Jack Tramiel and Family – Six Years with Atari

Friend Andy Marken asked to post this great article on Atari with the Tramiels. It was a great insight into Jack Tramiel and family’s life. Of course, if you were a kid growing up in the Atari days (like me), you were always hoping for the new game or program that would keep you fixated on a computer screen for hours.

Andy was Atari’s PR those six years. He started in 1986, then was fired and came back for another two. After a second firing, he was then brought back for the final two. His account is much first-hand.

So here is Andy’s telling of the golden age of Atari.

Atari with Tramiels – Six Years of Loving Battles

Not sure why, but I was recently asked to shed some light on the real gaming era … when Atari reemerged under JT (Jack Tramiel). You know, the period where game developers slept under their desks, survived on Twinkies and HoHos, wrote elegantly tight code and had to figure out which platform to develop for.

Jack Tramiel and his sons Sam, Leonard and Gary bought Atari from Warner Bros. Jack focused on two things there – his family and winning in business. He enjoyed them both with relish.

During this eight years, Atari put out the Atari 7800, Atari ST, Atari Portfolio, Atari Lynx and almost the Jaguar. I still have a virgin (still in the box) 7600, two Portfolios and two Lynx systems, plus a lot of game cartridges and accessories.

Jack Tramiel and Sons
Jack Tramiel and Sons

Tramiel and Sons – Tough SOBs.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about what an SOB Jack was but that was never my experience with him or the family. Tough? Yes! Determined? Yeah! Opinionated? Darn right, and you always hated to admit it but he was usually right.

Jack had no love for the company he founded and then resigned from because of a “disagreement” with the board at Commodore. He wasn’t too happy about the brash young kid who started that company called “Apple” either … something about him just ticked JT off.

Jobs wanted products for “the rest of us” and Jack wanted products for “the masses.”

The truth is, Jack Tramiel just plain loved to win in business – as long it was ethical. Also, as long as you didn’t lie to him, stretch the truth, take credit for something you hadn’t done, worked your butt to the bone and delivered … things were good.

Seeing him walking toward you in one of the Atari halls did get the adrenaline going because he just looked meaner than a junkyard dog. In the darkest reaches of your mind, you wondered what you had screwed up.

Tramiel was Sales-Driven

At the time, Atari wasn’t really a marketing company, just one that focused on the bottom line that allocated 10 percent for advertising, PR and whatever would get them over that hump. Jack and Sam Tramiel (Sam was the CEO) hired the most brilliant marketing guys!

Then, about six months later, there would be a new “most brilliant marketing guy”.

One occasion I sat in the new Bosses office as he outlined new strategies. I asked him if he had run the plans by Jack and Sam yet, which he responded he didn’t have to – he was given “full reign”. My response was something to the effect of “Yeah, but final decisions are made by the two corner offices – opposite sides of the building – and Friday night over family dinner.”

Jack Tramiel relished helping the new guy by bringing him into his office, reaching down his throat, tearing up his ideas, ripping them up with logic, ramming them back down the throat and saying he was glad they had the little talk. At least that’s the way one of the marketing types we got to know better than most (and who lasted longer) described the weekly results meetings.

For Jack it was all about sales – not elaborate strategies or plans. Fortunately, I spent most of my time with Sam, Gary and the rest of the team.

Atari 7800
Atari 7800

Atari 7800 Missed the Mark

My first shot in the golden age of video gaming was with the introduction of the Atari 7800. True, it looked a whole lot like the Atari 2600. There was some innovative hardware in that machine to push gaming forward. The two responsible for the 7800 were Leonard Tramiel – who was an astrophysicist by education and computer designer by love – and Antonio Salerno, VP of apps.

The 7800 was a great game system and might have been more if General Computer Corp – the outside company that conceived the 7800 and made all the game cartridges – didn’t hold it up.

Of course, with NES just putting out their system and taking 90% of the market, the generally sluggish sales of game machines made it a failure.  In gaming, you need titles to sell systems – but you need to sell systems to attract title developers.

Some things will never change.

Atari ST
Atari ST

Atari ST

While the 7800 did O.K., the Tramiel team focused on something they really knew/loved … computers for the masses and Commodore. The Atari ST was a home computer that got computer scientists, engineers, musicians excited simply because of the powerful Motorola MC68000 processor, Graphical User Interface, MIDI port and ROM – based TOS that was remarkably bug-free. The Atari ST was the “go-to” system for any CAD and desktop publisher, along with professional musicians.

