1990: The Year of Atari in Review

by John Nagy, Assistant Editor

(Original for ST Journal Magazine, presented with additional material for Z*NET)

1990... was it the year of Atari? It was a year filled with hope and with disappointment. It was a year of promises and some fulfillment. Lets look at the highlights and the lowlights together.

Computer years tend to be measured from Fall Comdex to Fall Comdex rather than from the more traditional calendar. So here is a chronology of Atari since the Comdex last November 1989, up through the recent Comdex, to the end of 1990.

NOVEMBER 1989:

Sig Hartmann retires after 5 years as front man for Atari.

Comdex - the US marketplace of computers, attended by the industry bigwigs, dealers, and distributors who are deciding what lines they will buy and sell in the coming year. In the Las Vegas convention facilities, Atari Corporation occupies a spot near the main entrance where they seem to sit as a foothill to the towering ZENITH and IBM exhibits just behind it. Atari has perhaps their best looking booth ever, in light colors with open feeling displays. "A Computer For Everyone" declares the overhead sign, and from the brand new palmtop Portfolio and STe to the TT (being shown in production prototypes), Atari draws lots of attention. Carrel after carrel of major third party developers each show their own lines to thousands of intrigued visitors. The STacy and Portfolio are the clear eye catchers. Over 1,000 potential distribution contacts are made for the Portfolio alone. Bob Brodie is popular already in his second month at Atari. Charles Cherry, only two weeks with Atari after leaving ANTIC Software, begins his effort to support developers in new and attractive ways, including SOFTSOURCE and distribution of dealer and user data. The mood is very up - this seems to signal a new and forward moving atmosphere at and for Atari.

The Independent Association of Atari Developers (IAAD) is formed by 40 developers at the WAACE Atari show outside Washington, DC. Nathan Potechin of ISD is the first Chairperson.

ST-LOG and ANALOG magazines merge, then announce that the November 1989 issue will be the last of any Atari magazines from Flynt Publications. START magazine loses Andrew Reese and editor and Tom Byron takes over, and ST-XPRESS closes altogether.

GADGETS BY SMALL begins distribution of the GCR Mac Emulator, enabling the Atari ST to not only run MACINTOSH software faster thana MAC, but read and write real MAC disks... faster than a MAC.

PC-SPEED, an internal IBM emulator board from Germany, is in distribution by MICHTRON, while AVANT-GARDE is unable to meet release promises with PCDITTO II, a hardware PC emulator first shown in April, 1989.

DECEMBER 1989:

Mike Morand, President at Atari for only two months, resigns. David Harris in named as his successor.

Greg Pratt, Atari's Chief Financial Officer, continues the search for a buy for the FEDERATED GROUP store chain that has drained Atari's working capitol.

The FCC passes the STACY laptop ST as a "TYPE A" device, meaning that it can only be sold as a commercial device, not in outlets for the home users. Battery operation time is admitted to be about 15 minutes for units with hard drives.

JANUARY 1990:

The LYNX is a major hit at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Nintendo is the clear winner in volume and promotion with the Game Boy, but the LYNX wins hearts with astounding color graphics in a hand held machine. Private showing of a prototype portable machine from NEC causes worry that the LYNX will be passed up by this newer unit by Christmas 1990.

QUICK ST goes from shareware to commercial, as Darek Mihocka begins a trend in small developer success stories.

ZMAGAZINE and STZMAGAZINE merge to become ZNET ONLINE, a single weekly electronic publication covering the entire Atari computer lineup. So begins the fifth year of the continuing, volunteer, non-profit Z*NET project.

Avant-Garde's PCDITTO II begins actual shipment, but less than 10% of the users can make it work, and it turns out to be so large that only MEGA machines have room inside for it.

TALON announces that they will begin importing the SUPERCHARGER external IBM emulator that will require no installation at all.

FEBRUARY 1990:

Jack Tramiel, "retired" controlling stock owner of Atari and chair of the Board of Directors, takes a more active hand in Atari policy and management.

A $5,000,000.00 backorder backlog that has had some items (like Monochrome Monitors) unavailable for five months begins to ease as Atari hardware shipments arrive at dealers.

Rumors begin to circulate about a new version of the MEGA computer that may be based on the STe and card-compatible with the TT.

Atari makes an impression at the National Association of Music Merchandisers (NAMM) show as the only major computer display. The Hotz Box and the STacy are featured, and a concert is sponsored by Atari.

