Bean Dip, Fred and the Atari ST
BY TODD THREADGILL
The other day I was visiting with my brother-in-law, who, for the sake of this article, I'll call Fred. Through the familial grapevine, he had heard about my computer, and on this particular day, a beautiful Saturday afternoon, he must have decided that it would be great fun to talk with me about it as we sat lazily at a family get-together.
"What kind of computer is it?" Fred asked through a mouthful of bean dip.
"Atari ST," I replied calmly, anticipating the worst.
"AST, eh? I hear those are pretty good...."
"No, it's not an AST. It's an Atari ST," I said, enunciating as clearly as I possibly could.
"Atari ST? Atari..." Fred frowned and swallowed noisily. "So it doesn't run any business kinda stuff."
"Sure it does. There's all sorts of business software available for it."
His next assumption was a leap of logic that boggles the mind.
"Oh, so it's a PC-compatible." He reached for another Dorito.
"No..." I shifted uncomfortably in my beach chair. Simple concepts had always been difficult to get across to Fred, and I moved into position, readying myself for whatever might come next.
I cleared my throat and continued. "It has a graphic interface. And a mouse."
"Oh, like a Macintosh."
"Sort of..." I hedged, "but it's faster, and it's got color".
He thought about what I had said (or at least appeared to be thinking about what I had said) as he spooned another Dorito through the bean dip. Then, with finality:
"So it's really a game machine."
The sound of the two dreaded words burned in my ears. I fought to maintain my composure as I recalled that more games were released for MS-DOS machines this year than for any other— even the Amiga.
"No, it's not," I said.
Sitting back in his beach chair and raising the Dorito to his face, confident that he had gotten the upper hand in the discussion, Fred asked the all-time killer computer question:
"Can it run Lotus?"
Lotus is a company, a little voice inside said. "No, but..." I stammered aloud.
"Can it run Microsoft Word?" Fred asked, smiling.
Why would you ever want to? "No, but...."
"Can it run WordPerfect 5.0?"
Fred leaned forward for his final jab, the killing stroke that would send me running to an IBM dealer, looking for a "real" computer.
"If it's not a PC, and it's not a Mac, then what is it?"
Having defended the ST for so long now, several of the Atari's merits immediately came to mind: the speed, the graphics, the ease of use.
But Fred had a point. Whether he knew it or not.
In the computer industry, machines and operating systems each have their own claim to fame. IBM and its clones are, obviously, known for heavy-duty business. Macintosh is also thought of as a business machine—but for people who'd rather do their work than struggle with the computer. The Amiga's claim to fame is graphics (desktop video and games). Out in the real world, there are PCs, and there are Macs (with Amigas as a kind of sideshow curiosity). What about the ST?
For a computer to succeed in today's marketplace, it must fit into a category whose value is easy for casual computer users to ascertain. To claim to be able to do all things is not enough—people need to have a reason for buying one computer over another. Many people buy PCs, for instance, in order to run AutoCAD or dBASE.
Price/performance counts for little, as well. On one hand, there are the people who ask, "Why's it so cheap? What's wrong with it?" And on the other hand, there are the people who shell out sometimes over $2,000, fully expecting that their computer will be difficult to learn and to live with. Why?
Because, somewhere along the line, someone has told them that Computer X is what they really need, that it will solve all their problems and that all computers are hard to use.
If the ST is ever to make a splash in the United States, Atari needs to find something that the ST can do well and emphasize it. Of course, the ST is already recognized as a premier music computer (and Atari is eagerly pursuing the desktop-publishing market as well), but the music is far too specialized for the expoure Atari needs.
The business world holds the key to success, but unless something comes along for the ST that no other computer can do (such as the Mac's desktop publishing coup a while back), the ST will remain an also-ran.
Perhaps the next generation of STs, with their increased capabilities, will bring about a revolution similar to Apple's stumbling upon desktop publishing. And perhaps Atari will edge its way upwards into the high-end market areas of Sun and Apollo. Only time will tell.
Until then, Fred's question remains to haunt all of us. But the bean dip's gone.
Todd Threadgill is a graduate student at UCLA and is currently pursuing his M.F.A. degree in filmmaking. He lives in Sherman Oaks and is interested in writing and programming.
▪ STLOG invites all authors to submit essays for possible use in the Footnotes. Submissions should be between 1,000 and 1,500 words and may be on any aspect of Atari computing. Any style or type of essay is acceptable—opinion, humor, personal experience—but creativity is a plus. Send your submission to: Footnotes, c/o STLOG, P.O. Box 1413-M.O., Manchester, CT 06040-1413.