Going Stateside

An Interview with Jerry Howells



Issue 15

May/Jun 85

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There are lots of products advertised in the American magazines which are difficult to obtain here. Will they become available? To find out l spoke to Jerry Howells who is General Manager of Software Express, a mail order company in Birmingham who specialise in Atari, and who recently took a trip over to the States to find out whether these products could be made more easily available in the U.K.

P6. What made you decide to go over to the States in search of software?

J.H. Well, although you can get a lot of Atari product in England there is still one area that remains neglected. That is the utility side and there are similar areas that U.S. Gold and others have not hit upon such as the magazines. Although you can get them in this country they are not easily available. Also the other stuff like the APX titles and the public domain titles. Software wise products from people like O.S.S. and MMG have only been available in small quantities but there has never been enough. The only advertising you get is in ANTIC and ANALOG so what we basically decided was to go over and see those companies in order to see if we could get them into this country. We managed to get the exclusive rights to MMG and OSS to distribute in this country, plus we will be handling the advertising in the specialist magazines so we can get more people aware to make it worth while by selling in quantity. We know that they are not going to sell like Blue Max, Beach Head or anything like that but what we do expect is that more serious users who have wanted these products will come to an English supplier and get what they want without all the chances and hassle of sending money abroad. We are trying to fill a section of the market which will not only increase our business but also give Atari what it has been waiting for - the good serious products.

P6. Who did you visit first?

J.H. I flew into New York and then drove to English Town, New Jersey where MMG have got their base.

P6. What sort of Company are MMG?

J.H. Rather like us in size - about 8 people. The vice-president who I met was Greg Fremer who is responsible for the everyday running of the Company. Although they started out as a partnership - MMG standing for Mike, Mark and Greg they were bought out by a bigger company. The operation has been kept separate. Amongst other things the Atari products include the BASIC COMPILER and an old title called Final Flight. They do a lot for the Commodore but also do a lot of contract work for Atari, IBM, Lotus and many others. Although a small company they have their fingers in a lot of pies. They did the templates for Lotus 1-2-3 and work for IBM - all the big business systems. Turnover is $2 million a year. The deal we have been offered is an exclusive for the U.K., possibly Europe, and we will be handling all their advertising. The latest product they have for the Atari is a sound digitiser which can take ordinary recordings and digitise them onto the Atari using the four voices. The quality is truly amazing. They can't wait to get the XEM and then what they can do with sound is nobody's business.

P6. So MMG plan to write for the new machines?

J.H. Oh, yes definitely. Although I didn't see any machines it is quite easy to develop software on the 800XL and then refine the products when the XE is available. The technical specifications are there so programs can be developed now. Atari are encouraging developers to begin work on software for the XE and have promised that XE machines will be made available to these people as soon as they are ready.

P6. What products will you have available from MMG?

J.H. The main product will be the BASIC COMPILER. There is a new program called Inside the Astral Rift which is described as similar to Ultima III but sufficiently different to make it a whole new game. We are currently evaluating this one. Also there will be DATA MANAGER II which they describe as being as good as SYNFILE. We are testing this and initial impressions seem to be that it has a lot of features that many databases lack. Another product is called Career Counsellor which is a questionnaire for school children or adults which asks a series of questions and seems to be very accurate. Basically you answer questions and are given a suggestion of career choices. We are not sure yet if this will be available.

P6. Where next?

J. H. Up to the Canadian border to a town called Rochester to see Computer Software Services who do the XL FIX which is a hardware modification to allow the XL machines to run 400/800 software without any translator. They have a new product coming out called, I think, The Silencer which is a very small circuit which fits inside a 1050 or an 810 and makes it so silent that there is no noise whatever, all you can see is the busy light. We will probably bring that in but only as a retailer not as a distributor. The market will probably be quite small.

P6. Did you get over to the West coast?