MIDI-TASKING is released to developers as a BETA-TEST version, offering a multitasking environment under GEM, tailored for MIDI applications.

MARCH 1990:

Layoffs of 15% of the Sunnyvale Atari employees affect mostly warehouse and accounting departments, but are felt by all.

After some angry power plays and short-scheduled events by commercial promoters that appear to be trying to squeeze user groups out of show production, Atari announces that they will not support Atari Fests that are not scheduled at least 120 days ahead of time and that are closer than 30 days to any other show.

Charles Cherry's SoftSource system of cataloging and promoting third- party developers nears readiness on GEnie telecommunication system.

FEDERATED is finally sold, the last parts going to SILO's chain of stores in a deal that gives Atari a large block of the huge UK company's stock.

Avant-Garde releases a series of fixes and chip replacements that make PCDITTO II work... for as many as 80% of the owners.

CALAMUS OUTLINE ART begins shipping from ISD. It comes with a conversion program to turn Outline format graphics into PostScript files.

APRIL 1990:

ATARI EXPLORER MAGAZINE editors David Ahl and Betsy Staples are fired by Atari, the publisher, for their critical commentary in the "Spring" issue. The issue is recalled before distribution and reworked.

The second Disneyland World Of Atari is a moderate success, with showings of some new products. Gadgets's 68030 upgrade board is shown - working - and might even be faster than Atari's own TT.

The STe finally passes the FCC testing and can begin distribution in the USA.

MICHTRON releases FLEET STREET PUBLISHER 3.0 without fanfare, as Michtron begins winding down operations and discussing a possible sale. They continue to appear at shows with great deals.

The Business Software Alliance (BSA) raids an Atari Taiwan plant and finds several pirate copies of LOTUS on employee machines. Atari denies responsibility and criticizes BSA priorities.

A two-day Atarifest in Pittsburgh, PA sponsored by PACE is a resounding flop, with well under 500 attending. Worse, comments from many visitors cause fears about the rampant and apparently accepted level of piracy in the area. Discussion of the situation online and in media reports infuriate local groups.

MAY 1990:

At Atari's annual meeting, shareholders learn that the company has earned $1.5 million in the most recent quarter, and sees the TT.

Jim Fisher is announced as the new editor of Atari Explorer, adding to Jim's duties as Vice President of Marketing. Production will be handled by Jon Jainschigg, formerly the technical editor of Explorer under Staples and Ahl.

World of Atari Manager Richard Tsukiji relights old fires by announcing a WOA in San Jose less than a month before the Glendale Atari Faire, defying Atari's guidelines for show scheduling. A similar announcement in 1989 caused cancellation of BOTH shows. This year, neither plan to back down.

ST JOURNAL, from Steve Lesh and Quill Publications, begins distribution of their first issue. The new ST specific magazine attempts to provide a serious user's journal of news and reviews, avoiding the "game" image entirely.

JUNE 1990:

The Summer CES in Chicago was attended by Atari but no new hardware or packages were offered. The long talked about "Atari Advantage" package (a bundle of LOTS of game and productivity software with a 520ST ad a very low price) was prepped then pulled out of the CES show at the last moment. The Tramiels are rethinking the contents and pricing of the bundle(s).

ELIE KENAN comes to Atari from his position as Manager of Atari France, to begin preparations for his takeover of Atari USA, Canada, and France.

The STacy and STe begin shipping to Atari dealers in the USA.

Atari co-sponsors the "Silicon Summit", trade talks with the Soviets concerning a trade of computers for RAM CHIP production in the USSR.

WOA promoter Richard Tsukiji is informed by Atari that Atari will not participate or support his San Jose show in any way, due to his late and conflicting scheduling of the show.

GRIBNIF shows their NEODESK 3 for the first time, offering lots of remarkable advancements in their ST desktop replacement.

ICD Inc. offers new driver software for their hard drives and host adapters that resolves a major incompatibility with Talon's Supercharger IBM emulator.

JULY 1990:

Dealer information from New Zealand and the Netherlands indicate that the Atari TT030 machine is being redesigned to be 32 Mhz rather than the 16 Mhz as announced. Atari USA and Atari Corp both deny the story.

Atari USA is said to be looking at relocation sites in BOSTON as a place to move to from Sunnyvale, CA. Incoming manager Elie Kenan is being offered a free hand by the Tramiels, and is thought to be looking for a way to separate Atari USA and Atari Corp, now both based out of the same Sunnyvale building.

