Amiga: 25 Years Later

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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.)

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