Outpost: Atari. (column) John J. Anderson.
Well summer is almost over, and though I well know how quickly summers tend to pass, I'm beginning to get worried. Each succeeding summer seems half as long as the summer preceding it. And it is small solace to consider that at a halving rate summer will never disappear entirely (remember that paradox from school days)? I'm afraid that by the time it feels like only a week or so between April and October, my morale will be severely eroded.
Enough. I have a lot to say this month and not much space in which to say it. Indulge me if the segues are a bit rough this time around, and the tone more one of a stream of consciousness. I have too many varied topics to tie together, and no device to smooth things over. So you are warned; on to business. Scuttlebytes
If you have not yet seen the Atari sidebar in the CES coverage up ahead in this issue, place a bookmark here and please go check it out. You are excused. It is simply the nicest news from Atari since its introduction of the 400 and 800 machines in 1979. Atari is not merely in the micro business to stay, or even a mere tough comeback competitor. To use the colloquial, Atari is positioning itself to "blow away" the rest of the field if it does things right. Doing things right in this case consists of getting the products to market fast and keeping the products to market fast and keeping prices down. Ignore what you read in The Wall Street Journal and listen to me: Atari computers will yet wrest a major share of the consumer computer market.
What about the Coleco Adam? Well, it is a nice machine. But I'm wondering just how real it is at this point. And I am concerned that this "integration" forces me into buying a printer whether I want to or not. think about it. What machines give the Adam a real run for the money? Only Atari.
Of course Atari could have staked out the field two years ago. There has been a dangerous delay. It has not been fatal--just nearly fatal. Now Atari computers are here for keeps. Alda News Fit to Print
The most obvious symbolic evidence of this at the present time is a famous person: Alan Alda. He will be helping Atari sell computers for the next five years. And they couldn't have picked a better, or nicer guy.
When Mr. Alda was first unveiled at an Atari CES party in Chicago, excitement ran very high. The man fairly exudes intelligence, sensitivity, and charm. Even if he hadn't opened his mouth, the crowd would have loved him. And when he did open his mouth, the crowd learned of his sincere interest in the power of the home computer. He spoke of its growing popularity as an entertainment medium. He spoke of its growing power as an educational tool. And while he admitted that he was not any sort of expert on microcomputers, he voiced a commitment to learn, and with a smile, invited the world to learn along with him.
He will be learning, by the way, on Atari computers. Why? For the money? "Because Atari computers are the best," that's why. Who can argue with that?
You get the feeling that this is a man who will be an alert and active spokes-person as opposed to a celebrity for sale. You get the feeling that this is a man who will not be selling pudding on TV anytime soon.
How can I back this up? Well take the question he was asked right at the podium that night in Chicago, his first night as Atari user number one. How, he was asked, did he feel about the fact that Atari, in its corporate wisdom, did not credit its software authors? He paused. His poise crackled for 0.02 nanoseconds. He smiled. "Well," he said, "I guess they are entertainers just like I am. They probably should get credit for that. My first suggestion, then, to Atari is that they think about ways to give individual credit to those who deserve it." Tumultuous and sustained applause. This man is my kind of spokesperson. Merging Terrific
There is further evidence that Atari has gotten its act together. Take, for example, the merger of the old Consumer Electronics Division, which used to handle the dedicated home video games, and the old Home Computer Division, which was the ostracized and unprofitable division that just happened to market the best consumer microcomputers in the world. How utterly reasonable. Now they can quit competing with each other and start competing with the competition.
Let's talk about games for a minute. I have been hard in past columns on the Atari 5200, the supposed "Supergame" successor to the VCS. It is widely known that the 5200 is an Atari computer in drag, with the compatibility built out. If Atari had introduced a computer-compatible supergame last year, ColecoVision would not have such a large consumer base now.
Anyway. Back when I was soliciting suggestions for improvements on the now-defunct model 1200, a few people said "let it run 5200 games." I didn't report the suggestion at the time, and I'll tell you why. In Sunnyvale I had just seen the then-new Kangaroo for the 5200, and been shocked at its low quality. Atari software had up until that time been synonymous in my mind with top quality. Kangaroo made the 5200 look like a VCS in a slick box. I couldn't believe they had accepted it. It was appalling. Why shoot for compatibility with that thing, I reasoned? Forget about it. Gaming Momentum
Since that time, I admit that some very nice games have come out for the 5200. The versions of Centipede and Qix for the 5200 are much snazzier than the same Atari computer carts. I still strongly object to the pot controllers and triggers on the 5200 machine, which are incredibly slow and have stick boots that wear out in weeks. And why buy one if you already have an Atari computer? Such a duplication of machinery!
So what is the solution? Well, some hackers seem to think the answer is dumping and customizing the front end of 5200 cartridge programs to run as disks on Atari computers. Atari, are you listening? Bet that rankles. There is an easy answer, though.
It is time to develop a games expansion box, which allows 5200 carts to be played on the new computers. Compatibility, fellas. that word you learned recently. Think of the time, manpower, and money you could save by making the dedicated game machines and computers cartridge-compatible--even at this late date. In Valspeak: Like wow man. What a concept.
To wrap up this mini-games section of the Outpost, some not-so-mini tid-bits:
* One thing that sort of shook me at the CES was the sight of Apple, TI, IBM, TRS-80, and Commodore software from Atari. I guess it was provincialism on my part that made me wince so, and I later convinced myself it was okay. The stuff looked pretty good, and that is the important thing--quality. No more 5200 Kangaroos, please, for anyone's machine. And it certainly makes sense for Atari to get full mileage out of the titles it acquires, rather than letting other companies get the jump.
