There is a strange mood of doom and gloom in some parts of the ST world at the moment. Atari are making bigger losses than last year — the competition from Commodore's Amiga and Apple's ever-cheaper Macs may be biting. Sometimes Atari can't win, even when they have the best — although the Lynx beats the Sega and Nintendo competitors on just about any specification you care to mention, the huge advertising campaign by the Japanese manufacturers seems to have paid off, with sales in the millions of units over the last couple of years. But Atari's recent sponsorship of the World Wrestling Foundation coverage on BSkyB may yet prove to be a good move — whereas Michael Jackson tickets for Wembley are apparently being sold off cheap, tickets for the WWF at the same venue a week later are like gold dust. Wrestling seems to be beating music for the attention of teenagers. In the software world, many software houses seem to be ignoring the ST as a platform for their latest games releases, perhaps because the Amiga now outnumbers the ST by anything from two to one to four to one, depending upon whose figures you believe.
Although the music market in Europe is small in comparison to the huge games market, the ST still remains dominant, with an enormous range of music programs available. The latest STEs and TTs offer enhanced speed and facilities, and many ST music programs are being updated to make them compatible. It seems that any new hardware releases are inevitably followed by revisions of software to cope with the changes in the new hardware — which underlines the importance of buying and registering your software.
Some of the future games to be released from Atari are likely to be designed just for the STE. The STE has enhanced hardware to enable scrolling, extra colour support, and stereo sound. So far, few games have taken any advantage of these features. The games will be compatible with the STE, Mega STE, and TT computers. Apart from the faster processors and the smoother graphics update, the extra features do not significantly affect music programs, so it is unlikely that STE-only music programs will be released. TT-only programs which can take advantage of the 68030 processor are perhaps more likely.
The background to all these developments is one of continuous change. You can be certain of two things when you buy a computer: firstly it will probably fall in price just after you buy it, and secondly it will be virtually obsolete within a couple of years. Luckily, the idea of 'backwards compatibility' usually means that new programs will run on old hardware, which can extend the life of an apparently obsolete machine, whilst hardware updates can give a very old TOS 1.0 machine the sophistication of TOS 1.4, via a comparatively simple ROM change. One thing which hardware updates don't change is the appearance of older STs. My five year old TOS 1.09 machine is gradually going a strange shade of yellowy brown, as the effects of years of sunshine give it the computer equivalent of a sun-tan. All except for the space bar, that is, which is the same shade of grey now as it was when I first bought the ST. It's a funny old world.
Whilst it is quite possible to run Mac programs on an ST with the use of a suitable emulator, the compatibility of MIDI programs has always been suspect because of the Mac's unusual serial port configuration, as well as some other potential problem areas. I keep promising myself that I will investigate this further one day, so watch this space. Meantime, it is interesting to see the other side of the coin: an American company is apparently working on an ST emulator for the IBM PC and compatibles. Cynics may already have anticipated the twist in this story — although you can run GEM on a PC, the chances of running MIDI software with it are probably almost zero. With the Multimedia extensions to Windows now including sophisticated MIDI support, having an ST emulation on your PC may well be a dead-end anyway.
Coming soon to an Atari ST near you: Multi-TOS. As its name suggests, Multi-TOS is a multitasking operating system, which should replace the ST's existing 'one program at a time' TOS. Based on a Public Domain original but extensively enhanced by Atari, Multi-TOS will allow more than one program to run at once in the ST without the limitations imposed by the current 'switcher' programs. Switchers just swap between several programs held in memory, and the active program occupies the ST's processor completely whilst it is running in the 'foreground'. In contrast, a multi-tasking operating system allocates a percentage of the processor time to the program running in the 'foreground' but also time to those running in the 'background'. This gives true concurrency of programs — they no longer stop running when in the background. Given that, despite lots of rumours and even some announcements, the official Atari MIDI multitasking environment has still not materialised, this may finally be the consistent, reliable and usable system that was needed at least a couple of years ago. As it is, with several different MIDI-specific multi-tasking systems now available from several software manufacturers, it will be interesting to see what happens to the official one.
Feature by Martin Russ
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