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Mark Wright

Yet another thread about the fate of the Atari 8-bit in the UK

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I certainly think disposable income played its part. The market for high end machines in the UK was far smaller imho. In addition I think there was another factor, I completely missed the growth of the PC compatible market for a long time and in the UK many small businesses didn't use PC Clones but 8-bit micros.

 

 

 

A good point! I know the Dean of a national university who used to run what would today be called 'Human Resources' entirely from a 48K spectrum with the actual staff data stored on Microdrive! I finally got my first Spectrum 48K from him in 1989 - including a green Clarks shoebox full of literally more than a hundred Microdrive tapes! - when he moved up in the world to an Amstrad CPC with a genuine, if 3'' disc drive. He finally gave in to the PC revolution in late 1992.

 

At no point however did he use an Atari...

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Ultimately I think Atari was ahead of its time. Had it struck ten years later, rounded the curve of the late-eighties/early-nighties and found the mindset which Nintendo and Comprehensive school A3000's had helped create it would have done much better. Which of course is exactly what happened with the 486/Pentium era PC coupled to a 14k fax modem - and the rest is history.

 

I think initially at least Atari with the ST and Commodore with the Amiga did achieve a lot of that. I was in the the last years of 'O' level along with the disruption of teachers strikes meaning in one case some of us teaching ourselves pascal! For those interested in computing it was more a case of been motivated and self taught.

 

Secondary School had an odd range of machines from TRS-80's in the computing classes to Nascom's in Microelectronics. I had an Amiga 500 which I used for College work, and it was relatively easy to transfer work to the primitive DOS computers. I remember been particularly shocked by how primitive Windows 3.1 was when shown it by another student :)

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I think initially at least Atari with the ST and Commodore with the Amiga did achieve a lot of that. I was in the the last years of 'O' level along with the disruption of teachers strikes meaning in one case some of us teaching ourselves pascal! For those interested in computing it was more a case of been motivated and self taught.

 

Secondary School had an odd range of machines from TRS-80's in the computing classes to Nascom's in Microelectronics. I had an Amiga 500 which I used for College work, and it was relatively easy to transfer work to the primitive DOS computers. I remember been particularly shocked by how primitive Windows 3.1 was when shown it by another student :)

 

It is an interesting point to consider a market Atari never once attempted to enter - schools. At least I never heard of them doing so.

 

I personally came totally cold to the concept of a GUI one week of so called 'social education' in my fourth year, which I actually spent scrambling to learn how to use an 'Archimedes' via RISCOS and then in turn teach it to junior school pupils. I had never even seen, much less used a desktop operating system so I suppose it is significant of the metaphor's strength that I could load up files and programmes within an hour of being handed the mouse. However, when I then about three years later got my first PC - with Win3.1 - I was horrified in a similar manner to yourself by how primitive, unpleasant and slow it was to use in comparison to RISCOS 3.

 

I really think, given Atari emphasis on styling, brand unity in peripherals and technical compatibility that they did not at least try to go for the education market. It kept ARM going through most of the 1990's, despite their complete failure to compete in the business world via the obscenely priced RISCPC.

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The closest Atari got to educating the kiddies was with their Atari Summer Computer Camp program. Very successful for a few years. Like everything Atari, they cheaped out. The "Cheap doesn't pay" article is infamous. They also had roving buses with workstations set up (during the 400/800 era) complete with monitors, printers, etc. Those were nice. Of course, they had a deal with Dorsett Educational Systems (Norman, OK) for Talk and Teach tapes. Those were/are pretty good. Atari did not want to give away anything (like Apple did to get into the schools). Probably very short-sided. However, Atari was never good about sticking to their promises. Promises to deliver on time to retailers. Promises to deliver certain software. Promises to support their various platforms. All promises broken. They did make some cool sh(T though.

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The modern archetype of the child who sits in his bedroom and plays console games did not exist; again in my experience of Yorkshire at least.

It didn't exist in the US either. Remember all the earliest hardwired home video games were 2 player (or some multi-player) as were most of the early Atari 2600 games (including the original pack-in Combat). They were fun for the kids or often: fun for the whole family. Not really a far stretch from watching TV together or playing board games or cards. (it's also the environment I grew up in and one of the reasons retro games/computers interest me -the collaborative/competitive social play aspect; come to think of it it was my parents who got ME interested in games and have computers and game consoles for themselves first, kid(s) second -at least at first)

 

And of course, the home computer angle usually had education (including programming) and home accounting utility thrown in for both the kids and parents. (regardless of how often that actually worked out)

 

There's still the sheer monetary cost impacting things on top of everything else, and that was the most consistently different from the US at the time. (in the broad sense at least -huge country with many distinct regions and all ... might as well compare the entirety of Western Europe at the time)

 

 

 

Along comes something that is already niche and hits this very unimaginative, stagnant society and... what? The miner who has been on strike for 12 months already is going to buy his kiddie one? The kiddie himself is going to have more interest in 'playing' the Atari than playing football? I genuinely think the American market was far more mentally flexible, more adventurous and looking for something new.

