Thomas Raukamp interviews Oliver Kotschi
English translation: Peter West


The first official round-table meeting of sundry hardware and software developers as well as opinion-formers in the market, and others well-known in the Atari field took place in Dresden in March of this year, to discuss the future of Atari-style computers in general and the xTOS computer in particular. Afterwards Thomas Raukamp, chief editor of st-computer magazine, held a long discussion with the new leader of the ColdFire "Atari" project, Oliver Kotschi.

Thomas: Oliver, the first official xTOS developers' meeting has finished. What is your feeling regarding the ColdFire project a few weeks after this meeting?

Oliver: Our meeting in Dresden was for me and certainly also for all other participants a brilliant experience. It is already most impressive when around 20 Atari enthusiasts from the most varied areas of Germany and neighbouring countries get together with a wish to participate and collaborate in future development of the Atari system. But the most important thing for me was to see first of all whether we could get enough engagement among developers so that such a large and multi-faceted project could be realised without the backing of a major company. For this reason alone the meeting was a great success for us all, which naturally has a very positive effect on the spirit later when it is a question of deeds following words. Special thanks are due to Norman Feske, who made the meeting possible and supported me perfectly in organizing it.

Thomas: Previously you did not come into play as a co-ordinator of the project. What persuaded you to take on this post?

Oliver: Since last autumn I have been in constant contact with Fredi Aschwanden and Ulrich Gössel regarding the Déesse and the ColdFire project. After meeting at the Atari Park in Cologne I decided to directly participate in the development of the ColdFire computer. So you can guess perhaps that my position as co-ordinator developed by and by, not least because due to the development of the Déesse card I have worked closely with many Atari developers and we would all eagerly want to see this computer realized.

To this must be added naturally my good contact with the Milan and Falke Verlag, in other words with Ali Goukassian and you, as collaboration with xTOS would not have been conceivable previously. Naturally this means an enormous advantage for the project, since in no way could we afford any unnecessary hostility, which slowly should be clear to us all in today's situation. When Ulrich then created the software foundation, it soon became clear to us that I would assume the further co-ordination of the project and leave Ulrich to solely look after the software foundation.

Thomas: How much is your company Frontier Systems involved in the xTOS project?

Oliver: My undertaking at Frontier Systems is less a closed company that develops or merely sells products, but far more a platform or opportunity for freelance Atari developers to have their developments represented and contracted consistently to the outside world. Frontier Systems was founded from the necessity of presenting a consistent contact for users and developers of the Déesse project, and later also to be able to offer it under this name. However in the last few months I have constantly strived to include other projects and market them via Frontier Systems.

This is the ColdFire team
Oliver Kotschi, project leader

[Photo: Oliver Kotschi]After I devoted a lot of time in the eighties to games on the C64, with the appearance of the 16-bitters I naturally also had to have an Amiga and an Atari 1040ST. Well, I use the Amiga now as ever as a games computer, but the Atari showed me very quickly that computers could be used for far more sensible things. So at the time I quickly loaned the Amiga permanently to a friend and bought myself one of the first Falcon computers in Germany, because in the meantime I had discovered the MIDIfied world of music, and the Falcon with its DSP promised real musical miracles. Music with Cubase Audio is still the main field for my Falcon today, though naturally over the years all kinds of other things, such as burning CDs, text processing with Papyrus or audio and sample editing were added.

Through the internet and its manifold new possibilities I tried to find like-minded people in the last few years (so I also constructed a small Cubase support page in order to help beginners a bit), but I stumbled over and over across the same problem: no new hardware = no new software. To overcome this well-known chicken-and-egg problem, the purchase of the Déesse DSP card in 2001 was the start and entry for me to change this for the better. With the fantastic co-operation of the most varied Atari developers on the Atari ColdFire project, work on the Déesse project has now assumed far greater dimensions than I had hoped for at the time.

Today we still have a very great potential of programmers and developers, and if they all co-operate we will also achieve what we have all dreamed of for years: a new, modern Atari system.

Clearly the direct collaboration between the ColdFire project and Frontier Systems is very close. For example, Frontier Systems could well become the platform for the computer's German distribution and support. How this could work in detail naturally has to be discussed first with all participants of the ColdFire project.

Thomas: How would you describe the state of development of the ColdFire computer?

This is the ColdFire team
Robert Wetzel, software development

[Photo: Robert Wetzel]I haven't been involved with Atari for very long. The first real Atari contact came through Norman Feske whom I got to know through my studies. He also invited me to the scene party EIL2 that took place in mid-April of last year. I was very impressed with what I saw there. A little later I acquired my ST and shortly after that I could also call a Falcon my own.

I use the Ataris for demo programming above all, and am learning the ropes for DSP programming at present, the more so since DSP will be an important part of the new ColdFire computer.

I keep on being repeatedly impressed by the dedicated enthusiasm for the Atari. I hope that this enthusiasm will also be found for the Atari ColdFire and will attempt to add my contribution to this. For this I am (naturally) interested in programming directly for the hardware, though I am not turned off "normal" software development.

