Behind the scenes of the Atari Coldfire Project

Norman Feske


1. Introduction

2. The past years of the Atari world

3. XTOS and Frontier Systems

4. Developer meeting in Dresden

4.1 The birth of the Atari Coldfire Project

4.2 Core members

4.3 Additional members

4.4 Resolutions

5. The graphics issue

6. The big breakdown

7. Searching for new solutions

8. Wilhelm Elektronik

9. Developer meeting in Rimbach

10. Future and perspectives



1. Introduction

In the past time only a low amount of background information about the Atari Coldfire Project (ACP) was made public. The reason was to prevent ungrounded euphory about the new Atari clone. So all released information was based on concrete decisions and was sensively formulated. E.g. When we specified the price of the board with ca. 1000 Euro we based this value on very pessimistic estimations to assure that the final price will not transcent the promised value.

Anyhow, the newer past makes it neccessary to provide some more detailed and uncertain information to the public. The primary reason is to make you understand what is our project about and where our decisions come from.

This text is written from the viewpoint of one member of the Atari Coldfire team, namely Norman Feske. It needs not to be representive for the opinion of the whole team. Anyhow, the author influenced decisions of the ACP team multiple times - so this text tries to explain these decisions from his viewpoint.

At first the meaning, the aims and the principles of ACP are reiterated. After that a current issue - the 'Wilhelm' board - is discussed. Finally this text will outline the future of the project and perspectives for the Atari world.



2. The past years of the Atari world

In the past a lot of promising hardware for our beloved Atari system was announced. Everytime, when someone announced a new project I got excited about it. Sadly, the majority of these projects where canceled. So during the years as Atari user I was hoping for an Atari Falcon040, a Phenix, a Tempest accellerator card, a Riored and a Milan2 - just to name a few. Although I was and am very happy with my Atari Falcon030 I waited patiently for the progress of these projects over the years. Meanwhile the Atari-world got more and more mature and almost every Atarian is thirsty for new hardware - so I am.



3. XTOS and Frontier Systems

When the Milan2 project was stopped, I was very sad once again. Probably I was not the only one because shortly after the canceling of the Milan2 the XTOS project was announced. The announcement was incredible: a new TOS compatible computer based on Motorola Coldfire processors should be available in just some months at a low price. Again I was excited about a new hardware project. My expectations where very high because Fredi Aschwanden - a well known hardware developer - was involved. I contacted the XTOS coordinator Ulrich GÓssel to show my interest and to offer my help. Sadly, I had to discover that the project was not that straightly evolving as I expected.

At the same time I got in contact with Oliver Kotschi - the chief of Frontier Systems - because I was wondering who this crazy guy was, who bought the rights of the Deesse DSP card from Rodolphe Czuba. I was very happy when both parties (XTOS and Frontier Systems) wanted to join their forces.



4. Developer meeting in Dresden

From this time on Oliver Kotschi got very serious about the hardware project and organized the first developer meeting in Dresden. A lot of people who where interested in a new Atari hardware platform where there such as Mariusz Buras (Deesse driver developer), Fredi Aschwanden (hardware developer of the XTOS board), Oliver Kotschi (Frontier Systems), Markus Fichtenbauer (PCIBIOS developer), Frank Naumann (MiNT kernel maintainer) - just to name a few. We had to discover that the XTOS project did not progress very well until this point. Only the general design of the hardware (on paper) was ready at this point. A lot of issues where still unsolved:


Fredi and Markus discussing the hardware design


Mariusz presenting his Deesse DSP software interface


general discussion (left to right): Holger Schulz, Thomas Raukamp, jk28, Norman Feske, Matthias Jaap, Ulrich Gössel, Markus Fichtenbauer, Fredi Aschwanden

At this meeting Oliver Kotschi took over the leading role of the project because he was not only supporting the discussions in a very positive way but he was responsible for the developer meeting at all. He also provided a solution to finance our project.



4.1 The birth of the Atari Coldfire Project

Consequently, the hardware project dissociated from the former XTOS project and ACP was founded. The foundation of ACP is idealism. No member of the project has financial interests in it - so all involved developers would work for free. The aim of the project is to develop and build an Atari-clone for die-hard Atari fans. I for myself was also thinking of the very active Atari demo scene because a lot of demo scene people are also very active developers beside the demo scene (e.g. a lot of MiNT applications came from demo scene). All developers at the meeting agreed to dedicate their work to the remaining Atari people - not to make financial profit out of it.

So ACP had nothing in common with XTOS except the hardware developer Fredi Aschwanden! Ulrich GÓssel, the founder of XTOS put his new focus on his ATSF initative and is not related to ACP in any way.



4.2 Core members

At this point the Atari Coldfire Project constisted of the following core members:



4.3 Additional members

Additionally, there are members, who do not directly take part in the hardware design process but support the project in many ways:



4.4 Resolutions

We - as Atari Coldfire Project - wanted to do our job in a better way than previous project: We only wanted to announce definitive things to avoid a big raise of expectations from the people. So we where very careful with releasing technical details, price and release date because everything depended on a lot of things (availability and prices of the chips, production costs, success of porting an OS, sparetime of the developers, availability of documentation). So we only released a pessimistic estimation of the price of the final board.



5. The graphics issue

During the following weeks everyone was very enthusiastic about the projects. We tried to get our hands on technical specification of hardware components and discussed how the remaining issues could be solved etc.