In the case of average, high population, typical trend setting regions on the east and west coasts, yes ... maybe the midwest and certain parts of the South too but that's a bit iffy (population centers yes, but cultural trends -and culture in general- tend to lag a good bit across the board there, probably moreso then than now -again on average ... many of these regions are huge -California, Texas, and New York might as well be treated as individual countries). It's really a hard generalization to make and I'm pretty sure there was plenty of small-town America far closer to the close-minded home/family/local life mindset around too ... probably greater in sheer numbers than Europe too, just a much smaller percentage of the overall population and market. (and often outside the target market entirely -in terms of demographic and income level, etc)

 

 

But conservative minded household (or region) or not, the overall economic situation tended to be better in the 80s timeframe in question. (late 70s might be a different story, including the early years of the 2600's market life -when it was also rather expensive)

 

 

 

 

As far as Atari in the price-sensitive UK/Europe went, aside from the 8-bit computer line, the 2600 itself had the problem of using ROM carts and generally not being cost effective enough to really fit in either. Aside from a Starpath Supercharger style add-on, they could also have done one better and made a cheap, 2600 derived/compatible rudimentary computer system. (swap the 6507 for a 6502 with some added RAM ... and an expansion port and you might have a ZX-80/81 competitor with more limited text capabilities -MAYBE 20 column- but more capable game abilities with SOUND and COLOUR! ) You could use the existing controller I/O lines for a keyboard and disable them when using joysticks. (or if you didn't care about 2600 compatibility, you'd have some additional flexibility with RIOT's I/O lines normally used for the 26oo's switchboard) RIOT's interval timer connected to the 6502's interrupt line could allow for more flexible timing than the beam-racing arrangement of the VCS too. (or rather, you'd still need to race the beam, but you could set the timer to more easily let the CPU free-run in vblank without going out of sync with video -somewhat like the ZX81 did)

 

Using a standard analog casette input for data rather than requiring a dedicated drive (as with the 8-bit computers) would be more attractive too. Honestly, a computer like that could probably be more appealing than the VIC-20 for games as well. (it also would have been a very lazy and cheap way to create a VCS successor too ... though in the US market it'd probably be backwards compatible, cart-based and have a keyboard as an accessory -also wouldn't 'beat' the Colecovision, but it'd be cheap, quick to engineer, and arguably superior to the Intellivision ... and have prettier colors than the CV)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I certainly think disposable income played its part. The market for high end machines in the UK was far smaller imho. In addition I think there was another factor, I completely missed the growth of the PC compatible market for a long time and in the UK many small businesses didn't use PC Clones but 8-bit micros.

Plus, anyone who wanted to go beyond those 8-bit micros had the ST and Amiga to work with. (more likely the ST) It wasn't until CBM and Atari Corp left the computer market (and/or went bankrupt) that PCs really took over. Even with Atari struggling as they were in 1992, I wonder how Europe might have faired if they'd opted to keep trying with computers rather than pile everything into the Jaguar. (the MEGA STe and Falcon weren't bad machines at all, and the Falcon 040 would have been very interesting to see make it to market, especially with CBM folding in 1994)

 

Granted, the Falcon itself would have been more impressive if they'd employed Flair's engineering in its graphics/sound upgrades, and likely better integrated and cheaper than what Atari did -embedded Flair DSP rather than the more costly Motorola one, among other things; backwards compatibility is a burden to work around efficiently, but those guys are awesome engineers and Martin Brennan had been working with Atari since 1989 ... shame he was pulled in to work on PANTHER rather than the TT/ST chipsets or both: a more short-term/simple project than the Jaguar ready in time for the Falcon AND a new console in 1992. (probably closer to the specs of Flair's parallel Slipstream 2 project) http://www.konixmultisystem.co.uk/index.php?id=downloads (see Slipstream Rev4 Reference Guide 3.3)

 

 

 

 

edit:

 

 

 

It is an interesting point to consider a market Atari never once attempted to enter - schools. At least I never heard of them doing so.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=2N2BUTIpnDI#t=119

 

They were at least trying to break into the education market in 1987. Not sure if that applies to the UK/European end of things though. (those American companies wouldn't be a threat there ... Tandy, Apple, IBM ... but BBC/Acorn and Commodore would be)

Edited by kool kitty89

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It didn't exist in the US either. Remember all the earliest hardwired home video games were 2 player (or some multi-player) as were most of the early Atari 2600 games (including the original pack-in Combat). They were fun for the kids or often: fun for the whole family. Not really a far stretch from watching TV together or playing board games or cards. (it's also the environment I grew up in and one of the reasons retro games/computers interest me -the collaborative/competitive social play aspect; come to think of it it was my parents who got ME interested in games and have computers and game consoles for themselves first, kid(s) second -at least at first)

 

And of course, the home computer angle usually had education (including programming) and home accounting utility thrown in for both the kids and parents. (regardless of how often that actually worked out)

 

There's still the sheer monetary cost impacting things on top of everything else, and that was the most consistently different from the US at the time. (in the broad sense at least -huge country with many distinct regions and all ... might as well compare the entirety of Western Europe at the time)

 

 

In the case of average, high population, typical trend setting regions on the east and west coasts, yes ... maybe the midwest and certain parts of the South too but that's a bit iffy (population centers yes, but cultural trends -and culture in general- tend to lag a good bit across the board there, probably moreso then than now -again on average ... many of these regions are huge -California, Texas, and New York might as well be treated as individual countries). It's really a hard generalization to make and I'm pretty sure there was plenty of small-town America far closer to the close-minded home/family/local life mindset around too ... probably greater in sheer numbers than Europe too, just a much smaller percentage of the overall population and market. (and often outside the target market entirely -in terms of demographic and income level, etc)