Oliver: Currently we are in a kind of last planning phase of the hardware, in which we have to verify all planned functions in detail for feasibility and function. The hardware of the computer is now being determined bit by bit as it were in the hardware and chips from certain manufacturers.

This is the ColdFire team
Matthias Alles, driver development

[Photo: Matthias Alles]My path to the Atari started in 1989, when my parents decided to put an ST under the Christmas tree (actually it should have been an Amiga, but on the advice of acquaintances this was sent back). And so it happened that one played with the computer as an eight year old child for the first time. That's how it stayed for quite some time. Since hardly any new games appeared for the ST in '94 the house finally acquired a PC. With that the Atari was actually written off already.

But when I purchased my first copy of the "Computer-Flohmarkt" (Computer flea market) in the same year I was amazed that many people still dealt with the Atari in that. After some software swapping I became quite enthusiastic about my ST, as it could suddenly do things that I had never thought it capable of. My interest in programming developed at this time. The first planned task was a system-info tool in Omikron BASIC.

In 1998 finally a Falcon arrived on my desk, on which I still program today. The largest project up till now is the real-time strategy game STune, developed in C. Meanwhile, I also program in assembler, and I have also learned some DSP coding.

This is certainly the most important phase of the development of the hardware, since we now have to specify exactly all of its details - any later changes would mean an enormous amount of extra work for us which we consequently wish to avoid at all costs, of course. Indeed this also means that at present certain functions such as interface ports or components could still alter - so all-in-all a very important and exciting but also work and time-intensive development phase.

Thomas: Up to now the computer has been primarily thought of as a project from Medusa Computersysteme, which has already realized the Medusa and Hades machines. Now the computer counts as a community project. How and why exactly did it come to this division of tasks?

This is the ColdFire team
Norman Feske, operating system and web page

[Photo: Norman Feske]I first came into contact with an Atari computer at the tender age of 11 when my father gave me an Atari 800XE for Christmas. After I had played four or five joysticks to death, I discovered the Atari handbook with a short description of Atari BASIC. This was the start of a new passion: from now on the River Raid and Schreckenstein floppy disks gathered dust, and I spent day and night writing senseless BASIC programs, typing in listings from computer magazines and reading programming reference manuals.

In February 1993 I used several years of savings to buy myself an Atari Falcon. Naturally I knew the ST/STE demos, but what I saw on the Falcon put everything I had seen previously in the shade. One thing was certain: I wanted to be able to do that too! While my friends enjoyed their puberty, I sat in front of my Falcon and programmed, pixelled and tracked like a man obsessed. At this time I formed the demo group, Escape. Unfortunately the group had only one member. By and by I got to know the Atari demo scene, took part at scene parties, programmed demos and quickly became a part of the demo scene myself.

Naturally, like many others, I longed for a Falcon successor and kept an eye on developments from Centek, Titan Designs et al. After the Atari/Centek/Milan II debacle I almost gave up hope of such a successor.

When I heard about the xTOS project, I offered my support. Unfortunately nothing much has happened for a year. In the meantime I had got to know Oliver Kotschi, who luckily is now co-ordinating the project.

I hope that with the new ColdFire computer a similarly fascinating computer to the Atari Falcon will arise. I would like to help to give the Atari demo scene a new toy and to users a powerful TOS computer.


This is the ColdFire team
Matthias Jaap, software development

[Photo: Matthias Jaap]I have owned an Atari since the end of the eighties. I came to the Atari via the ZX81 (never used seriously) and the C64, as the then competing product, the Amiga, was too expensive for me. I made my first programming experiments with a 520STM, an SF314 and ST BASIC. The software complement consisted of Neochrome and ST Writer Elite. When a RAM extension became necessary, it turned out that a change to an STE would not be much more expensive. Later the STE gave way to a used Falcon, though I was never seriously interested in music applications.

The first real software releases were the programs HomePage Penguin and HTML-Help, still known today. I got to know the internet via school, and suggested to the then chief editor of st-computer, Ali Goukassian, that I write an article about HTML. Unfortunately this theme was already being handled at the time, so as a substitute I wrote an article about emulators on the Atari ST. Today I also write for our sister magazine Mac Life and develop web pages with Flash.

I give the ColdFire-Atari a better chance of success than the Milan. The processor is unique in the whole (desktop) computer world, which will certainly stir some freak or other. An example would be the (still existing) devotees of the Sinclair QL, that already missed the opportunity to give the Milan II a new operating system. In addition it will be the first machine that will handle the conversion of graphical applications from the UNIX world. Also I am very curious to see what the programmers will do with the DSP.


This is the ColdFire team
Markus Fichtenbauer, PCI-BIOS and OS

[Photo: Markus Fichtenbauer]My first acquaintance with an Atari was an 800 XL that I purchased at the start of 1985. I completed my HTL course with two projects that the Atari was materially involved in: A simulation (4-pole theory) for high tension transmission lines, and the control of hardware I had developed for creating running text for advertising displays.