Especially, obtaining the documentation of graphics components is nearly impossible for a small project as ours:

Including AGP on the Coldfire board had been a very big problem for Fredi. Building a Coldfire-PCI hostbrige is a very hard job - including AGP is even a harder nut to crack. Using PCI graphics cards leads to availability problems. Additionally, the transfer bandwidth to a PCI graphics card is a very limiting fact.

This issue just show - how big is the amount of problems when designing a new computer hardware. The graphics component is only one aspect.

Anyway, we where full of enthusiasm and waited impatiently for news from Fredi.



6. The big breakdown

Messages from Fredi were a very rare thing. I did not want to trouble Fredi with unimportant things so that he could spend all his energy in developing the new Coldfire board. When Fredi left the developer meeting in Dresden he told me that he wanted to provide a hardware description (hardware addresses etc.) four weeks later. He expected to build the first prototype within the following three months. So I wondered after I did not hear any message from Fredi for a long while. After three months we got a short life sign from Fredi. He told us about big personal problems and that he was not in the condition to continue his development. He claimed, that it should not be a big problem for us to find a similar talented hardware developer who can take over his job - definitely a heavy understatement!



7. Searching for new solutions

After Fredi discontinued the development of the board we got several offerings of people who where willing to help us:

Beside that there is Elmar Hilgard, who is already a member of the ACP team. The only remaining question was: What to do now? .-) Sadly, Fredi did not send over his current state of development to us. So we only have the basic ideas of his design, that he presented in Dresden. Cautiously, we started to think about initiating a new development. - This time not done by a single person but by a motivated team of developers.



8. Wilhelm Elektronik

Suddenly a new perspective popped up. Oliver Kotschi got the offering by the german company 'Wilhelm Elektronik' to use an aleady existing hardware solution for our project. When Oliver called me and told me the technical data of the 'Wilhelm' board I was very excited about it:

I know the company Wilhelm Elektronik because I own a Charly-scanner, that was produced by Wilhelm Elektronik. Especially the software - Charly Image - is a masterpiece. So I believe in the high potential of this company.

Sadly the amount of technical information of the 'Wilhelm-board' was very low. So Oliver organized a developer meeting to give Wilhelm Elektronik a chance to present their board to us - this time the meeting was hold in Rimbach.



9. Developer meeting in Rimbach

Oliver invited the core ACP team and - of course - Jörg Wilhelm, the chief of the company Wilhelm Elektronik. In fact, the meeting was hold because Jörg wanted to present his hardware solution to us.

Before we attended to the meeting I read at st-computer.net some news, that came directly from Wilhelm Elektronik - including some technical information and a release date for the new hardware. Strangely, Wilhelm Elektronik spread these news without asking us. They stated that preorderings will be possible from mid of october - this was completely new for me. The weirdst thing about this news-message was, that Wilhelm Elektronik wanted to be contacted directly by potential customers. So Wilhelm Elektronik obviously want to communicate directly with potential customers without involving us - the ACP team.

When we (jk28 and me) arrived at Rimbach after travelling 7 hours Oliver told us that Jörg will not come to the meeting because some problems with his car. Oliver even proposed to pick up Jörg from the Frankfurt main station, but Jörg refused to come over to us. So we were a bit dissapointed - so was Markus Fichtenbauer after he traveled 9 hours to come to our meeting. Anyhow, we had a long talk with Jörg via telephone and so we where able to get an idea of the proposed board. There was some confusion along us because some of the things, Jörg Wilhelm told us where right contradictoy.

Of course there were a lot of open questions such as:

Beside that, the overall design is not exactly what we expected. Instead of having one motherboard there are plently of PCI cards providing the desired functionality.


brooding about the Coldfire hardware (left to right): Markus Fichtenbauer, Oliver Kotschi, Elmar Hilgart, Alexander Feige

The design of the 'Wilhelm-board' makes it complicate to port TOS and TOS-applications to it:

There are even more things, that rises my scepticism toward the solution by Wilhelm Elektronik: Wilhelm Elektronik will not provide schematics of the board to us. In contrast to that Wilhelm Elektronik does not want to pay licency fees for the operating system and want that our work will be open source. Wilhelm Elektronik sets us - the ACP team - under high pressure. They announced the availability of the new Atari clone for the beginning of 2003 without having any operating system. So if we would port the operating system, we needed to do that within three months to fulfill the expectations of the people - this is illusionary because we all work only in our spare time. The only reason for this time schedule I can imagine is, that Wilhelm Elektronik wants to make financial profit out of our project. This would contradict the original intensions of the Atari Coldfire Project.

Beside all that - the Atari Coldfire Project is a project of hobbyists. So it should make fun for us. Where is the fun when we have to work under time pressure? What is our benefit when the final result will be not something we would proudly call 'our system'?

The idealistic foundation of the Atari Coldfire Project makes it independent of economical conditions. This property gets lost as soon as we put ourselfs in dependence of a economically thinking company. With other words: If Wilhelm Elektronik will not make profit with the Atari market the natural consequence would be the dropping of the project by Wilhelm Elektronik. I am not illusionary enough to believe in financial winnings of an Atari clone.



10. Future and perspectives

Instead of porting TOS to the 'Wilhelm' based computer I personally prefer to initiate the development of an own hardware platform. This had several advantages:

Of course there is a drawback: The new computer will not be available tomorrow. But is this _that_ important? ACP is not about doing half hearted work to sell a lot of average hardware to make a lot of profit. ACP is about having fun while developing. ACP is about friendship. ACP is about dedication.


the Atari Coldfire Project on its way to the future

Everyone, who is seriously interested in joining us and help to realise our visions of a new Atari clone is warmly welcome!


Norman Feske (nf2@inf.tu-dresden.de)