 

 

But conservative minded household (or region) or not, the overall economic situation tended to be better in the 80s timeframe in question. (late 70s might be a different story, including the early years of the 2600's market life -when it was also rather expensive)

 

 

 

 

As far as Atari in the price-sensitive UK/Europe went, aside from the 8-bit computer line, the 2600 itself had the problem of using ROM carts and generally not being cost effective enough to really fit in either. Aside from a Starpath Supercharger style add-on, they could also have done one better and made a cheap, 2600 derived/compatible rudimentary computer system. (swap the 6507 for a 6502 with some added RAM ... and an expansion port and you might have a ZX-80/81 competitor with more limited text capabilities -MAYBE 20 column- but more capable game abilities with SOUND and COLOUR! ) You could use the existing controller I/O lines for a keyboard and disable them when using joysticks. (or if you didn't care about 2600 compatibility, you'd have some additional flexibility with RIOT's I/O lines normally used for the 26oo's switchboard) RIOT's interval timer connected to the 6502's interrupt line could allow for more flexible timing than the beam-racing arrangement of the VCS too. (or rather, you'd still need to race the beam, but you could set the timer to more easily let the CPU free-run in vblank without going out of sync with video -somewhat like the ZX81 did)

 

Using a standard analog casette input for data rather than requiring a dedicated drive (as with the 8-bit computers) would be more attractive too. Honestly, a computer like that could probably be more appealing than the VIC-20 for games as well. (it also would have been a very lazy and cheap way to create a VCS successor too ... though in the US market it'd probably be backwards compatible, cart-based and have a keyboard as an accessory -also wouldn't 'beat' the Colecovision, but it'd be cheap, quick to engineer, and arguably superior to the Intellivision ... and have prettier colors than the CV)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus, anyone who wanted to go beyond those 8-bit micros had the ST and Amiga to work with. (more likely the ST) It wasn't until CBM and Atari Corp left the computer market (and/or went bankrupt) that PCs really took over. Even with Atari struggling as they were in 1992, I wonder how Europe might have faired if they'd opted to keep trying with computers rather than pile everything into the Jaguar. (the MEGA STe and Falcon weren't bad machines at all, and the Falcon 040 would have been very interesting to see make it to market, especially with CBM folding in 1994)

 

Granted, the Falcon itself would have been more impressive if they'd employed Flair's engineering in its graphics/sound upgrades, and likely better integrated and cheaper than what Atari did -embedded Flair DSP rather than the more costly Motorola one, among other things; backwards compatibility is a burden to work around efficiently, but those guys are awesome engineers and Martin Brennan had been working with Atari since 1989 ... shame he was pulled in to work on PANTHER rather than the TT/ST chipsets or both: a more short-term/simple project than the Jaguar ready in time for the Falcon AND a new console in 1992. (probably closer to the specs of Flair's parallel Slipstream 2 project) http://www.konixmultisystem.co.uk/index.php?id=downloads (see Slipstream Rev4 Reference Guide 3.3)

 

 

 

 

edit:

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=2N2BUTIpnDI#t=119

 

They were at least trying to break into the education market in 1987. Not sure if that applies to the UK/European end of things though. (those American companies wouldn't be a threat there ... Tandy, Apple, IBM ... but BBC/Acorn and Commodore would be)

 

An absolutely excellent and amazingly well researched post kool kitty89!!! Fascinating to read.

 

Again, I can only speak for my own area - heavily, heavily retrenched and stubborn in its refusal to look at the future. Price certainly was a concern but I genuinely do not think it was the pre-eminent part that some are assuming, at least not around me. There was money to be had, before the strikes and pit closures the miners were always massively envied for their wages by the largely textile-workers in my valley. Right or wrongly we saw them as the 'lords of the working class' with cash to burn. Before the mill apocalypse of the very early eighties there was also a sizeable strand of mill employees in the 'boss tuner' level and up who could certainly have paid for an 800 if they wanted to. But... It was really more about the mentality. As late as 1988 I recall a history teacher of mine - an amazingly well educated and intelligent man - referring to computers as 'fiddle-games'. That really encapsulates it. There just was no interest, not even the pseudo-acceptance of the 'computer nerd'. Computers belonged to 'namby-pamby' southern university types; 'don't you go getting those ideas'. And this was from my father, an ex-airman who had worked for IBM throughout the sixties! Somehow, despite this climate the Spectrum was slightly more... respectable I think; more 'doing electronics' than 'playing with the computer'. IN a way I think you could say that Atari was too successful in making its offering part of the entertainment fabric, their styling and market positioning was too slick and consumerized. They were seen purely as belonging to that market and if consumer gear on the scale of the A8's were to be bought it was going to be a 'stacker' high-fi system or a huge 21'' TV to watch "Canon and Ball"...

 

I don't know. I can only speak for what I experienced. At the end of the day I am convinced it was the schools and increasingly information-oriented management that turned things around. As I have said, the ARM machines prepared a good slice of children to be entertained by computers and then their upper-working and middle-class parents were forced to do a lot of their work on a computer as well; buying a PC for home was almost a necessity and that was the flash point.

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Price was certainly a part of it. When I bought my 400 in I think 1981, I had to take out a loan as it was 3 x my monthly salary for the 400 with 32k upgrade and 410. The 850 was another 2 month's pay a year later. A single game was 25% of a months' pay. I effectively spent 6 months income on a 400 and 850...

