The Academic A
by Lloyd R. Prentice
Atari fans often shake their heads and mutter in disbelief when they find that their favorite computer is not number one in the schools -- indeed, that it's not even number two or three. Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore share some 70 percent of the educational market for microcomputers. Atari claims a mere 15 percent.
It doesn't compute, the fans say. The 800 costs less and offers more than the leading brand A. And the 400, at the price, is no slouch. Its flat keyboard, admitted bane to touch typists, is just the ticket for the peanut-butter-and-jelly set. What's the matter with those educators? Don't they want the best for the kids? Why are these world-class computer also-rans in the classroom?
The answer is relatively simple: history. Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore beat Atari to the classroom by a good two years or more. This means that Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore preempted the attention and interest of those "agents" of educational change--the venturesome teachers and administrators who make things happen in the schools. These are the people who went on to design the computer literacy classes, write the educational software, develop the teacher-training programs and, not least, fill out the purchase orders for machines.
This means that Atari had a lot of brand A, B and C favoritism to buck when it finally went after the school market. As one administrator put it recently, "This is Commodore PET country around here. We've got users groups. We've got software exchanges. We've got teachers who know the PET. Even if we wanted to buy another brand of computer it wouldn't make sense." In this light, the fact that Atari has carved out 15 percent of the educational computing market in a short two years is nothing to sneeze at.
One of the major facts of life with which Atari must contend is the relative shortage of good educational software for the 400 and 800. I say "relative" because some good programs are out there and more are on the boards -- but, at present, not nearly as much as the educators need.
Last summer my company did a detailed survey of the hardware and software available to educators. We found more than 1000 separate software products targeted for grades K through 12. Many of these products are in series and include as many as 30 different instructional units. These packages, produced by some 217 companies, include instructional software for art and music, computer literacy, early childhood, guidance, language arts and reading, library skills, mathematics, science, social science, special education and vocational and business education. Various instructional management and "authoring" systems also showed up in our results. Most of these packages were for the Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore computers.
Of these 1000 + packages, only 93 were available for Atari machines. Of the 217 software producers, only 21 were producing Atari software. Of the 93 Atari packages, 15, or nearly 16 percent, were produced and marketed by Atari itself. An additional 47 percent--nearly half--of the 93 packages were produced by just two companies: Dorsett Educational Systems, Inc. and Program Design, Inc. And, only two out of three of the 93 Atari packages were exclusively available for the Atari.
Here's how the educational software packages were distributed by subject area:
Looked at this way, it's easy to see why Atari has not walked away with the school market. Despite the fact that Atari offers more hardware for the money, the marketplace does not offer more software for the classroom.
This summer my company is again updating its data base of educational software. It will be interesting to see how much new educational software has been produced for the Atari over the last year.
Will the Atari Compete?
Will Atari always be an also-ran in the education field? It's hard to say. But some interesting things are brewing. In recent months the home market for personal computers has flared up like a Topanga Canyon brush fire. Hardware price wars and parental desire to provide greater educational opportunities for the kids are fueling the boom. In this market, the Atari 400 is a formidable competitor, stacking up well against the Texas Instruments 99/4A and the Commodore VIC 20, the other main contenders for the home market.
As a result, many developers and publishers are beginning to take the Atari seriously as a target machine for their software--particularly since Texas Instruments has essentially made it impossible for independent developers to produce cartridge-based software for the TI machine without first signing a severe distribution agreement with you know who.
At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a slew of prestigious companies announced their intention to produce quality "educational/entertainment" software for the home market. These companies included, among others, CBS, Walt Disney, Mattel, Milton Bradley, Scholastic and Xerox. Some of their software will feature familiar pop-culture characters such as Mickey Mouse, Benji and the Muppets. Many of these companies plan to release their software on Atari 400/ 800 cartridges and disks, and multimillion dollar marketing budgets are the norm.
If the Atari, with its outstanding graphics and sound effects, can maintain a significant position in the home market and, as a result, stimulate the development of a large corpus of quality "educational/entertainment" software, it will likely win greater respect among educators and a bigger piece of the school-market pie. Much will depend upon the educational value of the software now in the works.
In coming issues I'll be reviewing many of these exciting new software packages. If this software is half as good as I think it's going to be, the Atari will finally come into its own as an important "tool for learning."
Lloyd Prentice heads Prentice Associates Incorporated, a software and book developer for major publishers. He was the founding editor of Classroom Computer News.