The very beginning: The long story of the Amiga

In the beginning, there was Jay

It all sJay Miner in 1990tarted with Jay Miner (19321994). He was the special chips guy at Atari when they where still the undisputed king of the gaming industry in the late 1970’s. He made the TIA chip for the massively popular Atari 2600 for example. His designs made the computers a lot more powerful by not having to rely on the CPU and RAM for every operation. CPU and RAM was very very expensive and that was a huge problem when turning a computer/game system into something ordinary people could afford. By 1980 he wanted to fulfil a dream of making the most powerful computer his designs would allow. But the management of Atari said no. They didn’t want their own products to compete with each other. Jay quit and tried to make his dream come true himself. He didn’t get far and started to work for a company named Xymos making pacemakers chips.

Then came a call

One day in 1982 he was called by Larry Kapland, another former employee of Atari, who now wanted to start his own video game company and needed funding. Jay found some dentists from Florida who was willing to invest. They named the company Hi-Toro. Pretty soon Jay became the man calling the shots and he pushed to make a gaming console instead. In 1982 video games was the hottest thing around and the dentists saw a console as a sure bet. But it was not just going to be a game console, but a whole computer with just a few extra peripherals. It was based on the new and powerful Motorola 68000 processor, had a keyboard and used a 3.5″ floppy drive instead of cartridges. At the same time they changed the name of the company to Amiga inc. since the name Hi-Toro was taken by a Japanese lawnmower maker (Hitoro). The name was mostly chosen because it would be shown before both Atari and Apple in the phone book. The computer/gaming console was nicknamed the Lorraine.

“Too amazing to be true”

Boing ball demo, 1984Work progressed, more people where hired and the computer soon became very impressive. With a 4096 palette graphic chip (32 colours on a 320×256 pixel screen), 8 bit sound and plenty of raw power (thanks to it’s special co-processors Agnus, Daphne and Portia (later renamed Paula)) it was not just an impressive computer, it was also a lot cheaper than anything else equal to it on the market. At the computer fair CES in January 1984 they showed the now famous Boing ball demo to a baffled audience. People didn’t believe this demo was shown in real time. Reports say some folks looked under the table for a video player.

Trouble ahead

But the good times didn’t last. In 1983, the massive amount of bad games and way too many game consoles alienated gamers who suddenly decided games weren’t cool any more. The famous video game crash of ’83 hit Amiga inc. hard. They where selling peripherals for the Atari 2600 to have some revenue and that suddenly dried up. The investors pulled out and funds were running low. Atari was also doing bad, loosing some 500 million dollars in 1983. They were desperately looking for a way to turn the tide and found out that Amiga inc. had something good going on and needed money. Atari gave Amiga inc. a loan of 500.000 dollars to complete the computer. Atari would either get an exclusive right to it’s special chips or they would get them altogether if Amiga inc. couldn’t pay back. But the computer was still plagued with problems and soon they where in the same dire straight situation again.

Enter Commodore

Jack Tramiel (1928-2012)Commodore was founded by the holocaust survivor Jack Tramiel (19282012) in 1954 as a type writer manufacturer. The company grew rapidly. In the mid 1960’s a tax evading scandal almost destroyed the company’s reputation, but was saved when playboy investor Irving Gould took a liking to Jack and helped save the company. Jack was still the leader of the company, but Irving called the shots.

Fierce competition from cheap Japanese manufactures turned Commodore to adding machines. When the Japanese entered that business as well Jack looked for a new market yet again. He found electric calculators, a brand new technology, and Commodore was in the early 1970’s one of the biggest electric calculator businesses in the world. But they where dependent on parts made by Texas Instrument, and when they realised they could make their own calculators, they did, and they where cheaper than anything Commodore could make. Jack looked for chip manufacturers to buy, making themselves independent of other companies, and found MOS Technology inc.. They where famous for the extremely cheap 6500 CPU processor series but where in need of cash. Commodore was not a fair playing company: they bought a lot of their products and then refused to pay. MOS didn’t have the funds needed for a lengthy law suit and was about to fold when Commodore offered to take over their company with debts and all for small fee. They could not refuse. Jack thought he now had a chip manufacturer. He didn’t know he also now had Chuck Peddle.

