Amiga: 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago on July 23, a new personal computer was unveiled at a black-tie, celebrity-studded gala at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York's Lincoln Center. It debuted to rave reviews and great expectations -- heck, InfoWorld said it might be the "third milestone" in personal computing after the Apple II and the IBM PC.

The computer was Commodore's Amiga. In an era in which the most common form of microcomputer was an IBM PC-compatible system with a text-only display and a tinny internal speaker, the Amiga had dazzling color graphics and stereo sound. Its Intuition user interface looked like the Mac, but offered an advanced feature known as "multitasking." The machine was a stunner, especially given that it came from a company previously known for rinkydink home computers such as the VIC-20 and Commodore 64.

Over the next nine years, Commodore sold millions of Amigas. People who liked the system really liked it, and its graphical chops were so potent that it was the first PC widely used by TV broadcasters and movie studios. None of which was enough to keep Commodore from declaring bankruptcy and ceasing operations in 1994.

Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, and an Amiga, as shown in New York magazine in 1985.
The Amiga was one of the greatest computers ever made -- and for my money, it was the greatest cult computer, period (Macintosh users would come to be accused of cultlike tendencies, but when the Mac arrived eighteen months before the Amiga, its whole marketing message was that other computers were cultish -- its TV commercials carried the slogan "The computer for the rest of us" and showed IBM PC owners as zombie slaves.)

Amiga users were indomitable. They were outraged that obviously-inferior IBM PC clones dominated the market. They rejoiced when the computer hit major sales milestones. They petitioned major software companies to support the machine, and wrote angry letters to computer magazines that failed to give it its due. And they kept on using their Amigas for years after Commodore went kaput: The market for Amiga-specific magazines lasted into this century.

Other platforms and tech products would inspire similarly fanatical followings -- most notably OS/2 and Linux, both of which developed Amigaesque reputations for technical superiority. But Amiga nuts of the 1980s and early 1990s -- like, um, me -- remain the ultimate fanboys, even though it hadn't yet occurred to anyone to hurl that word at computer users.

When the Amiga was born, consumers and businesses were still figuring out what computers were and why anybody would want one. But you didn't have to spend much time in the presence of an Amiga to get why it was cool -- all you had to do was see and hear what it could do. I bought mine after walking by a computer retailer and spying an Amiga in the window, where it was displaying a full-motion video clip. And to this day, the system is synonymous with the "Boing" demo that its creators used to show off its capabilities even before it went on the market:

If you weren't using computers in the 1980s, trust me: that bouncing ball was spectacular enough to sell Amigas by itself.

Amiga's Origins

Even before it hit the market, the Amiga had an uncommonly checkered history. It began as the project of an independent startup called Amiga Corporation. (It was otherwise best known for the Joyboard, a game controller you stood on.) Amiga cofounder Jay Miner was the man behind the potent graphics capabilities of Atari's 800 and 400 models; Atari advanced the fledging Amiga company money in return for rights to the chips it was developing.

There's probably some alternate universe in which Amiga ended up being an Atari product. But in September 1984, it was Commodore that acquired Amiga Corporation and the computer it was developing (which was code-named "Lorraine") for an estimated $30 million. Atari CEO and Commodore founder Jack Tramiel -- who had acquired Atari from Warner Communications after Commodore had fired in January of 1984 -- sued. He also introduced the computer his company had been developing, the Atari ST, a low-rent Amiga rival that was known in the industry as the "Jackintosh."

Commodore was a famously parsimonious outfit, but it splurged on the Amiga's introduction. The highlight of that Lincoln Center product launch was a demo in which pop art legend Andy Warhol used an Amiga to "paint" Blondie's Debbie Harry. The exercise didn't prove much of anything other than that Warhol was able to use the paint program's fill command, but it was heady stuff:


The company also ponied up for TV commercials that looked like outtakes from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

From the start, Commodore struggled mightily to position the Amiga in a way that made sense in the 1980s computer market. An Amiga A1000 with 256KB of RAM and one floppy disk went for $1295. Even after you added $500 for a color monitor, it offered vastly better bang for the buck than a $2795 black-and-white Macintosh. But as home computers go, the Amiga was pricey. The Atari 520ST, which started shipping a couple of weeks before the Amiga was announced, packed double the RAM and cost $999 -- with a color display.

So even though Amiga Corp.'s original idea had been to build the ultimate home computer, Commodore spun the Amiga as a business machine, and talked up an option that let the system run IBM PC compatible software. It turned out to be a tough sell, especially few major business applications were available and most of the major computer retail chains refused to sell it. (The machine ended up being sold mostly by mom-and-pop stores such as The Memory Location, where I bought my Amiga in 1987.)

A Depressing, Exciting Machine

Jay Miner and the Amiga make the cover of InfoWorld.
Why wouldn't big computer retailers carry an impressive computer like the Amiga? Commodore itself was part of the problem. It was famous for selling undistinguished home computers at bargain-basement prices at stores such as Toys "R" Us. The very idea of it launching a computer as slick and powerful as the Amiga was jarring -- it was as if Yugo had bought out DeLorean. And without Jack Tramiel, Commodore lacked the ambition, heart, guerilla tactics, and raw nervous energy that hade made the Commodore 64 the best-selling computer of its time.