Additional layoffs occur at the line level at Atari, fueling relocation rumors.

A replacement for the SLM804 Atari laser printer is expected shortly. It will be a essentially a standard Epson unit, customized for Atari. The old SLM804 unit can no longer be obtained from the manufacturer.

The STe is troubled by recurring reports of loss of data when used with a hard drive. Some stores test and find their entire shipments will not operate with hard drives. Atari denies that it is a systematic or design problem, but agree to replace any units found to be inoperative regardless of age or having been opened for inspection.

A fraudulent FAX message purporting to be from Bob Brodie is received by MICHTRON and GADGETS BY SMALL, urging them to join a "boycott" of the WOA shows. Meanwhile, Atari reverses its decision and agrees to provide equipment as possible for the August WOA in San Jose.

AUGUST 1990:

San Jose WOA succeeds with a small but happy turnout of 1,500 people. Many Atari officials attend, including Sam and Leonard Tramiel and Elie Kenan. Atari supplies free equipment, but WOA refuses to participate in its safe return. Bob Brodie personally picks up the equipment and overhears promoter Richard Tsukiji discussing his plans to "have Brodie fired" from Atari.

Second quarter net income for Atari: $1.5 million.

Charles Cherry resigns from Atari. Developer projects are left partially on hold, and SoftSource is stalled while many developers ask for extensions of time to get the required submissions. Meanwhile, other developers complain that they got their materials to Atari on schedule and don't want the project delayed.

START MAGAZINE announces that they will skip their September issue, then join with ANTIC into a single, larger publication for October 1990 in a major redesign and rededication of the magazine.

Gordon Monnier of Michtron confirms that he has his company for sale. George Miller, Michtron's #2 man, leaves to join ABACUS, a book and software house in Michigan.

B. N. GENIUS, an upscale gadget store with a major mail order following, features the Portfolio on the cover of their national catalog. Atari dealers are concerned about losing business.

Atari attends GENCON in Milwaukee and provides major equipment and floor presence. About 10,000 visitors witness Atari as a major "player" in the gaming convention.

Frank Foster resigns from Atari in a mutual decision that leaves Atari without a leader of its MIDI support section.

42,000 (Yes, FORTY-TWO-THOUSAND) visitors attend an all-Atari show in Duesseldorf, Germany. The TT and ATW are major features, and developers from all over the world convene to maximize their sales potential.

Hong Kong's largest English magazine, the "NEW STRAITS TIMES", conducted a reader survey and 41.8% of the votes declared the Atari ST to be their choice for "Computer of the Decade". Second place went to the Commodore Amiga with only 5.2%, third was the Macintosh with 5.1%, tied with the IBM.

SEPTEMBER 1990:

Glendale has the largest Atari Show ever in the US measured by number of vendors, but turnout is a somewhat disappointing 2,500. The user-group show is supported by over $20,000 of advertising by Atari Corp, extensive equipment supplies, and a full house of Atari executives and employees visiting and hosting the Atari area of the floor. Leonard Tramiel personally participates in two seminars. New Manger of Atari USA, Canada, and France Elie Kenan meets and shares his plans for Atari in private meetings with each developer during the show and gets a unanimous if cautious "thumbs up" from them.

Atari formally announces new specs for the TT030 - it will be 32 Mhz after all, despite the denials, and will feature a new GEM desktop that looks similar to Gribnif's NEODESK 2 but is not related to it.

After a multi-party investigation, Richard Tsukiji is forced to admit in writing that the fraudulent FAX message that defamed WOA and ST World Magazine in Bob Brodie's name did in fact come from his own office at ST WORLD. Tsukiji adds it was sent by persons unknown at a time when he himself was out of the country. Dave Small resigns from ST WORLD staff in protest. ST WORLD magazine is announced to have been sold in mid summer to its staff for the sum of $1.00, but not to its editors who had expected to be given the magazine. They leave in protest.

The STe hard drive problem is fixed. Any existing STe computers should be checked for proper operation with a hard drive and returned for repair or exchange if they fail. Atari does not formally announce this event, as they do not concede to the fact that the problem existed in the first place.

ICD Inc. introduces ADSPEED, a 16 Mhz accelerator board for ST and MEGA computers that features faster operation and 100% compatibility with existing software. $300.

