1978: VCS Follow-Up: Colleen &
started on the follow-up to the VCS in 1977, the engineering team Joe Decuir,
Jay Miner, and Steve Mayer were tasked to create a machine that could both
follow up the VCS, and double as an entry into the burgeoning personal computer
"(The follow-up had to) support
1978-vintage arcade games. We knew we would need to leapfrog the 2600 before
somebody else did. (It also had to) support home computer character and bitmap
graphics. We saw the Apple II, Commodore, and Radio Shack appliance machines
- Joe Decuir
was soon split into two separate projects, dubbed "Colleen" and "Candy"
after two particularly attractive secretaries These products were later re-named
the Atari 800 and 400 respectively. "Colleen" was to be the full-fledged
computer, while "Candy" was more suited as the game machine follow-up
to the 2600.
Both were based on the same basic hardware design with four
separate silicon chips that handled different parts of the computer's operation:
the 6502 CPU running at 1.8 MHz, the ANTIC display microprocessor, CTIA
graphics chip, and POKEY sound chip. The power of these multiple processors
pushed the 8-bit computers power far beyond that of the VCS.
Jay Miner, as
system architect, led a group that included Joe Decuir, George McCloud and
Francois Michel that designed
the ANTIC microprocessor for processing display information and the CTIA
graphics chip to put it on a screen xxxiv.
It was a very potent
combination, giving the Colleen and Candy the most sophisticated graphics
for any microcomputer at the time. The ANTIC took graphics information in
the form of Display Lists. Display List Interrupts allowed the screen to
be cut horizontally into multiple parts, allowing for almost limitless display
instructions were processed and displayed by one of multiple
graphics modes by the CTIA (later GTIA) processor. The design also
included hardware based sprites (Player-Missile Graphics) for creating
games, a character-set that could be completely redefined in code, and per-line
fine scrolling. xxxv In terms of sheer horsepower, the graphics
capabilities of these new machines made the output of the TIA chip in the VCS
look primitive by comparison.
6502, ANTIC and CTIA, the 4th chip of the design was the POKEY.
POKEY was a dedicated sound processor started by the core team and finished off
by Doug Neubauer.
"The Atari 800's architecture
evolved as an upgrade of the 2600. Conceived primarily by Steve Mayer, Joe
Decuir and Jay Miner before I arrived at Atari, the original plan for the POKEY
chip called for keyboard interface, audio and paddle controllers." xxxvi
- Doug Neubauer
had four distinct sound channels, with the ability to set volume, frequency and
waveform per channel. This gave Colleen and Candy sound production abilities
far beyond the speaker beeps of most other personal computers at the time.
hardware was being finalized, Atari started working on the software required to
get the computers up and running. After announcing late in 1978 that the new
computer systems would be on display at the January CES in 1979, the scramble
was on write software that would run the machines.
"Atari had been designing a personal computer for a couple years and had
a group of programmers working on the OS for a long time. Atari then
pre-announced that the computer would debut at the January 1979 CES. " xxxvii
- Alan Miller
this date, Atari tapped some of the best programmers from the VCS team, Alan
Miller, Larry Kaplan, Bob Whitehead, and David Crane to work on the operating
system, while outsourcing the job of creating a version of the BASIC language
for the computers.
"There is a period at Atari
when there were no games coming from Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead,
and myself. As the most senior designers at Atari, we were tasked with creating
the 800 operating system. This group, plus two others, wrote the entire
operating system in about 8 months. A funny story from this time that Al Miller
likes to tell has to do with the Atari BASIC cartridge
that was to ship with the system. Atari had contracted with a young programmer
named Bill Gates to modify a BASIC compiler that he had for another system to
be used on the 800. After that project stalled for over a year Al was called
upon to replace him with another developer. So, while Al is the only person I
know ever to have fired Bill Gates, I suspect that rather than work on Atari
BASIC, Gates was spending all his time on
DOS for IBM. Probably not a bad career choice for him, do you think?" xxxviii
- David Crane
BASIC language was finished by SMI corporation in time for CES, as was the internally
"I'm very proud of
the OS we created for the Atari 400/800. It was similar in complexity to QDOS
-- the OS that Microsoft licensed a couple of years later from Seattle Computer Products and renamed MS-DOS for the IBM Personal
Computers. However, the Atari OS was much better designed in terms of its user
friendliness and it had a much, much richer graphics subsystem and many fewer