 

Oddly, most people I knew with computers had Atari's. There was one Apple II guy and one ZX81. The other 4 people had 800's, 3 with 850's. Probably due to the local Maplins putting on a good show and having stacks of software, add ons etc.

 

As far as magazines goes, it was a bit later but C&VG gave it pretty good coverage and there were articles in several other magazines reasonably regularly including a few oddballs that never seemed to last more than half a dozen issues. I also used to get Creative Computing and other American magazines/

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IN a way I think you could say that Atari was too successful in making its offering part of the entertainment fabric, their styling and market positioning was too slick and consumerized. They were seen purely as belonging to that market and if consumer gear on the scale of the A8's were to be bought it was going to be a 'stacker' high-fi system or a huge 21'' TV to watch "Canon and Ball"...

 

I don't know. I can only speak for what I experienced. At the end of the day I am convinced it was the schools and increasingly information-oriented management that turned things around. As I have said, the ARM machines prepared a good slice of children to be entertained by computers and then their upper-working and middle-class parents were forced to do a lot of their work on a computer as well; buying a PC for home was almost a necessity and that was the flash point.

 

From that standpoint, from home computers of any sort being treated as toys and game machines (at a time when not necessary for business use, at least locally) then it would indeed be down even more to being appealing as a pure entertainment device and not some pie in the sky gateway to knowledge (for better or worse). And in that sense, I'd assume families who did condone electronic games in leu of more traditional stuff would've gone for something cheaper and more common like the VCS/2600 itself. Hell, given the fact a lot of MORE complex computer games were single-player anyway and it was those simplistic pick up and play sorts of console/arcade style games that more easily favored family interactive play (especially with limited attention spans or patience to learn more complex interfaces or rule sets) it'd lend to the 2600 even more. ROM sizes of games were often smaller (cheaper) on the VCS than A8 even early on, so there was a price gap there even short of allowing tape based software.

 

The VCS certainly seems like a much more family-inclusive sort of 'toy' than the ZX81 or spectrum without joystick interface plugged in for that matter.

 

 

The price-sensitive issue discussed earlier would be more in regions/households where the technology was more readily accepted or appealing. (and more so as time went on given the shifting economic situation) Computers aside, a Starpath Supercharger style cart for the VCS seems like it would have been far more significant in the UK and parts of Europe than it was in the US. (a cheap VCS-derived computer to compete with the bottom end of the market is a bit of a separate topic with different merits in that case -Atari/Warner failing to realize the significance of the low-end markets in the US was a problem in that context, let alone Europe ... going with the deluxe/expensive route with the 5200 while also canceling the 600 computer in favor of the more costly 1200XL alone to replace the older 400 and 800)

 

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The VCS certainly seems like a much more family-inclusive sort of 'toy' than the ZX81 or spectrum without joystick interface plugged in for that matter.

The VCS was more expensive to run though, one cartridge cost more than half a dozen tape-based games so the price factor kicks in. That and we couldn't use the line about wanting it to help with our homework to sell parents on the idea, the BBC's computer literacy project made it at least look like we all needed a computer.

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The VCS was more expensive to run though, one cartridge cost more than half a dozen tape-based games so the price factor kicks in. That and we couldn't use the line about wanting it to help with our homework to sell parents on the idea, the BBC's computer literacy project made it at least look like we all needed a computer.

 

I was referring to a VCS based console/computer with enough RAM to allow tape based games OR a stock VCS + Starpath Supercharger style cart. (produced by Atari since we're talking about how Atari could have better catered to the market, though it's a little odd that no popular 3rd party peripherals of the sort developed).

 

The main idea was less a VCS add-on and more a VCS alternative using almost the same hardware and with very similar base capabilities to the ZX81 or VIC-20 but cheaper than the latter and better for games than either. Just swap the 6507 for a 6502C + 1/2/4k of RAM (if we're talking 1980, probably 1k like the Z80/81) and use software driven 20 column text modes along with VCS style games and RAM expansion support. Put a bit more R&D time into it and they could've used DRAM instead and gone with 8 or 16k base memory. (probably more realistic to do like the ZX81 and go with 1k onboard -or maybe 2k in '81 as 2k SRAMs were getting cheap- and stick DRAM interface circuitry onto an external RAM pack like some ZX81 and VIC-20 expansions did -preferably with better thermal design considerations than the ZX81's RAM packs)

 

Added RAM and a CPU with halt and interrupt functionality adds a lot of potential beyond just memory to load from tape and do so at very low cost for the time (remember the VCS was designed with 1976/77 market constraints). The main tradeoff would be for only 2k or 1k configurations given (aside from multi-load games) you'd mostly be more limited than ROM based games at the time. At 4k you should be better off than games using 4k ROM and better than a lot of 8k bank-switched games. (and unlike the Starpath Supercharger, you've got a more elegant conventional read/write line to RAM AND the ability to halt the CPU to pause or force wait states -is using DRAM for example- AND you have interrupt lines useful for expansion or at very least with RIOT -timer interrupts could be used to greatly simplify and enhance CPU coordination with TIA and require less meticulously timed code and easier room for free cycles to work in Vblank and in Hblank when not setting up sprites )

 