MOS Technology inc.

Chuck PeddleChuck Peddle (b. 1937) was an computer chip designer, and the one responsible for Mos Technology inc.’s 6500 CPU series. In the mid 1970’s, computers where not sold as a complete package but as parts. You had to solder chips on the main board yourself. This was a problem for a new generation of programmers who didn’t know about hardware enough for such a difficult undertaking. Chuck wanted to make a whole computer but wasn’t able to at MOS since they where simply not up to the task.

Commodore becomes a computer manufacturer

Commodore PET 2001After the acquisition, Chuck was ready to leave but got a chance to show his new boss (Jack Tramiel) his ideas for a home computer. Jack loved the idea and allegedly said “OK” on the spot. In October 1977 the PET 2001 was on sale. More computers where to follow like the VIC 20 and in 1982 the worlds best selling computer to date: the Commodore 64. By 1982 the computer industry was booming and Jack Tramiel didn’t just want to dominate the home computer industry: he wanted to be the only player. He kept undercutting his competitors prices thanks to the low costs of his computers which did the trick. But it also made Irving Gould unhappy. He finally had a huge success but lowered the prices so much that Commodore wasn’t making much out of it (and therefore gave less to Irving). To make matters worse, Jack was moving to get his children into high positions in the company. Irving had enough and made the board dismiss Jack in 1984. Jack swore to revenge and bought Atari from Warner Brothers in order to turn that into a computer manufacturer. With him followed many of Commodore’s finest engineers, severely brain draining the company.

Nothing lasts forever

Commodore 64Commodore was having a good ride thanks to the Commodore 64 but by 1984 they where facing a technology shift, from 8 bit to 16 bit. MOS Technology was prepared for this, but where unsuccessful in turning their various chips and processors into fully working 16 bit. Commodore came to the conclusion that they should look for a another computer company to buy. They found Amiga inc., and they where at the time in real trouble.

Jack Tramiel was in talks to buy out Atari from Warner Brothers and he wanted to see how bad a deal Amiga inc. was prepared to accept. Jack also found out about their previous deal with Atari and came to the conclusion that time was on his side. Either they sell for a small fee, or Atari will get their hands of this technology anyway when they can’t return their 500.000 dollar loan. Jack kept lowering the bid, until it reached 98 cents per share. The staff at Amiga inc. where in agreement that they really didn’t want anything to do with Jack Tramiel nor a future Atari owned by him.

Then came Commodore and after some discussion agreed to pay 4.25 dollars per share, or 24 million dollars in total. On 30 June 1984 Atari got a visit from Amiga inc.. Atari where expecting to hear that they where unable to pay back. Instead Amiga inc. gave Atari a Commodore signed check of 500.000 dollars and promptly left to every ones great surprise.

Making the computer

Commodore Amiga (1000)Commodore was in a bad financial state, but they where still one of the biggest companies in the world and could muster a lot of money. Amiga inc. was renamed Commodore-Amiga and they got plenty of money to finish their computer. However, Jay and his crew had to make a lot of compromises like lowering the available RAM from 512 KB to 256 KB (to save money) which made it difficult to work with the computer when using the four colour operating system. But they did get to finish it, and it was presented at the Lincoln Center in New York City on 23rd of July 1985. The presentation was a success (Andy Warhol was there and showed off the Amigas graphical capabilities) and the press was impressed. But the price tag of 1600 dollars (plus the 300 dollar price for a monitor) made it too expensive for most people. At the same time, Jack Tramiel had cursed the recent backfire enough and quickly made a 16 bit computer: the Atari ST. It wasn’t as impressive as the Amiga but it was much cheaper (1000 dollars including a b/w screen) and came out several months before the Amiga. Terrible marketing decisions didn’t help either. The Amiga developers started to leave too, including Jay Miner (although he was frequently hired by Commodore as an outsider consultant). Commodore looked like they where going to lose.

