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Bob Gleadow - Former MD of Atari (UK) Ltd.

In the last year (1990) Atari has never been far from the headlines with a series of major releases and controversial problems. Bob Gleadow, Atari UK's managing director, is the driving force behind the British end of the company, and Colin Campbell (New Computer Express) went to meet him...

Atari's ST, while far from the autumn of its years, has reached the safety of middle age. It is neither state of the art, nor outdated junk - but it has passed its prime as an admired piece of hardware. With characteristic savvy its maker and guardian has performed the necessary transition with common sense. That is, to position the machine not as a bright new thing for the computer literate, but as a no-nonsense entry level option for the masses that have yet to fully comprehend that there's more to computing than bytes, floppies and Pacman.

Atari would rather be selling computers than positioning them in some grand scheme.  But position it it must in order to introduce the five year-old ST to what continues to be the most important person in home computing - the first-time buyer.

:: TOP MAN ::

Bob Gleadow, for the past three years Atari UK's top man, is fronting the operation.  He's not just the managing director of Britain's sales operation, but more significantly, a touchstone for the decision makers in Sunnyvale, California.  With the UK so important to Atari Corp, his performance is vital.

His ruffled hair and amiable manner belie a wolf-like approach to business that incorporates aggression with a subtlety that opposite numbers lack. Like most businessmen he says "we like to think we can afford to be nice", but he'd rather like to think he can thrash his competitors if he has to.

He is most certainly faster at making decisions than his adversaries, but this can have an unpleasant effect. Buyers of the STE - shipped-in at short notice last December to cope with yet another Christmas shortage - will testify to this.

It was Gleadow who picked up the telephone and dragged the computers into Britain when seasonal demand and a dock strike threatened to mangle up sales plans. And, despite predictable compatibility problems, he'd probably do the same again. But his immediate concern does not centre on supplying demand - more with generating it. Bargain hunters may be Pleased to learn that this will be achieved through the ST Discovery Pack.

Bundles are bundles are bundles, and they are usually cobbled together with a degree of sales cynicism. Atari is no less guilty of that than any other company, but this time there appears to be a genuine attempt to give people what they really want: a good computer, a guiding hand, and some freebies to boot.

"What we want to do this year is position the 520ST as a first-time buyer's machine with a 299 price point. We're trying to separate out the first-time buyer and the second-time buyer - one with an attractive 299 package, and the other at 499 where we'll actually look to sell the 1040."

This may smack of marketing mumbo-jumbo, but therein sits the future of one of Europe's most popular home computers. Gleadow is no longer content to fight it out with the Amiga - he's now after those people who would normally be wondering whether an Amstrad CPC would be better than a Spectrum or Commodore 64 etc.

"It's a better deal. When you buy an 8-bit computer you still have to look at a disk drive and other extras. With the 520 you're getting a superior machine with a 1Mb disk drive and access to a wide range of software packages."

:: POINT TAKEN ::

He has a point. Buy a tape-driven CPC and you're looking at 299. Buy one with a disk drive and that's 399. The Spectrum isn't much better. A Plus 3 will cost 100 less than the ST - but it's largely based on a computer introduced almost 10 years ago.

It has to be noted that the ST has been selling for 299 for ages. But people don't simply want a piece of hardware, they want a fully-fledged computing option, hence the new emphasis. The 520 ST is no longer in a head-to-head battle with the Amiga. It's an alternative to the 8-bits. At least that's the theory.

:: GLEADOW ON THE STE ::

"We released the STE prematurely. We brought in 20,000 last December and they all sold through. The justification for our doing that was that there was a dock strike at Folkestone Harbour and we had to fly them in," says Gleadow.  This isn't exactly saying 'sorry we did wrong', but it is something of a departure from the arrogant attitude displayed when the STE compatibility fiasco was in full swing.

Then, when leading ST software packages were not running on the upgrade, Atari was adamant that it could not be held responsible for the follies of over ambitious programmers who saw fit to break the rules on earlier models. Nevertheless, these follies are well known to all in computing and really should have been added to the formula.

Gleadow explains: "we all know that programmers take short cuts. The problem was that they were violating Atari guidelines. The problem with the Atari guidelines is that you could go round them with one version of a product with no problem. But of course when Atari comes to do the next version it takes those guidelines as the Bible and sticks to them. That's how we guarantee compatibility."  Except of course, in the event, real-world compatibility could not be guaranteed.

Whatever, the wails of "I should have bought an Amiga after all' from disgruntled buyers have floated away. Software publishers are failing into line, and with the STE now priced at 100 more than the STFM; Atari is saying that those 20,000 buyers can count themselves pretty lucky.

The STE is a 'serious' computer'.  "You can upgrade it to almost anything you want. 4Mb packs are already available from third-party dealers, proving that there is a market demand for the serious user."  The STE costs serious money. Atari is deliberately steering prospective purchasers toward the 499 option with extra goodies. One suspects the basic 399 model will not be one of Atari's big sellers this year.