Lots and lots of added techniques and tricks when you have those few (fairly cheap) added features thrown in. (also a good hack for a VCS replacement in leu of the 1000X/Sylvia/3200 design cancellation ... IF Atari had recognized the price sensitivity of the console market rather than feeling the deluxe high-end angle was ideal as per the 5200's execution in place of the 3200 -the 'hacked VCS' wouldn't be amazing but it'd be enough to even things out a lot more with the Colecovision and pull out further head of the Intellivision -obviously for the US market they'd stick with carts ... the US was still LESS price sensitive than Europe, just not so much so to make the 5200's target market a good idea when they could have had VCS + SuperVCS + 400/600 + 800/1200 to fill pretty much all market sectors)

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A VCS computer hack wouldn't compete with the Vic20 even if it contained a built in supercharger, and it would be more expensive than the zx80 ( let alone the zx81 )

There should have been low cost versions of the 400 at that time, ( something like the 5200 board with a cheap keyboard )

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The answer to the expensive price of new games - whether it be cartridge based or cassette?

 

Would be the sudden pop up of hire clubs as such. I did take advantage of a software library for Atari 400/800 games at the time. I can imagine they would be popular fulfilling a need.

Of course I can imagine the software companies disliking the presence of these clubs which will allow/enable it's members to

copy the software they hire. Which I did, seeing I did not have the funds to purchase new games regularly at high retail prices.

 

The UK I would guess started that trend towards very cheap computers for home use - and I'm always very surprised that the purchasers would be happy with the machine they bought? ie. ZX-81, Spectrum and Vic-20?

The appearance of the C-64 being the first of the decent specced low price home computer - and likewise conquered the world because of it's price and performance. The Atari XL/XE series following this trend/market.

 

Harvey

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While I can't agree to the notion the Speccy being indecently specced for the time (considering there were games such as Starglider and R-Type on it), I always felt the pre-+2/+3 models felt "incomplete" lacking Joystick ports, RGB out, a good keyboard and/or a sound chip (although I have an original Clive Sinclair era 128K myself, plus a RamTurbo Joystick/cartridge(!) interface to cope with the lacking joystick ports of the machine).

 

I have to agree with CrazyAce that an Atari 400/600 style low-cost computer (perhaps a 600 with a Bit 90 style rubber keyboard) would have helped Atari accessing the entry-level market.

 

The approach of computerized VCSes has been tried by Bit Corporation with the Bit 60 and that machine was not exactly a success (BTW the Bit 90 was a Colecovision compatible home computer that also failed in the market) - presumably due to the lack of RAM in the standard configuration (both only had 2K, though the German advertisement I saw for these claimed the Bit 90 having 18K, but as we all know, the TI graphics chip found in these "MSX 0.5" and MSX 1 machines needs 16K VRAM which can not be used for program code).

 

 

 

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I did take advantage of a software library for Atari 400/800 games at the time. I can imagine they would be popular fulfilling a need.

Of course I can imagine the software companies disliking the presence of these clubs which will allow/enable it's members to

copy the software they hire. Which I did, seeing I did not have the funds to purchase new games regularly at high retail prices.

Most UK companies at least had a notice somewhere on the inlay prohibiting "unauthorised copying, lending or hiring" because, from the publishers' point of view at least, there wasn't much of a difference; all of the people borrowing or hiring games weren't paying money to the people who actually made them even if they didn't copy the games. The rental companies didn't report how well the games were doing, so only the actual sales counted towards which machines got support.

 

The UK I would guess started that trend towards very cheap computers for home use - and I'm always very surprised that the purchasers would be happy with the machine they bought? ie. ZX-81, Spectrum and Vic-20?

Folks were happy with what they had, it's as simple as that. But it did help that all of those machines had some excellent games and spawned developers who would become industry legends; from a UK perspective, Jeff Minter started programming commercially on the VIC 20, the seminal Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy were "born" on the Spectrum and i've yet to meet anyone who played 3D Monster Maze on the ZX81 and didn't have something positive to say. My first computer was a VIC and, along with teaching myself BASIC and then some 6502, i played Jet Pac, Metagalactic Llamas, Wunda Walter and many others.

Edited by TMR

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While I can't agree to the notion the Speccy being indecently specced for the time (considering there were games such as Starglider and R-Type on it), I always felt the pre-+2/+3 models felt "incomplete" lacking Joystick ports, RGB out, a good keyboard and/or a sound chip (although I have an original Clive Sinclair era 128K myself, plus a RamTurbo Joystick/cartridge(!) interface to cope with the lacking joystick ports of the machine).

Yep, should have had versions with integrated joysticks and sound chip sooner (the AY1910 -or compatible YM2149- covered both sound and two 8-bit I/O ports easily useful for Atari style joysticks with some extra lines in reserve for other things -or for providing more than 1 button). That or just having the full Spectrum 128k out sooner (really made more sense for Sinclair than the QL) or go a bit further and throw in a faster Z80 (6 or 7 MHz) and double res mode. (7 MHz or exactly double the Speccy's approximate 3.5 MHz would be good for a 640 pixel wide display useful for 80 column text and a CP/M or DOS-like OS and still be way cheaper than the QL ... don't even change the ULA that much, just disable color in highres mode for decently clear monochrome text even through RF -provided the modulator and cable are decent- ... composite video out would be good too, RGB less necessary for the time outside of maybe France)

 