Somewhat good change

Commodore Amiga 500Irving Gould decided to fire the tired CEO Marchall Smith and hired Thomas Rattigan in may 1985. Commodore was bleeding money. They had so many ongoing projects and most of them didn’t pay off. After a learning period he set out to cancel all the projects that either didn’t make sense or had nothing to do with computers (like furniture manufacturing) and laid off a lot of workers. He also decided to focus on the Commodore 64 and the Amiga. One of his smartest decisions was to turn the Amiga into a low end and a high end computer. The outcome was the Amiga 500 and the Amiga 2000 (the original Amiga was renamed the Amiga 1000) in 1987. He had stopped the bleeding and things where slowly getting better.

Mostly bad change

But Irving Gould didn’t like how Rattigan was getting along with people in the company, suspecting him of trying to create a power base and outmanoeuvring Irving. In April 1987 Irving hired an outside consultant named Mehdi Ali to check out how the company was doing. Naturally, Commodore was in a poor state (what consultant doesn’t come to that conclusion?) and it was Rattigans fault. On 16th of April Thomas Rattigan was informed by a lawyer that his job was terminated, after a board meeting he was not invited to. He tried to fight back to no avail. Rattigan later sued Commodore for breach of contract (it was supposed to last for 5 years) and won in 1991.

The good years

The Amiga became a huge success with the Amiga 500 and counted for much of Commodore’s profit in 1988 to 1990. Even though Atari had a head start Amiga was outselling the Atari ST by 1989. Atari tried to compete with new computer models but unsuccessfully. The last computer model was the Atari Falcon in 1993. It lasted for a year. After that Atari concentrated on their upcoming game console the Atari Jaguar, “the worlds first 64 bit gaming system”. There is dispute if it really is a 64 bit system, but regardless: it was too hard to program for it to make use of it anyway. The Jaguar didn’t sell well and stopped production in 1996. By now, Tramiel and his family wanted out of the business and left when Atari merged with JTS inc..

At it’s hight in 1991 the Amiga had about 5% of the computer market world wide according to some sources. Commodores huge debts where paid back and things where looking good for once, despite all the calamity. But all the previous lay-offs had hurt Commodore, and money was still tight. If there was any money, they didn’t go where they where most needed: research and development.

CDTVThe Amiga was an impressive computer in 1985, an excellent budget computer in 1988 but by 1991 it was getting old. The previous year the Amiga 3000 was released. It was a high end computer with some impressive hardware, but the graphic and sound chip was largely the same. 1991 Commodore tried to fool people who didn’t want a computer to buy a computer by making it look like a CD-player: the Commodore Dynamic Total Vision or the CDTV. It bombed. Mostly because it was basically a slick looking Amiga 500 with a CD player. People who liked computers didn’t want it. Others didn’t understand it. Then they tried to sell an upgraded Amiga 500, the Amiga 500+, that sold poorly. Mostly because a lot of games didn’t work with the improved chip set which alienated buyers. Then they tried to sell a cost reduced Amiga 500+ called the Amiga 600 that was smaller but costed a bit more (!). It sold poorly as well. At the same time Irving Gould had tried out several CEO:s (including himself) and finally settled for the consultant Mehdi Ali (!).

Stagnation

Like Thomas Rattigan, Mehdi Ali didn’t know anything about computers when he joined Commodore. But unlike Rattigan Mehdi didn’t bother to learn. He didn’t like computers, he just wanted to make Irving Gould happy. The engineers needed more money to stay ahead of it competitors but received too little for several years. The Amiga fell behind, even though some breakthroughs where slowly appearing, like the AAA chip. The AAA chip was the new graphic chip that could handle 16 bit graphics and was ahead of the competitors in 1991. But it wasn’t finished and Commodore had decided to kill off the Amiga and focus on the PC market instead. All development stopped but it didn’t last. Pretty soon Commodore realised that they simply didn’t have enough money to ship enough PC:s to make a profit. The margins was simply too tight. They realised that they had more margins using their own technology and started up the Amiga development again.

