by Arthur Leyenberger
Arthur Leyenberger is a human factors psychologist and freelance writer living in New Jersey. He has written over 100 articles about computers in the last five years and continues to be an Atari enthusiast. When not computing he enjoys playing with robotic toys.
I've said it before. The best user group newsletter in the United States is Current Notes, published by a consortium of user groups in the Washington, D.C. area. Although it is stretching the term to call this monthly tome a newsletter, it is nonetheless user written and published. Joe Waters, Frank Sommers and Len Poggiali continue to do an excellent job. (For a 1 year subscription, send $20 to Current Notes Inc., 122 N. Johnson Rd., Sterling, VA 22170.)
The April 1988 editorial written by Darek Mihocha piqued my interest. Titled "I Want TOS/2!! A Fantasy," this well-written piece expressed many of my own views about Atari, the ST product line and what is required for Atari to become a real (my words) computer company in the United States. Unfortunately, Darek makes some false assumptions at the start of his argument which precludes a logical avenue to his conclusion. First, a summary of Darek's arguments.
Foremost in Darek's editorial comment is the lack of true multitasking on the Atari ST. Not being able to run two or more programs simultaneously and easily switching from one to the other has prevented the STs from becoming the "powerful contenders in the PC marketplace" that they could have been. Further, even with the minor speed increases in GEM resulting from the addition of the long-awaited Blitter Chip, TOS is still too flawed and too slow to benefit from "Band-Aid" patches such as desk accessory switchers. Darek goes on to label the Mega STs as "not much more than slightly faster STs upgraded with four megabytes."
Next, Darek mentions the MS-DOS marketplace and how the software and hardware products have continually been updated, upgraded and otherwise improved. Specifically, since the introduction of the IBM PC, there has been the XT, AT, and now PS/2 machines from IBM. Other vendors have also kept pace with the new technology by replacing 8086 processors with 8088-2 versions running at faster speeds, replacing those with 80286 models, and even replacing those with the latest 80386 processors. This improvement in processing speed has occurred in the last few years. It's no secret that the clone manufacturers are making faster computers with more features and at lower prices.
I agree with everything discussed so far. I would further add that when the ST was first introduced three years ago, its speed, memory, graphics and price gave it virtually no competition in the marketplace. Unfortunately, an ST or even a Mega ST can barely compare with the latest 80286 AT clone with VGA graphics, multi-megabyte memory and other features in terms of processing speed or price. With the addition of the new, soon to be released OS/2 operating system for MS-DOS computers, the Atari machines are blown out of the water.
OS/2 is a true multitasking environment that allows multiple programs or even multiple versions of the same program to run simultaneously. It allows a text-based program to run at the same time as a window-based program. It also includes the necessary memory management, inter-process communication and resource management capabilities to accomplish its task efficiently and cleanly.
Darek makes the case for the creation of a new ST operating system he calls "TOS/2" and the use of the newer and faster 68020 processor. This new multitasking operating system would fix all of the bugs in TOS, offer faster system throughput and allow faster floppy and hard disk access. Further, Atari should offer an upgrade kit to existing ST owners to give them these capabilities.
Once again, I agree with Darek. It's time that Atari updated the ST with an improved OS among other things and make the ST (ST2) competitive again. However, I disagree with Darek's use of IBM as an analogy for Atari. (True, IBM has worked with companies such as Microsoft, Lotus, and even single developers, and listened to their suggestions when they were creating each of their new products.)
It's clear by now that Atari does not do that. Atari is a very closed company, and it seems that only the Tramiel family themselves have any impact on future products. From the outside, it looks like the Tramiel family is interested primarily in what I call "deal making." The small staff spend most of their time bargaining with suppliers, negotiating with software developers for cheap rights to their products and generally pushing machines out the door regardless of the long-term impact of their actions.