Gribnif starts sales of NEODESK 3, selling out at Glendale.

TALON is rumored to be considering the purchase of MICHTRON.

The Atari Elite, an organization of Atari owners in Pittsburgh, PA, threatens to sue as many as 33 persons, developers, and publications for allegedly defaming their group in news coverage and commentary about the PACE show in April. Z*NET and editor Ron Kovacs is among them. Elite's commercial software rental library is a major discussion point in allegations of organized or permissive piracy.

OCTOBER 1990:

WAACE holds its third DC ATARIFEST and attracts 2,000 people to a wide display of Atari and third party developers. Sales are in record numbers for attending vendors, and Atari provides similar backing to that of the Glendale show a month earlier. Elie Kenan again attends and meets with developers.

Bob Brodie meets with ELITE members at WAACE to attempt to resolve their concerns and stem their threatened lawsuits. No immediate solution seems at hand as the parties assume a standoff position.

Elie Kenan leaves Atari USA and Canada to return to Atari France. In the single most devastating blow to Atari morale in years, the departure of Kenan is met with disbelief and denial in the Atari community. Details are of course not released, but Kenan left after a meeting with Jack Tramiel immediately upon Kenan's return from Boston, where it is thought that he was choosing a relocation site for Atari. Greg Pratt, formerly in the Atari financial division, is named General Manager of Atari USA.

Jim Fisher, Atari's VP of Advertising and Marketing as well as the official editor for Atari Explorer Magazine, resigns in an decision unrelated to Kenan's departure.

Atari Canada now includes Neodesk 3.0 with every ST or STE sold.

A new color monitor to compliment the STE's stereo sound is released in Canada, tagged the SC1435. The monitor is not a re-structured SC1224 as was first thought but of a completely different design with a larger screen.

Both Fast Technology (Jim Allen) and Gadgets by Small (Dave Small) show 68030 boards INDEPENDENT from one another at WAACE since a splitup this summer. The COMPLETED Gadgets 030 board contained 8 megs of on-board RAM (boosting a Mega 4 to 12 megs of RAM total) as well as a 68882 math co-processor, all running at 18.4 mhz (it can run it up to a max of 33 Mhz). The board has TOS 1.6 on board, with Atari committed to licensing TOS 1.6 to Gadgets for use in the board. It can run 10.66 times the speed of the standard ST at 16 mhz - using most existing ST software. Price and availability cannot be set until Gadgets get quantity pricing on parts.

NOVEMBER 1990:

Atari Stock trades at prices as low as $1.75 on the American Exchange. This is down from a peak of nearly $20, only 18 months ago.

After a five year-long effort the Software Protection Association was pleased to see the passage of a bill that makes software rental (other than non- profit library loans) programs illegal. One hour and a half before Congress recessed to start campaigning for reelection, the so- called "software rental bill" was finally passed. The bill makes it illegal for companies to rent software in a manner that allows users to copy and keep the program then return the original disks and documentation for re-rental.

Computer Shopper Magazine, a 800 page monthly magazine that once covered all computers, drops regular Atari coverage. Amiga, Mac, and IBM remain.

START magazine announces that beginning in December, the Z*NET News Service will be included in every issue. START ONLINE replaces the dormant ANTIC ONLINE on CompuServe, offering reprints of articles and featured software.

A file called "TOS 2" circulates on private bulletin boards. The program provides an early version of the new TT Desktop which will operate on an ST. Atari reminds users both that the file is a STOLEN, PIRATED file that belongs to Atari, and that it is an early version that is known to be incomplete and unstable.

Atari says they will have the TT READY FOR SHIPPING by COMDEX, with retail pricing for the base TT030 (2 meg RAM and a 50 megabyte hard drive) of $2,995 plus either $450 for a multiresolution color monitor, or $999 for the new 19" monochrome monitor.

COMDEX arrives at Las Vegas, and Atari has the biggest booth yet. The MEGA/STe is introduced, featuring the TT look, LAN ports, 16 MHZ, built in hard drive, and the new TT desktop. Availability is planned for January, with new retail prices basing around $1,700 for 2meg RAM, 40 meg HD. The new monitors are shown, and a Scalable GDOS is demonstrated for imminent release. The TT030 is still shown but not available due to engineering changes that have prevented FCC testing. Most of the crowds pass up the ST line to see the Portfolio. MANY dealers ask to carry it, and some agree to offer the entire line. Eight bundles are announced, offering a variety of software with computers at savings over retail.

