Bloomberg Feature Story About the Amiga

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Amiga Computer Survives by Enthusiasts' Fervor

Chicago, Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Legend has it that when the late Jay Miner was developing his personal computer in the early 1980s, he looked to his dog for guidance.

When Mitchy the Pomeranian failed to wag his tail in approval, that part of the design was scrapped.

If that story's embellished, there's truth in another: Tens of thousands of enthusiasts remain so smitten by Miner's elegant machine that they're waiting out the company's turmoil and patching their aging computers rather than succumb to the Microsoft Corp./Intel Corp. duopoly that powers most of the world's PCs.

The saga of Apple Computer Inc.? No, Miner invented the Amiga, a machine most folks today have never set eyes on. Yet, the parallels to Apple's Macintosh can't be ignored. Dubbed dazzling at its 1985 debut, a series of poor management decisions and unexpected market forces has left the Amiga an orphan technology entangled in a German bankruptcy court.

"The Amiga is like a John Wayne movie. It's been to hell and back," said Dwight Parscale, president of NewTek Inc. NewTek makes Video Toaster, an Amiga add-on used by hundreds of television and video production studios for special effects.

Another company, QuikPak Corp. of Norristown, Pennsylvania, is the only one licensed to make the top-of-the-line version of the Amiga used by filmmakers. It's made a bid for the company and expects a decision by month's end.

Amigans Keep the Faith

While the Amiga's trials proceed, an army of devotees, much like the Mac loyalists, keeps the faith.

There's no machine like it for creating inexpensive special effects and video manipulation, said NewTek's Parscale. The Star Trek and Babylon 5 TV series have used it in their productions.

The Internet is laced with Amiga web sites and newsgroups where users swap tips, gossip and encouragement. Hundreds, some say thousands, of Amiga programs are available free or at a nominal price over the Net.

Amigan also form clubs to exchange ideas and sell or swap scarce parts. At a recent meeting in Atlanta, an elderly woman offered to sell an 8-year-old Amiga because, she reluctantly admitted, she had been lured to an IBM clone. She had no problem finding takers.

Lamar Morgan, president of the Amiga Atlanta club, fancies himself an evangelist spreading the "Word of Amiga" in a land of PC infidels. "There is a vicious war going on for the soul of the computer user," Morgan said. "The Amiga's story is not just about a machine. It's about the people who made it and the people who use it."

California Roots

Like Apple, the Amiga got its start in California. In 1982, Miner and three others formed a company to design a video game box to compete against the popular Atari, one of the first home gaming systems that plugged into a TV.

When development costs depleted seed capital, the founders sold Amiga to Commodore International Ltd. in 1984 for $27 million in cash and stock. Miner, Mitchy and crew stayed.

In mid-1985, a date of biblical proportions to the Amiga faithful, the $1,295 Amiga 1000 computer was unveiled.

Compared with the monaural sound, black-and-white Apple or two-color International Business Machines Corp. computers of the day, the Amiga offered 4,096 colors, full-screen annimation, four-channel sound and a television connection. And, unlike the Atari and other gaming machines, it was a full-fledged computer.

"Technologically, it's a dazzler," Time magazine wrote at the time.

Trials and Trubulations

Commodore's handling of the Amiga, however, was less than stellar. By 1986, industry observers wondered if Commodore fumbled by marketing the wunderkind machine as a toy. A lack of software also didn't help.

New Amiga models were introduced, but Commodore and others were hurt by a deep slump in ther computer industry. Commodore filed for protection from creditors in May 1994 and liquidated its assets. About two months later, Miner died.

Germany's Escom in 1995 bought Commodore's assets for a bargain-basement $6.6 million.

Amigans rejoiced, but their joy was brief. The company went into receivership in 1996 and sold its assets, including Amiga Technologies GmbH.

Visual Information Services Corp. of Chicago made a $40 million bid to acquire Amiga Technologies last year. That bid dropped to $20 million after Escom filed for bankruptcy in July.

Now VIScorp, whose Securities and Exchange Commission documents say it can't generate enough cash flow from operations to meet business obligations, won't be buying Amiga after all.

So the technology rests in the hands of a German court-appointed receiver and the hearts of the faithful.

"There is a danger of Amiga sliding, sliding away," said Don Hicks, managing editor of Amazing Computing magazine, which covers the Amiga world. "It's a 10-year-old design, and we need someone to own it long enough to make improvements."

As Amigans paste and solder their machines, privately held QuikPak makes Amiga models for video professionals.

Dave Ziembicki, QuikPak chief executive, said if QuikPak's bid for Amiga Technologies succeeds, the company will make modestly priced machines for the home.

Meanwhile, Amigans the world over hang on. In Atlanta, enthusiast Joe Torre put his 12-year-old Amiga 100 through its paces. He popped the top cover to reveal not only its original virtues but his handyman efforts to maintain and upgrade the system.

He then pointed out an Amigan secret.

On the plastic cover's inside are the signatures of the Amiga's developers. Next to founder Jay Miner's handwriting is the embossed paw print of Mitchy, his canine companion and reputed computer design consultant.

Maybe there is truth to some legends. And, maybe the Amiga, and Apple's Macintosh, will survive.

After all, as Amiga evangelist Morgan says: "It's about beating the odds."

--John Stebbins in the Chicago newsroom (312) 322-7296/gcr.

Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved.

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