In Atari's early days, one of the
Atari coin-op Tech's and his rather odd friend worked many late nights on a new
arcade game called "Breakout". While working on this new video game
and playing other arcade games all through the night these two friends were busy
on the side designing and building (from "borrowed" Atari parts) a personal
computer system. They approached Nolan Bushnell and Joe Keenan with their new
creation to see if it would be a product that Atari would sell and support.
At the time Atari was
concentrating on getting its new home version of Pong out the door and all
resources were tied up. With no spare capital to devote to such a costly and
risky product, Nolan Bushnell referred the two budding entrepreneurs to some
venture capitalists to finance their new product. Who was this former Atari
employee? None other then the iCEO of Apple - Steve Jobs. Who was his
rather odd friend? Steve "The Woz" Wozniak and their creation was the Apple
In the Summer of 1977 the team that
had finished the Atari VCS was now hard at work on ways to make the "STELLA"
chip more capable and to give the Atari VCS more features like the ability to
display characters on the screen, have possibly some kind of keyboard and better
graphics. Atari had been owned by Warner Communications since its sale in
1976 by its original co-founder Nolan
Bushnell for $28 million. By 1978 Atari was run by Raymond Kassar. Making computer systems was the next logical step for the company,
however the home computers never actually started out as home computers in the
beginning. They were supposed to be a better video game system and as the
designs evolved - more memory, better graphics, DMA, I/O systems, keyboard and a
design that would have actually had a built in monitor. The game systems
turned into full blown computers. Well, that is to say at least one design
- Colleen was a full blown computer. Candy, her little sister was still in
debate as to whether she should be just a game only system with no I/O port and
no Keyboard or to have them. Just before the deadline approached for Atari
to show off its new systems for the Winter CES in January of 1979 the decision
was made - Candy would be an entry level computer.
Upon reflection, one could wonder if this was
Atari's worst decision. After all the idea of a better "STELLA" - Atari
VCS was the whole reason for the work started in 1977, to have a replacement for
the Atari VCS when its expected end of life would be reached around 1980.
The Candy could've been the replacement for the Atari VCS in 1980 in a
case with no keyboard and no SIO port and would've been Atari's next game
system. Applications and serious programs could've been for the Atari 800,
while the Atari 400 would've gotten a different name - perhaps it would've been
the Atari Advanced Game System or something similar, it would've gotten all of
the games written for it. Imagine a 1979 release of Space Invaders on it
instead of the Atari 2600, or Pac Man on it instead of the Atari 2600.
Educational games would've been far better for parents buying a game console for
their kids. Intellivision would've never stood a chance against Atari's new
super game console released in 1979 and by 1980 the Atari VCS could've started
to be phased out. So looking back, this may have been Atari's biggest
mistake of them all and may have been what turned Atari onto the path of its
demise by 1984.
Back to Atari's 400/800 Computer
release - Atari's HCD (Home Computer Division) engineers & designers had
the worlds first truly consumer based personal computers to use custom IC's to handle graphics, sound
and communication. Atari's first two computers were called the Atari 400 and
Atari 800 Personal Computer Systems.
These computers had a large assortment
of "Intelligent" peripherals which communicated through a custom bus called the
"SIO" (Serial I/O) which compared to today standards is a rather simplistic
version of the USB (Universal Serial Bus). In fact the USB and the Atari SIO
have a lot more in common then many would think. One of Atari's original
computer engineers, Joe Decuir who created the Atari SIO bus is also one of the
team of engineers at Microsoft to help design and holds patents on the USB.
The Atari 400/800 line was cancelled in 1982 to be
replaced by a new sleek high-tech looking computer called the Atari 1200XL.
The computer had an slightly incompatible OS, no external expansion bus and little
enhancements over the original 400/800 line and due to these shortcomings, the
sales of the Atari 800 computer increased while people rushed to buy them before
supplies ran out. The 1200XL was discontinued only 6 months later
and quickly replaced by the Atari 600/800XL line
of computers in the fall of 1983. These computers fixed many of the 1200XL's shortcomings
and had a
Parallel Bus Interface for external expansion options. Several other computers
were planned with voice synthesizers, built-in modems and built in disk drives
but were never officially sold.
In the works in 1983, Atari had several new high-end
computers including one called the 1600XL (Project Shakti) which would be a dual processor system
with 6502 and 80186 for IBM compatibility. Another System called "Sierra" with
a high-end audio/video chipset based on the MC68000 processor but never got out
of the design process. Yet another
project in the works was another system called "Gaza" which also used a high-end
chipset and MC68000 processor, was demonstrated to the Warner Board but canned
because they didn't want Atari competing in the business market. These systems would never make it past
prototyping as Atari would be sold in 1984.
On July 2, 1984 Atari's Consumer Electronics
Division and its Home Computer Division were sold to Tramel Technologies
Limited and the company was renamed Atari Corporation. Leonard
Tramiel adds: "Our name Tramiel was constantly being mispronounced as
"Tra-meal" and my dad hoped that the other spelling would get people to
say "Tra-mell" (it rhymes with "done well"). It didn't work."
The Atari XL line of
computers was cancelled with its last version - the 800XLF released in Europe in
August of 1984 and in 1985 a new line of computers to replace the XL
line called the Atari 65XE and 130XE computers were introduced. The
original internal name of the 65XE was the 900XLF.
Atari also introduced an all new line of computers
called the Atari ST line. These new computers would use the Motorola 68000
processor, come with 512K of memory, use 3.5" disk drives, RGB monitors and a
graphics user environment based on CP/M 68K and Digital Research GEM.
Originally the processor for this new line of computers was to be the National
32016, however its speed and its availability was in doubt, so the MC68000 was chosen.
Amazing, the Tramiels were able to go from Shiraz Shiji's concept from May 1984
to a working demonstration system at the January 1985 Winter CES. A mere 5
months. By June of 1985 developers and User Groups received advanced
release units and by September 1985 the first Atari 520ST computers began to
show up on retail shelves.
Atari would, over the course of 8 years improve upon
its ST line of computers with such lines as the Mega ST, STe, Mega STe, TT030
and Falcon030 line of computers. Atari also introduced a laptop called the
STacy and had in the works an under 5 lb. laptop called the STBook as its
replacement. A pen based touch tablet version of the ST called
the STpad or "STylus" had been shown in
prototype form but was never sold. Atari introduced an assortment of
peripherals from disk drives to very low cost and feature rich laser printers for its line of ST computers.
Taking a step back, in 1987 Atari introduced a line of IBM compatible
computer systems starting with its Atari PC-1 which was an all-in-one IBM XT
compatible computer with built in disk drive, built in serial, parallel,
keyboard, mouse and video ports (video could be configured for CGA, Hercules,
EGA and other settings). An internal bus port on the motherboard allowed for
an expansion card to use the Atari Mega ST "Megafile" hard disk system. Atari
also introduced other PC compatible systems as well as a 386sx laptop and also
an IBM XT palmtop computer the size of a VHS video tape.
The Atari Falcon030 was Atari last computer system
to be produced. All company resources were directed towards the creation and
completion of Atari's 64-bit Interactive Multimedia System called the Atari
Jaguar 64 which was sold in 1993.