I cannot blame Atari for wanting to make a product at the lowest cost and maximum profit. That is what business is all about. However, the lack of a significant follow-up product to the ST may hurt Atari in the long run, as will the absence of an upgrade path for existing ST owners. The person who bought an ST when it first appeared has to go to the outside for a memory upgrade and cannot obtain the new ROMs (which still don't correct all the bugs) or the blitter chip for their machine. Atari originally promised that they would support their products for existing owners.
Another apparent problem is Atari's neglect of the U.S. market. When will we see some advertising for the ST? When will we see the ST in corporate America as Atari has been promising for three years? It is understandable for Atari to focus on the European market where they are doing very well and where the foreign currency means more to the income statement than U.S. dollars, but what about us?
In Darek Mihocha's editorial he was on target as far as what is needed for Atari to stay (become?) competitive. It is not clear whether or not Atari will take these actions. Those of us who have been supporting and still support Atari hope that the Tramiel family does indeed have a grand plan that we are perhaps unaware of. If they don't, the future may not be bright at all.
Here is a clever idea. For the past several months, there have been these drop-in cards from Buick in PC Magazine and a few others. I call them "drop-in" cards because when you open up the magazine, they drop in your lap. Anyway, the card proclaims "Road Test A Buick In Your Home."
The deal is that you answer a few questions on the card, such as the year and make of your current vehicle and whether you have a Macintosh or an IBM PC. Once you mail it in, Buick will send you a free copy of their "Dimension" program to run on your computer. What we are talking about here is electronic advertising. A taste of the future where your computer is the gateway to a host of information services.
I sent in the card and in about four weeks I received a package from Buick containing a 1988 Buick brochure, a certificate for $100 off any Buick product I cared to purchase and a 2-disk program set called the "Great American Road Test." The program can be run with either two floppy-disk drives or a hard disk and requires that your PC have CGA (Color Graphics Adapter) graphics capability.
Upon starting the program, a brief animation of a car zooming down a desert highway appears. Next comes a graphics image of a Buick Reatta, a three color Buick Logo animation, a quick cut to a Buick commercial (I thought the whole thing was a commercial) and finally a screen telling you that this computerized ad will give you information on 20 automobiles, their specifications, standard features and (my favorite expression) much, much more.
The entire program is menu-based, so it is easy to use. Two alternative paths can be taken through the program—take an in-depth look at the new Buick Reatta or browse through the 20 or so Buick models. If you choose the "1988 Buick Line" you are presented with nine cars on the screen from which you select the one you are interested in. That particular car is shown on the screen followed by an on-screen index card describing the main features of the model and then another menu of the particular versions of that model.
The nitty-gritty information on the vehicle consists of model specifications, optional packages, comparisons with other car manufacturer's products, sticker price and purchase plan. For example, choosing the Buick Regal from the main car list allowed me to pick from the Regal Custom, Regal Ltd. and Regal with appearance package. When I asked for the sticker, I was given the option of printing it as well as reading it on the screen.
I was curious to see the comparison option. The Buick Regal with appearance package was compared to a Chrysler LeBaron, Ford T-Bird, and Mercury Cougar LS. I was surprised with the completeness of the comparison. Standard features, options, list prices and specifications were all displayed.
Since the Buick Reatta is Buick's hot new car for 1988, it had a menu option all to itself. Choosing it allowed me to inquire about the car's performance, handling, comfort and style. The "performance" option presented an index card with a brief list of the vehicles specs followed by a picture of the engine sideways, head-on and its internal workings. Then came an index card discussing each of the engine's features—balance shaft, sequential fuel injection, and Bosch fuel injectors.
Overall, this computerized advertisement was well done. The information on each of the cars was complete, and I thought the comparisons with the competition were generally correct (that is, which cars were direct competition with the particular Buick vehicle). My only criticism was the minimal animation and lack of color. Animation may not have helped explain the features of these Buicks, but it sure would have livened it up somewhat. I understand that with so many different computer brands, graphics cards, etc., it would be difficult to have super animation that would run on everyone's computer.
