My involvement with Page 6 really started while I was
still at school. I was very much into computers in those early days of
micro-computing, having various programmable calculators, and having
built a Microtan 65. Part of being interested was forming computer
clubs, which were promoted in PCW magazine by asking if anyone was
interested - the first was the North Wilts Computer Club that used to
meet in a village hall.
Later some of the attendees formed the Atari users
group that used to meet in Swindon, but that's jumping ahead! PCW
reviewed the Atari 400 and 800 computers, and they were just stunning
compared to the UK fare.
I wanted one, but they were priced beyond my pocket money. As secretary
of the computer club I got an anonymous letter about a new computer shop
that was to be opened soon and which would sell Atari and other
computers, but the franking told me where it came from, and I went to
ask about a job there. Thus started my Saturday job, and then later full
time under-manager job, at Efficient Chips in Chippenham. There's
nothing like being paid to spend all day learning the games as they come
out so you can demonstrate them. I used to be able to fly the Choplifter
helicopter with ease, then hand over to the interested party who'd then
crash it without getting off the ground. Star Raiders with sound through
the stereo at high volume, Miner 2049'er. What a pity I don't have time
for games any more.
So, this got me access to the Atari I couldn't afford,
and I wrote various programs too, like one for Wiltshire Radio to allow
them to send messages to the person talking, and the ECABBS bulletin
board software which we also ran from the shop. I started writing
articles for Page 6 while there, because what I really wanted was to
work for Atari and I figured writing would show I could do things. The
Efficient Chips shop was closed by the parent car dealership after two
years as we weren't making the fortune they expected, though we were
breaking even. I spent a few months in a shop in Bath before my break
into Atari technical support came. I worked as second line support in
Slough for an extremely long time. Well, two months in fact since this
was the time when Jack Tramiel and family took over Atari and made half
the workforce redundant. Pretty much all the support people went. I
still have the letter I received the day before saying how great Atari
support was being quite unlike the other computer companies.
With the redundancy money they decently gave me, I
bought my own hard drive and printer. My time at Atari had also
identified the number one big gap in the market - people kept asking
about how to access Prestel with their Atari computers. Simple answer
was of course that you couldn't. So having nothing else to do, I had
time to spend with a modem or two writing the ViewTerm software that was
later published by Silicon who got a special cable made and with my
special programming of the Atari IO chip, allowed you to talk to a
1200/75 modem. Single colour, but it worked, and you could do downloads
using it too. Over time it improved for the ordinary teletype mode of
working too - I had heard that Jack Schofield, now Guardian computing
editor, had tried it with Telecom Gold so I asked him what he needed and
added the features.
I don't think it ever sold well to be honest -
certainly my royalties were insignificant, but it allowed me to play
with the excellent Atari 800 and write a few articles for magazines. I
even had one or two published by the US magazines (sorry Page6).
Some time later, Atari brought out the ST range, and I
bought one at wildly expensive prices. Amazing really. I started writing
telecoms software for it, but other commitments made it slow. And then I
got asked to help out on a product port that was having trouble - Vicom,
the Mac software which was to be ported to the ST to become FaSTcom. We
had just a few weeks to get it working before an Atari show that Jack
Tramiel was to be attending, otherwise the contract was terminated. I
set the software up on a shop stand there, Jack and entourage turned up,
I gave a quick demo of it working, and they went away happy that work
was underway. Then I turned to the guy who's stand it was, and said "and
if I click here" - and the software crashed and the computer restarted.
Such is the way with software under development, but we worked on it
rapidly to get it finished and released. My understanding is that
FaSTcom went on to be a success, but mainly through piracy. Vicom though
went to the PC with GEM, improved in all sorts of ways, and is still an
excellent product today.
What I really liked about those days was that I
actually became part of a community of people. I turned up at an Atari
show one year and instead of having to queue to pay to get in, I was
signalled forward to the Atari office, given a VIP badge, and knew half
of the people on the stands. A lot of friends there who one loses touch
with over time. This was very much the case with Les, the Page6 editor
who over the years had been very good to me as a young person finding my
way in the world.
When I was going to move to Glasgow, he suggested it
was the last place on earth anyone would ever want to move. As it
happened, it was a great place for me, I met my wife there, and
essentially put me on the road to where I am now - running my own
specialist software company for the last eleven years.
I still think that the Atari 800 series computers were
way before their time in capability. For instance, Microsoft claim that
MS-DOS 3 was the first OS with installable device drivers. Nope - Atari
had them first.
But they also had an image issue - take a BBC micro and a err, not very
good database package. People would struggle with it for hours rather
than accept that the Atari had an excellent, better, more capable
database package. The quality of the software was excellent.
As for my Atari, my little brother borrowed it for
some letters one time he was visiting my mother's. Then it disappeared -
my mum thought it was probably thrown out. So I cleared out the
joysticks and other bits and pieces. Some years later at a family
gathering, my cousin mentioned computers, and conversation got round to
him asking if I wanted my Atari back given it was just sitting in his
attic. A year later and it is now sitting in my attic, waiting for me to
see if it still works. I even now have that original 810 that had the
write- protect modification detailed
here so I can really
have fun one day.
Latest contact details for me are at
over £10,000 for my Atari welcome. <grin>
Matthew Jones, June 2005