Finally in 1988 a 520ST graced my table. I tinkered quite a bit with it, so I bought a 260ST from a friend (for replacement parts) though I have never needed it. After a few DIY projects that were never published (like the conversion of a printer to a scanner with a scan program in GFA Basic, or GAL-programmer software (this time in C)), in 1996 my eyes fell on a Hades 040 at a fair in Ulm. Since then this has been my main computer, which I upgraded with a 68060 processor a little later.

At this time I started to write a driver for DEC network cards. This gave rise to the idea of realizing a PCI-BIOS for Atari-compatible computers. At that time there were three basic approaches, all of which we were able to combine in harmony.

Later I was also interested in the Milan. But I was advised to wait for the Milan II, which didn't turn out to be such a good idea. Therefore a Linux computer for use on the internet followed, which was joined a few months ago by a Mac clone with MagiC Mac. And the PCI-BIOS became my main project.

With the xTOS project I finally see a future prespective that promises success. I immediately declared myself ready to take over the PCI agenda here, too. If this now leads to greater activity for me, then this is only because I believe in this new system. If one thinks about Windows, for instance, where data - without the user's knowledge - is sent to the internet, then I can't help feeling deeply apprehensive. Our Atari world is still open and above board here, and that's how it should stay!

Oliver: This division of tasks was and is to my eyes stringently necessary, as a single, relatively small firm - such as we have today in the Atari sector, unfortunately - would be simply over-extended to realize such a project like the ColdFire-Atari without having to neglect certain areas of development. I mean with this mainly the usual division of hardware and software development, such we have had to endure frequently unfortunately with largish hardware projects: hardware tops, software flops.

It very quickly became clear to Fredi Aschwanden and I that we could reach our ambitious goals only with a community project of various firms and the collaboration of the Atari developers. At first I took over from Fredi further co-ordination of the non-hardware parts of the project. Fredi knows only too well what an enormous amount of work is required for the development of an Atari-compatible computer, so the evolution to a community project is to our eyes a great chance for efficient continued and new development of the Atari system.

This unique collaboration, which is built up solely on a voluntary and completely disinterested basis, logically leads to the fact that we may no longer see an anonymous developer's firm here that calculates ruthlessly in order to make as large a profit as possible, but instead have a real community project in which many engaged Atarians contribute greatly to the success of the venture. This evolution to a community project was therefore to my eyes an imperative premise for the basic feasibility of this project with the goal of building a real Atari successor, which can once again powerfully show its teeth.

As a logical consequence, the next step was to look for direct contact with the Atari hardware and software developers and we recently held the developers' meeting in Dresden to discuss the way the tasks should be divided.

Thomas: Who determined this division of tasks? Or did it develop spontaneously?

Oliver: The task division, as you can read on our project web page, is first of all the result of our developers' meeting. Spontaneous and voluntary - though after an extensive exchange of opinions and experiences of the developers during and after the meeting - we undertook the task division jointly. Decisive in the first instance of course was the experience and capability of the person in each case to take part in the project. Furthermore in no way should one regard the division of tasks as tied down definitively, but simply as things are now. The project is open for every engaged developer and we welcome everyone who supports us and would like to collaborate on this project. There is really more than enough work - the driver development for new PCI cards alone can offer an almost unlimited field of activity.

Thomas: How much is Medusa still involved?

Oliver: Medusa, Fredi Aschwanden's company, is so to speak the official developer of the complete hardware. Only the Déesse card, to which I hold the rights, will be built by me as a hardware component into the computer. Fredi Aschwanden is therefore the actual manufacturer of the hardware of the new ColdFire-Atari, all further developers of the ColdFire project are working mainly on adapting the operating system and its further development, as well as on new software projects for the ColdFire computer.

Thomas: What new perceptions and results did the developers' meeting bring to you personally, and to the project?

Oliver: Personally I was most impressed how friendly the atmosphere of this meeting was. Even though many of us previously only knew each other through e-mails or from brilliant program developments, one quickly got the impression there that we had known each other personally for many years. Certainly, many of us also had already established contact with each other a long time before, but due to the potential of this meeting and our common goal we were given a chance there to let these contacts become more personal and surely also to convert these to friendships.

Even though this assertion may not seem all that important at first glance, I nevertheless consider it to be one of the most important results of this meeting. For the project itself this aspect was naturally particularly important when one considers that we want and have to work together in collaboration, and that we stand before a great challenge where such friendships naturally have enormously positive effects on the work and the whole atmosphere.

Thomas: Are further meetings planned already?

Oliver: Not yet actually planned, I would rather say they have been thought about already. Certainly the next meeting will be due at the latest when the first prototypes are put into operation. In addition we will also hold regional meetings, which do not necessarily have to take general decisions and which serve more for effective collaboration and friendship. The important thing here is to understand that we all work completely freely and without coercion on this project and these meetings reflect exactly this. Despite that I am being asked continuously about the next meeting, so one can clearly see how people look forward to such opportunities and wish to be able to take up personal contacts.

