ATARI: A NEW BEGINNING
by Gabe Torok
by Gabe Torok
Atari has become synonymous with `Top Secret'! The staff of this security conscious private company has plugged nearly all of the leaks that at one time cascaded into the outside world. Getting verification to most of the rumours (and there are plenty) was nearly impossible. Even the partial answers provided by Atari's domestic regional President, Mr. Greg Pratt posed more questions than Zilog has chips. During my two weeks of attempting to get clarification and verification, either yay or nay, to some of those rumours, the internal changes and staff replacements were obvious. The hint of total internal reconstruction of the corporate bone structure was unmistakeable.
The good ship `Atari' is housecleaning! Mr. Tramiel is making all repairs under full steam, and it appears, from the numerous rumours, to be working. All eyes are on Atari, and the entire industry is trying to guess what Tramiel will do to save what appeared to be six months ago, a sinking ship.
There is no question as to whom is in charge. The name `Tramiel' dominates four of the top executive doors at Atari. His three sons are providing the strong backing to turn this company around fast, against what many consider all odds. What this means is that things are going to be done, without expensive delays and with solid decisions reminiscent of precise military execution. Tramiel's reputation while leading `the competition' has already boosted interest in Atari a hundredfold.
Third party software manufacturers are re-assessing their earlier decision to drop development or conversions for the Atari line of computers, with many programs in various stages of completion being resurrected for what promises to be an Atari Christmas. Especially if the rumours up and down the grapevine are fruitful. But ignoring these rumours for the moment, it is comforting to see ex-Atari dealers across North America, reconsidering their previous decision to cut Atari supplies to a bare minimum.
Atari's previous product distribution was, in the past, somewhat inconsistent, and appeared to be regionally imbalanced. Some retailers in one area had a surplus of goods offered them, while other regions were spoon-fed and could not meet consumer demand. It was no wonder that so many retailers were reluctantly forced into the more lucrative Commodore lines, some eventually dropping Atari altogether. The good news is that Mr. Tramiel will use his strong Marketing experience to re-evaluate and revise present distribution methods on future products.
Jack Tramiel has shown the world he has the Midas touch. It is because of this golden touch that so many rumours are surfacing from the expectant industrywise on-lookers. Mr. Tramiel is known for his unorthodox approach and gilt-edged results, no matter how incompatible his next computer is with the last. Is it true that the XL series of computers are being considered for a Christmas present to the public at $49.95 for the 600XL and $149.95 for the 800XL? "Absolutely not!" says Greg Pratt. But when I called him back a few days later with the revised version of that rumour, the denial was not quite so definite. The word was that Atari will announce a new price for the 800XL (around $169.00) and a new improved version of the same computer for about $200.00. The clincher to this rumour is that all these computers will be sold through mass merchandisers at this new low price.
Other rumours from the fans of the old 800 have crossed this country several times. The word is we can look forward to perhaps an expandable version of the Atari 800, by far the best and most underestimated computer in it's class. To this, Greg Pratt replied "Ridiculous. Production costs were too high."
So where does all this leave us? We're back to guessing about the mysterious 1450XLD? Why not. From the overimaginative rumour mill comes word of a new 32-bit machine at half the cost of the Macintosh to be announced sometime this year. Now this would make sense, if the 1450 is being re-vamped with a 68000 microprocessor, and perhaps comes complete with the hottest new Unix (or Zenix) operating system. It also makes sense in that any new computer coming out from Mr. Tramiel's past has not shared compatibility with it's predecessor. Still it made money.
But someone is confusing rumours! It may be true that Atari will be competing with a 32-bit machine, or even a true 16-bit, but why would they pick the Motorola 68000? There are many good microprocessors available that do not have the same `copying' connotations this chip would most definitely induce. Why not follow up the rumour of Mr. Tramiel's recent purchase of over two million 8086 chips from Intel? This would be the ideal microprocessor chip for the future of Atari. A true 16-bit processor on a 16-bit bus. I can sure see this machine fly into the top position on the annual sales bar graph!
Then there is the 1450 XLD, tooled and ready to go. What better vehicle for this new chip? But to compete, we need a reliable but inexpensive disk drive, and to date, I have not been able to learn who sold Atari thousands of disk drives in the beginning of August.
Atari's Greg Pratt chuckled at this news. So, I asked him, `Isn't it better to print facts rather than rumours?' Apparently not at this time. He said "Our plans are not concrete yet. Rather print rumours and keep the competition guessing than to give away our gameplan." So when can we expect to see a new computer? "We will introduce a number of new computers at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show", in Las Vegas.
The next CES will be worth the trip a thousand times over. Will Commodore introduce yet another computer, and will they already have the announcement written that it will not go into production? Will it meet with the same yawns as their last two efforts? They certainly do not have the time to develop a new computer, but will they take a previous prototype and, depending on the excitement it creates, go into production? Not likely.
Apple, on the other hand, have already introduced the big guns and the results have been favorable. Sales of the Macintosh and the IIc have been very good, and they have the advantage of the 1984 Christmas market to secure a strong foothold. A new lowend computer from Apple? I wouldn't hold my breath. Perhaps a revised price structure for the existing models, and some nice modifications and peripherals, but, the effort will be made not to let Atari cast a shadow over Apple's efforts.
Not to be outperformed on the lower end will be IBM. The revised version of the PCjr and the lowered price has started to make a (very) small dent in the marketshare, but is expected to gain more popularity. Their recent introduction of the IBM AT (Advanced Technology) has begun to force the price of the PC and XT unto a gentle slalom course. But IBM set a very important standard in the industry, that is why everyone is trying to copy them. Even now, with a very attractive price, I could turn my Atari into an IBM compatible (MS-DOS) machine, by tapping into SWP Microcomputer Products Inc.'s full blown ATR 8000, and, pardon the pun, get CP/M 80 and 86 to boot.
So who will steal the show? My money is on Atari. The name `Atari' means `big win' or `winning ticket' in Japanese. It appears Mr. Tramiel has bought a very inexpensive ticket, (no money down and $240 million over ten years) but it's a winning ticket. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that he is THE man who could turn Atari into the gold mine it was in 1982 (with profits over $300 million), nor any doubt that compatibility in any new computers will not be it's selling point. The rumours will increase daily until CES, and the `Top Secret' sign at Atari will grow to be larger than the company name by January. The one thing we can all count on is that all eyes are on Atari, and will be on CES. Atari's silence will guarantee a record turnout and force the competition to re-think their future strategies. Until then it will be "Guess what I heard Atari is about to announce? . . . "