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Current State Of The Atari

Atari Notes
Published October 1995

Ofir Gal jumps into Vic Lennard's shoes to discuss the state of the Atari today...

Back in the good old days, when I started reading Sound On Sound, there was only one computer system the MIDI musician needed to know about — the Atari 1040ST. Since then, a lot has changed in the world of computing. The incredible success of Windows has meant that software development for the Atari has declined, and many users are thinking about migrating to the Mac or PC in the hope of a better system.

Is the Atari truly dead? I don't pretend to know the answer, but what I can do is offer an analysis of the situation as I see it, and let you draw your own conclusions.

A Brief History Lesson

When the ST was launched, it was a breakthrough in home computing, offering a graphical interface, a mouse, and a windows‑based operating system at a fraction of the cost of an Apple system. Back then, PCs were strictly DOS‑based systems, with green text over a black background display, and no sign of a mouse. OK, so Atari's user interface design wasn't 100% original — it was largely inspired by the Apple operating system, which in turn was based on a graphical user interface system developed by Xerox. The ST was designed in a short period of time, and the graphics front end, the Graphical Environment Manager (GEM), was bolted onto a DOS‑like operating system in a rush. Atari's success was so impressive that it is now studied as part of the Open University business management courses.

What really made the ST a musician's tool was the inclusion of the MIDI ports, but why they were there is anybody's guess. Perhaps MIDI was just the buzzword of the time, rather like CD‑ROMs or the Internet today. Never mind the fact that the MIDI ports were incorrectly wired, and that the controller chip was not up to the job of collecting the MIDI data fast enough; at least the ports were there. No other computer could offer even that.

Programs like Pro 24 and Creator were followed by Cubase and Notator, alongside a large number of synth editors and librarians, hardware add‑ons, and various music composition tools. For a few good years, the words MIDI and Atari went hand in hand, and although music software was available for the PC, Mac and other systems, they remained no more than curiosity items.

German developers, in particular, have contributed greatly to the Atari software range, and are still very active, with some applications putting PC and Mac equivalents to shame. The German market has expanded beyond DTP into general word processing, disk backup, communications, faxing, and general utilities. Games consoles have since taken over the games market, removing Commodore's Amiga from the scene. Home DTP users have been gradually moving over to the Mac and PC, but MIDI remains the natural Atari market.

The Atari Computer Range

During the '80s, Atari benefitted from the comparatively slow pace at which competing platforms developed. The last few years were different, with Apple making progress both in hardware and falling prices.

Following the STe blunder (see 'E By Gum' box), various Atari models were released during the late '80s and early '90s. The MegaST was basically an ST in a flat case with a separate keyboard, and also included the Blitter chip — a graphics accelerator which is present in all non‑ST models.

All Atari models up to and including the MegaST were based around the Motorola 68000 chip, which clocked at 8MHz, and was showing its age. The MegaSTe was just an STe in an improved case with some extra ports, although running at 16MHz, it was almost twice as fast as the rest of the bunch. The TT was to be the ultimate Atari system. Aimed at programmers and high‑end users, it was based around the much superior 68030 CPU running at 32MHz. Unfortunately, like many other Atari products, it was late and too expensive.

In the summer of 1992, Atari revealed the new Falcon to a select group of developers in London. Although it appeared to have significant advantages over other systems with the incorporation of a sound system and DSP, Atari's past failure to release products on time, meant that developers were cautious to say the least.

MultiTOS, a multi‑tasking operating system, also looked promising. Based on UNIX, it was potentially better in concept than MacOS or Windows put together — but in practice, it turned out to be virtually unusable.

After two silent years, Atari released a preposterous statement claiming that they didn't have any intention of staying in the computer business, and that they made this decision long before releasing the Falcon. Going by this, launching a computer and an operating system is apparently a sure way of getting out of the computer business. I'll leave you to work this one out...

Reality Check

After reading this, I'm sure you want to throw your Atari out of the window, but first, let's look at the situation as it is in 1995. Atari is no longer making computers. Instead, there are several European companies making Atari‑compatible machines, albeit on a small scale. C‑Lab, the company behind the successful sequencers Creator and Notator, is now manufacturing the Falcon Mk II, which is aimed squarely at the music market. The Eagle is made by GE‑Soft, and is designed with the DTP market in mind — the next model will be based on a 68040 chip running at 33MHz. There is also the Medusa, featuring a 68040 chip and powerful graphics options. Unlike the PC market, these compatible solutions are generally more expensive than the original Atari models, but are so much better.

On the software front there are several exciting products. You will all be familiar with Cubase Audio, currently at version 2.03. Judging from users' reports, it is still the most reliable way of combining MIDI and audio, and is selling surprisingly well according to Harman, the UK distributor. During a very recent Internet discussion, the programmers at Steinberg were also quick to point out that as far as MIDI timing goes, the most powerful PCs or Macs are still not as accurate as a 10‑year‑old ST. So why are people migrating to these other machines? In my opinion, it's all down to hype.

There are a number of high quality ST products that compete rather well with ones on the PC, most notably MagiC (a pre‑emptive, multi‑tasking operating system) and Papyrus, a very capable document processor with many DTP‑like features. My advice to users who spend most of their computing time creating music is to stick with their trusted Atari, and get the best out of it by adding a hard disk. If you would like to expand your computer use a little, there's still a lot more to your ST than MIDI. There are two UK‑based Atari magazines, ST Format and Atari World, that can keep you up to date with the latest products, and you are in for a pleasant surprise with the quality of programs around. If you really need office‑oriented software, and find your Atari too limited, then by all means, get a PC or a Mac, but think hard about keeping your Atari for music‑making — it is still, in my humble opinion, the best there is.

'E' By Gum...

The ST was followed with the STe. This model was a result of a typical blunder at Atari headquarters, with a number of cover‑up stories to choose from. This is my favourite....

Following the launch and success of the ST, one of the top engineers at Atari was working on a product called the SuperST, which was supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread. However, the engineer then left Atari, and, surprise, surprise, nobody else could understand his diagrams and notes. So, instead of the promised SuperST, Atari released the STe, which was basically an ST with a few minor enhancements, mostly aimed at the games market!