Thomas: How would you rate the reaction from the Atari world up till now?

Oliver: In my opinion the Atari world is split into various groups, which makes a general and simple appraisal rather difficult. Nevertheless I see absolutely an enormously positive reaction, particularly from the developers' camp. One notices clearly that a kind of suspense hangs in the air and everyone is only too eager to have this computer on his desk tomorrow morning, though at first they are very sceptical until they familiarize themselves with the details, such as at our meeting. Nevertheless I also find the realism and scepticism of the developers noteworthy and sensible, which is why I am all the more happy about the magnificent collaboration during and after the meeting. Since then this co-operation has already drawn undreamt of circles, and people are just bursting with energy to develop for this new computer.

On the other hand the normal users, of which I am also one, behave with far greater reserve, for which they should in no way - at least at this stage - be blamed. As long as we are not offering real, concrete things - in other words made the computer run properly - doubts will always be raised about this project, although the overwhelming majority, despite the hard blows of destiny of the last few years, take a positive stand regarding the ColdFire project.

I have received many enquiries on the theme of MIDI and the music capabilities of the new computer. Particularly in this area people long for a modern new computer. I can understand this only too well from my own experience, as I have used my Falcon for music making for years and unfortunately have the restricted capabilities of this long-in-the-tooth computer constantly before my eyes when, say, I want to edit audio files with Cubase. A clear sign that we cater for this user group are the MIDI In and Out ports that are present in all cases, as well as the fast DSP thanks to the Déesse card. So: for all musicians among us we will also quite clearly create the best possible premises for a new, modern system.

Thomas: There was some confusion about the new name, AtlanTOS for the new computer. In my opinion this is not necessarily an appropriate name, as after all the city of Atlantis, if it ever existed, sank with mice and men. The new ColdFire project web site also does not mention this name any more. Are there new suggestions?

Oliver: You are quite right in this. The publication of the computer name two days before the developers' meeting was somewhat unlucky and should not have happened. Consequently the final computer name will be set only after a democratic vote of the participating developers, and until then we talk provisionally about the Atari ColdFire project. Of course we discussed many naming proposals at the meeting, but nevertheless decided to postpone the naming for the time being.

Thomas; Despite this I can't avoid the impression that the project is somehow developing in two directions. This is revealed by the presence of two separate web sites with different news messsages: xTOS and Atari ColdFire Project...

Oliver: This is quite simply due to the fact that the development of the ColdFire computer and the co-operation with the Atari developers has grown enormously in the last few months and has now become a community project encompassing various Atari developers. As a logical consequence, therefore, we also had to give birth to a new community web site. The xTOS web pages therefore serve exclusively the software foundation created by Ulrich Gössel, whereas the Atari ColdFire Project pages are dedicated exclusively to the community ColdFire project.

Thomas: Let's now turn slowly to the technical questions. When the ColdFire was announced as the new CPU for the Atari system, there was some doubt and antagonism. Rodolphe Czuba assserted, for instance, that due to compatibility problems with the 68K-series the ColdFire was not particularly suitable for an Atari. Nevertheless you have stayed with this processor. Is there new knowledge with respect to compatibility?

Oliver: The compatibility question was naturally also a discussion topic during the developers' meeting in Dresden. Indeed it quickly became clear to all present that we had no choice apart from the modern Motorola ColdFire series for a real Atari successor. At the latest with the ColdFire 4e we will have no great compatibility differences any more to previous 68K generations.

It is clear that the ColdFire is not 100 percent compatible to the 68K series, but would that really be sensible or would it be some kind of obstacle? If we always and forever want to stay compatible with old standards, then nothing will ever move - this applies to hardware in the same way as to software development. It's not for nothing that Motorola sees the ColdFire as a direct 68K successor and also offers it accordingly. Even now we can see the roadmap of the next ColdFire core generations on a sure and efficient further development in the next few years.

But the important thing is that we are all agreed about the choice of the ColdFire - for us it is simply the only sensible and practical way in which modern Atari hardware development can and should go.

Thomas: How do things look for the delivery of the ColdFire 4e?

Oliver: According to Motorola the ColdFire 4e should be available this year. A meeting between Fredi Aschwanden and Motorola Deutschland is also planned for this month, and naturally we hope to get further information about the early availability of the ColdFire 4e there.

This is the ColdFire team
Richard Gordon Faika, software developer

[Photo: Richard Gordon Faika]Naturally I have not been developing software since my kindergarten pre-school days. I have always been an enthusiastic technical hobbyist and handyman, who unlike my friends at the time could also put the whole thing back together again. Before my computer era I was interested exclusively in any kind of technical matters, be it internal combustion engines or old televisions.