J.H. Yes, I drove back down to New York, another 500 miles, and then flew to San Francisco where I thought the trip really came alive. The first meeting was with ANTIC publications. They are a weird and wonderful outfit. Like most others they are a very young company and they have been going two and a half to three years. They remind you of the old journalists of the fifties with trilbies and cigars. Obviously having a lot of fun. Les Toruk was the first guy I met and we discussed ways in which we might help each other. They are very interested in the U.K. market. They have virtually split their company into two with the publication side and the mail order side which promotes books, APX and disks of public domain. Basically their own products. They do not sell software in the same way we do. They have some new books on the way. I then met with Jim Caparell, ANTIC's Editor and Publisher, and we talked about the American and U.K. markets. From what he said the two markets are very similar - they had the slump in the same way as we did last year but it is picking up very well now. They were impressed that I had gone out to the States so I was invited back later to discuss ways in which we could help them in the U. K. We ended up with an agreement to be sole distributor for ANTIC magazine in the U.K. as well as for all the APX titles, books and other software that ANTIC promote in their catalogue

P6. You must be close to Sunnyvale by now?

J. H. Yes, my first appointment was with Mike Peters of O.S.S. who is the President and also Bill Wilkinson. We ended up with an exclusive distribution deal for all their products. Although the cartridges have been available here the Tool Kits have never been available although there has been the demand. We will now be distributing these. Not much new product although they will be making all of their products for the ST and XE range. They will be promoting their products more in the U.K. They had a few bad experiences in the past which is something I found with all the companies I visited. They all knew about the British market and had in fact lost a lot of money through English distributors and were a bit paranoic but the fact that we went out there convinced them that we mean business. The deals were much better than I thought we would get.

P6. Did you talk about the new Atari DOS which I believe Bill Wilkinson wrote?

J.H. Yes. I saw DOS 2.5. It is a lot better than DOS 3. Bill Wilkinson saw that DOS 3 was not good enough and DOS 2 was okay so he decided to write something in between. He has several projects which he is working on but does not plan to promote commercially. He seems to work all night on odd bits of programming. DOS 2.5 will be available shortly and Bill Wilkinson did write it.

P6. If you were in Sunnyvale, you must have gone to ATARI headquarters?

J.H. Yes. I met with Sig Hartman who is the head of Atarisoft. ATARI U.S. is very impressive in a five story modern building. Sig Hartman was extremely nice but very powerful. I met a guy called John Sutch and we chatted for a couple of hours about the U.S. and U.K. markets. They were very interested in our Maths project, as were a lot of other companies. They were impressed by the presentation and content. It was the first time they had seen a complete course. There have been plenty of Revision aids but not a complete course. Unfortunately the school system there is totally different so we may not be able to do anything in the States. They were impressed enough to offer assistance in producing other software which we are thinking of at present. Unfortunately I did not have enough time at Atari but it was very impressive just being there. I met briefly with Sam Tramiel and Leonard Tramiel as well as Sig Hartman all of whom were very aggressive people in a very positive way - people that others listen to. I certainly came away with the impression that whatever Jack Tramiel says he will do will be done and I believe that a lot of other people believe that too.

P6. How will you distribute all the products you have agreements for?

J.H. We are planning to setup a separate company called The Software Factory to provide distribution to a select number of retailers who want to support Atari and we will make available to them the more serious products that they have not been able to get in the past. Software Express will sell products by mail order but those retailers who are interested in the Atari will also be able to get the products.

P6. What were your overall impressions about how third party companies view Atari, given their past history?

J.H. Many of them are still wary but most do believe that Jack Tramiel will do what he has promised. Certainly there is a much better atmosphere for companies to begin supporting Atari again. After the takeover a lot of people became very wary as nothing seemed to happen for a long time but now that STs are beginning to become available as development packages, more companies are beginning to believe in Atari again. I certainly feel that Atari are going to come through well and I hope that we can provide U.K. owners with greater support. The games market has been the one which the big companies have concentrated on but with the agreements we have been able to negotiate we hope that Atari owners over here can begin to find it easier to get into the more serious side of Atari.