Atari vs. Commodore: The Battle Continues
December 14, 2005 4:55 AM   Subscribe

Back in April, Carmel Andrews and Charles F. Gray claimed that Commodore reverse-engineered Atari's 8-bit hardware. Bob Yannes (creator of the SID chip and co-founder of Ensoniq) responds. What results is a brief, informative history on the concept of "sprites" and the idea of reverse-engineering. More drama, reviews, and retro computing at The Atari Times. (See also this collection of links at Happy holidays.)
posted by milquetoast (14 comments total)
And for the heck of it, lets all take a moment to enjoy the audio stream that comes from SLAY Radio, home of the Commodore 64 and SID remix scene.
posted by furtive at 4:59 AM on December 14, 2005

From the response:
Yannes mentions that Commodore evaluated the features and capabilities of competitors' products such as the TI, Atari's line of home computers, and the Intellivision. To me, this is a form of reverse engineering. [emph added]
This kind of cuts short any interest in the discussion, for me. The people participating don't even have a common understanding of the term "reverse engineering" -- in fact, it sounds as though the offended Atarites have what I would regard as a bizarrely rigid understanding of the concept, which would eliminate the possibility of even knowing anything about the external interfaces of a competing product.

That's a bit like saying that you can't try to compete with Chevrolet by road-testing their cars.
posted by lodurr at 5:33 AM on December 14, 2005

This article seems to be confusing the 800XL with the 2600. The 2600 was the first of the general-purpose home videogame systems, and was very successful. But it was cheap, slow, and appallingly primitive. The XL-series machines were full-fledged computers with powerful graphics and sound systems, probably better than what the 64 was offering. The 64 was architected very differently internally, and was obviously a cleanroom implementation. It was so successful largely because it was cheap, easy to program, and fairly powerful.

I never worked much with the Atari 8-bit line, but I know that in many ways is was the spiritual predecessor to the Amiga, with earlier versions of many of the same design features. My limited knowledge suggests that the XL was much more powerful than the 64, but it was hard to figure out for novice programmers (everyone was a novice back then). It was quite a bit more expensive, and Atari didn't do a very good job selling them. So the 64, with its quick-and-cheap chipset, did better, because the game makers at the time made many more games for that architecture. (and make no mistake, gaming was the biggest driver of early computer adoption. Parents bought them for 'education' (and they were indeed edicational, almost accidentally), but the kids all wanted them for the games.)

Basically, the whole article is largely-uninformed speculation by people who don't really understand the machines of the time. They want to lionize Atari and demonize Commodore, when in reality both companies were rather brain dead. That's why their computers are dead and gone. It's not that the computers were bad, it's that the companies behind them sucked.

We really need to start getting some of this stuff documented in Wikipedia.... it's been 25 years now, and people are dying off. Jay Miner, the luminary behind both the XL and the unbelievably impressive Amiga chipset, died many years ago.

On preview: that's exactly right, lodurr, but I wasn't going there to try to keep this post a little shorter. :)
posted by Malor at 5:34 AM on December 14, 2005

I haven't had a chance to read the article yet, but wasn't the C64 an logical step up from what they did with the Vic20 and the PET?
posted by furtive at 5:44 AM on December 14, 2005

The bits of Yannes email are very interesting, but Gray just comes off as a supreme Atari-biased doof.

"One opinion is from a well versed retro-computer hobbyist and the other is from a Commodore engineer."

I think that pretty much sums up this whole argument, although probably not in the way Gray intended it to.

Great post, btw.
posted by Josh Zhixel at 5:48 AM on December 14, 2005

Lodurr and Malor -- Exactly. Reading Gray, I thought "Reverse engineering does not mean what you think it means -- and if it does, it sure ain't no sin."

I grew up with Atari, but never understood the Atari vs. Commodore mentality. Brand loyalty seemed silly in such a quickly-evolving field -- and still does, at least to me.

And Malor, I completely agree with the documentation angle. I think that an oral history of the era -- from the people who built the machines -- would be fascinating.
posted by milquetoast at 6:11 AM on December 14, 2005

Great post!
posted by elderling at 7:14 AM on December 14, 2005

Fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting it!

(I miss my Ensoniq Soundscape...)
posted by selfnoise at 7:43 AM on December 14, 2005

Excellent post. Takes me back.
posted by grey_flap at 7:45 AM on December 14, 2005

Reverse Engineering isn't a crime anyway:
Under United States law, reverse engineering a patented item can be infringement; however, if the artifact or process is protected by trade secrets instead of by a patent, then reverse engineering the artifact or process is lawful as long as the artifact or process is obtained legitimately.
posted by Chuckles at 8:37 AM on December 14, 2005

I learned about computers from tinkering with my Dad's Atari 800. I eventually wrote some almost-a-game programs that used the proto-sprites ("player/missile" graphics, in Atari lingo) and sound these articles discuss.

The idea that the newer and in many respects superior C64 was copied from the startlingly flexible yet bizarre and difficult-to-use Atari hardware strikes me as absurd. But not too surprising.

In the early-to-mid 1980s, when the PC hobbyists were splintered into several camps (the Apple II users, the Atari users, and the C64 users), there was a cliquish, almost cultist tendency for each camp to smugly congratulate themselves for being so tremendously cleverer to the unenlightened knuckle-draggers in the other camps. The Atari crowd was probably the worst offender in this regard.

For any number of mostly non-technical reasons, the Ataris never sold as well as the Apple or the C64. The Apple and C64 both achieved some mainstream success, selling to people who weren't interested in computers per se, but who were interested in word processing, spreadsheets, educational toys for the kids, etc. The Ataris didn't, and appealed mainly to a much smaller market of gamers and programming hobbyists. Software packages were frequently developed for or ported between the Apple and C64, leaving the Atari out in the cold. Peripherals of all descriptions were plentiful for the Apple and C64, but using them with the Atari always required some sort of oddball adapter that might or might not really work.

The simple fact that the Ataris were capable of amazing things but not successful in the market drove the Atari crowd - stuck with their expensive, powerful, but fundamentally goofy machines - completely nuts. They developed a terrible inferiority complex, and the 1980s Atari magazines were filled with exactly the same kind of petulant whining that the Gray article is.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:34 AM on December 14, 2005

What lodurr said.

remind me not to read anything by Charles Gray again...
posted by bugmuncher at 8:26 PM on December 14, 2005

Just to clarify:

Nothing gets documented in Wikipedia. It is merely stored there temporarily. I am all for further interviews, scanning of documents and archiving of information in a static form, and there are actually a large number of sites doing so.

This particular pair of articles is just strange speculating that got risen a bit because someone on the Commodore side called them out. But I wouldn't lose sleep over any of the goings-on in this particular "controversy".
posted by jscott at 8:32 PM on December 14, 2005

Wow, information stories in my brain that I had never expected to access again becomes useful....
posted by JHarris at 2:13 PM on December 15, 2005

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