The very first contact with a computer (I really didn't know at the time what to do with these devices at all) was a Commodore 128 belonging to my then best friend. I could not operate the device, nor did I know what happened within it, and to tell the truth it simply did not interest me at all. Now and again we played some kind of games on the C128, don't ask me which ones, something to do with strange, multicoloured blocks and manikins in beer-box style. The whole playing around however then infected me, but only years later, during my apprenticeship (around 1993/94), did the opportunity arise to buy an Amiga 500+ from a school friend. Previously I had only seen the machine from a distance, and was then naturally very disappointed when I saw that the graphics on the television screen were so much worse than those on the packaging. Consequence: it became a hobby object. I preferred to use my soldering iron on it (something was intermittent with the graphics that I wanted to remove) and during this I effectively destroyed it (inserted the Kickstart ROM incorrectly).

After this I had a load of these useless things for a while. I preferred to tinker around with internal combustion engines for motorcycles (I am too lazy to walk) and naturally had some jolly times with this (astonished police faces, exploding engines and leaping, screaming pensioners...), but in the meantime I got to know another very good friend who - as you could almost guess - was an Atari user. That was at the start of 1995 and then everything actually went relatively quickly: bought a 1040STFM from him, games and of course GFA as well, played for long nights and with streaming eyes on a television and made some programming attempts. I still have these things, perhaps it might be fun to publish them sometime... Then I had a few small successes, a proper monitor (SM124) soothed my eyes - and soon my enthusiasm was kindled!

At the end of 1995 I made an "upgrade" to a Mega STE, was the happiest man in the world, joined the MAUSnet and programmed my first largish program: PlayMeUp (oh God, what a horrible name) a striking flop, just like the later, larger project "AudioSAM" (perhaps someone still remembers this?!). AudioSAM was my largest and only audio project, a program for sample editing (you won't believe how I leaped with joy as I found out for myself how one mixes and filters digital audio data) with hard disk recording capability from the ST onwards.

Oh well, then came the time for a decisive turning point in my "programming course": I was sponsored by a MAUSnet and Atari user for the GEM development tool for GFA "FACE-VALUE 1.0" (I'd like to know who that was - I don't recall any more).

Then things preceded by leaps and bounds: I bought a TT030 with the Nova graphics card and a monitor (then there were really colour and 3D effects under MagiC, wow!), and I was simply inspired - and I still am today, an "old Daimler" doesn't break down and so I still program with it. From this time onwards things looked up in the sphere of software projects that were a little more professional and also found better distribution: 1995/1996 LadenPRG, 1997 Schon-Me, many, many smaller programs such as Spica, GLOAD or Lisa, 1998 Arthur and in December 1999 I started on Luna and in January 2000 I published version 1.0. And today I am still here and won't give up, even if in the meantime a G4 Mac and Windows PC stand next to the TT. What about you?


This is the ColdFire team
Jens Syckor, driver development

[Photo: Jens Syckor]I am a latecomer in Atari terms, since I caught the Falcon fever only in 1997. I found demos such as "Lost Blubb" or "Sonolumineszenz" very big hits. Since then I have been up to "mischief" as a kind of spy in the Atari demo scene. At first I was busy with graphics, later I started to program in assembler and C. Since 1999 I have been studying media informatics at the Technical University of Dresden.

The Atari ColdFire project has stirred my interest, as one can learn a lot with it - particularly when dealing with the development and adaptation of drivers. And to be able to take part in developing a new computer is certainly excellent experience, I believe.

Thomas: Is the processor interchangeable if a somewhat lower-powered processor has to be used at first?

Oliver: Yes, the processor will be designed with an interchangeable processor PCB similar to the bplan-PPC board. This solution offers enormous advantages for the coming chip generations of the ColdFire for us and the users.

Thus one only has to swap the processor PCB for a faster version and does not have to buy a complete new main-board first, as has become more or less usual nowadays. In addition this offers the possibility of reacting very quickly and without great development effort to make use in a simple way of certain additional functions (such as Ethernet, USB...) that Motorola is integrating directly into the ColdFire CPU. With the direct integration of the processor on the main-board these possibilities would be largely lost.

Thomas: Some months have passed since the first announcement of the 4e by Motorola. Is there new information about the expected clock speed of the ColdFire 4e?

Oliver: The current specifications of the ColdFire 4e give a clock speed between 225 MHz and 333 MHz, depending on the manufacturing process.

Thomas: A further striking part of the current specifications is the likely relinquishment of an AGP port for fast graphics cards. What is the reason for this abandonment?

Oliver: We place a lot of importance on incorporating the optimum graphics performance in the ColdFire computer. We have therefore invested a lot of time searching for the best solution in the last few weeks and are talking to various graphics chip manufacturers. For this reason alone you will not be greatly surprised that I cannot yet tell you the final choice today. On the one hand we need a fast modern graphics chip, but on the other hand this must remain available to us for the long term; and not least the best chip is of little use to us if we don't get optimum developer support from the manufacturers. It is just this support that today is one of the greatest problems for alternative developer projects such as ours, because the firms keep the documentation under wraps and do not like to pass the 3D functions in particular to third parties.

