Amiga: 25 Years Later

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.

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