Personal Computers

The Agony of Amiga

Once Again, A Phoenix

The Amiga was only about five years ahead

of Apple and IBM for several years

By Carter B. Horsley

When Commodore Business Machines announced a few years ago that it was going out of business it unleashed many hackers' worst nightmares - the kind that some Apple owners have been experiencing - by making an orphan out of their Amiga personal computers.

The first Amiga, the 1000, was, for those not in the know, an incredible personal computer when it was introduced in 1985. It was capable of displaying about 4,000 colors, when Apple was still monochrome and IBM was awash in 16 colors.

In the early days of mass-produced personal computers, IBM tried to hoodwink the world by claiming that green text characters on a black background (two colors, but referred to as monochrome) was wonderful.

Color, however, was just a start as the Amiga 1000 came out of the box with true and stable multitasking, the ability to run several programs concurrently, a task that Microsoft and IBM and Apple are still grappling with.

And the Amiga just happened to provide normal, that is, broadcast standard, video output on its quite inexpensive computers in case the user might want to export his computer graphics to videotape, or, say, make a MTV video, something that the competition still does not supply routinely and that usually requires an expensive expansion board, or two, and a lot of jury-rigging.

Well, who cares about video, right? Well, for the recalcitrant few who never tripped on the first few MTV years, just about everyone in the world between the ages of 5 and 40.

These features were all well and very good, but the really cool thing about the Amiga, right from the first, was that it had a dedicated animation chip.

Whoa, you say, who needs animation? Well, bucko, get off your couch and go see "Terminator 2," or "The Lion King," or watch some more morphing commercials and videos.

The animation chip was actually one of three main processing chips that came with the Amiga as opposed, until last year and then only in very sophisticated and expensive systems, to one in both Apple and IBM-type personal computer systems. (Apple did introduced a digital signal processing chip in its high-end models fairly recently.) The point of having three processing chips than just one Motorola or Intel "brain" chip was that you could take a big load off the "brain" and therefore do things a lot faster. In the last year or so, some very high-end RISC (reduced instruction set chip) computers have begun using parallel processing to keep breaking speed records, a concept that Amiga, of course, was alert to and implemented in the dark ages.

Oh, another thing that Amiga thought, and did something, about was cross-platform workability, that is, the emulation of other computer systems to fool your system into being able to use programs designed for the other systems. Apple has tried to make a big deal out of its new Power PC's ability to not only run Apple programs much quicker, but also to be able to run Windows on the same machine. It does run Windows, a fine accomplishment, but not at warp speeds. Indeed, not even close to normal Windows speed. From the Amiga 2000, on, which was introduced about 1987, the Amiga, of course, could run Windows software with little if any speed degradation with the addition of a fairly inexpensive expansion board. The Amiga's operating system is different from both Apple's and IBM's, but from the model 2000 onwards, half of its expansion slots and hard drives were IBM-compatible.

(The only serious technological/marketing mistake that Amiga made was that the 1000 model was not seriously upgradable and that the 2000 model was not really backwards-compatible with the1000.)

The Amiga and its software happened to be much, much cheaper than Apple and cheaper than IBM.

All things considered, Commodore made the incredible blunder of not supporting its incredible machine with major promotion. It could well have stolen most of the personal computer market. Part of the problem, apparently, was that it was extremely successful with a lower-end and earlier product, the Commodore 64, and concentrating on making money from that relatively simple, but efficient machine and turned its back on the future and billions of dollars of profits, a typical shortsighted corporate shareholder mentality that, unfortunately, gets what it deserves, bankruptcy!

Computers are driven by software and some brilliant companies such as Electronic Arts quickly recognized the overwhelming superiority of the Amiga and jumped on the bandwagon for games and computer graphics.

The greatest Amiga breakthrough was a company called New Tek that came up with something called Video Toaster, a software and hardware expansion kit for the Amiga that cost a couple of thousand dollars and turned the Amiga into a broadcast-quality, near state-of-the-art television studio at less than a tenth of the then competitive costs on any platform.

The Amiga/Toaster combination become the hottest video tool in the world and remains, thanks to continued upgrading by New Tek, the platform of choice for many successful videographers around the world. Apple and IBM have nothing like the true thing yet, although they are beginning to catch up, finally, to the brilliance of Amiga's architecture and engineering. Amiga was at least five years ahead of both Apple and IBM with finished products, the equivalent of several hundred quantum technological leaps, or so.

