The Life And Times Of The Atari ST Series Part 3

Crowning glory, fading twilight...

Atari Falcon030

By the end of 1990, reading between the lines now you can clearly see the first signs of Atari being in disarray internally. The STe launch had been horrendously mishandled, the TT030 had been hacked to run faster due to criticism and to top it all a batch of STe computers had made it into the retail channels with a faulty DMA chip that could corrupt data on attached hard drives. This was not the best way to launch a machine designed to rival the Commodore Amiga, but worse than that, there were persistent rumors of a machine in development with over 244,000 colours, which many people had assumed would be the STe.

But Atari were still developing the current ST line and announced some interesting new products for release in 1991. These included the Mega STe to replace the now decidedly underpowered Mega ST, the ST Book to replace the STacy laptop, and a curious piece of hardware known as the STylus, an ST machine based around a pen interface. At the same time it was also announced that Atari were developing new games consoles and that a new version of the Lynx colour handheld games device. The games consoles were called Panther and Jaguar, the former was a 32 bit system while the latter was a 64 bit system. Panther was to be launched first with Jaguar a few years later.

While the outside world saw these devices being announced, inside the labs of Atari, a couple of STe computers had been butchered and their processors removed. The processors were replaced with a board containing not 1, but 2 processors, a Motorola 68030 and a Motorola 56000 Digital signal Processor, the codename for the board was Sparrow. This was to be a test bed for what was going to be a new generation of home computers and was in part done to see how feasible such a dual processor like this was in the ST's architecture.

In 1991, the Mega ST was finally retired and replaced with the Mega STe, though it's launch was delayed until the latter half of the year. But when the machine did arrive it had a few surprises in store, the option of a built in SCSI drive, high density floppy drives and a CPU clocked at 16MHz, double the speed of all previous ST machines, and it came housed in the same style case as the TT030, but in ST grey rather than TT white. The Mega STe also inherited the TT's VME expansion bus and a new version of the ST operating system, bringing many of the TT's operating system enhancements to the ST line.

Bob Gledow of Atari UK was more and more becoming the media face of Atari in the magazines and he was usually the first person to be contacted once a new rumour was heard. However the disarray in Atari's US headquarters would catch him out several times during the 1990's. Towards the end of summer in 1991, Bob announced the imminent release of the Atari Panther, which would be available in time for Christmas. Everything was ready to go, including the assembly plants in the far east and without any warning at all the week after the Panther was announced, it was canceled in favor of the Jaguar. Bob was also caught out by sudden changes in product naming, taking to the magazines about the up and coming STylus while Atari US were announcing a name change for the machine to the ST Pad.

The end of 1991 had Sam Tramiel showing an early prototype of the new computer codenamed Sparrow. It looked like an Atari STe with a darker case and darker keys. No firm specifications were announced but this did not stop people speculating on what the new machine may be capable of. Colour pallets of 262,144 colours or 16,777,216 colours were regularly mentioned, along with CD quality sound and a speed of either 16MHz or 32MHz from either a 68020, 68030 or 68040 processor. As no official specifications were released, the collective Atari community imagination went wild. Trouble was, as the new machine was breaking cover in the press, this slowed sales of the existing machines, after all, who wants yesterdays model when tomorrows model is just around the corner?

Just as the Christmas issues of the Atari press were being completed, the official specifications were announced for the new wonder machine, which was now known as the Falcon030. It was to have 8 channel 16 bit sound with up to 50KHz recording and playback, 16MHz MC68030 with MC56001 DSP, built in IDE for optional internal hard drives, SCSI II for external devices, colour pallet of 262,144 colours with 'True colour' mode, BLiTTER chip and enhanced screen modes, along with enhanced operating system and memory options of 1MB, 4MB or 14MB. Considering what some had been imagining the machine was a disappointment, but for most it was just the machine for Atari's fight back in the home computer market, however the machine would not be available for 12 months. The news was printed and the only thing it did was hurt sales of the current range even more.

1992 brought feverish discussion on the imminent arrival of the Falcon, the ST Book and the ST Pad/STylus as well as discussion on the announced Jaguar 64 bit games system. Atari released information regarding the new systems on a regular basis and announced that the Falcon was to be the first of a new series of computers. While the 68030 model would be released in 1992, an enhanced 68040 model would be released in 1993. The prototypes in ST style cases were shown to the press, who were assured the released machine would be in a new case design befitting such a new and powerful home computer. However nothing else was seen.

August 1992 and production of the new Atari Falcon030 has started, the ST Book was released but the ST Pad/STylus was nowhere to be seen. Once again Bob Gledow assured the magazines that the ST Pad/STylus was on course to be delivered in time for Christmas just before Atari announced the machine was canceled.

Worse was to come. Shipments of the Falcon would be delayed due to a fault on the motherboards found during testing so it was no longer certain that there would be any of the new machines available to buy before Christmas, this happened just as Commodore released the new 68020 Amiga 1200, with a colour pallet of 16,777,216 colours and a sleeker design variation on the Amiga 500 design. Atari meanwhile had stuck to the ST design, making the case slightly lighter than the regular ST, but keeping the darker keys of the earlier prototypes. It was becoming clear something was wrong, from being profitable in the late 80's, Atari was just about breaking even or making slight losses. Then the unthinkable happened.

