Atari ST — History of Video Game Consoles
So instead of Amiga delivering the chipset, Commodore delivered a check of $500,000 to Atari on Amiga’s behalf, in effect returning the funds invested into Amiga for completion of the Lorraine chipset. Seeing a chance to gain some leverage Tramiel immediately used the situation to counter sue Commodore through its new subsidiary, Amiga, which was done on August 13, 1984. He sought damages and an injunction to bar Commodore Amiga Inc. from producing anything with that technology. The suit tried to render Commodore’s new acquisition, and the source for its next generation of computers, useless and do to Commodore what they were trying to do to him.
Meanwhile at Commodore, the Amiga team was sitting in limbo for nearly the entire summer because of the lawsuit. No word on the status of the chipset, the Lorraine computer system or the team’s fate was known. Finally in the fall of 1984 Commodore informed the team that the Lorraine project was active again, the chipset to be improved, the OS developed and the hardware design completed. This delay bought Atari several additional months in 1985 to release Atari STs to Atari User Groups in June 1985 and to go into full retail sales of the Atari 520ST in September of 1985. In March of 1987 the two companies had settled out of court in a closed decision.
Above: Atari ST Operating System
With the hardware design nearing completion, the team started looking at solutions for the operating system. Soon after the buyout, Microsoft approached Tramiel with the suggestion that they port Windows to the platform, but the delivery date was out by about two years, far too long for their needs. Another possibility was Digital Research, who were working on a new GUI-based system then known as Crystal, soon to become GEM. Another option was to write a new operating system in-house, but this was eventually rejected due to the risk.
Digital Research was fully committed to the Intel platform, so a team from Atari was sent to the Digital Research headquarters to work with the “Monterey Team” which comprised a mixture of Atari and Digital Research engineers. Atari’s Jim Tittsler was Atari key OS engineer overseeing “Project Jason”, The Operating System, for the Atari ST line of computers.
CP/M-68K was essentially a direct port of CP/M’s original, mature operating system. By 1985, it was becoming increasingly outdated in comparison to MS-DOS 2.0; for instance, CP/M did not support sub-directories and did not have a hierarchical file system. Digital Research was also in the process of building a new DOS-like operating system specifically for GEM, GEMDOS, and there was some discussion of whether or not a port of GEMDOS could be completed in time for product delivery in June. The decision was eventually taken to port it, resulting in a GEMDOS file system, which became part of TOS (Tramiel Operating System). This was beneficial as it gave the ST a fast, hierarchical file system, essential for hard drive storage disks, plus programmers had function calls similar to the IBM PC DOS.
The design shipped in June 1985 to Atari User Groups and then in September 1985 for general retail sales as the 520ST. The machine had gone from concept to store shelves in a little under a year. Atari had originally intended to release versions with 128 KB and 256 KB of RAM as the 130ST and 260ST respectively. However, with the operating system loaded from floppy into RAM, there would be little or no room left over for applications to run. The 260ST did make its way into Europe on a limited basis.
Early models shipped with TOS on disk, but were designed with ROM sockets to make for easy upgrading to the future ROM based TOS. These became available only a few months later, and were included in all new machines, as well as being available to upgrade older machines. By late 1985, the machines were also upgraded with the addition of an RF modulator, a version known as the 520STM.
Atari had originally intended to include a Graphical Device Operating System (GEM’s GDOS), which allowed programs to send GEM VDI commands to drivers loaded by GDOS. This allowed developers to send VDI instructions to other devices simply by pointing to it. However, GDOS was not ready at the time the ST started shipping, and was included in software packages and later ST machines. Later versions of GDOS supported vector fonts.
On the plus side, the ST was considerably less expensive than the Macintosh Plus and the Amiga. Largely as a result of the price/performance factor, the ST would go on to be a fairly popular machine, notably in markets where the foreign exchange rates amplified prices. Indeed, the company’s English advertising strapline of the era was “power without the price.” In fact, an Atari ST and terminal emulation software was much cheaper than a Digital VT220 terminal, which was commonly needed by offices with central computers.
The 520ST was an all-in-one unit, similar to earlier home computers like the Commodore 64. By the time the 520ST reached the market, consumers demanded a keyboard with cursor keys and a numeric keypad.
The case design was created by Ira Valenski, Atari’s chief Industrial Designer. The ST was basically wedge shaped, with a series of grilles cut into the rear for airflow. The majority of the machines had keyboards with soft tactile feedback resulting in a “cheap” feel, with rhomboid function keys across the top edge. The original 520ST design used an external floppy drive; the 1040ST-style case featured a built-in floppy drive. The power supply for the early 520ST was a large external brick while the 1040ST’s was inside the machine.
Atari later upgraded the basic design in 1986 with the 1040STF. The machine was generally similar to the earlier 520ST, but moved the power supply and a double-sided floppy drive into the rear of the housing of the computer, as opposed to being external. This added to the size of the machine, but reduced cable clutter in the back. The 1040 shipped with 1 MB of RAM, and the same design was also used for the new 512 KB 520STFM, which replaced the earlier models in the market.
The 1040ST was the first personal computer shipped with a base RAM configuration of 1 MB, and when the list price was reduced to $999 in the U.S. it became the first computer to break the $1000/MB price barrier, and was featured on the cover of Byte Magazine. However, the ST remained generally the same internally over the majority of its several-year lifespan. The choice of model numbers was inherited from the model numbers of the XE series of the Atari 8-bit family of computers. A limited number of 1040STFs shipped with a single-sided floppy drive.
Above: Atari 1040ST
Initial sales were strong, especially in Europe where Atari sold 75% of its computers. Germany became Atari’s strongest market, with small business users using them for desktop publishing and CAD.
To address this growing market segment, Atari came up with the ST1. First debuted at Comdex, 1986, it was received favourably. Renamed the Mega, this new machine included a detached high-quality keyboard, stronger case to support the weight of a monitor, and internal bus expansion connector. The upcoming SLM804 laser printer would not come with a processor or memory, reducing costs. It would attach to the Mega through the ST DMA port and have the Mega computer render the pages. Initially equipped with 2 or 4 MB, the Mega machines would complement the Atari laser printer for a low-cost desktop publishing package.
A custom blitter co-processor was to be included to speed the performance of some graphics operations on the screen, but due to delays it was eventually released on the Mega 2 and Mega 4 machines. Developers wanting to use it had to detect for it in their programs because it was not present on all machines. However, properly-written programs using the screen VDI commands could use the blitter seamlessly since GEM API was a higher-level interface to TOS.