by Ian Chadwick
"Whatever became of...."
A lot of conversations begin with these words when people learn of my past association with Batteries Included. People want to know what happened. More often, people want to know what happened to the software BI had announced that hasn't yet seen the light of day—the Elite series in particular. Somehow, in the acquisition of BI by Electronic Arts, a lot of products appeared to fall by the wayside.
A lot of the time I have to answer, "I dunno," because EA never let me in on their plans. When I left BI, among the projects in the works for the ST were PaperClip Elite, Contact (aka Bute, the terminal emulator, once called Termulator until someone realized the name was already in use), the Thundersaurus, B/Graph Elite, Consultant Elite, a revised Thunder and a few other programs. As far as I can tell, none of these are going to be released by EA, at least within the Age of Mammals.
That's too bad. There were a lot of good products under development back before New Year's 1987. Top of the list and the closest to completion was Scott Northmore's Consulant Elite.
Scott had originally written an impressive database for the MS-DOS market, called Genapp. It was one of those products up in the application stratosphere—complex, powerful and flexible. He wrestled the user interface under a GEM shell, which made it considerably easier to use and more approachable than the command-based ogres, dBase and Rbase, but sharing their capabilities nonetheless.
Once running under GEM, the next phase was to move it over to the ST. But DRI's GEM in the PC/MS-DOS environment isn't 100% the same as GEM in an ST, and translations aren't quite as simple as one might expect. Still, Scott managed to tame the tiger to the point where we could honestly say it was 90% finished and ready for outside testing. The prototype worked, and the database engine itself performed properly—it was mostly a matter of tightening the user interface. It also promised to be the most powerful database manager available for the ST by far. Then the troubles began.
Michael Reichmann, president of BI, left for what appeared to be greener pastures (a company called Laser Friendly, involved in desktop publishing—soon to become a haven for several ex-BI employees). With him went a lot of the drive and determination that kept BI going. The remaining management was indecisive and insecure. There were a lot of meetings, and thousands of words were spoken, but software publication—not to mention development and testing—virtually came to a standstill while psychic efforts were expended in useless hair-pulling and tooth-gnashing over the financial crunch BI found itself in. Those of us who wanted to continue on were powerless to get the wheels turning again. We marched towards the inevitable: the sale of the company.
No one told Scott or any of the other software authors about this however. Management dithered and hesitated and hemmed and hawed while he worked diligently on his own. We were forbidden to discuss the situation with any of the authors in case it jeopardized the negotiations with Epyx and later EA. That only lead to a lot of angry, frustrated programmers and developers. Not to mention the angst many of us at BI felt over this sort of treatment.
Suddenly, or so it seemed, the whole thing ended. BI went into receivership, people were fired without warning—most without being given proper notice or sufficient separation pay (myself included). But it was people like Scott who were really left with the short end of the stick.
Scott had brought Consultant Elite to the beta test stage, but what now? EA held the rights to all products, even those in development, and were slow to release them—even those they had no intention to publish. Scott finally got the rights for his program back in December—nine months or so after the sale. For nine months he couldn't legally do anything with Consultant, All that work didn't generate any income.
Scott realized they would have to return the rights sooner or later, so he was resourceful enough to approach several other ST software publishers in the meantime. But with the rights in limbo for so long, one could or would make a commitment to the program. Worse, perhaps, several companies were interested but realized the responsibility for supporting such a high-end product was a major undertaking outside their realm. They were impressed and excited by the program, but lacked either resources or stamina to provide the requisite support staff Consultant required. And that bodes ill for the development of serious ST software in the future.
So Consultant Elite is still unpublished—potentially one of the most powerful database programs for the ST, a professional-level product that won't see the light of day because Scott can't find a publisher willing to support it. That's not to say there aren't good database programs out there now, but the likelihood of seeing more of such or better programs in the future is slim (competition means better end products and real choice—and very few publishers seem willing to enter the fray).
A similar late befell B/Graph Elite. It seems no one can see the need for a serious statistical/graphing program (with a spreadsheet data-entry interface) in the ST market. Sure, these programs sell well, and are in demand in the PC/MS-DOS world, but ST software publishers seem to shy away from the upper-end products. Either that or they haven't the foggiest idea what they should be selling.
All this makes me somewhat nervous. It's like we're doomed to seeing the ST become a great game machine, or a super midi-controller, but with a dearth of products aimed at the business/professional user. And face it folks, professional users are staying away in droves.
