Dec 16, 2017
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
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
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
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
computer, one for the TI 99/4A
and a version for Commodore
. 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
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
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
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
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.
"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.
"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.
"We thought we were going to set the world on fire and make
magnetic media obsolete — but I guess we didn't."
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
the Commodore software, and @travisgoodspeed
'zine, which was instrumental in bringing the pieces together.
Thanks to the Internet
for hosting scans of the magazines and all the
The interview with Don Picard took place on April 5, 2016. The
interview with Kim Garretson took place on June 27, 2016. (A
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.