Sam Tramiel headed the team.  Atari ST introduced me to folks like Fleetwood Mac, Mike Oldfield, Jean-Michel Jarré, Fatboy Slim and even Madonna. Not to mention all the lost artist names today’s smartphone game players might have to search Wikipedia to learn about.

When it came to real-time 3D role-playing computer games, the ST and its advanced graphics opened up new vistas. There are still some that think the ST is a “helluva’ system!”

Atari Portfolio
Atari Portfolio

Atari Portfolio – the first Sub-notebook?

The Atari Portfolio was a sub-notebook even before there was a category. To get people to understand it, we created a new category called “palmtop”.

Most just called it the Portfolio.

Powered by three AA batteries (AC adapter optional), it was an Intel 80C88-based system running the DIP OS with a whopping 128KB RAM and 256KB ROM. The Portfolio had an expansion port for parallel, serial, modem or MIDI expansion slots.

If you were lazy, forgetful or a show-off, you could put the speaker to a phone and automatically dial a phone number … cool.

The eight-line, 40-character screen was about as easy to read as emails on my smartphone today. The Portfolio was originally developed by DIP Research in England.

What more did you need in the 80s?  Everything in one compact unit that could fit in your back pocket. With the shrunken QWERTY keyboard we saw any number of people typing at 20-30 wpm and were sure they were going to throw their thumb joints out. Reporters at the time even found it a great system for taking notes and tracking stuff.

Long-time friend Dick DeBartolo, better known as the Giz Wiz and writer at Mad Magazine, still tells us how much he liked the Portfolio.

In fact, there are a lot of folks who still do. It had all the features, capabilities you needed without all the frufru.

Atari Lynx
Atari Lynx

Atari Lynx

This was the portable game system to have (and I was/am a lousy gamer)! Sure, the dumb little Nintendo GameBoy had 80 percent of the market, but Jack Tramiel wouldn’t shy away from a good fight.

Developed by Epyx, Atari unveiled the Lynx at the Summer CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Chicago. It had brilliant color, supurb graphics, an ambidextrous layout and a decent selection of games. 

I flew with Sam Tramiel to Chicago with the media ready to see what we were going to introduce. It didn’t really matter that the deal between the two firms was still a work-in-progress.

The night before the big unveil, I took a cab to O’Hare airport and picked up what we hoped would be the final manufacturing/marketing contract. I then delivered it to Sam’s room – at 5 in the morning. Wanting to sleep, I asked Sam if we were ready to go. He answered that he’d let me know at 7:45 (Press conference at 8).

He said if the contract was okay, everything would be great.  If it wasn’t, it was going to be one of the shortest press conferences in history and I’d look like a damn fool. Just the kind of pep talk I needed!

Sam signed the contract, we had a fantastic press conference and reviewers were begging to get on the first look list. The only problem was it was priced at $179 against the anemic GameBoy’s $75-$90 price. The LCD manufacturer wouldn’t help lower their prices so we could match the NES system. This was something were Jack Tramiel – who wasn’t a lawsuit kind of guy – took the company to court – and won. 

While this was going on Sam, Gary, Leonard and the team were busy developing a second-generation, more cost-effective Lynx. Just before the following Thanksgiving, we introduced the Lynx II that had a better feel, way of handling cartridges, battery life and a lower price.

We showed it off at the Marriot Marques in NYC overlooking the Times Square digital sign we rented for the occasion.While a young lady on our team trudged through the slush delivering seed review systems to radio, TV and print folks; Sam, other team members and I had back-to-back interviews. Most reviewers wouldn’t let the new Lynx go, so Sam was happy to offer them a special editorial discount and have the unit overnighted to them.

Suffice to say, everyone was happy – except the gal with the wet, cold feet.

The Lynx only had two shortcomings – a lack of widespread retail distribution and an unlimited selection of games. Before the evolution of online sales, not having product in every outlet hurt big time. So it didn’t matter the catalog, people couldn’t get their hands on a Lynx and the system failed.

The Lynx was so good, the company was recognized for pioneering the development of handheld games at the Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards a few years ago. In spite of that, sales didn’t take off and we were fired … again. That is, until Sam was ready to kick-off the Jaguar…

This time, we added a one-year, no-cut contract. Tramiel, of course, didn’t accept it. Just as well – as much as we respected Jack and liked Sam, Gary, Leonard, trying to build excitement for the Jaguar as the Lynx would have been tougher than Sisyphus with two broken legs.

Still might have been fun to try. After all, I love a good battle!