But is the STE an 'Amiga beater'?  "I never said it was," he replies. "It's an improvement on the existing machine."

:: GLEADOW ON BUSINESS ::

"Over the last two or three years Atari has become a mufti-product manufacturer. By the end of this year you'll see Atari being successful in consoles, with the Lynx, in business machines and there will be the beginnings of a workstation presence. So as we have evolved over the last three years we have had to change our style."

With such a broad range of gadgets and computers within his remit, it's no wonder Gleadow is looking to "be in the background". When he started at Atari, life was a good deal simpler. But now he's controlling everything from games software in the ARC division, through old consoles, the new ST console (still pencilled in for the autumn), Lynx hand-held, Portfolio pocket PC, and all the ST's, as well as the forthcoming TT, a line up of PCs and the top end ATW Transputer Workstation.

With that kind of job spec its no wonder he has to leave the nitty gritty to employees. But how much of what we see is dreamt up by the boss? "A degree of that does happen but before we do anything we get a group of people together and have what I call a 'bullshit session' ".  "We look at what we're putting together, what we're asking people to buy, and we throw ideas at each other.  "Ultimately though, I have the casting vote."

The best thing about being the boss of a hardware operation is, he says, the salary, but pay cheques tend to demand a lot of graft. "I think so. When I come in every morning I think I'm going to be leaving at six o'clock, but the hours tend to drag on."

He considers his greatest success at Atari to be the firm's current standing. But what of his biggest regret? Surprisingly it's in that area where the ST has really proved its worth as a serious tool - desktop publishing. Gleadow says he should have moved faster two years ago when DTP was still more of a buzzword than a reality. "We should have recognised the capabilities of the ST in DTP early on."

Gleadow views it as a real alternative to the Apple Mac rather than being the poor imitation some have suggested (including the market in general). But he sees the TT as "my second chance to get into DTP and graphics".

:: GLEADOW ON THE COMPETITION ::

Much is made of the rivalry between Commodore and the firm it spawned - Atari. Behind the scenes you can just imagine Gleadow grinning every time Commodore (or indeed Amstrad) fumbles the ball.

And of course Mr Franklin (Commodore) and Mr Sugar (Amstrad) will also have a good chuckle when Atari trips over its own ambitions. Such is the nature of intense competition - but you'll never get any of them to admit it. "It never crosses my mind. Every step we take is to look at what we think is good for us in the market. We're not interested in what everyone else is doing because we don't have their logic." A little dig there. Gleadow then goes on to claim that Commodore is obsessed with Atari.

And Amstrad? "The minute Atari starts looking at what Amstrad is doing and we follow that, we immediately relegate ourselves to being behind Amstrad, because we're looking at what he does. Instead we are looking at what we can do that is good for us."

"If you're in a car race and you start to follow someone, or you look in the mirror and see what everyone else is doing, then it starts to distract you from driving as fast as you can.  We're into driving as fast as we can".  But surely you can't ignore your competitors? "There's nothing they can do which specifically influences anything we do. It might cause us not to do something. For instance, if we were planning a headline and then Amstrad went out and did it before us, then we would scrap it, that kind of thing."

:: GLEADOW ON CD ::

Given that Atari introduced a CD-ROM device three years ago, it may come as a surprise that Gleadow does not share the enthusiasm expressed by much of the market.

When will we see Atari introduce an all-in-one CD ST device akin to the much-publicised Amiga machine? After all, isn't CD where it's all happening?  'Is Compact Disc happening?" You're looking at a man who has had Compact Disc players (CDAR-504) in his warehouse for 18 months now. Where is the software commitment? Show me a CD standard. Is it CD-i?

"Look at the MSX. That had a Laserdisc, which gave you the best graphics I've seen. It was true video with a computer image superimposed. Outside of Japan it didn't do very well..."

He turns on the notion of CD/computer combos. "They're going to cost 600 or 700. How big is the market opportunity at that price range? We think computer buyers should become CD buyers. Its better to offer computer buyers the CD as an extra rather than offering a highly-priced integrated system."

:: GLEADOW ON THE PRESS ::

While Commodore and Amstrad generally like to wait for things to happen before announcing them, Atari is constantly toying with the press - hinting, leaking, suggesting and otherwise making implications. It sometimes moves into the realms of absurdity, although for those with a vested interest in information (like magazine news editors) it's all rather jolly.

Uniquely, Atari isn't so much concerned with the public's perception of it as a company, rather with the perception of each individual project.  This has the effect of providing magazine readers with lots of juicy titbits from "highly placed sources" as well as supplying Atari's formidable PR machine with cheap market research.  Doesn't this take, well, a certain degree of manipulation of the press? Gleadow is suitably shocked at such a suggestion. "I wish we could manipulate the press," he jests.  And he is jesting.

17 March 1990 - New Computer Express

 

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