In the early 80s, Atari was a victim of its own success. The home video game market was booming, and the company had an incredibly loyal following. Unfortunately, Atari was also a victim of the “crash” that took place in 1983. The crash was caused by a number of factors, but it essentially came down to too many companies releasing too many poor-quality games.
I don’t blame Atari for the decisions they made, the home computer market was not well defined, it wasn’t even known whether people really wanted a computer in their home. They had to make some hard choices and in the end, they did what they thought was best for the company.
However, after the release of the Atari 400 and 800 in 1979, Atari knew they had to update their home computer hardware. After several different ideas, the 1200XL was released in 1982.
It was not successful.
The 1200XL didn’t offer enough over the 800
The 1200XL was not only expensive, but the only feature it had over the 800 was an extra 16K of RAM. Price wise, the 1200XL at launch cost $899, while an 800 with 48K was selling for $799. The 1200XL also had an updated OS which had some incompatibility issues with the previous OS, causing some software not to run on the newer machine.
Without any technology advancements, and because of the aforementioned incompatibility issues, the Atari 800 had a resurgence in sales.
One change that could have had a huge impact
What ifs? are a fun intellectual exercise, but with one fatal flaw.
When you ask what Atari could have done differently, you are looking at the question with knowledge of the future.
I’m looking at this as someone who loved their 800XL, but it had a fatal flaw that required me to upgrade.
My what if is based on what I needed at the time.
And that was 80 columns.
I propose that if Atari had put 80 columns in the 1200XL, it would have made the computer a lot more attractive to the home and business market. Atari could have easily put an 80 column chip in the 1200XL and marketed it as the perfect machine for both the home and business user.
With 80 columns, the 1200XL would have been able to take advantage of the new software that was being written for the IBM PC.
There were a lot of business programs that were developed for the PC that could have easily been ported to the 1200XL.
In 1982, Apple was selling the ][+, another 6502 based computer.
Compared to the Atari line, it was woefully outdated. No lowercase characters, limited graphics, and no sound (I don’t count the built in speaker shenanigans as sound) made it look more like a toy than a serious computing device.
The IBM PC was making inroads in the business world, but it was lacking graphics and sound. The 80286 was released in 1982 but it would be another two years before IBM would make a computer with it.
Commodore started selling a worthy competitor to the Atari 8-bit computer line in January of 1982.
The sprite generation hardware was impressive, but the fixed 16 color palette was not.
The C64 also excelled in the sound department with its 3 voice SID chip.
Only one of these computers had 80 columns.
The advantages of adding 80 columns to the 1200XL
There are 4 advantages I could see in adding 80 columns to the 1200XL:
Word processing and spreadsheets were a lot better in 80 columns.
A faster computer in 80 column mode. The Atari 8-bit computers lose about 30% of their speed because of the ANTIC chip which handles graphics. However, you can turn off the ANTIC chip, giving you a 30% speed bump. The downside of this is that you can’t see anything on the screen. However, with the 80 column hardware independent of the ANTIC, you would get the 30% speed increase and still have a display.
With the speed increase, it would be one of the fastest 6502 based computers available at the time. The Apple ][ and C64 ran at 1MHz vs the Atari’s 1.79MHz.
The speed increase would also let the 1200XL almost keep up with the 4.77MHz 8088 in the IBM PC due to differences between the 6502 and the 8088.
It would differentiate the 1200XL from the Atari 800 enough to persuade people to upgrade.
Would it have made a difference?
Unfortunately, I don’t think Atari had the people in charge with the foresight to see what they had in the home computer division. By this time, the 2600 was the focus of all things at Atari, and anything that might affect the 2600 market was not going to done. Which is especially sad since at this point the 2600 was 5 years old and hopelessly outclassed by a lot of the home consoles being released, especially the Colecovision.
I think if Atari had put 80 columns in the 1200XL it would have kept them afloat for a little while longer. But eventually, they would have gone bankrupt anyway. Commodore and Apple had too much of a lead by this point, and IBM was just getting started.
Still, it would have been nice to see what might have been.
What do you think? Do you agree with me that Atari should have put 80 columns in the 1200XL? Or do you think they made the right decision by not including it? Let me know!