Nevertheless, due to the tireless efforts of Norman Feske, Markus Fichtenbauer and Leon O'Reilly, who have undertaken weeks of insistent persuasion, we have been able to achieve great success. Whether we relinquish AGP and have to choose the PCI variant will consequently depend directly on the final results of this collaboration with graphics chip manufacturers.

Thomas: Is the Radeon chip from ATI in consideration?

Oliver: Actually graphics incorporation via the AGP slot seems to be the best solution at the present time, but nevertheless using a PCI card for the graphics still remains an option if our further tests with AGP are not successful.

The choice of the graphics chip and the quality of the corresponding graphics drivers is far more important for optimum system performance than the choice between AGP and PCI on the hardware side; and as I have already described, we have been in intensive contact with the manufacturers in order to allow us to make the best choice.

In play are chips from NVidia, ATI and Matrox. As all chips that get a look-in have more or less the same 2D capabilities, we will choose the chip that can be integrated best into the ColdFire system and for which we have the best documentation available. At present this would point to the choice of the G450 from Matrox.

Thomas: How do things look with the 3D support of the chips? Projects like an OpenGL port to the Atari have unfortunately rather run into the sand...

Oliver: 3D support as standard would certainly be something new on the Atari platform and would appreciably increase the whole subjective and of course also objective system performance, especially for today's so important multimedia applications. We are therefore very pleased that we could gain Leon O'Reilly for this important area, who will undertake the complete 3D graphics driver development for the ColdFire-Atari. Leon has a great deal of experience in the 3D programming of current graphics chips, not least due to his job-related competency as a developer with the software house Bullfrog. There he has also helped to develop the 3D graphics engine of Quake 3 and current PlayStation 2 games such as the Formula 1 simulator F1.

Thomas: You have hinted that the use of AGP presents a problem. Is there not the danger that if you forgo AGP there will soon be no graphics cards available for the ColdFire computer any more?

Oliver: We are very conscious of this danger, which is why we place so much value on the careful choice of the graphics incorporation and the correct chip choice. I cannot yet tell you the final solution today, because we are still engaged in testing various options. Nevertheless we are trying even now to react appropriately and to verify the exact details should a graphics card version no longer be available in the long run.

Thomas: In your opinion, what advantages would the integration of the graphics chipset directly on the main-board offer?

Oliver: An on-board solution, as we also discussed at the Dresden meeting, certainly would have some advantages with regard to compactness and programming-friendliness of the new computer. Against this, however, is the appreciably greater effort of the hardware development and through this appreciably higher cost and time penalties, as no chip manufacturer makes documentation for such an implementation and so we would have to develop the complete graphics hardware ourselves - something that is not sustainable for the first ColdFire at least and would also not offer any corresponding advantages.

The choice of a graphics expansion card does not mean in any way that we have to forgo a variant with integrated graphics in future.

Thomas: For sound processing the "Atari" seems to set a new yardstick once again. Falcon fans can finally look forward to a true successor. Is the integration of the Déesse as a PCI card or on-board still planned? Where do the advantages and disadvantages lie?

Oliver: We have decided clearly for Déesse integration as a PCI card. The only advantage of a DSP integration on-board would be that we could guarantee programmers they would find a DSP on the system, just as in the case of the Falcon. This advantage quickly loses its importance since we are integrating the Déesse in the system from the start, both software and hardware-wise. So the ColdFire computer will include a Déesse DSP card on delivery as a fixed component. On the software side consequently it is our declared goal to integrate the DSP as a fixed hardware component into the operating system, so programmers can rely on the presence of DSP just as they can on the Falcon.

The PCI card variant brings us far greater advantages anyway. The user has the freedom to substitute a faster card with multiple DSPs if desired, without having to buy a new computer. For this reason we have conceived the DSP driver development to make use of multiple DSPs from the start, even though the Déesse only makes a single DSP available to the system. Therefore in future applications can benefit immediately from additional DSPs - an enormous advantage which of course we do not want to lose.

Thomas: What is the overall development status of the Déesse card? Unfortunately Hades and Milan users are still unable to buy the card...

Oliver: Yes, in connection with the ColdFire development the Déesse development has also taken on a completely new significance for us. It was naturally very important to us that we basically don't work against each other, and that we agree and co-ordinate further development. Further Déesse development now quite clearly has the goal of supporting the new ColdFire-Atari and through suitable applications to fully utilize the DSP in combination with the ColdFire processor.

Mariusz Buras has worked hard in the last few months to develop our driver interface and we could test the first finished version during the developers' meeting in Dresden. We also sorted out the last layout problems at the meeting with the help of Fredi Aschwanden, and Elmar Hilgart can now commission further DSP cards from our PCB manufacturer.

Thomas: There was also some discussion at the developers' meeting about the integration of a floppy disk drive. You know my view: one should finally say goodbye to this fossil and turn to CD-ROM and CD-R, in a similar way to that taken by Apple. What is the reason for the integration of a floppy disk drive into the ColdFire computer?

