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.
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.