The Buick Great American Road Test was created and produced by the SoftAd Group in Sausalito, California. I understand they are in the process of producing other computerized advertisements. It is an interesting concept that, in the case of cars, should prove worthwhile. Someone shopping for a Buick can at least get product information in the comfort of their own homes before they visit the showroom. Best of all, getting the information from the computerized Buick ad was a lot more fun than getting it from most car salesman that I have known.
Ever since Atari's announcement two years ago of an affordable CD-ROM (Compact Disk—Read Only Memory) player, many Atari users have been waiting patiently and watching the CD-ROM industry come of age. As mentioned in the April column, CD-ROM players and a handful of application titles are currently available for the IBM PC and PC clones.
For the last several years, Microsoft has been the champion of the fledgling CD-ROM industry by sponsoring an annual conference on the subject, publishing technical standards and reference works, and producing an innovative CD-ROM application with a collection of reference works that would be useful to anyone who does a lot of writing (Microsoft Bookshelf).
Slowly other major players in the industry are rallying around the CD-ROM movement. It seems clear that CD-ROM players may soon be as common as 5-¼-inch floppy disk drives. One reason for this approaching ubiquity is Tandy Cor: poration's decision to sell the Hitachi CD-ROM drive at its more than 7000 Radio Shack stores. This is the same drive that Amdek sells for a list price of $895 and is bundled together with Microsoft's Bookshelf package.
Another signal that CD-ROM is ready to enter the consumer marketplace is the adoption of CD-ROM file standards. Until now, almost every application required its own search software. By establishing a standard file structure for a database, just about any software will work with all applications. This should result in improved, easy to use and faster search software. This and other critical issues in software standards had to be addressed before a mass market could develop for CD-ROM applications.
Other news in the CD-ROM industry includes Lotus Development (makers of 1-2-3 spreadsheet program) producing CD-ROM financial databases, Apple producing a CD-ROM drive for their machines, several companies producing hardware and software to use CD-ROMs over local area networks (LAN) and the falling price of producing CDs. These days several different vendors will make you a CD-ROM master for under $2000 and produce 200 CDs for about the same price.
Many technology soothsayers predict that CD-ROM will eventually become the standard electronic medium for distributing large amounts of information. However, one drawback that has plagued this technology is the inability to change the contents of a CD-ROM disk once it has been created (remember, ROM stands for Read Only Memory). Tandy has recently announced that they have developed a compact disk system that allows data to be stored, erased and stored again much like with a floppy disk or audio tape.
Tandy calls this CD storage system CD-THOR and expects to have it available by 1990. The system would sell for about $500 and be marketed through the familiar Radio Shack stores. According to Tandy, any digital data such as music, video, or computer data could be stored on this medium. If this system were mass marketed at such a low price, it could compete with DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorders which will continue to be rather expensive for the next couple of years.
Tandy emphasizes that digitized music recorded on the new media will be compatible with existing CD audio players. Having a system that allows perfect copies of audio compact disks to be made is likely to further upset the recording industry. As you may know, the introduction of DAT into the United States has been stalled by vocal opposition from the recording industry who claim that the sale of DAT recorders will result in rampant piracy of compact disks.
Tandy has not yet disclosed the technical details of CD-THOR but it is believed that it is based on the ability of a laser to write and erase microscopic pits in the dye-polymer to represent bits of data. This dye-polymer material is embedded in the CD substrate just like current audio CDs. To write information, the laser creates a dimple (logical one) by heat. To erase information, the laser smoothes out the dimple (logical zero). The company has said that they have been able to write and erase data from a disk 40 times although they are uncertain what the limits may be.
Critics claim that Tandy does not have the technical wherewithal to fully develop and introduce such an optical storage system. Further, they also claim that Tandy is being overly optimistic with both the target introduction price and the availability date.
Regardless of whether Tandy can or cannot develop the technology or deliver it "on time," erasable optical data storage technology is in our future. It will surely become available sometime within the next decade and is certain to change our lives. It will affect computer use as a storage medium, someday replacing floppy disks, and it will affect our leisure activities by becoming the recording/playback medium for music.
One cannot help but be excited about the future that technology will continue to bring us. See you next month.