MetaWriter Software Vending Machine: 1983’s Answer to Software DistributionIn 1972, engineer and inventor Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, one of the pioneering companies in the video game industry.

A few years later, despite the success achieved by the company with the legendary video game Pong, Bushnell sold Atari in 1976 to Warner Communications (now Time Warner).

Unhappy with the direction the company was taking, Bushnell left in early 1979.

However, before his departure, he reached an agreement with Warner that prohibited him from releasing any products that would compete with Atari for a certain period.

Once this period expired, Bushnell launched a unique software vending machine called Cumma Metawriter in 1983.

MetaWriter Software Vending Machine of 1983The Cumma Metawriter allowed buyers to select from hundreds of different software titles with the push of a button.

Its operation was similar to classic beverage vending machines but computer-oriented, requiring consumers to bring their own ROM cartridges.

Customers would insert their cartridges into the machine’s slot, select the desired app, and the system would copy it to the cartridge after payment.

Bushnell’s plan was for his Metawriter machine to be installed in every service station across North America, serving as the go-to machine for obtaining software quickly and easily.

However, despite the ingenuity of the invention, it failed to make a significant impact on the market and remained a minor story in the history of technology.

MetaWriter Software Vending Machine of 1983

This is how InfoWorld magazine reported on MetaWriter in 1984:

Nolan Bushnell and his associates have put software developers in an uproar again.

This time the Silicon Valley entrepreneur has come up with a software vending machine that will dispense programs for a few dollars each, storing them on reusable RAM (random- access memory) cartridges that can then be taken home and plugged into home computers and video game machines.

About 50 of the MetaWriter machines from Cumma (pronounced coo-mah) Corporation will be test marketed in drug stores, department stores, and convenience stores in northern California.

By September 30, in time for next Christmas, the firm hopes to have 1,000 units in place nationwide.

The firm, based in Sunnyvale, California, introduced the device at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Cumma is another firm launched by Bushnell’s Catalyst Technologies, which specializes in developing new companies with high-technology innovations.

MetaWriter Software Vending Machine of 1983

MetaWriter by Cumma in display at a local fair.

The prospect of vending software without diskettes – at between $7 and $9 per program was greeted with outrage by some software developers, who claimed that the procedure would cheapen the entire software industry.

“Atari’s position on electronic distribution to retail is that we are totally opposed to it as a company and will not participate. The reason is that we give up control of our product. We give up control in terms of the quality of it and the uniqueness of the presentation of it at retail. Cartridges become commodities under that scenario,” said James Morgan, president and CEO of Atari.

MetaWriter Software Vending Machine of 1983

Demonstrating how MetaWriter works.

Cumma is just the latest of four firms that are pushing basically the same idea. Romox of Campbell, California, downloads software via a terminal in computer stores. The terminal writes programs onto eraseable ROM (read-only memory) cartridges.

Xante of Tulsa, Oklahoma, showed another clerk-assisted system at CES that writes programs onto diskettes.

Rom-Labs of Redmond, Washington, will download software to dumb terminals (as will the Xante system). Cumma has taken the approach of self-service – its vending machines require no dealer intervention or phone lines.

Despite some cries of anguish, such as those from Atari, Cumma officials maintain that the concept has received a positive response.

“It’s a gimmick that has really caught on,” says Cumma’s president Thomas Cracraft. “We’ve been deluged with reaction from software producers.”

Cracraft claims many of the developers have signed up to use the vending machine method to distribute their wares. Teenagers who want to purchase computer games are expected to provide the largest volume of business.

MetaWriter Software Vending Machine of 1983Customers would either buy or bring a previously purchased plastic cartridge containing reusable random-access memory.

The memory in the cartridge is powered by a battery with a life span of five years. Although the company would not say if there was a way to recharge the battery,

Cracraft said the RAM cartridge is a temporary measure and would be replaced with a reusable nonvolatile cartridge this year.

The cartridges will cost between $10 and $30 retail and will probably be sold in the store where the dispensing machine is installed.

The buyer will place the cartridge in the appropriate slot of the machine and peruse the index to see what software is available.

The large video screen continually runs random “attract sequences” to lure customers. Upon request, it will run 20-segment action sequences from any of the available games so that the customer can see what he’s buying.

MetaWriter Software Vending Machine of 1983

A receipt from MetaWriter vending machine.

When the customer makes a selection, the machine tells him the cost. The customer inserts money into the two paper money slots (one for $1 bills and one for $5 bills).

In less than a second, the software is transferred to the cartridge.

The customer removes the cartridge, and the machine then prints instructions for the software, a receipt and some promotional literature about what programs will be featured the following week.

The cartridge is ready to take home and plug into a computer or an Atari or Coleco video game machine.

When the user loses interest in the game or program, he can take it back to the MetaWriter and charge it up with another program.

MetaWriter Software Vending Machine of 1983

Nolan Bushnell in his home workshop in 1983.

“Some people have called this the ultimate Coke machine,” Cracraft said. “This is a free-standing, customer-operated unit. We just set it up and plug it in. It runs on 110-volt AC. No clerks are needed in the transaction.”

The vending machines come in two styles a boxy design similar to a standard vending machine and a sleeker, futuristic model.

Cumma hopes to attract retail store owners by installing the machines for free. “We bring in the machine, plug it in, and the store owner gets 30% straight commission.

He also gets to sell cartridges if he wants. Needless to say, retailers are quite interested,” said Cracraft.

MetaWriter Software Vending Machine of 1983

Atari’s Ted Dabney, Nolan Bushnell, Larry Emmons, and Alan Alcorn pose with Pong. Bushnell sold Atari in 1976 to Warner Communications

While most of us are used to buying soft drinks from machines, the idea of buying software that way might seem strange.

But Cracraft said consumers will benefit from the adoption of vending machines for software. “Without having to use diskettes to distribute software, publishers don’t have to tie up a lot of money in inventory. It eliminates the risk for producers of copying a lot of programs and then not being able to sell them. The resulting lower costs would then be passed on to the consumer. So consumers will pay less for software.”

“Also, for software producers, this method will provide very rapid distribution because there’s no manufacturing process involved,” Cracraft said.

He estimates the time it now takes a good product to become widely distributed, from the time it leaves the laboratory until it gets to retail stores, is from six to eight weeks.

With the automatic-vending method, it would only take about two weeks. For software writers, this means they could test programs in the market cheaply, quickly, and with little risk.

(Photo credit: InfoWorld / Wikimedia Commons / Google Books / Enhanced by RHP).