The Atari 2600: The Box That Launched A Million IT Careers

In a world where videogame experiences are becoming ever more lifelike, it's hard to imagine that people once played games that ran on just 4 kilobytes of RAM. But when the Atari 2600 was released in October 1977, millions of kids (and adults) quickly fell under its spell.

In addition to bloodshot eyes, sore thumbs and carpal tunnel syndrome, the Atari 2600 opened many kids' eyes to the capabilities of technology. For some enterprising youngsters, opening the Atari 2600 console and modifying it to do things other than play games was the first step on a path that ultimately led to a career in the IT industry.

But while the curious young minds of today tinker with the Xbox to run Linux, the challenge of modifying the Atari 2600 was far greater, due in large part to its limited system resources, according to solution providers.

As a teenager, Matt Hymowitz, president of GMP Networks, a Tucson, Ariz.-based VAR, remembers building a hardware interface to the joystick port on the 2600 to control the lights and stereo system in his bedroom. The challenges of working with the 2600's MOS 6507 microprocessor, which offered a mere 8 KB of addressable memory, gave Hymowitz an early introduction to the challenges of working with embedded systems.

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"Today we have an almost unlimited supply of system memory and resources, but there are valuable lessons to be learned in working with very limited systems like the 2600," said Hymowitz.

Modifying modern day consoles like the Xbox is fairly straightforward, but the limited resources of the Atari 2600 made hacking it a more formidable challenge. Kelly Keeton, a physical security engineer with Seattle-based integrator Network Computing Architects, says that modifying the 2600 required just as much imagination as technical ability.

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"I'd say that general spirit [of modifying consoles] hasn't changed since 1977, although today there are obviously more resources and technology and collaboration with like-minded individuals," said Keeton.

As a youngster, Allen Allison, vice president of security at MTM Technologies, a Stamford, Conn.-based solution provider, attempted his first physical modification of the Atari 2600 when one of his joysticks failed. "I was able to pull it apart, and hook it up to a couple of old telegraph keys I got from my grandfather," Allison recalls.

Later, Allison attempted to replicate games available on the Atari to the Apple II Plus using Basic. "The gaming experience really launched my interest in computer programming and eventually, information security," he said.

John Menezes, president and CEO of Cyberklix, a Mississauga, Ontario solution provider, enjoyed tinkering with the Atari 2600 as well as with Commodore and Sinclair computers. He says the 2600 gave him a solid grounding in technology, especially since the console remained commercially relevant for more than a decade.

"I think the 2600 was the start to the whole technology revolution. I believe we were the first generation of geeks who have now grown up and run very successful technology companies," Menezes said.

Some solution providers even draw a connection between the interactivity of the Atari 2600 and the development of online communications.

"The fact that a real computer could be brought into your house and hooked up to the television set foreshadowed today's demand for ubiquitous Internet and computer resource access," said Joe Bardwell, president and chief scientist at Connect802, a San Ramon, Calif.-based solution provider.

For others, the Atari was simply the first example of technology being boxed up and packaged in such a way as to capture the hearts and minds of consumers, a practice that shows no signs of slowing today.

"The main thing that Atari and all those early computers did was make me dream of a future where computers would be what they are today: Appliances that let us do so many things so much more efficiently," said Andrew Plato, president at Anitian Enterprise Security, a Beaverton, Ore.-based security solution provider.