with no expansion slots, but with built-in EGA video adapters. The new STs were slated for a March introduction, with the PCs following in April or May. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Atari. The price of the one-megabit RAM chips that they're using in the Mega series has not come down as quickly as expected, and production schedules continue to slip. Lately, Atari has been telling dealers not to look for Mega STs until July, with the PCs to follow in August. In the meantime, the new IBM machines have made VGA the new de facto video standard, blunting much of the impact of Atari's built-in EGA.
Commodore's position isn't much better. They officially announced two new Amiga models in March, but delivery dates of May and June seem to be stretching into late summer. The fact that the Sidecar still hasn't shipped and that its price has jumped from "well under $1000" to $995, hasn't helped Commodore's credibility. The firing of Tom Rattigan, along with a large number of Commodore staff, has cast yet another pall.
Though the Amiga and ST both represent advanced technology at a low price, both are still on somewhat shaky ground. While sales for both machines have been respectable, neither seems to be gaining the momentum necessary to make it an unqualified success. And they're sure not picking up any steam while the buying public waits for new models to arrive.
One of the rumored reasons for Rattigan's departure from Commodore was his reluctance to push the new Amiga 500 into mass-market distributions channels as Commodore Chairman Irving Gould wanted. If Gould gets his way (and with 20 percent of the stock, he probably will), we may see yet another test of whether a 16-bit computer can repeat the success of the Commodore 64 in mass merchandise outlets. The first to try was Atari, who attempted to distribute the 520ST through outlets such as Toys "R" Us. But sales through such channels have been lukewarm at best, despite a system price that compares favorably to that of a Commodore 64 with disk drive and monitor. The next 16-bit machine to hit Toys "R" Us was the Blue Chip, a $700 PC-clone from Korean conglomerate Hyundai. From all accounts, its Christmas sales were very disappointing to mass merchants.
Since the prices of these computers are not much higher than those of the previous generation, could it be that their level of sophistication makes them unsuitable to be sold like VCRs? Or is it just that neither Atari nor Blue Chip has produced the kind of advertising blitz that led to the success of the 64?