MICHTRON is sold to a Newark, Delaware company, who will take over support and sales for the remaining Michtron products. PC-SPEED and AT-SPEED are taken over by TALON, and the HIGHSOFT line is apparently being marketed by GoldLeaf.

MIGRAPH announces a Color Hand Scanner, to be available for the ST line in early 1991. It will require a minimum of 2 meg of RAM, and will benefit by the added speed of the Mega/STe or TT.

DECEMBER 1990:

Atari Corporation reports a third-quarter (ending Sept. 30, 1990) net income of barely over three million dollars on sales of $89 million, compared to a loss of $5 million on sales of $81 million for the same period last year. This year would have been a $3 million loss except for an offset of a $6 million gain from Atari repurchasing debentures at a favorable term. Net income per share is $.05.

Downscaling hits Atari magazines overseas as well as in the USA. ST WORLD (UK) drops its publishing schedule back to QUARTERLY releases.

An Atari emulator for the Amiga computer continues to draw comment and fire as it develops. Purporting to be "public domain", the file "ATARI1" (now in general BBS distribution worldwide) includes illegal copies of TOS and GEM internally. Reports are that the thing actually works, at speeds up to half of that of an Atari, although desk accessories do not work, and many, even most common programs do not operate. Screen appearance is also said to be very poor. Atari's stance continues to be that this file is a violation of Atari's copyrights, and that distribution will not be permitted.

Atari's new MEGA/STe passes the FCC testing as a Type B (Consumer) product, and will begin US distribution as soon as mid-January. This marks the first time in memory that ANY Atari product has been approved for consumer release within 30 days of the first product announcement.

The TT030 machine begins shipping to US dealers as a TYPE A COMMERCIAL USE device. The price for the base unit, a 2 MEG RAM, 50 MEG hard drive device, is still $2,995. Only VARs (Value Added Resellers) and "qualified dealers" can get the TT, and must send Atari a letter assuring that the machines will not be sold to consumer, residential users.

Antonio Salerno, Vice President - Applications for Atari Corporation, resigns. Salerno had been in charge of efforts to persuade major software companies to bring their well known products to the Atari line, and had less than dramatic success.

James Grunke, technical man for the super group BEACH BOYS, is to leave the band to replace Frank Foster at Atari as the Music Industry Representative and MIDI promoter. James will begin work on January 1, 1991.

Formerly of NEOCEPT, makers of the powerful WORD UP graphic word processor for the Atari, programmer Mike Fulton is hired and begins work in Atari's customer and developer support area. This fuels earlier speculation that Atari may eventually buy and support Word Up as an Atari brand product.

Dennis Hayes, the Cincinnati resident who pleaded guilty in late October to selling more then 5,000 copies of pirates MacIntosh ROMS, many of them to Atari users for MAC emulation, is sentenced to 5 years in prison.

Until December 31, 1990, Atari Canada offers a $450.00 trade in on any 520 or 1040 towards a new Atari TT. Trade in machines will be refurbished and given to charity or used in an educational program. U.S. customers wishing more information can call (604) 275-7944.

THE FUTURE...

If 1990 was the Year of Atari, what will 1991 be? While there is reason for optimism in the new products and new staff at Atari, users and developers continue to leave the fold for apparently greener fields of MACs and 386 clones. Others are holding the course, hoping for better days ahead within the Atari line.

What will come next for or from Atari? It is clear that the most outside interest is now being generated by the Portfolio and the LYNX. While we ST types may feel left out, it is just as clear by recent events that Atari intends to build and support the ST/TT platform for some years to come... and if that support is funded in part by sales of the MS-DOS style Portfolio and the game consoles, so be it.

New products to come? There is considerable talk about a new 68000 based game machine called the PANTHER. This is NOT expected to be an ST compatible or any derivation of the existing lineup. When? Maybe mid- '91. And what about the Unix-compatible TT with multiple slots? This was known as the TT/X (eXpandable) as compared to the TT/D (Desktop) machine in press information gone by... but has the concept also gone by? A smaller, cheaper version of the LYNX handheld game unit is also still being promised... for SOMETIME. A new remodeled STacy is also rumoured in 1991.

We have no firm predictions to offer for what will or will not eventually come in 1991. But here's hoping that we will all be here a year from now, wondering about '92!

Happy New Year (of Atari) From All Of Us At Z*NET!



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