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Digital Birthdays and Future Midlife Crises

Jun 29, 2012

By: Daniel Teigman, Business Writer and Analyst

It’s a fact. Journalists love round numbers and easy dates. I should know, I was one. It’s a love affair that’s two-fold: writers are often stereotyped as being poor with numbers, so the easier to remember the better. But it’s also because simplicity sells.

No truer is this the case than when it comes to digital technology. Apple might be today’s vanguard of form and function with their elegant iPads and smartphones. But turn the hands of time back to the beginning of Nixon’s second term and there was another leader: Atari. On Wednesday June 27 2012, that former star turned the big 40. Happy Birthday!

Fortieth birthdays are a big deal. You’re old enough to have rightly earned a few notches of wisdom on your belt, you’ve had some successes that match up to your “elders,” but are still well young enough to course correct if things haven’t gone exactly as planned. And that’s exactly where 40-year-old Atari – a wholly owned subsidiary of Infogrames in 2008 and renamed Atari, SA in 2010 – finds itself today.

It’s a fact that also got me thinking about tablet computers. I doubt it was planned this way, but Apple’s iPad turns 40 in 2050 – a major birthday at the half-century mark. (Journalists must already be salivating…no…drooling over the double date impact). Where will this technology be in another 38 years? What will they have learned from their Atari “parents,” and what pitfalls are likely to be repeated?

Before we leap ahead, let’s stay grounded in the past for a moment. Atari gets credit for bringing arcade video games into the home with its megahit tennis-like Pong and its 2600-model Video Computer System console (the iconic black plastic and faux wood box). But a CNN article on the company’s milestone mentions another Atari accolade that’s often overlooked: the social and communal nature of video gaming and how in a very real sense, that early gathering around the digital medium lay the groundwork for the mobile social conversation we take for granted today, getting us comfortable with virtual worlds.

As far as lessons learned from Atari in the present, I’d suspect one of the greatest comes down to the quality of gaming and app content and the strict oversight of third-party producers. It’s well known that much of Atari’s mid-80s and early 90s downfall wasn’t so much that video games had grown more complex and realistic. Instead, the game play had suffered. In fact, Atari’s 1982 release of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was ranked in 2006 by PCWorld as the worst game of all time. It’s a dubious distinction the game has held since its release by nearly all reviewers. Ever wonder why Apple is so careful about who produces their app content? Horror stories like this are why.

But like most things digital, nothing dies forever, and even with clunkers like E.T., Atari has managed to turn 40. Putting its milestone birthday to good use, the company is enjoying a rebirth of late as versions of its older, most popular games can now be downloaded onto mobile devices in an app called Atari’s Greatest Hits – an app whose most recent update happened today. There’s even a wealth of accessories that bring the video arcade experience back to life with suction cup joy sticks and “arcade boxes” that turn an iPad into a retro-looking device complete with large convex plastic buttons and knobbed joysticks. Only this one doesn’t take quarters.

Atari’s ability to wed the best of its technology and cult following to the new leader of mobile and digital lays the groundwork for Apple advice when its first generation iPad turns 40 on April 3, 2050. On that date, Apple may or may not be the kings of mobile media as they are today. But if they were not, they’d be wise to learn how to adapt their present-day popularity into whatever company is on top then. And as PR professionals, reminding ourselves and our clients to stick with what we’re good at, specializing in only a few areas isn’t a bad lesson either.

So here’s to both Apple and Atari and their products’ respective milestone birthdays. Apple Inc., the company, turns 40 in only four years. I wish you both the best and many more birthdays to come. I’d buy you both a cake, but there’s definitely an app for that and virtual candles to blow out too.

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