With the existing 32 attribute cells and 256 pixel wide res mode, doubling the bit-depth without messing with the attribute memory (or even the simple RGBI palette) could at least allow halfbright colors in a 2bpp bitmap + 32x24 attribute matrix. (2 colors of 2 shades per cell, nicer if the halfbright values went beyond the 4-bit RGBI -double the existing shades- but limiting it to the basic 15 colors/shades alone would still be pretty useful, and allow 4 shade monochrome games too) A half-res (128 or 160 pixel wide) 15 color mode would be useful for some things too. Or even stick with the 3.5 MHz Z80 and just upgrade the sound, graphics, memory, and I/O using an interleaved memory model with minimal CPU waits. (maybe throw in some hardware DMA functionality to speed things up)

 

Anything close to that range of features would've made the Spectrum much more useful for business purposes like the QL aimed to be, but cheaper and backwards compatible. (and better for games -the joystick ports could be used as general purpose 8-bit parallel ports too, especially if the full 8 I/O lines were used per port -using DIN-9 ports without the POT or 5V lines, just 8 I/O lines and ground)

 

Something like that might have kept Sinclair going much better than they historically had, no Amstrad buyout, no departure of the Flare (Loki) team and potential for the Spectrum to evolve into something close to the Flare 1 chipset of 1987, or the slipstream of 1989. (sticking with a fast Z80 or Z180 in place of that 8088/8086 would be cheaper and better for a lot of things anyway)

 

 

 

 

I have to agree with CrazyAce that an Atari 400/600 style low-cost computer (perhaps a 600 with a Bit 90 style rubber keyboard) would have helped Atari accessing the entry-level market.

Yep, definitely, but I think I've gone over the various possibilities on this multiple times already. (simplest/earliest option would've been a single-board 16k Atari 400 in 1980 IMO, no FCC-standard RF shielding, same membrane keyboard, same RF only output, single Atari 800 style RAM/expansion slot at the back or an even cheaper/simpler PCB edge connector instead more like the PBI port or Spectrum expansion connector)

 

 

 

The approach of computerized VCSes has been tried by Bit Corporation with the Bit 60 and that machine was not exactly a success (BTW the Bit 90 was a Colecovision compatible home computer that also failed in the market) - presumably due to the lack of RAM in the standard configuration (both only had 2K, though the German advertisement I saw for these claimed the Bit 90 having 18K, but as we all know, the TI graphics chip found in these "MSX 0.5" and MSX 1 machines needs 16K VRAM which can not be used for program code).

The Bit 60 is pretty much what I had in mind, except 2+ years earlier and an official Atari product. (and much better marketed/supported)

 

It'd probably be cheaper and simpler to not included VCS compatibility and possibly preferable depending how Atari wanted to divide up their market. (avoiding VCS compatibility means no need of the cart slot, cheaper and more useful edge connector expansion port instead, and using RIOT lines for keyboard mapping without conflicts with the existing VCS switch arrangement)

 

By 1983, you'd want 16k at the very least, and a DRAM controller rather than SRAM. (the 1 or 2 KB base memory scenarios would be SRAM as per the ZX80 and 81) With a built-in BASIC+character/sprite font ROM, you could also make a LOT more of that base 1-2 kB for games. (say a single 8k ROM onboard, maybe including a built-in game too)

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Ammendment to the comments on the ZX Spectrum video modes:

The Speccy's existing memory timing would have already allowed double the resolution for monochrome (each 8 pixel segment needs 2 bytes, 1 for pixels, 1 for attributes, so mono would be 2 bytes for pixels instead). So the ULA/gate array handling video would just need to be fast enough to handle a 14 MHz dot clock rather than 7 MHz and extend the framebuffer address beyond 32 bytes per line. (64 bytes for 512 pixels, or 80 bytes for 640 pixels -the latter's what you want for a decently fast 80 column bitmap text display -even with a simple blitter/DMA copy that's faster than the Z80, working on byte boundaries would be faster/easier and better looking)

 

This same issue applies to the C64 and A8 as well, while the Amstrad CPC uses similar memory timing to the C64 but only supports framebuffer modes at double the resolution/bit-depth of the C64's char modes.

 

Also, the 640x200 (80x25 text) monochrome mode would fit in really well with a 16k bank-switching scheme. (bank the entire screen memory in or out of the CPU's memory map; a dual 16k bank system like the 130XE uses would be nice too, but a simple single 16k paging system would be cheaper/simpler)

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I wasn't in the UK in the 1980's. I was a student up in college. I was also in the local Atari pirate group.

 

For me and the rest of the pack it wasn't so much the cost of software but rather, it was the game of "copy the software that couldn't be copied". It became a game of wits between the programmers copy protection schemes and our innovations to crack the code. On two different occasions I did soldering inside my 1050 to make it possible to copy that which couldn't be copied. I had two Happy equipped drives and one Duplicator drive.

 

I remember one disk that had like 235 sectors on track one. For reading this track the drive could take multiple turns to read the single track. However, for writing, the drive had to write the entire track in one turn of the disk. To help the drive do this feat, we slowed the drive down to 44 RPM.

 

I had a lot of software that was nothing but shelfware. I think that in reality there were only about 25 games that we played a lot. It amazed me at what crappy software some companies thought was even worth marketing.

 

After all the software companies said they were no longer doing Atari software releases, I got the idea that our little game had killed our computer. I moved on to the IBM 80-16 and never pirated any software for it. And I guess the software companies got the clue that they had engaged in a game that they couldn't win and software copy protection seemed to disappear. I like being able to make backups.

