Hola, Amiga/Rebirth of a Platform

Copyright - 1996 CMP Media Inc.
Reprinted with permission from Electronic Engineering Times

Chicago, IL 08-19-96 - A blast from the past will blow through the personal-computing world this week when the rights to Amiga-once the property of defunct PC pioneer Commodore-are turned over to Visual Information Systems Corp. (VIScorp).

VIScorp, a set-top-box maker based here, is promising improved versions of the aging but still respected platform. It's the same promise that Escom AG (Heppenheim, Germany), Amiga's previous owner, made two years ago but ultimately failed to fulfill.

VIScorp is not the only company with big plans for Amiga; two German companies are separately working to port the platform to the PowerPC chip. Those who wrote off Amiga years ago may find there's life in the old girl yet.

That's something the computing cognoscenti have known all along. People call the Macintosh community a cult, but it's a pen-pal club compared with Amiga's following. Despite having endured three long years without a major hardware upgrade, Amiga users worldwide have clung to their machines, gathering in user groups to keep the platform alive and churning out applications and emulators to keep up with the times.

"It [Amiga] has never been totally orphaned. The user base is incredibly loyal," said Harv Laser, who runs the Amiga Zone special-interest group (SIG) on Internet-service provider Portal Information Network. "I don't know what it is-some kind of spirit, or some kind of drug they painted on the keyboard."

David Haynie, who helped design Amiga hardware at Commodore and who now works for Scala Inc., said he knows what it is:"After you use it for a while, you start to like it. You start to get it."

At long last, the faithful may be rewarded for their patience. And the tiny but tenacious market appears more than ready for a new Amiga.

"I'd be down at the store before they opened, waiting in line to get one," Laser said.

Tricky counting

Measuring the Amiga community is tricky. Laser estimated that more than 5 million Amigas were sold, but the user base is smaller than that, given Amiga owners' penchant for stockpiling multiple machines. And, of course, many Amigas are collecting dust in attics.

Though the hardware is aging, new software keeps appearing, thanks to Amiga's steadfast following overseas. "A lot of software, especially games, is coming from Europe these days," said Randy Abel, who heads a user group called The Other Group of Amigoids (TOGA) in Silicon Valley.

By Laser's estimates, well more than 5,000 commercial software packages have been released in the past 10 years. Shareware represents a vast chunk of the Amiga repertoire. Enthusiast Fred Fish has compiled thousands of programs that Amiga users have shared for years, and a Web site called Aminet carries thousands more. Laser's SIG alone has 12,000 programs divided into 40 libraries.

"I don't think it would be wrong to say there are 40,000 to 50,000 Amiga programs out there," Laser said.

Amiga's most famous software package, NewTek's Video Toaster, is still used to edit television shows, including the various flavors of Star Trek.

The platform has also kept pace with the on-line revolution. At least six Web browsers exist for it, and a grass-roots effort is working to port Sun Microsystems Inc.'s HotJava. The Amiga Web Directory, run from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, links to hundreds of sites for developers, shareware peddlers and hardware manufacturers.

Yet the venerable platform is not immune to market realities. Users are defecting to the Macintosh and even the PC as Amiga shows its age. And no corporate market exists for the machines, since, as Haynie observed, "it's hard to have a company running on computers that may or may not be manufactured."

One reason the aged platform has endured so long is simply that Commodore's failures forced Amiga users to unite. "They gave us nothing, so we had to do it all ourselves," said Niall Teasdale, a British Amiga user who is coordinating the HotJava porting project.

User groups have sprung up worldwide. Usenet newsgroups have arisen to focus on Amigas and networking, Amigas and graphics, Amigas and video games-and the discussions are rife with rants against the computer industry's establishment.

"We're all a part of something really different," said Jason Compton, editor of on-line publication Amiga Report Magazine. "Using computers for fun's sake has largely been sacrificed in the face of faster, cheaper, more polygons, more video."

But the attachment is grounded in the technical as well as the emotional. Amiga users contend their machines excel at tasks that bedevil more popular platforms.

First off, as Laser noted, Amiga "was built from day one to multitask. That's what makes it unique among desktops that a human being can afford."

"A friend of mine bought one of the early Amiga 1000s," Abel recalled. "It could multitask in 256k [of RAM], which still no other computer can do."

Then there's the architecture and the operating system. Amiga's OS is a text-based DOS that consumes less than 1 Mbyte of disk space, atop of which runs a graphical user interface called Workbench.

"The main reason I've stuck with the machine is the operating system," Teasdale said. "The Amiga OS is a beautiful thing, with many of the features of a professional operating system. Until Windows NT, Microsoft had nothing to touch it."

Amiga also runs quickly: Its microprocessor is supported by a host of proprietary chips, including a disk-drive controller and a port controller. "They took all the load off the main CPU. This is what the other machines didn't have," Laser said.