After all, what do you have for the ST we can truly say falls into the professional category? Anything the likes of 1-2-3 (or Quattro or Excel), Sidekick, Desqview, Symphony, Framework, Paradox, Ready, Keyworks, Ventura, Grammatik, Prolog, Tornado Notes, and so on? I doubt that any of their publishers will release for the ST. It's seen as a game machine by most outsiders. And in order to change that attitude, we have to see more top-level products produced and sold by existing ST publishers.
Sure, Word Perfect Corp. released Word Perfect 4.1—so far the only publisher of note in the PC/MS-DOS world to do anything of that sort. So, at last, we have a word processor that can be considered professional quality. What else? The sad truth is that we simply don't have much (if any) software in the PC/MS-DOS league.
I really don't want to pick holes in every product and whine about what we don't have. In truth, a lot of what's out there is pretty good, but it's all based on a perception of home market needs and prejudices; it's pretty much still a cottage industry. Maybe we're to blame. Maybe most ST buyers don't want the business and professional-level software; they want lightweight products, simple utilities and lots of games. In that case, Word Perfect may well fail to sell big in the ST market, despite the quantity of features it offers (it towers over any other ST word processor).
Of course, the home market is where Atari seems to be aiming its best shot. I don't see a single ST in use in any corporate environment. Can anyone name a member of the Fortune 1000 that uses STs? Apple has managed to get the Mac into a lot of businesses. Why not Atari?
Well, in part, it's because they can't approach a major business seriously without some solid software to offer them. Can you imagine Atari trying to sell to a major corporation?
"Well, no, we don't have networking, no simple means to move files from your existing PCs, no suitable terminal emulation for your mainframe connetion, software lacks full compatibility with your 1-2-3 and dBase files, and the keyboard is medicocre, but you can play some great games on it. ..."
Maybe I'm just in a bad mood. I get depressed when I go into a software shop and see the shelves full of PC/MS-DOS products. I'd like to see things change and find products like Scott's Consultant Elite (or whatever he's calling it now—maybe Genapp Elite?) and B/Graph Elite in my local software store soon, before the ST becomes the C64 of the '80s.
Ah, so that's why they never got in touch.
Remember back when, I made a fuss about Sublogic not doing a Flight Simulator scenery disk for my own area (Toronto)? I even wrote them twice and begged them to release the information for creating a scenery disk database so local users could design their own places to fly (or create fantasy places—why not?). In response, I got a written equivalent of the cold shoulder from them.
Well, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Scenery Disk 11—the "Detroit/Lake Huron" disk—has Toronto on it! And a good deal of southern Ontario too. But they don't mention it anywhere on the package. I booted my FS2 and skewed over to find out why.
If you know the city, you'll understand why Sublogic is reluctant to admit to having Toronto on any their disks. Toronto is, after all, not an American city. Just because it's the largest city in Canada, with roughly five million people in the combined metro and suburban regions, doesn't mean they should give it any special treatment, right? And the fact there are more ST owners in Soutern Ontario than anywhere else in the country shouldn't bother them either, I suppose.
Well, imagine my disappointment: Toronto is given one single building—the CN Tower—around which we can fly. Detroit—roughly the same size and population—has oodles of interesting places to see. At night, FS2's Toronto is as black, bleak and dreary as a morgue. And to add insult to injury, Pearson International Airport—as busy as Chicago's O'Hare—is missing from the booklet and map listing and was given no buildings in the database, not even a lousy hangar! And where are the dozens of large satellite communities that surround this city? Consigned to FS2 limbo, no doubt. Finally, what's with all the lakes that look like half-cooked fracted pancakes that cover the northern landscape? Do the designers think we live in a swamp?
Think there might be a little bit of prejudice in the making of this product? Look, as a Canadian, I'm accustomed to getting the short shrift from Americans who think that the world ends at the border, but this is carrying it too far; it's a smack in our faces. It would have been better had Sublogic not included Canada at all than to insult us with such a piddling poor effort.
My love of FS2 has suffered a serious blow with this scenery disk. And I'm not the only one who feels this way up here. Fellow enthusiasts have discussed it with me in several stores—all equally grieved at the offhand manner in which our own area was handled. It casts a dark shadow on any claims to accuracy that the scenery disks might ever carry in the future. Sublogic, are you listening? If you ever want us on your side again, you'd better recall those disks and fix them up, soon, before the damage is irreversible.