Struggling to get the Falcon030 into the retail channels and with unsold stocks of the STe in the supply chain, Atari re-released the STfm at a low entry level price of £99 in the UK and around $100 in the US. A number of the regional offices were closed, leaving only Atari UK and Atari Germany in Europe and Atari CA and Atari Mexico as functioning offices. In retrospect, the re-launch of the STfm was a last ditch attempt to raise funds and remove Atari's unused inventory of legacy spares for the ST range. While it was billed as Atari's attempt to take on the consoles with the argument that you could have a full computer for less than the price of a console, the truth was that the consoles had better hardware and as a result better games than the STfm could do. All the release of the STfm did was to add more stock to the already clogged retail channels and confuse any potential ST series purchasers.

A small number of Falcons made it into Europe in time for Christmas 1992, along with a small number of ST Book portables. Atari as it turned out had no money for marketing the new machine, so it was left to the distributors to create an advertising campaign to try and show off the new machines multi-media abilities. This resulted in a confusing series of adverts that told you nothing at all about the machines capabilities.

By February 1993 the Falcon030 was available and Atari were saying a new case design was in the works while also talking about the up and coming Falcon040, however what Atari were not saying was that the 040 machine had already been canceled and while there were a few prototype case designs for the new 030 machine, it too had been canceled. Internally all efforts were focusing on the Jaguar, anything else was to be canceled. Only around 1000 ST Book machines had been made, which was a shame as it was the smallest, lightest laptop available at that time and had features that are only now being matched by the new generation MacBook air machines with an instant on from hibernation and long battery life.

By mid 1993 Atari had announced that they would be pulling out of the home computer market. All computer production had stopped and once all current stocks had dried up, there would be no more machines available. Once again Bob Gledow stepped up and said that if there was a definite order for a couple of thousand machines then production would be seriously considered, however there were no spares to build such machines in Atari's inventory and no funds to buy them in the first place. Atari were betting everything on the Jaguar and could not afford for it to fail. After releasing the ST in 1985, all computer production at Atari was now over.

Atari launched the Jaguar towards the end of 1993 in time for Christmas, however IBM who had been contracted to manufacture the new console, could not keep up with the demand. Atari hinted that a new home computer based on the new hardware could be released in the future, but this would never materialise. Compared to the hardware of the time, the Jaguar looked impressive, but Saga and Nintendo were preparing new hardware and many people were looking to see what they would come up with, even though this new hardware was at least another year away at best. Then the unthinkable happened...

1994 and Sony announced the Playstation and while there was still interest in Atari's console, a lack of new games slowed sales. Sony were announcing that they had various developers working on the Playstation and that there would be a number of titles available on the day of launch, trouble was the launch catalogue was larger than Atari's entire Jaguar catalogue after a year on the market. 1994 also saw the Falcon reborn under the C-Lab brand after they reached a licensing deal with Atari to build and market the machine to the professional musician. This as it turned out was too little too late as the PC and Macintosh had become both faster and cheaper, and were capable of more than the Falcon could do. C-Lab battled on with the Falcon until 1995 when both the company and the machine vanished.

In 1996 Jack Tramiel returned to the helm of Atari after his son Sam was taken ill. Seeing there was nothing that could be done to save the company, he negotiated and signed a reverse merger deal with a small hard drive company called JTS, who promptly started breaking up and selling their new acquisition, which was in breach of the deal they signed. Atari as a hardware designer, innovator and manufacturer was gone.

It was not the end of the ST line that was a betrayal, it was the public front that all was well and progressing when the research and development labs were already shut, never to re-open. It was the devaluing of new hardware by announcing it before it was ready, or releasing it without warning when stocks of its predecessor ran out. By announcing hardware and then canceling it when it was about to go into production, or showing hardware that would never see the light of day. In Jack Tramiel Atari found a savior but sadly his son Sam did not have the same business instinct. Little was spent on advertising and sometimes hardware was not launched when it was available, while other hardware was launched when it was not ready. For example, Atari had the Lynx handheld hardware ready for launch a year before they actually did launch it, only showing the hardware when Nintendo started showing developers the GameBoy. Atari had the better hardware, btu Nintendo spent money marketing the device and getting developers on board and as a result, more people bought the GameBoy. At the same time, they launched the STe without testing the software sold with the machine for incompatibilities which then made Atari look bad when some of the bundled software had problems running on the machine.

Ultimately Atari abandoned the computer market in 1992 by not providing any marketing for the Falcon, though as a community we were lucky the Falcon was ever launched at all. Atari wanted to close the computer departments in mid 1992, however they had talked themselves into releasing the Falcon, but the compromise was that it was an incomplete machine, putting 32 bit hardware onto a 16 bit bus. But we should also be grateful because of Atari had not been so talkative about the Falcon during the last 12 months of development, we may well have never seen it launched at all.