The Jackintosh: A Real GEM – Remembering the Atari ST

Jack Tramiel's cheap Macintosh-inspired computer gave "point-and-click" to an entire generation of lower-income users

After Commodore Founder Jack Tramiel was forced out by his board, he decided, after a brief hiatus, to get revenge.

Tramiel knew that a 16-bit computer was next on the horizon for Commodore, and he wanted to beat them to the punch. So,  in early 1984 he formed a new company, Tramel Technology (spelt without an ‘i’ to encourage people to spell his name correctly), and lured a number of Commodore engineers to jump ship and come work for him.

Atari had not been doing well, and Atari’s owner, Warner Communications, was looking to shed what it saw was “dead weight” in the form of Atari’s consumer products division. Tramiel saw an opportunity to leverage Atari’s manufacturing infrastructure and made a deal to acquire the division in exchange for stock in his new company. Tramiel renamed Tramel Technology to Atari Corporation, shut down most of Atari’s offices, liquidated its existing stock and fired its staff, replacing them with former Commodore employees.

Surviving on its remaining video-game inventory, the new company went to work developing Tramiel’s new 16-bit computer. Based on the same Motorola 68000 processor used in the Apple Macintosh, the Atari ST (the ST apparently standing for “sixteen/thirty-two” although some have speculated it stood for “Sam Tramiel” after Jack’s son), was designed to be attractive to a wide variety of computer users. Like the Commodore 64, the ST could be plugged into a television for casual video-gaming, but additionally it could use a colour or monochrome monitor – the latter of which featuring a higher resolution than the Macintosh, an appeal to those in the then-emerging world of desktop publishing. It also came standard with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) ports for controlling synthesisers, making it attractive to musicians.

Meanwhile, Atari and Commodore were suing and counter-suing each other: Commodore alleged Tramiel had stolen the technology behind the ST, and Tramiel moved to prevent Commodore from acquiring the Amiga, which had been originally promised to Atari. In the end, neither amounted to much, and Atari announced the 520ST at the 1985 Winter Consumer Electronics Show. It was soon nicknamed the “Jackintosh”.

While the Atari ST’s specifications were impressive, what really stole the show was its operating system, GEM. Tramiel licensed GEM (short for Graphics Environment Manager) from Digital Research, who had initially developed it for their CP/M operating system and later ported it to MS-DOS. Tramiel wanted to give his new computer a user-interface layer similar to the Macintosh, but for a much lower price, and GEM fit the bill nicely, especially since Digital Research had no interest in 68000-based computers, it being fully focussed on the Intel 80286.

Like the Macintosh, the ST used a mouse for much of its user interaction. It had icons that represented disk drives (represented as drawers from filing cabinets), applications (although not customisable as they were on the Macintosh), documents and the Trash (a particularly egregious theft from Apple’s Finder.) GEM had a menu at the top of the screen, a “Desk” menu extremely similar to the Macintosh’s “Apple” menu – it’s no surprise Apple was unimpressed with GEM.

Apple sued Digital Research, but not because they were concerned about competition from Atari – the ST appealed to a much different market than the Macintosh. No, Apple was afraid of GEM becoming widely available on the PC, which was beginning to approach the Macintosh in terms of hardware capabilities, and could become a serious threat if combined with decent graphical operating system.

Digital Research ended up agreeing to change many elements of GEM on the PC in order to satisfy Apple (and Microsoft would be made wary not to borrow too much from the Macintosh for their Windows software), but the Atari version would remain untouched, allowing Atari to continue to unofficially market the ST as a “budget Macintosh”. The ST would save Atari – close to bankruptcy by the time of its launch – and go on to commercial success, sharing the home computer market with the Commodore Amiga for a number of years.

In 1986, Atari released versions of the ST that had built-in floppy drives. Strong office sales in Europe prompted Atari to release a “business” version of the ST, called the Mega, and a laser printer that connected to the Mega directly. In 1989 the STE models would add stereo sound and more display colours.

A large amount of the ST’s success can be attributed to business software developers, who very quickly recognised the computers potential for productivity applications, including WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) word processing and desktop publishing. Indeed, paired with its companion high-resolution monochrome monitor, the ST would become popular with small business owners and not-for-profit organisations who could not justify the cost of a Macintosh, but wanted to create more professional-looking documents than what could be produced on an 8-bit computer system.

UK software house GST’s “Timeworks Desktop Publisher” was an affordable desktop publishing program that could run from a floppy disk, unlike more expensive competitors, and it became very popular, often paired with Timeworks Word Writer ST, a word processor that supported menu-based operation, multiple fonts and had a spelling dictionary.

The monochrome monitor was also used with most music sequencing applications, whose WYSIWYG interfaces also (in combination with the computer’s built-in MIDI hardware) made the ST popular with musicians and studios. Several software packages were released including C-Labs Notator and Steinberg’s Cubase. Many studios would continue to use the ST as a reliable solution up until the turn of the 21st century, when modern digital audio workstation (DAW) software on PC and Mac largely took over.

Unfortunately, although popular in niche markets, by 1993 the personal computer world had turned its focus almost entirely toward Microsoft Windows and the PC, and Atari discontinued the ST to focus on its Jaguar video-game console.

GEOS: Commodore’s Answer to the ST?

While Commodore’s 16-bit Amiga computer became available around the same time as the Atari ST, it was much more expensive and its GUI was “different”. Berkeley Softworks, formed by a pair of former video-game developers, had some leftover GUI code from a failed in-flight entertainment system called the “Sky Tray”, and one of Softworks’ founders realised this could be used to create a graphical environment for the Commodore 64

In 1985 GEOS (for Graphical Environment Operating System) v1.0 was sent to outside developers so that they could begin creating software for it, and at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in early 1986 it was released to the public along with an included word processor (geoWrite) and a graphics program (geoPaint).

Interested in breathing new life into sales of the 64, Commodore reached a deal with Berkeley to bundle GEOS with new computers, starting in 1987. Consumers could also purchase an optional mouse.

GEOS bore a great many similarities to the Macintosh operating system, and was an impressive feat on a 64 kilobyte machine, but suffered from some of the Commodore 64’s limitations, including its slow disk drive speed. Unlike Apple’s Disk II, Commodore’s drive was self contained, and communicated with the computer using a very slow serial connection over which it only transferred a single bit at a time.

To solve this, GEOS’s developers came up with their own method of reading files from the disk, called turboDisk which could “burst” transfer eight bits before synchronising. However, users that had only one disk drive still found themselves doing the “floppy shuffle” quite often.

Commodore 128 users had a much easier time than their C64 cousins when the C128-specific version of GEOS, which used its expanded RAM and faster, larger capacity disk drive, came out in 1987.

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