Perhaps most important, Amiga was built as a multimedia machine. Its creators had sound and video applications in mind, so they gave the platform extremely high standards that some PCs still don't match. Stereo sound has been a feature since 1985, for example.

Indeed, that's the feature that turned the heads of the set-top designers at VIScorp, whose staff is largely composed of people who had previously worked on Amiga technology. Yet VIScorp's fascination with the set-top box has sounded an alarm among the platform's faithful. Although the community is rooting for VIScorp, discussions on the dozens of Amiga-centric newsgroups reveal skepticism about its plans.

"We're just crossing our fingers," Abel said, though he added that "[the news] we hear on the Net sounds good."

Once bitten . . .

Forgive Amiga users their trepidation: They've been burned before.

In 1982, a team that included Jay Miner and David Morse launched Amiga as a videogame box to rival Atari. Miner and Morse's Amiga Inc. was founded in Los Gatos soon after and was bought by Commodore around 1984.

Things went south from there. Amiga fans are merciless in their criticism of Commodore, which ran their computer into oblivion, they said. "Developing on the Amiga has never been easy. Commodore was not the best host," Teasdale said.

Laser ticked off what he considers the company's faults: "ineptitude, lack of marketing, lack of R&D money." He said the company killed the popular and inexpensive Amiga 500, did nothing to exploit the Christmas market, and hired ad agencies "who had no idea what this thing could do."

Commodore declared bankruptcy in 1994, and Escom AG beat out Atari in the ensuing bidding war. The Amiga community was abuzz with the possibility of reviving its favorite machine, but the thrill didn't last long.

"A year ago, we were waiting to see all the new machines from Germany. That went bust," Abel said.

Amiga Technologies GmbH, the subsidiary created by Escom, failed to upgrade the platform, which dealt a blow to users who were hoping for a 68060-powered Amiga. It's now believed that Escom was more interested in Commodore's name recognition than in Amiga's fate.

"Escom was always about halfheartedly promoting the Amiga," Haynie said. "The word on the street was that they were willing to spend $12 million just on the Commodore name, which is still very big in Europe-and they paid $15 million."

Awash in financial troubles of its own, Escom went bankrupt in July 1995 with liabilities exceeding $250 million. VIScorp made its move, having already started talks to purchase Amiga.

Publicly held VIScorp hadn't planned on getting into the computer business, but it appeared to be the only way to preserve its Amiga-based plans. "We had to go back to our investors," VIScorp chief executive William Buck told EE Times. "We had to convince them of a whole new plan."

The process was complicated. In a Web-published letter to the Amiga community, Buck explained that Escom had more than 11 creditors claiming to own Amiga. And Amiga's intellectual property had been "poorly organized" under Commodore, heaping on an extra dollop of legal molasses.

VIScorp is keeping in touch with the Amiga community, having hired Amiga Report Magazine's Compton as its liaison. At an Amiga users' convention in Montreal Aug. 3, officials said the company hopes to construct new Amigas using an as-yet unspecified RISC processor.

In the short term, VIScorp plans to release a 68060 upgrade board and will maintain Amiga Technologies GmbH, the subsidiary created by Escom.

As good as it all sounds, VIScorp's plans might throw cold water on a couple of German efforts to resurrect Amiga.

PowerPC port

Pios Computer AG and Phase 5 Digital Products each are working to port Amiga to the PowerPC. VIScorp has said it is willing to work with both companies; but at the Montreal convention, company officials made it clear that they won't tolerate renegade versions of Amiga floating around the market.

Pios was created in May "kind of from the ashes of Amiga Technologies," Haynie said, when former Amiga Technologies executive Stefan Dormeyer grew impatient with Escom's efforts. Pios quickly has attracted key Amiga players-including Haynie and Amiga-software guru Andy Finkel-to its camp to help with its plans.

Pios can't win the microprocessor wars, so it plans to field a low-cost package that leans heavily on graphics and multimedia and handles both better than mainstream software does today. That would make its architecture attractive for game play or Web connections-not unlike the much-hyped $500 Internet appliances.

"We may end up in competition with the machines trying to kill the PC," Haynie said.

Enthusiasm for the PowerPC port may be cooling, however. IBM's apparent lack of enthusiasm and the struggles of Apple Computer Inc. are making the chip a less-attractive option, Compton said. VIScorp and Compton won't address any alternatives, but a rumor on the Net claims that porting Amiga OS to the Alpha chip from Digital Equipment Corp. is a possibility.

Any Amiga revival is going to take good marketing and a push to create a corporate market, Haynie said. "The situation is not good for any commercial [market]. That's one thing we need to change rather quickly."

Whatever the fate of the latest moves, Amiga's devoted fans will continue to support one another, with chins up.

"I remain optimistic and always will, as long as there are Amigas," Laser said. Control of the technology "is back in the U.S.A., with ex-Amiga people owning it. Maybe this is the best thing."

--- By Craig Matsumoto

Copyright - 1996 CMP Media Inc.

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