Matthew Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 www.matthew-jones.com, offers over 10,000 for my Atari welcome. <grin>

Matthew Jones, June 2005

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