A last ditch effort

They pushed to get a new high end and low end computer out soon. Since the AAA chip wasn’t finished they went for a stop gap measure and produced a simpler (and not as advanced) version of the chip: the AA, later better known as the AGA chip. It didn’t have 16 bit graphics but could show 256 colours of a palette of 16,8 million at the same time, much better than the original 32 (of 4096). This was in 1992 barely competitive, but better than nothing. The sound chip stayed the same though.

Amiga 1200Commodore released first the Amiga 4000 in mid 1992 and a couple of months later the low end Amiga 1200. The Amiga 4000 was not as advanced as the Amiga 3000 (except the AGA chip) but cost as much and didn’t sell that well, but the Amiga 1200 sold pretty well, especially in the UK and in Germany where Commodore always have had a strong hold. But it didn’t sell enough to turn the tide. Not just because the Amiga wasn’t as cool as in 1987, but also because Commodore wasn’t able to manufacture enough units. In the Christmas sale of 1992 the Amiga 1200 was mostly sold out, missing out on many potential buyers. Commodore tried one last thing: the CD32.

CD32The CD32 was a game console version of the Amiga 1200 with a CD. It was released in September 1993 and was advertised as the worlds first 32 bit CD based gaming console (which wasn’t entirely true, the FM Town Marty in Japan beat it with a good 7 months. But it flopped and stayed unknown). It had strong sales in the UK that Christmas. CD32 titles outsold every other CD based media, owning 50% of the market there. On other places it did sell OK too. But debt was still mounting uncontrollably. Third party seller went unpaid and simply stopped shipping parts. Just as with the Amiga 1200, Commodore couldn’t manufacture enough CD32 to stay afloat.

The end of a giant

By the end of 1993 Commodore tried to sell the CD32 in the US. But due to a lost patent lawsuit Commodore owed 10 million dollars which they couldn’t pay. The US government thus refused to allow the shipped machines to enter the country. They had to return to the Philippines where they where manufactured. Commodore started to lay off people and stopped development altogether except for a few projects, including the latest version of AmigaOS; 3.1. During this time the board was still being paid enormous salaries. Gould got 3.5 million annually. Mehdi got one million. It’s clear that they where simply trying to milk they cow for as much milk as possible before it died.

And it did. On April 27th 1994 Commodore declared voluntary liquidation. This was something inconceivable just 10 years earlier. But poor management, terrible production decisions and a deafening absence of advertisement killed off one of the biggest computer companies in the world.

Two months after Commodore demise, Jay Miner died of kidney failure. Irving Gould died in 2001. Jack Tramiel died in 2012. He dedicated his post-computer business years to spread knowledge about the holocaust.

The computer that refused to die

By 1994 the Amiga had lost most of it’s appeal. A PC still costed more but was now more technically impressive. CD games was the new thing, as well as 3D first person shooters thanks to hits like Myst and Doom. But one thing was still going in the Amigas favour: it’s operating system. Hard drives was now common so a lot of Amiga owners where now using the operating system all the time. Unlike Windows 3.1 and MacOS, AmigaOS was small, quick and responsive. A lot of Amiga users stayed with their computer of choice because of their new found love of the OS. They hoped that Amiga would soon be bought up by some big player and come around.

The saviour arrives …

Escom WalkerThe buy out dragged on but after a year of lengthy negotiations the German PC reseller company Escom came out as the new owner. Apparently they were not interested in the Amiga brand in retrospect, but only wanted the Commodore name. But when they found out about the almost fanatical Amiga following they decided to make something out of it. They started to produce Amiga 1200 and Amiga 4000 again, and presented a plan for the future, based on the IBM/Motorola PPC processor instead of the now dying Motorola 68000 series.. A prototype name the Walker was shown to the world as a stop gap between the old Amiga generation and the new one. They also started a licensing deal, making it possible for third party developers to sell their own Amigas. The future looked promising.

