TechMan: Bankruptcy filing latest Atari chapter


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TechMan walked into a bar in the 1970s (no, this is not the start of a joke) and saw a tall box with a TV screen mounted in it. On the screen was a bouncing white dot.

Of course, it was Atari's "Pong," the first arcade video game available to the public.

And as primitive as it seems now, it was strangely addictive, especially after a couple of beers.

Just last week, Atari's U.S.-based division, one of the remaining shards of the once-mighty video game company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It plans to shed its debts and its debt-ridden French parent company and go private.

It is the latest chapter in the history of Atari, a pioneer in the video game business.

In 1971 Nolan Bushnell founded an engineering firm that designed and built the first arcade video game, "Computer Space," for another company, according to Wikipedia.

In 1972 he formed Atari, named from a term in the ancient Chinese board game "Go." He hired engineer Al Alcorn and told him to design an arcade version of the Magnavox Odyssey's tennis game. The Odyssey was the first home video game console.

The result was "Pong."

Sensing there was a market in the home as well as the arcade, in 1977, Atari released the Atari VCS (Video Computer System), which later became the Atari 2600, which is credited with popularizing the plug-in game cartridge.

Atari was bought by Warner Communications and sold 2600s by the millions. It also brought out the Atari 800, and its smaller cousin, the 400, personal computers that competed with the Apple II, according to Wikipedia.

In 1982, the Atari 5200 game console was released, based heavily on the 400 and 800 models, but without a keyboard.

Then came the North American video game crash of 1983. The market was flooded with video game consoles and poorly made video game cartridges.

At the same time, people began seeing advantages of gaming on a PC.

Revenues that peaked at $3.2 billion in 1983 had shrunk 97 percent by 2005. Many companies went bankrupt, according to Wikipedia.

In 1984 Jack Tramiel, who had founded the Commodore computer company and then resigned, bought Atari.

Under his ownership, Atari Corp. finished development on a 16/32-bit computer system, the Atari ST. ("ST" stands for "sixteen/thirty-two", referring to the machines' 16-bit bus and 32-bit processor core.)

Because Tramiel's Atari ST competed with the Macintosh, some people called it the Jackintosh.

The distinguishing fact about the ST was that it was the first home computer to have a MIDI music interface. That made it popular with musicians, and some performers used it in their music.

In 1989, Atari released the Atari Lynx, a handheld console with color graphics, to much fanfare, according to Wikipedia. A shortage of parts kept the system from being released nationwide for the 1989 Christmas season, and Nintendo's Game Boy ate its lunch.

In 1993, Atari produced its last gaming system, the 64-bit Jaguar, but it failed to sell.

The Atari names was purchased by toy company Hasbro and then Infogrames, which changed its name to Atari, and the company lived on as a shade of its previous self.

If you look in the background of the futuristic 1982 film "Blade Runner," you will see the Atari corporate logo lit up in one scene.

Depending on what happens with Atari's bankruptcy, that could be one of the few remaining reminders of a company that pioneered video gaming.

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Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman. Watch or listen to TechTalk at multimedia.post-gazette.com.


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