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ANTIC The Atari 8-bit Podcast

hosts: Randy Kindig, Kevin Savetz, Brad Arnold
twitter: @AtariPodcast


Dec 16, 2017

Databar OSCAR
This is a story about the rise and fall of a compter peripheral and the company behind it. The company was Databar, and the product was called OSCAR, which was short for Optical SCAnning Reader.
In 1983, it wasn't easy to get inexpensive software for your home computer. Floppy disks were expensive. Modems were slow and expensive. You could get software in magazines — a variety of computer magazines offered computer program listings that you could type in. You might spend hours laboriously typing in a program, and it might work. Or more likely,  it wouldn't, because of a typo or because of errors in the published listing. It wasn't easy to get inexpensive software for your computer.
One solution that a couple of companies came up with was to distribute software in books and magazines — but instead of printed listings that you'd have to type in, the programs were distributed as bar codes — long collections of black and white dots. You could use a bar code scanner to read the programs into your computer. 
The best known solution was, perhaps, Cauzin Softstrip. And although Softstrip may have been the best known, it was by no means a success. I've already published interviews with the people who created Softstrip
Another contender in this niche — and the one that this episode is about - was the Databar OSCAR. OSCAR was released two years before Softstrip. OSCAR had two parts — the hardware, the Optical SCAnning Reader that would connect to your Atari 8-bit computer, or your Texas Instruments 99/4A, or your Commodore 64. And, the bar code software, which was to be published in a special magazine, called Databar.
First, let's talk a little about the hardware. A silver plastic device, a little smaller than a loaf of bread, was the brains of the operation. A hand-held removable wand, connected via a telephone-style coiled wire, held the optical reader. That's the part that you would roll over the bar code to read the software into your computer. Finally, there was an interface cable that connected the main device to your computer. This is the only bit of hardware that's different in the Atari, Commodore, and Texas Instruments versions of the product. The Commodore version, for instance, connects to the C64's cassette port. The Atari version also emulates a cassete tape drive, and connects to the Atari's SIO port.
The hardware alone cost $79.95, but it wouldn't do much good without the bar-code printed software, which was the Databar magazine. A 1-year subscription to the Databar magazine would cost an additional $120.
So let's talk about the software: the magazine. "Databar - The Monthly Bar Code Software Magazine" which was published in 1983, and turned out to only have one issue published, so it wasn't very monthly after all.
Databar ran some advertisements in the Atari, Commodore, and Texas Instruments computer magazines. I'm going to read a bit from one of them. [ad excerpt]
The magazine was published in three versions: one for the Atari 8-bit computer, one for the TI 99/4A, and a version for Commodore 64. The cover and front part of the magazine was the same in all editions, with general-interest articles like "Computer Gaming," "To Your Health - Your Health Is Up To You," and "Climbing the Slippery Financial Hills." The second part of the magzaine was different in each edition. This was the part with the bar codes. Each version has pretty much the same set of programs, but customized to the dialect of BASIC used on that particular computer. The selection of non-confrontational, milquetoast programs includes OSCAR's Match (a memory game), Financial Quiz, Math Challenge, Health Assessment, The Law and You, and Miles Per Gallon Calculator.
Only 9 programs were ever published in this format for the Commodore and TI, and they are all in the magazine. 13 Atari programs were ever published in this format, in the Atari version of the magazine. 
The OSCAR box claims that the hardware is also compatible with the Timex Sinclair 1000, 1500, 2000, and the TRS-80 Color Computer. But I haven't seen any evidence that versions of the magazine were created for those systems, nor the hardware adapters to connect to them.
One of the benefits of the reader was that it was supposed to be faster than typing. My favorite ad for the OSCAR reader says "Programming the Home Computer — Expert Typist with Keyboard vs. Eight-year-old with OSCAR." The task: entering a two-page BASIC program. The expert typist with a 100 word-per-minute speed and a degree in computer programming can do it in 1 hour and 9 minutes. The little girl with bows in her hair and bubble gum in her mouth, with no prior computer experience, can enter the program using OSCAR in 8 minutes.
Now that we've set the stage, it's time for the interviews. There are three: first, Don Picard, the Executive Editor of Databar magazine; then Kim Garretson, the publisher of the magazine; and finally Neal Enzenauer, the principal engineer for OSCAR.
## interview 1: Don Picard
Don Picard worked for Webb Publishing, a large printing company that owned a number of magazines. Don worked in a division called  Creative Communications, that was a custom publishing house for corporate clients. The division did work such as in-flight magazines for airlines, and custom magazines for Farmer's Insurance and the American Automobile Association. He was the Executive Editor of Databar magazine.
Teaser quotes:
"Concept was basically dead before it got born."
"When money's invested there becomes a sort of momentum involved. Nobody wants to say, 'This was a mistake.'"
## interview 2: Kim Garretson
The next interview is Kim Garretson, the founding editor and publisher of Databar magazine.
Teaser quote:
"Sometimes you had to go across a single line of code three or four or five or seven times to hear the little beep."
## interview 3: Neal Enzenauer
Our final interview is with Neal Enzenauer, the principal engineer for OSCAR.
Teaser quote:
"We thought we were going to set the world on fire and make magnetic media obsolete — but I guess we didn't."
## closing
Thanks to Don Picard, Kim Garretson, and Neal Enzenauer. Thanks to Allan Bushman for scanning the Atari version of the Databar magazine and OSCAR instructions; @doegox on Twitter for writing the python script to decode the barcodes without the scanner, @paulrickards for wrangling the Commodore software, and @travisgoodspeed for the PoC||GTFO 'zine, which was instrumental in bringing the pieces together. Thanks to the Internet Archive for hosting scans of the magazines and all the software. 
The interview with Don Picard took place on April 5, 2016. The interview with Kim Garretson took place on June 27, 2016. (A video version of that interview is available, including an extended version where we also discuss CD-ROM publishing and the Prodigy online service.) The interview with Neal Enzenauer took place on April 12, 2016.
ANTIC interview with creators of Cauzin Softstrip, another software bar code system
Databar Magazine - Atari edition
Databar Magazine - Commodore edition
Databar Magazine - TI 994/A edition
Decoded Software from Databar Magazine - Atari edition
Decoded Software from Databar Magazine - Commodore edition
Decoded Software from Databar Magazine - TI 994/A edition
An Introduction To Oscar And Bar Code Scanning - Atari Version
Databar OSCAR Box scans
Databar OSCAR unboxing video
Databar OSCAR Software Binder
Kim Garretson interview, extended video version
More background on the format
Decoding software in python
Databar Bar Code Reader patent
Expert Typist with Keyboard vs. Eight-year-old with OSCAR
Databar ad in Antic magazine
Another ad in Antic
Databar mention in JACG Atari newsletter
Databar article in Enthusiast '99 magazine
PC Magazine article about OSCAR