Cranking up the Wedding Singer soundtrack, Matthew JC. Powell relives his salad days . . .
A while ago, I wrote a couple of columns about what I called the "guru-friendly interface". I can't be bothered looking it up to tell you how long ago, and chances are you wouldn't be able to lay your hands on it anyway. If you're all that interested, I think it might have been June. Anyway, a guru-friendly interface is different to a user-friendly interface. The idea is that users will find the workings of their computers as mysterious and strange as ever, but gurus such as myself and most of you will find them clear and explicit.
I got quite a lot of mail on the subject, mostly from adherents to one operating system or another who felt that the guru-friendly interface is here and now. They were all wrong - it isn't. The very amusing letters were from people who felt that the guru-friendly interface used to exist, but failed to take off, because companies were badly managed or idiot users didn't know a good thing when they saw it.
At any rate, I had a lot of fun replying to these letters, because it gave me a chance to reminisce about the golden days of microcomputers in the mid-to-late- eighties. There's a bit of a nostalgia thing going on at the moment about that particularly odd decade, with Rubik's cubes, Beta VCRs and Miami Vice elevated to the status of icons. I sat through an entire episode of that show for the first time a few weeks ago, and I do not understand how anyone could possibly have liked it. And of course there was the awful music.
Back in the eighties I was fit, played sports and listened to sixties music. I will admit to a rather awkward hairstyle, but basically I let that decade pass me by. I was too busy poking around in the innards of computers to notice whether it was Billy Idol, Billy Ocean or Billy Joel at the top of the charts.
In the course of my recent reminiscences, though, I've been reminded of one of my favourite computer companies. Its name still exists, but it isn't what it used to be. Founded in the seventies, it was one of the pioneers of the industry. Then in the eighties it revolutionised its offerings with faster machines and a graphical interface, and sacked its founder to bring in aggressive new management. It went on to dominate certain niche markets, particularly with creative professionals. It used its strong cash position to innovate, and was again a pioneer in the fledgling market for handheld computing devices.
Unfortunately, the nineties, and the Wintel onslaught, hit hard. Its market share dropped at a frightening rate, and public perception of the company was that the industry had left it behind.
It retreated into its traditional strongholds, dropped non-core business units, and even tried licensing its operating system to other computer makers. But the tide had already turned too far against it. A core of die-hard customers kept it going, but its battle was already lost.
To add insult to injury, one of its original developers had turned into a major competitor and had beaten it at its own game. A multi- million-dollar cash injection to settle patent disputes with that same competitor only bought a short reprieve for this company.
Figured it out yet? Need more hints? It's an American company with a five-letter name and a highly recognisable logo. Based in California. Starts with A.
Naturally, I'm referring to Atari (what did you think?). Atari's 400 and 800 models were among the early successes that turned personal computing from a hobby into an industry. Its ST series was the first to make a graphical interface truly affordable, and the inclusion of a MIDI interface as standard led to the platform's mass adoption in the music industry. Its Portfolio was one of the very first handheld computers on the market (I still have one that I use as a diary).
But poor management and a failure to recognise challenges led the company to waste its great opportunities. The $US40 million it got from Sega was very nearly the only money it made in 1994. It was bought for almost nothing in 1995 by a manufacturer of hard drives that really only wanted its factories.
But a decade ago it wasn't like that. Rivalries between companies like Atari and Commodore were taken very seriously by the many users of STs and Amigas. You could read an entire page of a technology newspaper without seeing the words Microsoft or Intel. Consumers had a real choice back then.
Ten years from now, the industry will be virtually unrecognisable. The question is, will I look back and say these were the dark days before the dawn, or the last gleaming of hope before choice disappeared altogether?