February 19, 2001

Atari developed good stuff, forgot to market it

Josh Renaud

The recent Mt. Providence implosion has really set me on a nostalgia trip. Last week, it was old buildings, but this week I'd like to spend some time talking about old computers—my favorite things of all.

I am an Atarian. I played the games and I used the computers. Most people don't realize that Atari made computers, but they did. The tragedy is that Atari was far ahead of its time in terms of research and development, but its marketing efforts were very poor.

Atari broke into the home computer business in the early '80s while it was owned by Warner Communications. Its line of 8-bit computers competed head-to-head with the popular Commodore 64 and Apple ][ computers. Two of the elementary schools I attended when I was young had Atari computers. Maybe that's how I got hooked.

Atari was purchased by the Tramiel family in 1984. They went to work developing a new line of 16- and 32-bit computers. Jack Tramiel, the owner, ordered his new R&D team to develop a new computer system within 12 months. In an astounding engineering feat, they did just that. They developed the 520ST computer, which featured a graphical user interface, full color, and much more for almost half the price of the Macintosh.

This new computer made the cover of BYTE Magazine in 1985 and was dubbed the "Jackintosh." In every way, it was superior to the Mac and yet it was a fraction of the cost. The Atari 520ST was the first home computer to ship standard with MIDI ports for attaching musical instruments. It quickly became a popular platform in the United States and Europe for desktop publishing, music and composing, games, and graphics.

Atari stuck with this line of computers for the next 8 years. Along the way, they developed some incredible hardware innovations that never made it to the public, vanishing into the mists of "vaporware."

For instance, Atari developed a new system called the ATW800 Transputer which used parallel processing and networking to increase its processor power, like cluster computers (which UMSL now plays around with).

Atari made several signicant achievements in the field of portable computing. It developed the ST-PAD portable computer which used a stylus and a handwriting-recognition operating system. The unit was functional and built long before Apple's Newton or today's Palm Pilots. In the early 1990s, Atari showed its ST-Book, a full-featured notebook computer that weighed under 5 lbs. It also featured a trackpad, years before Mac's Powerbooks did.

In 1993, Atari gave up on the computers, its share of the market dwindling. Instead they threw all of their money into the Jaguar 64-bit multimedia entertainment system. Atari gave it a good push, but was never able to get enough software developers onboard to really compete with the big players. Two years later, Nintendo, Sega, and the others had built their own 64-bit consoles, and the Jaguar was dead.

Atari merged with JTS Corporation in the mid-1990s and later sold its rights to all the Atari logos and patents to Hasbro. It's a shame they could never make it work. As Microsoft has proven, the companies that innovate aren't the ones who come out on top—it's the companies that know how to market.

This article was reprinted with permission from The Current.

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