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
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the art, nor outdated junk - but it has passed its prime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
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
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
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
:: 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
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
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