My favorite scene in Frankenstein films is when the corpse is strapped to the operating table, electrodes firmly clamped, lightning flashing in the sky, sparks cascading to the floor, and Dr. Frankenstein, vein throbbing in his forehead, screams, "Live! Live!" to the hulking cadaver he seeks to resurrect.
This scene springs to mind here at the consumer electronics show (sans lightning), where Commodore and Atari -- corporate Frankensteins both -- are screaming "Live! Live!" to a moribund home-computer market they are seeking to revive with price cuts and new technology.
Will life imitate the horror movies? Can the home-computer market be brought back from the dead? You betcha, insists Atari President Sam Tramiel -- son of Jack, the ex-Commodore commodore who now runs Atari. Sam says sales of Atari's ST are soaring -- especially overseas -- and that ST software is now available in quantity.
Atari's STs, of course, are powerful 32-bit machines with graphics that move so fast they nearly leave skidmarks on the screen. Hewing to its "power without the price" slogan, the company again has slashed the price of its 520 ST package -- this time down to $600 from $800, which includes a monochrome monitor.
Under Tramiel, Atari has successfully adopted the old Commodore ethic: If you can get the price low enough, you can sell an awful lot of machines -- even if people aren't quite sure what to do with them. Create the installed base to get the software developers to design products and hope that, at some point, hit software will emerge that will drive sales still further. Certainly, the wealth of software activity at the Atari booth indicates that this concept has a chance of working.
But because of this price-driven strategy, Sam Tramiel's main competitive worry is the flood of cheap IBM PC clones being imported from Korea and Taiwan. Tramiel fears that, rather than take a chance on the razzle-dazzle of the ST, consumers thinking of buying a home computer will belly up to the Big Blue standard, for which software already abounds.
We're concerned that [the IBM PC operating system] could become a standard for home computers," he says.
Intriguing thought, indeed. What happens to the home-computer market when someone starts selling an IBM PC compatible system for under $500?
Commodore, on the other hand, has done some soul-searching amid its horrendous financial losses and finally has come up with some good ideas.
First, it has recognized that trying to kill off the Commodore 64 was not a good idea.
"The level of support for the 64 is stronger than we expected," says Commodore Vice President Clive Smith.
Instead, the company has repackaged the 64 in a spiffy beige casing that replaces the mud brown color, and figured out two immensely clever ways to breathe life into the old workhorse through software.
In the new 64c package, Commodore will include a special floppy disc: the A side contains GEOS -- a new graphics-oriented operating system that gives users a Macintosh-like interface to their 64. (Faithful readers might remember I mentioned GEOS in my January Consumer Electronics Show column and anticipated that Commodore would be interested in it.) This new system, which runs on all 64s, may not only spur software developers to create GEOS software, but it may also encourage a new class of buyers who want the ease of use of a home computer without having to shell out more than $500.
On the B side, Commodore provides something else this column has long argued for: telecommunications software. Just add a modem and the Commodore 64 signs on to the Q-Link home computer network, which offers a healthy array of on-line software games and services. Thus, the Commodore 64 is being positioned as a communications machine as well as a computer. Marketed correctly, that perception could really drive sales -- especially because the Commodore 64 modem only costs about $40.
In fact, a new Commodore 64 with a disc drive and a modem should run slightly more than $400 -- a good price for the "family computing" market that Smith says Commodore is targeting.
What about the much-touted Amiga computer? "It's two or three quarters behind where we expected it would be," says Smith. "It will take longer than expected" for it to succeed.
Methinks that for this Christmas and next, Commodore is counting more on a revamped 64 for growth and profits than on the Amiga.
And unlike Dr. Frankenstein, who got in a lot of trouble when his creation went wild and began tearing up the neighborhood, Commodore would be delighted if its creation did that.