… and goes away

Escom however expanded too fast, and they where making heavy losses (185 million D-Marks in 1995). Before anyone knew it, they declared bankruptcy the 15th of July 1996. Once again, the Amiga was without an owner.

But there were still companies interested in the technology. Viscorp was one. They wanted to turn the Amiga into a set-top box, which is basically a simplified and cheap computer for internet services. It looked somewhat promising anyway since Viscorp was runned by former Amiga developers. But Viscorp where not able to buy out all of Escom for their proposed price and dropped out. Next in line was Quickpak. They looked like the new future owners for a time until, really quite suddenly, the Amiga was bought up in 1997 by the PC manufacturer and retailer Gateway 2000.

Hope and despair

Gateway 2000 was, like Escom before it, not interested in making new Amiga computers at first but changed their mind when they saw how many users where still out there and eagerly waiting for the next Amiga. They also announced a bright new future for the Amiga, but kept changing their mind of what to do with this technology. Basically, Gateway 2000 bought the technology because of it’s patents but once they got it they didn’t see any real use of it. As time went by, they probably lost interest altogether. In the end, they sold the Amiga brand and operating system (but kept the technology patents) to an employee, Bill McEwan, who had formed the company Amino in order to buy it. After the purchase, he renamed the company Amiga inc..

This is where history goes in two different directions and we have to go back a few years to understand it.

Escom asks for help

When Escom decided to make this new Amiga and had chosen the PPC as their new processor they had to reprogram the operating system to work on it. The German Amiga hardware maker Phase5 got the job. Escom sent them the source code for AmigaOS 3.1 and they went to work. But they didn’t get far before Escom went belly up. But the results so far gave them the idea to make their own PPC based accelerator cards that would run in old Amigas. These cards had two processors, one 68000 (68040 or the fastest to date, 68060) and one PPC. The former was used as the base since AmigaOS 3.x needed it and the latter for more demanding operations, or programs made to make use of it. These cards were popular and made Phase5 a household name in the Amiga community.

As time went by and no light at the end of the tunnel in sight Ralph Schmidt got the idea to make his own PPC based Amiga compatible operating system. Work began in 1998 and the first beta was shown to the world in December 1999. It was running on an Amiga 4000 with a PPC card and was named MorphOS. But the Amiga market had shrunk massively the last years and Phase5 went bankrupt in February 2000.

The next AmigaOS?

Around this time Bill McEwan of Amiga inc. contacted the MorphOS development team and offered to make MorphOS the next official AmigaOS. But after reading the contract they turned him down. According to the team, Bill was demanding too much money and too much influence for it to be a good deal. He had to keep looking, and in the end, in 2001, he gave the small Belgian firm Hyperion Entertainment the job of making AmigaOS 4.0, based on the source code of AmigaOS 3.1. Until now, they were mostly known for porting hit PC games to Amiga, Linux and MacOS.

Up until now, Hyperion had been positive to MorphOS, seeing it as another platform they could sell their games. But once they got the job of making AmigaOS 4.0 the tone changed drastically. They started to accuse MorphOS of “unfair and parasitic competition” and later that MorphOS was based on stolen AmigaOS 3.1 code. The Amiga community was divided into two camps: the MorphOS camp and the AmigaOS 4 camp, fiercely defending their own OS of choice and bitterly fighting the other. Still today, it doesn’t take much to get the “flame war” starting up again in various Amiga forums.

AmigaOS 4.0

AmigaOS 4.1Hyperion was given 4 months to make this OS. A way to optimistic deadline to say the least. Amiga inc. had a contract with Eyetech to make hardware for the upcoming AmigaOS 4.0. They produced several motherboards between 2002 and 2005, but they were sold with Linux because the OS wasn’t finished. Time went and nothing seemed to happen until 2004 when the fist public beta was released. It wasn’t until Christmas day 2006 it was finally released as a non-beta. By then, Eyetech had stopped producing Amiga (called AmigaOne) hardware.