This is the ColdFire team
Fredi Aschwanden, hardware development

[Photo: Fredi Aschwanden]Ever since the Atari ST existed I have worked with TOS - it is so nice and simple. To buy my first 520ST I had to travel to Germany, because it was not available in Switzerland at the time. When RTOS-/UH-Pearl for the Atari arrived I worked a lot with this operating system. With it I even wrote an application for a three-place system. With that one can manage a data-bank, write tenders, invoices and letters as well as perform book-keeping, all with a single system! A Mega ST 4 serves as a host, and via RS232 and MIDI two terminals (2x 520ST) were connected to it.

I always tinkered with the hardware of my Ataris and worked my way up via accelerator cards to a Hades 060. At present I am occupied with assembling the hardware for the new TOS computer.

As my occupation I originally started as a roofer, later studied superstructure work and am now engaged as a hardware developer at Gretag-Macbeth, where I help to develop colour spectrometer measuring instruments.

Oliver: I agree with you completely there, a floppy disk drive can only be described as a fossil today. The only reason for floppy disk support would be if a chip required on the main-board supported this anyway. However, we agreed pretty quickly that we would not necessarily offer a floppy disk drive in the finished computer. Whether to build something like this in will be left to the purchaser, if in future its use was simply no longer necessary. The task of an interchangeable mass storage medium will in future clearly be taken over by the CD-RW drive, which should play a completely new role in the new computer.

Thomas: But you will do without drives such as LS-120 or even ED, I assume?

Oliver: Support for LS-120 or ED drives was never planned anyway. These are formats that offer no advantages to the user. LS-120 support originally would only have brought along a required I/O chip, though this is far from signifying that we want to put such standards into operation. Those who wish for such long-forgotten formats should best look after developing suitable drivers, but don't be surprised then if no media can be found or they are expensive.

Thomas: Catchword USB: USB 1.0 and 2.0 are planned. Would the integration of USB 2.0 not suffice, or is this new standard not backwards compatible?

Oliver: USB 2.0 is naturally backwards compatible, so from that point of view the integration of the USB 2.0 standard would suffice for complete USB peripheral support.

Thomas: Does the ColdFire 4e support both standards then?

Oliver: No, the ColdFire 4e is intended to support merely USB 1.0, which is intended for slow peripheral devices such as mice, keyboards, printers... Here we have to consider clearly that we will get this 1.0 support without extra effort with the introduction of the new ColdFire 4e, as this support is integrated on the chip - so it's a kind of free extra.

USB 2.0 support should be consequently provided with an additional USB chip on the motherboard, though we do not want to include it in the specifications now. USB 2.0 support for fast peripheral devices should then be guaranteed by a PCI card.

Thomas: Particularly on the theme of USB, the critical programming of the drivers lies on the table. What good are USB ports when no drivers for USB peripheral devices are available? How is this to be remedied?

Oliver: You have hit the problem straight on the head. The experience with present Atari clones such as the Hades or Milan have shown unfortunately stepmother-like support of such new interfaces. Here this was and is mainly the lack of PCI driver development. Either no driver exists at all, or it is commercial and not infrequently it is by no means mature.

So that we do not have exactly the same experience with the ColdFire-Atari interface ports, we have already invested a great deal of work in future driver development. But we have begun the most important part at the developers' meeting in Dresden: the opening up of the development into a community project, because without sufficient support from existing developers such a task definitely cannot be accomplished.

Thomas: Why do you stay with the PS/2 standard for the connection of the mouse and keyboard? Wouldn't connection via USB be more sensible?

Oliver: USB is completely new territory for Atari development. We cannot expect perfect USB support overnight. However nobody today wants to forgo the mouse and keyboard, so all that's available to us at first is connecting the mouse and keyboard via the PS/2 interfaces, which can be integrated into the system relatively easily.

Thomas: Here the question comes up at which level the USB drivers are being integrated. If one wishes to undertake configuration at the lowest system level, then the USB drivers must already be present in the kernel. This also applies for possible connections of keyboard and mouse.

Oliver: Sure, the goal in the long term is to integrate the basic USB drivers into the system. That USB support of the kernel also becomes necessary due to this quickly shows the impending development effort, which we by no means blench at, but which moreover we cannot expect to find in the first operating system version. An operating system should after all be something living, and not just bumble along as we have been used to till now from TOS or some current multi-tasking operating systems.

But one thing must be clear to us: that within a short time we cannot just make up for development that has been lost in the last few years. Nevertheless we are putting everything into catching up with these developments, which after all will only really make sense with the new ColdFire system.

Thomas: The integration of FireWire is not being considered for the time being, or is it?

Oliver: USB 2.0 is technically a near equal value replacement for the FireWire interfaces. The development and integration of both interfaces would therefore be a gross waste of resources, which we cannot afford at the present phase of the development. Nevertheless we will certainly not oppose FireWire support as a PCI card solution. A PCI interface would be the better choice anyway, as FireWire devices are still far rarer and more expensive than comparable USB devices. We have to be clear that every further development that we have to undertake during the basic development phase of the computer will first of all raise its price appreciably and secondly increase the development time further still.