In July of 1985, computer magazines had talked about the Amiga overtaking the Mac; within a few months, they were questioning whether Commodore had a future. Like Mac owners of the mid-1990s, Amiga users had to deal with constant predictions of the imminent demise of their platform. Except in the case of Commodore, the naysayers turned out to be right.

Fans, Not Just Users

Being an Amiga owner could be stressful, but mostly, it was fun. Mac addicts had geek heroes like Bill Atkinson, Burrell Smith, and Andy Herzfeld: Amiga owners lionized Jay Miner and other Commodorians such as RJ Mical and Dave Haynie. (On the other hand, we never thought much of revolving-door Commodore CEOs such as Marshall Smith and Thomas Rattigan.)

The Amiga's legendary Agnus, Paula, and Daphne chips. Photo by Benj Edwards.

Amiga fans weren't just knowledgable about Amiga engineers -- they also knew Amiga engineering. The machine's trio of advanced multimedia chips -- Paula, Agnus, and Daphne -- attained their own celebrity status. (Benj Edwards' Amiga teardown at PCWorld is a great guided tour of the system's innards, which, like the original Mac, featured the signatures of the design team engraved on the inside of the case.)

Even the Amiga's defects were part of its lore. The multitasking operating system lacked memory protection, so errant apps could crash the whole machine in the spectacular meltdown known as a Guru Meditation -- one of the greatest error messages of all time.

Thinking back, I'm struck by the excellence and innovation shown by third-party Amiga products. Electronic Arts shipped a powerful image editor called Deluxe Paint that would make my short list of the greatest applications of all time. NewTek's TV-studio-in-a-box, the Video Toaster, was a famous piece of vaporware for years, but when it finally arrived it changed the way television was produced. Using an app like Sculpt 3D, you could do raytraced 3D animation on the Amiga -- as long as you didn't mind waiting a few hours for each fame to render. And Games, such as the multimedia epics from a company called Cinemaware, were often eye-popping. Basically, the companies that built Amiga apps and add-ons seemed to understand the machine's potential far better than Commodore's executives ever did.

The first issue of AmigaWorld. Image borrowed from The Amiga Magazine Rack.
So did Amiga users, although they tended to be longer on missionary zeal than social graces. When computer magazines gave the computer short shrift, they'd receive angry missives from Amigoids that left editors wanting to avoid saying anything that might attract the attention of the Amiga community, period. (I still remember an editor I once worked for receiving a piece of hate mail from an OS/2 user, shaking his head, and saying "At least they're not as bad as the Amiga people.")

Amiga owners tended to form a complex attitude towards the machine, its place in the computer world, and what their ownership of an Amiga said about them. It was one part superiority complex (owning an Amiga showed you were a person of discerning taste!) and one part inferiority complex (being a Commodore customer was enough to leave anyone feeling a little bedraggled).

In the end, their deep faith in the Amiga was both touching and profoundly unrealistic. Even in the early 1990s, Amiga magazines -- there were a gazillion of them, and I read them all -- were full of letters from people who thought the system might be on the cusp of explosive popularity. I also belonged to two Amiga user groups, and have vivid memories of attending one meeting that was largely focused on the urgency of convincing Lotus to release an Amiga edition of 1-2-3. Once that happened, wouldn't businesses everywhere jump on the bandwagon?

Like I said, complex.

The Machine That Wouldn't Die

Pundits may have begun predicting in 1986 that Commodore would give up on the Amiga, but the platform did evolve -- although not quickly, and not radically. In 1987, the A1000 was replaced by the Amiga 500 (which was much cheaper) and Amiga 2000. They were eventually succeeded by models such as the 3000, 4000, and 600; Commodore also introduced the CD32, a CD-ROM-equipped game console based on Amiga technology.

Except for the specialized market of video professionals, the company pretty much gave up on the notion that the Amiga was a business machine -- here's a later TV commercial that sort of positions the 500 as a super-powerful Commodore 64:

It really wasn't until the mid-1990s that Windows PCs and Macs began to catch up with the multimedia panache that the Amiga had displayed back in the Reagan administration. And by then, Commodore was terminally ill. In May of 1994, it went bankrupt and stopped making Amigas.

Which didn't mark the end of the Amiga: Its assets were bought by a German company called Escom, which hatched grandiose plans for the platform. It failed to realize them, and went bankrupt in 1996.

In 1997, direct-market PC giant Gateway acquired Amiga, hatched a different set of grandiose plans, failed to realize them, and gave up on its acquisition in 1999.

That was eleven years ago,

An Amiga 500, much like the one I owned.
and the Amiga still isn't dead. But if you can parse its recent history, you're paying better attention than I have. All I know is that it involves multiple companies promising Amiga hardware and software that never amounts to anything -- and that a company called A-Eon intends to release a new Amiga called the AmigaOne later this year.

Bottom line: The Amiga's quarter-century of existence includes nine bumpy years under Commodore ownership, and sixteen years of limbo under too many owners to count. The fact that people continue to think of it as a platform with a future is amazing. But I wouldn't wish its post-Commodore history on the junkiest computer in the world, let alone one that was once so full of potential. (And some of its classic games may be coming to the iPhone.)

My take: Maybe it's okay that the platform's period of viability was relatively short, and that it never became a blockbuster. I must confess that I gave up on my Amiga in 1991 and replaced it with a mundane PC clone. But we Amiga owners had a good time while it lasted -- and the memories make me smile even now.


Subscribe to the Power Tips Newsletter

Comments