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I wasn't in the UK in the 1980's. I was a student up in college. I was also in the local Atari pirate group.

 

For me and the rest of the pack it wasn't so much the cost of software but rather, it was the game of "copy the software that couldn't be copied". It became a game of wits between the programmers copy protection schemes and our innovations to crack the code. One two different occasions I did soldering inside my 1050 to make it possible to copy that which couldn't be copied. I had two Happy equipped drives and one Duplicator drive.

 

I remember one disk that had like 235 sectors on track one. For reading this track the drive could take all spins it needed to read the single track. However, for writing, the drive had to write the entire track in one turn of the disk. To help the drive do this feat, we slowed the drive down to 44 RPM.

 

I had a lot of software that was nothing but shelfware. I think that in reality there were only about 25 games that we played a lot. It amazed me at what crap software companies thought was worth paying for.

One of the issues there, on the programmer and publisher end was (and still is) 'is it worth the effort and cost' and 'will we actually lose money if we don't employ it' and perhaps more importantly: 'is it worth the cost of convenience to the end users' (once you get into copy protection schemes that become a tangible hassle for the end users) ... of course then and perhaps much more now you get most of the practical ends of that totally overshadowed by politics and market psychology (especially good ol' FUD -hardly limited to copy-protection/piracy issues), at least for the larger publishers and developers. (smaller/independent studios or self-published start-up stuff tend to more often be the exceptions there)

That said, custom disk formats and encryption schemes are one of the nicer all-around solutions there given they often also allow increased data capacity for optimized read-only disk formats (easier to do on some machines than others, and PC/MS-DOS was fiddlier with that than the ST or Amiga iirc. I'm not sure if any CD-ROM based games did this, at least for that reason, but I know some software used mode 2 data for the increased datarate (close to pure CD-DA) at the expense of error correction. (once CD-Rs became affordable, copying discs like that would be finicky, but the original discs would also be much more sensitive to scratches and other physical flaws causing read errors) I think VCDs used that as well, or something similar and had similar problems because of it.

 

Of course, Sega's GD-ROM format had similar high capacity custom formatting advantages (without licensing Sony's DD-CD format or going for far more costly DVD) and SHOULD have been super secure for similar reasons and it took an oversight in the Dreamcast's hardware design/configuration (exploit allowing discs to be read and data output through the modem interface iirc) that allowed copying/dumping of the data. (and hacking games to fit onto standard 700 MB CD-Rs) That combined with the system's ability to boot CD-ROMs as games. (they easily could have made security checks tighter earlier on, but the idea was that GD-ROMs wouldn't be copied at all ... or at least not within the system's primary market lifespan -the latter worked rather well for Nintendo's custom formatting on the GC ... not so much for using the same scheme years later on the Wii )

 

To be fair, the latter case was nearly all political/psychological as well ... more FUD (which Sega already had problems with), less practical piracy threats. (DC piracy never reached the levels the Playstation was already dealing with at the time)

 

 

 

 

To get back onto the Atari topic: I think that FUD and proprietary market control mindset with management (granted also a big deal with the music industry Warner was also involved in ... and cassettes in THAT market) prevented Atari from breaking into a lot of the market they potentially could have. It drove both its cart-centric software models and a lot of the decisions that went into the 5200. With Atari's own lacking market management and inaccurate sales/demand data and predictions, having that sort of control also just makes things worse anyway. (the third parties putting out 'a glut of crappy software' leading up to the crash were just smaller-scale mirrors of what Atari Inc was doing internally, and there were probably more 3rd party publishers managing things in a MORE sane/healthy manner than Atari was) And a glut of overproduced ROM carts is a MUCH bigger loss to write off than tapes or even disks ... and also less prone to being overproduced in the first place as you don't have the extreme economies of scale for low vs high volume production. (making additional batches of disks or tapes is way cheaper than making another run of mask ROMs) Plus, getting users to buy tape and disk drives alone would be an advantage there, even if some profits were lost to piracy. (hardware sales + higher profit margins on LOWER priced games due to the media used = big margin for error for any real-world sales lost to piracy)

 

Plus, people pirating games who couldn't afford (or otherwise were unwilling to buy) more games would have zero impact on actual software sales ... or potentially increase sales due to positive PR for well-liked games. (demos/shareware really exploits the best aspects of this all around and tends to reduce demand for full piracy) The Starpath Supercharger came with a demo tape, though I'm not sure any of it had playable games it was still a neat/useful demo for the time.

 

All that stuff applies to the US market as well as Europe (there was an underexploited low-end/price sensitive market not being fully exploited for consoles or computers), it's just that in Europe the middle-to-high end of the market was virtually nonexistent, so that lower end region WAS the bulk of the market.

