It wasn't all that long ago that Australia was one of the strongholds of the worldwide Amiga community, with an enviably large share of the domestic, media and educational personal computer market. Of course, that was before the faeces hit the rotary oscillator - remember, the Australian Commodore business jumped on the bankruptcy bandwagon many months before Commodore International went down.
Today Amiga users in Australia are few and far between - numbers continue to dwindle rapidly. Yet despite this there is still a strong core of Amiga diehards here, a core of users and advocates that have been hanging out desperately - through more bankruptcies and countless broken promises - for a sign that things are not as bleak as some might have us believe.
For me, that sign came on the weekend of the 21st and 22nd of August, 1999 in - of all places - Canberra.
The Amiga Downunder Show 1999 was organised by members of the Canberra Amiga User Society (CAUSe) - in particular, Steve Kennedy (aka "Crash"), Blaz Segavac (aka "Bladez"), Kresimir Rogic (aka "Krash"), Douglas Alexander (aka "dalziel") and show coordinator James McPhee (aka "James"). Located at the Heritage Hotel in Narrabundah, a suburb of Canberra, this was the first Amiga show in Australia of any consequence for more years than many of us care to remember. This was not an official CAUSe event, but a personal odyssey for this small group - and it was all done out of their own pockets.
I must admit that I had to consider seriously whether or not I would attend. I live on the south coast of Victoria, some one thousand kilometres away. To make it to the show, I had to take two days off work (15 hours to drive up, 15 hours to drive back home). But I'd made it to many of the shows that were held in Sydney not so long ago, and I was keen to be reminded that I wasn't the only Amiga user left in Australia, so with grim determination and a thermos full of coffee, off I went.
The first thing that struck me was the size of the venue. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. I was used to the old World of Amiga shows at the Darling Harbour Convention Centre in Sydney, but that was back in 1991-1993 when Amiga was still top of the heap. The Heritage Hotel - while still a very comfortable and inviting place to visit - was a much smaller affair. More like a wedding reception venue. Still, the WOA shows in Sydney boasted dozens of vendors and thousands of visitors. That was never going to be the case in 1999, and - as it turned out - the choice of venue ended up about right.
There were vendors present, and they are to be commended for (a) sticking with the platform despite the obvious economic imperatives on the other side of the fence, and (b) making the commitment and the effort to leave their businesses behind for a few days (only one was from Canberra) to be a part of the show.
First cab off the rank as you walked in the door was ComputaMagic. I've known Vince Morton for many years, as my primary source of Amiga hardware and software in Melbourne. He is a wealth of information, a passionate Amiga advocate, and an active importer of many innovative Amiga products. He was selling a lot of Amiga software titles, hard disks, joysticks and other peripherals and had many bargains. He also had many second-hand or used items - I picked up an Amiga 4000 for an absolute song.
Next along the back wall was Phillip Eastham from Amiga Genius in Newcastle. He had lots of older game titles going for next to nothing, and also had quite a few hardware bargains - including CD-ROM drives and hard disks. I picked up a couple of items from Phillip, though the A2000 power supply didn't work when I took it home and installed it. A quick phone call and Phillip offered to exchange it for another - he'd even cover the cost of shipment! Try doing that at a PC show ...
Unitech Electronics also had a large stall, but that's probably just a reflection of the size of Jeff Rose's commitment to the platform. He's been a strong advocate of the Amiga since day one, and has even developed hardware upgrades from his small shop. Jeff and I have known each other for many years, and we now find ourselves on the Amiga Advisory Council together - the only two Australians on the board of thirty.
Jeff had lots of stuff on offer - including some bargain game titles from way back, many new titles, lots of hardware and peripherals, and the only new machines at the show (some A1200's that Petro must have been hiding away somewhere). Originally going for a song at just $600, by the end of the show they were down to $450!
Opposite Amiga Genius sat Greg Perry from GPSoftware. They had Opus Magellan II for sale, and some very nice Opus t-shirts to match. A large-screen Amiga was set up to demo the software at their stall, and later, at the main stage area, Greg demonstrated the new version of Opus to an eager crowd. His stall was always crowded, and it looked like they were doing a good trade. The DirectoryOpus product has to be one of the few Australian Amiga success stories - certainly one of the few to have lasted so long.
Other vendors over the weekend included Vaporware (who were taking registrations for their products such as AmIRC and Voyager), Desktop Utilities (the only Canberra company there) and RMF, who build and were selling one of the few stable Amiga Ethernet solutions around, the Quicknet card.
User groups were also well represented. Naturally the Canberra Amiga User Society (CAUSe) were well represented. In fact it was easy to spot them - they were all dressed in the same dark blue "Amiga Down Under 99" t-shirts.
