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Study in Ego's
Learning from Mistakes, instead of explaining them away

By: Brian Miller

I was browsing USENET (and a few Mac web sites) as I am wont to do from time to time, when I stumbled upon the Apple Doomsday Clock ( This web site was truly fascinating to me, since it represented an amazing phenomenon -- a phenomenon the author attempts to attack.

The site is basically a very long (and very well-designed) anti-Macintosh screed, which calls for the death of Apple and rather artistically debases the MacMarines and other groups (though the Nazi parallel is offensive and off-base). Factual criticisms are replied to with an e-mail that basically states "Thanks for showing what idiots Mac users are." (Can you tell I was a lucky recipient?) The author, who works under an anonymous name, encourages attacks on Apple and angry responses by spamming major Macintosh discussion forums both on USENET and the Web (including, interestingly enough, the MacMarines).

Did I bring up this site to encourage an e-mail assault? No, and in fact, I would have jumped by it and had a good laugh had it not been for a very interesting article on the site by Don Thomas. (Http://

Don Thomas, for those of you like me who owned an Atari ST in a previous computing life, had celebrity status in the Atari computing world of five to seven years ago. He attempts to draw a parallel between Atari and Apple, and like many Atari employees who were ill-treated under that empire, seems extremely bitter. He attaches his anger at the failure of what was a superior product (the ST and its descendants) directly to the competition, and embraces mediocrity (Windows 95) in an attempt to assuage his anguish. He claims that defeat at the hands of Windows 95 is inevitable, and that competition against it is impossible, due to his experience at Atari.

Don Thomas was a major player at the company that made color graphical computing a reality to those, like me, who couldn't pay $7000 for a Mac II series system. During his tenure at Atari, he introduced the Portfolio, one of Atari's few sales successes in the 1990s, a handheld PC that outperforms today's Windows CE machines at certain tasks. He also managed an independent small software company that published the "Revolution Handbook" -- an EvangeList type publication that justified Atari's refusal to spend money on marketing, product development, distribution, and trade show attendance, and instead tried to push users into the salesmanship game. It worked well for years (1985 until about 1991), until Atari finally made too many users (including myself) angry at it for its constant abuses, broken promises, and lack of commitment. Finally, Mr. Thomas managed marketing during the Jaguar project, in which Atari's seemingly nepotist Tramiel family dropped its loyal computer users (and saw its stock plummet), lying to them the whole way about future product plans, and pushed a failed video game system that pulled a once-mighty firm into the single-digit millions in quarterly sales (and laughing-stock status in the press and among users struck by its "hit and run" computer dubbed the Falcon, which Atari manufactured for US distribution only for a few months). Even long-time resellers, true die-hards, abandoned the platform (the only choice if they wanted to remain solvent).

Those of you who are former or current Atari users are likely chuckling at the parallels, and many Atari developers (like John Brochu) and publishers (like MacHome's Jim Capparell) are now making a difference here in Mac-land. Atari was a company that, in the 90s, became notorious for its lack of ethics, its complete refusal to invest in engineering, and pursuing of cheapness at all costs -- even going so far as to check restaurant expenses to ensure that the tip was no higher than 15%!

Atari's similarities to Apple are numerous -- both had loyal bases of customers that fueled them through hard times. Both have some bitter employees who have become armchair quarterbacks, and after the failures of each, had press mavens ready to analyze "what went wrong" with 20-20 hindsight.

But what truly killed Atari, beyond management that was legendarily moronic, and what can we learn from that company?

  1. Negativity doesn't sell, which is why Apple has maintained a positive outlook. Always extol the virtues of your product first.
  2. Never abandon your customers. Atari always followed the apparent money -- to the detriment of its customers. It abandoned products suddenly, after promising to support them, and dropped core customers when it became clear that effort would have to be expended to maintain a product's success. It was always looking for the "easy sell" -- a machine that could be assembled cheaply, out of generic parts, with little or no value added, and sold to a group of users always willing to shell out money to help "save the company!" As you can tell, most enthusiasts tired of the game after the second or third round.
  3. Cheap doesn't sell. This was the title of a Forbes article on Atari in 1993, which blasted the firm's management for refusing to spend even a few million dollars on marketing.
  4. Communicate your plans with key resellers, developers, and users. Jobs' numerous visits to developers like Macromedia and Adobe, commitment to new applications by Microsoft, and numerous "event every 90 days" plans to keep users informed have accomplished this to a degree Amelio (and most certainly Atari) never could.

Let's look at the "new Apple's" track record. Jobs has recommitted to the Macintosh OS and the Mac users base -- a retort to rule 2. Jobs has launched a major multi-million dollar new ad campaign, which has basically dealt with problems one and three. We've got new products like G3s that sold well at launch (anyone who's followed Atari knows that after 1990, no new Atari products sold well at launch, or any time afterward, due to a refusal to spend money to maintain distribution, marketing, and PR networks).

Mr. Thomas is famous for his encouragement to Atari users to write massive letter campaigns to ABC News and other media sources to encourage them to cover Atari products -- in an interview within a 1991 START Magazine (one of the last issues), one of his big quotes was "$1 million won't get you very far in a national ad campaign." Now working at Sega, his biggest letter campaign has been to generate letters encouraging Dateline NBC to run a glowing eulogy on Atari after the notorious Tramiel family destroyed the firm and merged it with money-losing hard disk maker JTS.

So why the attacks from Mr. Thomas and "mgabrys," the author of the Doomsday site? I attribute it to anguish caused by inability to learn from failure, creating a need to explain away problems and resentment for those who have survived similar problems. Mr. Thomas was a big advocate of evangelism as opposed to marketing, which failed for Atari. Rather than admitting his approach was wrong, and that Atari's refusal to adhere to basic business sense killed the company, he tries to paint a picture of a computing market that was impossible to survive in. He revises history.

Mr./Ms. Mgabrys, on the other hand, appears to have had a negative encounter with a Macintosh user or evangelist, and is expending considerable effort in the attempt to paint with a broad brush. While trying to attack Mac users, he/she refuses to acknowledge that he/she had a negative experience, and it's time to move on. Mgabrys is expending a lot of (excellent) talent in an effort to humiliate Apple and Mac users, and has found him/herself stooping to the unenviable low of trying to bait the most juvenile and extreme of Mac users into a flame war.

Both individuals continue to create negativity by refusing to let go of their mistakes, and continually justifying their historic positions. We can learn from both of them, and remember that in the end game, our tools, our actions, and our efforts should merely be ways to help improve the world around us. If we aren't ultimately focused on this goal, we've misdirected our energies and created our own misery.

Created: 2/17/98
Updated: 11/09/02

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