 

The 5200 and 1200XL both went in the opposite direction of that underserviced market while failing to seriously expand on what the 400 and 800 were already providing. (the 1200XL was a NICE machine, quality, business-class keyboard and construction, but so was the 800 and the updated OS and added 14k of usable RAM didn't really make up for the compatibility issues while the single-board construction and single cart slot didn't result in a substantial real-world price drop over the 48k 800 at the time) The 16k 600 would have made a bigger impact, a 32k model would've been useful too (particularly as 2kB DRAMs were still cheaper than 8k ones -the higher density was attractive for the 1200XL for board-space reduction though). 400s with mechanical keyboards would have been a good middle ground between the 400 and 800 prior to 1982 though. (aside from Euro-specific redesigns omitting FCC-spec design aspects -cheaper, single-board machines with major RF output issues could've been done for the European launch of the 400/800)

 

A console better than the 2600 but CHEAPER than the competition (unlike the 5200) would also have been a lot more useful, that or an entry-level cheap computer design as already suggested. (the latter's easier to do if you drop 2600 compatibility give you can ditch the 2600 switch board and use that RIOT port for a simple keyboard interface similar to the ZX81's ... a dual mode set-up with keboard/switchboard switching would be more costly, as would throwing in a POKEY or even just PIA for keyboard handling -in both cases you also have the cost of having switches AND keys rather than one or the other) Going console alone would make backwards compatibility super easy though, and a keyboard that plugs into the controller ports would be pretty simple to arrange as well. (make it an optional accessory/upgrade to keep cost down and add profits for peripheral sales ... AND potentially use a proper mechanical keyboard rather than a membrane deal)

 

 

 

 

I've been over the technical end of it a bit here already and other threads before, and some have argued it'd be too weak, but honestly:

A 6502C(with IRQ and HALT used)+TIA+RIOT+2kB SRAM would be a pretty useful console for a 1981/82 launch and something different/cheaper enough than the existing computers to really be a useful addition to the Atari product line. (also buy more time to continue work on STIA or do one better, do away with ANTIC and integrate the DMA hardware into STIA, taking advantage of the progress in chip manufacturing and LSI design between 1978 and 1982 and do BETTER than ANTIC+GTIA in one chip more like MARIA but backwards compatible and not as rushed -probably much better if that same engineering experience was applied to CGIA development and go beyond just a single chip ANTIC+GTIA for stuff like added color registers, more sprites, double bandwidth for bitmap modes, etc -a character mode using the upper bit to swap 4 alt colors rather than just 1 for an 8-color mode would be super useful too, or at least 3 added colors if the background/board color has to be unchanged -or drop STIA/consoles entirely for using computers as the main game platforms)

 

For All Atari's advanced R&D stuff for 16-bit chipsets and their investment in the Amiga license (and funding development) they could have put a lot more into the 8-bit line for both cost reduction and upgrades. (in many cases you'd get both -a single chip CGIA+added features on a newer process die using less silicon should have been possible and cost reducing in 1984, and given the licensed and/or in-house nature of the rest of the chipset, further integration and/or upgrades were also readily possible -a custom 3.58 MHz CPU using holey DMA would be pretty useful, among other things)

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A VCS computer hack wouldn't compete with the Vic20 even if it contained a built in supercharger, and it would be more expensive than the zx80 ( let alone the zx81 )

There should have been low cost versions of the 400 at that time, ( something like the 5200 board with a cheap keyboard )

They had the Atari 600 in the works to complement the release of the 1200XL (and replace the Atari 400) but canceled it in favor of targeting the higher end of the market entirely. (similar mistake made with the 5200) If you want to go any cheaper, drop in a chicklet or membrane keyboard in leu of the 400's mechanical one. (but given the cost of the machine and its 16 kB, a full-throw keyboard would probably be worthwhile to counter the VIC-20 in quality and performance terms -maybe a hard-capped collapsing rubber dome keyboard, but most of those were pretty chicklety in '82 ... the XE and ST keyboards were a very nice compromise, but I don't think those options existed in '82 -still, something better than the 400's flat, zero feedback membrane board was definitely out there ... even the Commodore Max's membrane board had raised, collapsing bubble style keys)

 

They should have offered a 400 with full throw keyboard prior to that too, especially with the 32k models. (and potential 16, 32, and 64k machines to follow on with the XL series -2kB DRAMs were still cheaper in 1982, though slapping a full 32 ICs on the board for 64k probably wasn't worth the trade-off, 16k would have been and probably 32k as well ... I'd get into 48k vs 64k too, but that arrangement alone didn't really contribute to cost or compatibility issues on the 1200XL -the specific WAY they configured the 64kB and the new OS had problems, but none that shouldn't have been fixed if looked at seriously or worth resorting to an unexpanded 48k machine ... unless they did so intentionally to save cost and leave bank-switching logic on an external module to be connected to the PBI)

 

http://phe.rockefeller.edu/LogletLab/DRAM/dram.htm(DRAM price list, 5th chart over, gives a decent idea what engineers would have had to consider in '81 and '82 -the price disparity of 64kbit vs 16kbit chips in '81 in particular would have given a lot of pause to new developments targeting the higher density)

 

Anyway, had they actually focused on tailoring hardware to the UK/European marketplace earlier on (ie as soon as they started moving into that market), cutting the costs out of the 400/800 as far as anything FCC-specific went (the multi-board configuration with all the aluminum castings) would've been a big target to go for both reducing the price point and improving profit margins. (plus the more compact form factor would sell better) That'd also give them a leg up once the FCC Class C requirement came on the scene, expediting a new release before the 600 and 1200 could be completed.

 

I also err on the side of skepticism as far as the 3200/Sylvia project goes given its time gap between development and the 5200's release. It seems more likely that concerns beyond time to market dictated its cancellation. (to the extent that my arguments of a 6502C+SRAM hack is practically moot -the 3200 also should have provided a unique architecture harder to produce unlicensed games for than the 5200 or 8-bit computers if they cared to implement such -also moot until Atari kicks their but in gear regarding their OWN distribution management)

 

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