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Atari to go

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 1, 2005
(Issue 2313, Just Browsing, Thanks)

The most interesting news on Atari's U.S. Web site isn't that the company is again selling its classic game console – rather, it's the Atari On Demand subscription service now available.

What? Atari went out of business, you say?

Yes, that's actually true. About a decade ago, the Atari home computer and gaming console company ceased to exist when Jack Tramiel folded it into a hard drive company. But he sold the rights to the name "Atari" and most of the company's intellectual property to Hasbro, which later sold it to French multimedia company Infogrames.

You don't get to be one of the largest software companies in the world through stupidity, and so the suits at Infogrames changed the name of the publishing business to Atari – which, after all, carries a lot more cachet than "Infogrames." Even, presumably, among the French gaming public.

Atari has been a busy and successful presence in the game-publishing business the past few years, issuing best-selling titles for both PCs and Macs and the gaming consoles – PlayStation2, Xbox and GameCube. Titles like "Dragon Ball Z," "Driv3r" and "Terminator 3" have all come out under the Atari brand.

And while old farts like your loyal correspondent get misty-eyed at the thought of being able to buy a classic Atari console with 20 games pre-loaded (no more cartridges) and two joysticks for a mere $60, it's the Atari On Demand service that is more forward-looking.

The future of software?

Larry Ellison and Bill Gates have both, among others, been predicting for more than a decade now that the idea of "buying" software is outmoded; that in the future, we'll "rent" the applications we want or need for as long as we need them.

Microsoft has taken the lead in getting state legislatures to change consumer protection laws so that you no longer own software titles you purchase – you're simply leasing them. Even though you purchase a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, they want us to think of the relationship differently.

Gates and Microsoft attempted to spring this on an unwilling world with the introduction of Office XP a few years back. Corporate purchasers were told they'd have to renew their Office license every year for a fee, or else the software would no longer work.

But consumers weren't pleased with this turn of events, and under tremendous pressure – financial and legal – Microsoft backed off.

Leasing software is an entirely different economic model than what software consumers have been conditioned to expect over the past 30 years, and what Microsoft attempted to do was impose this new model on the existing distribution system – which only raised folks' hackles all the more. If it still feels like you're purchasing software (i.e., going to a retail outlet, walking out with a box and packaging), and the price is unchanged, then folks by gum are going to want a purchase, not a lease.

Fine-tuning the system

Atari has apparently learned from this. From the name of the service – Atari On Demand – to the layout and design of the Web site, Atari is making clear that you're renting the software, not buying it.

The price point has been lowered, too – again, reinforcing the new business model. For less than $15 a month, no one is going to believe they're getting dozens of titles.

Instead, what is clear from the site is that Atari is modeling their software-on-demand business slower to the video rental business. Think of it is as the Netflix of software gaming.

Whether Atari On Demand succeeds or not remains to be seen, but at least this is a truer test of the public's willingness to try software leasing than was Office XP. No one can reasonably claim they were misled by the Atari premise or presentation.

The game titles available for download via the monthly subscription range from the pouplar strategy game "Civilization III" to the kids' Pajama Sam series to the Atari Arcade collection – including Asteroids, Breakout and Missile Command. There are board games like Clue and Scrabble, first-person shooters and Tonka games for the kids.

With your subscription, you can download any of these games to your PC (no Mac versions unfortunately) and play them for the term of your subscription.

Whether there's enough variety or quality of games to turn this into a huge money-maker isn't known yet. But you have to figure other publishers are watching this. After all, the overhead and initial investment are small – set up the Web site, create some sort of verification to shut off access once a subscription expires, and let it go.

It's interesting to see the Atari banner once again at the forefront of innovation, even as Atari founder Nolan Bushnell is honored with a star on San Francisco's Walk of Game.