Thomas: Let's come now to the operating system. Traditionally there is a split here between the camps of MiNT and MagiC devotees. Which way will be taken with the ColdFire-Atari?/

Oliver: In short we will choose the only sensible and achievable way. Based on TOS and the MiNT system we will have a modern operating system, which should also be able to load MagiC subsequently on demand.

Thomas: What in your opinion speaks for MiNT, what about MagiC?

Oliver: Apart from the still problematic installation of MiNT, MagiC for me has no advantages any more vis-a-vis the use of MiNT. When one considers that we are pre-installing the operating system in the new ColdFire computer in flash ROM and the user will have virtually nothing to do with the installation, then this criticism of MiNT loses its validity.

MiNT offers us countless advantages compared to the commercial, closed in itself MagiC system. Even today we can fall back on a vast amount of software from the Linux world, also the porting of a current browser package would be no great problem in combination with the new hardware any more. But the most important point now as ever remains the possibility of continued development of the operating system, which unfortunately becomes less and less likely with MagiC.

Thomas: How do things look with TOS? Which version is to be used here?

Oliver: In collaboration with Milan Computersysteme we will be able to use the Milan TOS or its current further development as a basis for the new ColdFire operating system. Naturally this brings a great advantage for our intentions, as we can fall back on a very well documented and cleaned-up TOS.

Thomas: Of interest to long-established Atari users certainly is the compatibility with programs that they have been using for years. This is always a critical point, for after all a new system must also cut off old, long overgrown pigtails. But how should the greatest possible compatibility be achieved even with games and old programs?

Oliver: I think the times are finally over in which one had to mourn an ST-High application from 1989. Those that want to run such things cleanly should without fail also run their original 1040ST, Falcon, TT or Mega STE besides their ColdFire, because many programs are incompatible even between these computers. The greatest possible compatibility may therefore not be a hindrance to further development. Who today still needs the antiquated ST-Low graphic modes of an ST?

As we also discussed at the developers' meeting, we will have no great problems to port a current Atari emulator for the ColdFire computer. Thanks to this even the last, uncleanly programmed ST games should run on the new machine. The end effect will be that we will have the most compatible Atari computer that has ever existed.

Thomas: Some furore was caused by the likely price of around €1,000 just for the motherboard of the new computer. Various people pointed to the fact that the AmigaOne G3, say, should only cost a bare €600. What can one say fairly about the pricing?

Oliver: Certainly we could have also quoted a price around €600 - but what good is an unrealistic estimate of the costs to us? In the worst case the ColdFire project would have died with the appearance of the computer, as we all would have gone broke. To properly understand the price of around €1,000, it is imperative to know the extremely problematic market situation of our platform. The market is simply too small for mass production of such a computer. As a first step our only goal is to supply the existing users and to bring the system to current levels, and only then can we start to open up new markets outside the Atari world and enthuse new users for our system.

Until then it must be clear that all people taking part in this project are collaborating from purely idealistic motives, so none of us profit from this project and any income serves purely to cover costs. It's nonsense for anyone to believe we could just bring joy quickly to the whole PC market with our present system and also become rich with it. Before we can even think of that, we should first do our homework and bring our system up to the current state-of-the-art develpment.

Thomas: Is the delivery of a bare board planned, so users and  dealers can assemble their own system, or is a complete system including drives, mouse, keyboard and so on being planned?

Oliver: Though a complete system is not our main aim at the present state of development, we are certain that we will also offer such a computer. For this we will naturally also turn to the many suggestions of Atari users in various forums, who have written some very constructive and noteworthy ideas about this theme. So I am also completely convinced of the importance of a complete variant, which also has to have a certain Atari-typical appearance - in other words a striking housing which has to distinguish itself from run-of-the-mill PC-ware. However before we all rack our brains about such a solution the computer first has to be brought onto the correct path and a lot of work needs to be done.

Thomas: Incidentally, how much RAM should the standard system contain? What type of storage is planned?

Oliver: At least 256 Megabytes of SDRAM is planned, for which we will adapt the final RAM components to the currently marketed memory sizes, so we can exploit the best price/performance ratio.

Thomas: The hardware specifications largely exist, the developers have been found. What realization timescale can Atari users now expect?

Oliver: We would all like to have the computer as quickly as possible, preferably today rather than tomorrow. But anyone who engages with this matter at least a little will recognize that one cannot magically produce such a project from the ground up overnight.

We are working with all our might towards a fast realization of the new computer, and I personally hope for its appearance even before Christmas of this year. But I have to stress once more that this is my personal hope, because we are all working collectively together and are reliant on each other, so it is impossible to name a fixed deadline as this would be most unfair to the rest of the team.

Thomas: Oliver, many thanks for the interesting conversation.

This interview was originally published in German by st-computer magazine, May 2002, and is reproduced in English with kind permission.

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #3, August 2002

Copyright 2002 MyAtari magazine