Also there was the Melbourne Amiga User Group (MAUG - g'day Bill!) which I joined, the brand new Australian Amiga Users Group (ADUG - g'day Basil!) which I also joined, and the Australian Amiga Developers Association (AADA - g'day Jeff!) which I should have joined. The Amiga Education Network was also represented.
In fact ADUG was launched right then and there at the show, with President Steve Kennedy and Secretary Basil Flinter outling the purpose of the group, urging people to join up, and presenting Petro Tyschtschenko with a certificate to pass on to Jim Collas recognising Jim's patronage of the group.
Which brings me nicely to the two highlights of the show - the presence of Petro Tyschtschenko and Juergen Haage.
Petro should be well known to most Amigaphiles, helping to steer the Amiga ship through many of it's worst storms - including the Commodore bankrupcy, the Escom buyout and bankrupcy, and the Gateway buyout. He remains a staunch supporter of the platform, and - in his position as Managing Director of Amiga International, the marketing arm of the international company - probably it's best salesman. He had a bagfull of goodies to give away (no new Amigas, alas, but we heard all about that), and was full of enthusiasm and encouragement. Not only was he there to open the show, he was also there to officially launch AmigaOS 3.5 - the first new Amiga operating system in five years.
Juergen Haage, Managing Director of German company Haage and Partner - makers of quality Amiga software and hardware, including StormC, the Fusion Mac emulator, and ArtEffect - was there to assist with the launch of OS3.5 and to demonstrate it to an eager and salivating crowd. What we saw was called the "Australian prerelease version". Apparently it was not quite ready for the show, but they expect to be shipping in September.
With both Petro and Juergen travelling from Germany for the show, I felt ashamed to be complaining about a lousy thousand kilometre drive ...
Two major door prizes - brand new Amiga 1200 Magic packs - were given out, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Another was given away at the Saturday evening Trivia dinner, and a fourth to one lucky ADUG member. All were donated by Amiga International. Twenty lucky people were also given prerelease copies of AmigaOS3.5 on each day. This was one of the biggest disappointments of the show - the fact that I didn't win one!!
There was much to impress with OS3.5 - things like breaking the 4Gb HDD barrier, full keyboard control over workbench, improved prefs editors, intergrated internet connectivity, and more. I played around with the demo machine for quite a while after Juergen left, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't break it.
Another highlight for me - after finally getting to see the Deathbed Vigil video! - was being able to convince Petro to sit down at a computer and chat on the IRC channels for an hour or so each day. Perhaps 'convince' is too strong a word. All I really had to do was ask. Despite his heavy schedule, despite the demand on his time, despite the jetlag, and despite the many bottles of wine at the dinner the previous evening, Petro was always keen to do what was asked of him. Being able to assist those Australian Amiga users on the AmigaZone IRC channel who weren't able to make it to the show is just another example of his selflessness and his commitment to the Amiga. I tip my hat to Petro - he deserves our gratitude.
Speaking of IRC, this was a great opportunity for me to catch up with - or to meet for the first time - many of the people from the AmigaZone IRC channel that I regularly talk to. Quick greetings to cyberwolf, asp, bladez, krash, crash, bean, blitzwing and the extremely cute blitzette. If you drop in to the AmigaZone channel (on Undernet) say hello to skystomp - that's me. And for those on the channel that couldn't make it, yes, that really was Petro you were talking to!
To close the show on a more light hearted note, we all wandered outside for a bash at a "Bill" penata. Some lucky raffle ticket winners were given a chance to swing the club, only to discover in the end that Bill's head is filled with popcorn and Amiga ephemera! Isn't irony a wonderful thing?!
Back in 1993 I remember walking away from one of the big Amiga shows in Darling Harbour wishing I'd had more money to spend and thinking, damn, these Amigas are good! Now, finally, I've walked away from a computer showing feeling the same. I wish I'd had more money to spend - not only because there were bargains there to be had, but to help to demonstrate my thanks to those vendors who have remained loyal to the Amiga platform.
And I did walk away thinking, damn these Amigas are good. That's in no small part due to Petro's boundless enthusiasm and positive attitude, to the demonstrations of AmigaOS3.5 by Juergen and OpusMagellan II by Greg Perry, and to the hundreds of people at the show demonstrating that - even though the technology is many years old - the Amiga is still capable of holding it's own against the competition.
There are still quality products being developed for the Amiga - despite the fact that there has been no new technology since 1992. There are now things happening that may just see the name Amiga once again held up as the pinnacle of innovative computer technology. Attending Amiga Down Under 1999 helped me to feel that the Amiga wave - so long at low tide and receding - is now growing again, and even made me feel a part of it.
My congratulations to all the organisers for the stirling effort they put in to the show at great personal expense (I understand they each ended up several hundred dollars behind). The event was a credit to you and went a long way to keeping the momentum going in Australia.