'amiga' Episodes

Our Friend, The Commodore Amiga

     10/28/2021

Jay Miner was born in 1932 in Arizona. He got his Bachelor of Science at the University of California at Berkeley and helped design calculators that used the fancy new MOS chips where he cut his teeth doing microprocessor design, which put him working on the MOS 6500 series chips.

Atari decided to use those in the VCS gaming console and so he ended up going to work for Atari. Things were fine under Bushnell but once he was off to do Chuck E Cheese and Time-Warner was running Atari things started to change. There he worked on chip designs that would go into the Atari 400 and 800 computers, which were finally released in 1979. But by then, Miner was gone after he couldn’t get in step with the direction Atari was taking. So he floated around for a hot minute doing chip design for other companies until Larry Kaplan called.

Kaplan had been at Atari and founded Activision in 1979. He had half a dozen games under his belt by then, but was ready for something different by 1982. He and Doug Neubauer saw the Nintendo NES was still using the MOS 6502 core, although now a Ricoh 2A03. They knew they could do better. Miner’s company didn’t want in on it, so they struck out on their own.

Together they started a company called Hi-Toro, which they quickly renamed to Amiga. They originally wanted to build a new game console based on the Motorola 68000 chips, which were falling in price. They’d seen what Apple could do with the MOS 6502 chips and what Tandy did with the Z-80. These new chips were faster and had more options. Everyone knew Apple was working on the Lisa using the chips and they were slowly coming down in price.

They pulled in $6 million in funding and started to build a game console, codenamed Lorraine. But to get cash flow, they worked on joysticks and various input devices for other gaming platforms. But development was expensive and they were burning through cash. So they went to Atari and signed a contract to give them exclusive access to the chips they were creating. And of course, then came the video game crash of 1983. Amazing timing.

That created a shakeup around the industry. Jack Tramiel was out at Commodore, the company he founded originally to create calculators at the dawn of MOS chip technology. And Tramiel bought Atari from Time Warner. The console they were supposed to give Atari wasn’t done yet. Meanwhile Tramiel had cut most of the Atari team and was bringing in his trusted people from Commodore, so seeing they’d have to contend with a titan like Tramiel, the team at Amiga went looking for investors. That’s when Commodore bought Amiga to become their new technical team and next thing you know, Tramiel sues Commodore and that drags on from 1983 to 1987.

Meanwhile, the nerds worked away. And by CES of 1984 they were able to show off the power of the graphics with a complex animation of a ball spinning and bouncing and shadows rendered on the ball. Even if the OS wasn’t quite done yet, there was a buzz. By 1985, they announced The Amiga from Commodore - what we now know as the Amiga 1000. The computer was prone to crash, they had very little marketing behind them, but they were getting sales into the high thousands per month.

Not only was Amiga competing with the rest of the computer industry, but they were competing with the PET and VIC-20, which Commodore was still selling. So they finally killed off those lines and created a strategy where they would produce a high end machine and a low end machine. These would become the Amiga 2000 and 500. Then the Amiga 3000 and 500 Plus, and finally the 4000 and 1200 lines. The original chips evolved into the ECS then AGA chipsets but after selling nearly 5,000,000 machines, they just couldn’t keep up with missteps from Commodore after Irving Gould outside yet another CEO.

But those Amiga machines. They were powerful and some of the first machines that could truly crunch the graphics and audio. And those higher end markets responded with tooling built specifically for the Amiga. Artists like Andy Warhol flocked to the platform. We got LightWave used on shows like Max Headroom. I can still remember that Money For Nothing video from Dire Straits. And who could forget Dev. The graphics might not have aged well but they were cutting edge at the time.

When I toured colleges in that era, nearly every art department had a lab of Amigas doing amazing things. And while artists like Calvin Harris might have started out on an Amiga, many slowly moved to the Mac over the ensuing years. Commodore had emerged from a race to the bottom in price and bought themselves a few years in the wake of Jack Tramiel’s exit. But the platform wars were raging with Microsoft DOS and then Windows rising out of the ashes of the IBM PC and IBM-compatible clone makers were standardizing. Yet Amiga stuck with the Motorola chips, even as Apple was first in line to buy them from the assembly line.

Amiga had designed many of their own chips and couldn’t compete with the clone makers at the lower end of the market or the Mac at the higher end. Nor the specialty systems running variants of Unix that were also on the rise. And while the platform had promised to sell a lot of games, the sales were a fourth or less of the other platforms and so game makers slowly stopped porting to the Amiga.

They even tried to build early set-top machines, with the CDTV model, which they thought would help them merge the coming set-top television control and the game market using CD-based games. They saw MPEG coming but just couldn’t cash in on the market. We were entering into an era of computing where it was becoming clear that the platform that could attract the most software titles would be the most popular, despite the great chipsets.

The operating system had started slow. Amiga had a preemptive multitasking kernel and the first version looked like a DOS windowing screen when it showed up iii 1985. Unlike the Mac or Windows 1 it had a blue background with oranges interspersed. It wasn’t awesome but it did the trick for a bit. But Workbench 2 was released for the Amiga 3000. They didn’t have a lot of APIs so developers were often having to write their own tools where other operating systems gave them APIs. It was far more object-oriented than many of its competitors at the time though, and even gave support for multiple languages and hypertext schemes and browsers. Workbench 3 came in 1992, along with the A4000. There were some spiffy updates but by then there were less and less people working on the project. And the tech debt piled up. Like a lack of memory protection in the Exec kernel meant any old task could crash the operating system.

By then, Miner was long gone. He again clashed with management at the company he founded, which had been purchased. Without the technical geniuses around, as happens with many companies when the founders move on, they seemed almost listless. They famously only built features people asked for. Unlike Apple, who guided the industry. Miner passed away in 1994.

Less than two years later, Commodore went bankrupt in 1996. The Amiga brand was bought and sold to a number of organizations but nothing more ever became of them. Having defeated Amiga, the Tramiel family sold off Atari in 1996 as well. The age of game consoles by American firms would be over until Microsoft released the Xbox in 2001. IBM had pivoted out of computers and the web, which had been created in 1989 was on the way in full force by then. The era of hacking computers together was officially over.


(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020