Besides, software is just like records, and Warner Communications already knows how to sell those. It's a natural--selling what you are most comfortable selling.
* Nolan Bushnell is back on the Atari payroll. Everyone looked to Nolan to utterly waste Atari Coin-op come October, when his restraint contract expires. Atari must have been scared of a possible grudge too, since it spared no expense to buy the rights to Nolan's new and as yet unseen Pizza-Time coin-op video games. The deal came as the kicker to the settlement of some longstanding legal hassles between Bushnell and Atari, the company he started in his garage. It really was something of a surprise, even to supposed "insiders." If trickle-down applies, Nolan's new contributions will probably stand to benefit the Atari computer owner somewhere down the line. Though it may be quite a way down the line.
* Atari has acquired all home rights to Nintendo's Mario Brothers arcade game. This is the latest coin-op addiction among associate editors Linzmayer, Arrants, and Anderson, and boy won't our change pockets be glad when a home version becomes available. Nintendo had a Mario Brothers game on free play at the CES and Owen and I were lucky to have seen anything else during the course of the show. The game is terrific.
Of course, it depends on the highest quality graphics and sound for its appeal. The Atari computer is capable of providing same, but only in the hands of a competent programmer. Let us pray.
* I saw the upcoming version of Joust at the show, which was the most recent editors' craze before the crushing on-slaught of Mario Brothers, and am happy to report that it looks and plays quite well. One can only hope that high standards of quality will continue to be upheld. Any other behavior can only constitute suicide, with Coleco breathing down Atari's neck.
And now for something completely different. The Users
I had the opportunity last week to speak at a meeting of the Jersey Atari Computer Group, most commonly known as JAGG. They meet at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ, and have got to be among the largest Atari user's groups on the East Coast. I attended a meeting on a hot, sunny summer's Saturday, and was amazed to see a turnout of over 400 people.
The group is extremely fortunate to have the use of Bell's Murray Hill auditorium, complete with sound system, overhead projectors, and projection TV. The club officers are getting a bit concerned, however, as attendance is climbing to a point where it will soon outgrow even the Bell facility.
It nevertheless warmed my heart to sit in the company of so many other Atari computer enthusiasts. Art Leyenberger demonstrated some Atari games. Art, who edits the fine JACG newsletter, has contributed some Atari reviews to this issue, and is a reviewer you will be seeing more of in future pages of Creative. Dick Kushner, president of the group, reported on his visit to CES, and the new Atari product line.
Significantly, Atari paid for Dick and other user's group presidents to attend the CES--recognizing the importance of user group support in the introduction of its new products. I was also impressed that a video crew from Atari was taping the meeting I attended.
In my own impromptu remarks, I tried to underscore the importance of healthy and active user's groups in the future of Atari computers. It has taken Atari a while to realize that user's group support is more than just professional public relations or the APX program. It now knows that its user's groups are probably the best, and only real friends it has. Let's hope it stays that way.
The JACG now has a 24-hour bulletin board; the number is (201) 549-7591. Give them a call if you like. Or write them care of Dick Kushner at 58 Dewey Ave., High Bridge, NJ 08829.
And you other user's groups, keep up the good work. Remember, it is the informed user that can best keep Atari on the right track, now that it has found the track. New Third-Party Hardware
What with all the new product announcements from Atari, it is easy to forget our old buddies, the third-party developers. They, it should be duly noted, have developed much of the hardware that Atari will market under its own name. The remote control joysticks, new light pen, CP/M module, graphics tablet, and other new products were developed by independent outside concerns, then sold or licensed for use by Atari.
There are new products directly from third-party sources as well. Here is a report on just a few that caught my eye and my fancy:
* By the time you read this, Atari-compatible disk drives from Rana Systems should be on the shelves. A double density model with 180K of storage will be available, which in single density mode will be completely compatible with the current format.
The unit features an LED display (see photo) which indicates drive number, density setting, and error status. It will be priced under $500. For more information contact Rana Systems, 20620 South Leapwood Ave., Carson, CA 90746. (213)538-2353.
* Microbits Peripheral Products is producing a $100 parallel printer interface. This Centronics parallel interface plugs into controller jack 3 on 400 and 800 machines. It also includes a replacement chip to be installed on the operating system board.
The company has also announced a direct-connect modem that attaches to controller jack 4 for $200 and includes smart terminal software and cabling.
If you wish to save money, are having trouble finding an 850 module (a friend from Canada reports that they are over $250 there, if you can find one), or just don't like the idea of buying one, these products from Microbits can get you around the need for an 850. For more information, contact Microbits Peripheral Products, 434 West First St., Albany, OR 97321. (503)967-9075.
* The most interesting third-party peripheral at the summer CES was the Oscar Bar Code Reader from Databar Corporation. This low-cost optical scanner will interface to the Atari computer, allowing the user to enter programs by scanning zebra-stripe code similar to that appearing on our front cover.
I have been interested in the use of bar code with home computers for some time, and foresee a day when magazines such as ours will include bar-coded listings. Bar code is the only print medium with anything approaching a respectable baud rate.
The Oscar unit will retail for $79.95. Databar intends to produce a monthly magazine of bar coded programs, available by subscription. Databar Corporation, 10202 Crosstown Circle, Eden Prairie, MN 55344. (612)994-5700.