So, Commodore flubbed it and gave its users serious anxiety as they feverishly thumbed their numerous Amiga computer magazines in hopes of some good news. About once every three months, each of the non-Amiga PC magazines runs a letter or two from a rabid and outraged Amiga user denouncing the almost complete blackout in their pages of their beloved Amiga.

The hardware and software and publishing companies that serviced Amigas pledged to carry on after Commodore's demise, but the mood was as dark and gloomy as some computer games and to the users this was no game. Rumors ran amuck.

Needless to say, this was a traumatic time for owners of Amigas and the Kaypros, Osbornes and Victors of the early personal computer era have long since bitten the dust, though none of them was as dazzling as the Amiga.

Most personal computer buyers now realize that obsolescence has become unavoidable and that thankfully current computers offer enough productivity and entertainment to justify their relatively short lives for owners with techno lust.

The recent brouhaha over division problems with Intel's famed Pentium chip certainly sobered the industry and pundits and oddsmakers still don't have a sure line on the future of Apple and IBM and the Power Chip, to say nothing about the hazards and bumps of the clone markets.

This saga appeared to have a happy ending in April, 1995, when a German concern known as Escom AG announced it had bought Commodore and would not only begin marketing its computers again, but also was planned new improved models.

But Escom could not bring off its revival and renaissance of the Amiga and, once again, Amiga users despaired as Escom filed for bankruptcy July 15, 1996.

In May, 1997, however, Gateway 2000, Inc., one of the premier IBM-clone makers and direct-mail computer companies, took over the Amiga interests of Escom from a bankruptcy court in Germany.

"There is still an extremely loyal following of Amiga users and we look forward to supporting the needs of this group through licensing and support of new product development," Jim Taylor, senior vice president of global marketing for Gateway 2000, said at a news conference prior to the opening of the World of Amiga conference in London that month.

Peter Tyschtschenko, managing director of Amiga International Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gateway 2000, said that "our strategy is very clear and we will be focused on reviving the market for Amiga," adding that "we will support the community that has kept Amiga alive through bankruptcy."

"For us to keep the market alive it is necessary to assist many companies in developing products through broad licensing. Our licensing policy will be very open, broad and focus on licensing and standard O/S, Chipsets and the trademarks. Also, licensing will allow the Amiga to be spread to many different embedded applications in fields such as medical solutions, simulation applications, fitness equipment, irrigation systems and kiosk terminals. Of course, we are looking for new partners….We are currently exploring many of the possible new products that have been suggested including such things as an operating system upgrade and new hardware platforms," Tyschtschenko said.

Amiga International has a website at http://www.amiga.de and a superb website with many Amiga links can be found at the Champaign-Urbana Computer Users Group website, http://www.cucug.org and http://www.cucug.org/atnews.html.

Gateway and Dell have been the dominant direct-mail IBM-type computer brands in the United States for several years, jockeying back and forth for leadership while IBM floundered and eventually Compaq had to lower its very high prices. The acquisition is an interesting and aggressive one for Gateway, which pioneered in the introduction of a large screen monitor-TV for personal computers recently.

In a recent interview, Theodore W. Waitt, chairman and founder of Gateway 2000, said that "Amiga has some fantastic technology. It's extremely efficient. And there's the tremendous enthusiasm of folks in the Amiga user environment. The core technology is very compelling. I like the modularization of the platform and the operating system, the efficiency of the operating system, the pureness and cleanness of the environment, the video technology." Wait also said that "The Amiga patents were the primary interest, but now we're thinking there might be a lot more there than just a set of patents."

Hopefully, Amiga will be a phoenix and reincarnated. Its current incarnation, the Amiga 400 is still a pretty hot machine, but its technological prowess has dimmed a bit with Pentium II MMX machines beginning to demonstrate strong multi-media capabilities.

The moral is to buy a computer for what it will do for you in the immediate future and forget about high-tech leaps and bounds in the future because the quicker you start the happier and better you'll be and the Amiga has served its users wonderfully and most of them will continue to do great things with it.

A March 13, 1998 article by Stephanie Miles, a staff writer for CNET news.com reported that Amiga International announced that day a licensing agreement with phase 5, a German manufacturer, to develop a new Power PC-based computer using the Amiga 3.1 operating system.  The new computers are expected to be released later this year and will be known as "preboxes" and will be targeted at the high-end market with multiprocessing systems.  The article said that a "prebox" with four 300-MHz PowerPC processors will go for $4,495. (3/14/98)

 

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