Bitter experience teaches that the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in the gambler's paradise of Las Vegas does wonders for insomnia. Usually, the most useful and exciting thing one sees here is lunch. Not so this show.
There was plenty of stuff making its premier and the odds are very good that this year will see a surge of new interest in personal and home computers.
Here's why: Jack Tramiel, late of Commodore and now the man who runs Atari, has come out with a line of Apple Computer Macintosh look-alikes for under $600. Now don't get too excited -- the machine has yet to have any software written for it, nor has Tramiel produced this TS line of computers in volume.
Moreover, its more of a Macintosh knock-off -- much as the rag merchants on New York's Seventh Avenue look at a designer dress and figure out a way to give you 80 percent of the effect for 20 percent of the cost, so Tramiel is betting that he can produce 80 percent of the Mac for 20 percent of its cost.
One thing is certain, these machines are going to be hyped to the gills. I'll bet anything that Atari's new ad campaign will go something like: "We think the Macintosh is wonderful -- we also think it costs three times too much; buy Atari -- we'll give you the power of a Macintosh for peanuts."
In effect, Tramiel is doing at Atari what he did at Commodore. He's using price to stir excitement. People will flock to stores to see just what these machines really are. Once they're in the stores, sales can skyrocket.
The success of Atari's TS line could put Apple Computer in an interesting situation. John Sculley, Apple's president, has publicly stated that he sees his company marketing to consumers. Clearly, the 128K Macintosh is an abysmal failure as a business machine (the 512K "Fat Mac" will do much better.) Why not drop the price of the low-end Mac to steer it into the consumer market? If Atari's TS line sells, Apple may well have to consider dropping the Mac's price to under $1,000.
On the other hand, Trameil is trying to play the media like a Stradivarius. There are more questions than answers about his ability to exhume Atari from the land of the corporate dead while launching new products. While hype is no substitute for tangible products, it does a heck of a job of selling a computer initially. If he can deliver these machines, and software companies are willing to write programs for them, Christmas 1985 will be very interesting indeed.
The Christmas just past was interesting for home computer industry leader Commodore International, but not in the right way. Sales plummeted roughly 20 percent from Christmas 1983. The Commodore 64 just isn't the draw it used to be so Commodore introduced at the show the C128 -- a machine with, you guessed it, 128K of addressable memory that is C64 compatible and can also run CP/M software. It's not a bad machine; expect it to be priced around $300. The C128 may well be a solid technological competitor to IBM's PCjr., and Apple's IIe and IIc. But can Commodore shed its "cheapie computer" image and go upscale?
Expect to see a new advertising campaign extolling the C128 as the machine for Yuppies. New Commodore Vice President of Marketing Frank Leonardi, recently recruited from Apple Computer, says the machine will sell in computer and specialty stores, a far cry from the K mart and Toys R Us stores where you usually find Commodore. That means you shouldn't expect price cuts on the C128 -- unless it runs into serious sales problems. Commodore also had a nice lap-size computer called the LCD for roughly $500 that it will begin shipping this spring.
Don't think Commodore has ignored the Mac-alike market. Its recent acquisition of Amiga, a California-based high-end personal computer company, gives it a powerful entry into that technology. The Amiga was conspicuous by its absence at this show, but, come March or April, expect to see a Commodore Mac-alike using Amiga technology for under $750.
These entries promise to make 1985 a very hectic year in home computing. I don't know whether that means more machines will be sold, but I am sure it means that people will be asking new questions about whether they should get a home computer.
One bit of bad news: There was absolutely no "must buy" software introduced at this show. Home computer software companies have yet to get their act together to address their market -- "educational software" just doesn't cut it and the entertainment software at the Las Vegas show (with the singular exception of Activision's "Ghostbusters") had all the thrill and tension of soggy kleenex.
The cutest software at the show turned out to be Simon & Schuster's package for the Macintosh called Great International Paper Airplane Design Kit. Based on the best-selling book published a decade ago and available mid-year, it lets you design and print out paper airplanes with insignia such as paratroopers and bombs on your Macintosh image writer. Nifty, but too pricey at $39.95. Wait till it gets cheaper. If it sells, the odds are good we'll see an origami software package for the Mac.