At the same time, relations between Amiga inc. and Hyperion went sour. Once the OS was finished, it was supposed to be handed over to Amiga inc.. But there where several problems on both sides. Hyperion had subcontracted the all important kernel development to Thomas and Hans-Joerg Frieden who owned the right to it. A lot of other parts was also owned and developed by subcontractors. Hyperion could not give Amiga inc. a complete OS even if they wanted to. Amiga inc. on it’s side had in order to avoid bankruptcy transferred it’s assets in 2004-2005 to another company, KMOS, which was later rejnamed to Amiga Inc. and owned by Bill McEwan. In November 2006 the new Amiga inc. demanded that Hyperion would hand over the source code within 30 days. When it didn’t happen, Amiga inc. sued Hyperion a month later.

It wasn’t until 30 November 2009 an agreement was settled. The judge agreed that a contract was not transferable between companies and therefore Amiga inc. could not claim a right to the OS. Hyperion got an exclusive right to develop and sell it’s OS, which they still do today. The latest version is 4.1 but the version 4.2 has been announced for quite some time now.

Amiga inc. today is mostly involved with selling old Amiga games to the Blackberry phones.

The third OS

AROSWe also should mention AROS. AROS origninally stood for Amiga Replacement Operating System but changed it’s name to Amiga Research Operating System and lastly to AROS Research Operating System (a recursive acronym). It was originally conceived in 1993 when the future of Amiga looked bleak. Some people argued that the biggest problem was the lack of hardware, and they were inspired by the open source movement. In 1995 work started with the goal of creating a portable version of AmigaOS 3.1. It’s still worked on today and is usable, but still far from finished. Unlike the other two OS’es, AROS is fully open source.

Plan b

MorphOS Team on it’s side decided to go their own way. Shortly after the bankruptcy of Phase5 some former employees formed the company bPlan with the goal set to make their own PPC based computer. Together with their partner Thendic-France they started to produce the Pegasos motherboards in 2002. When Thendic-France got into economic problems in 2003 and pulled out bPlan started to cooperate with Genesi to continue selling the product. MorphOS development continued and the first non-beta was released in December 2002. Two version of the Pegasos was sold; the Pegasos I (PPC G3) and the Pegasos II (PPC G4) until 2006, when new EU rules forced the discontinuation of the products. That same year Apple stopped using the PPC processor and started using the Intel x86 processors instead. PPC was no longer a contender in the home computing market. MorphOS had reached version 1.4.5 but now you couldn’t buy any new hardware to run it on. MorphOS Team and Genesi went their separate ways.

Plan c

MorphOS 3Some of the developers then got the idea to start porting MorphOS to used PPC Apple Macintoshes instead. The reason was simply because it would be way to expensive to make their own hardware and used PPC macs were plentiful and cheap. From version 2.4 the first PPC mac was supported and the number of supported hardware has grown even since. The MorphOS Team has stated that they will eventually switch to another platform. Which and when, it’s not decided. The problem is that when they do that they have to break comparability with both Amiga programs (which is emulated in real time) as well as MorphOS programs. So the team is not in a hurry.

This is where we are today. Next time we will take a closer look at MorphOS. Stay tuned!

 


 

Note: I will change information in this text when faults are pointed out to me.

Sources: On The Edge – The spectacular rise and fall of Commodore, by Brian Bagnall; Commodore – A company on the edge, by Brian Bagnall; The Future Was Here – The Commodore Amiga, by Jimmy Maher; Wikipedia

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One Response to The very beginning: The long story of the Amiga

  1. Dave Haynie says:

    Amiga Technologies (aka Escom) did not hire Phase V to develop a PowerPC AmigaOS. That was being done via an internal team. In the fall of 1995, Amiga Technologies brough a few ex-Commodore folks, including me and Andy Finkel (former head of software development) over to discuss future Amiga directions. At that point, the future was x86 or PPC, no one else was delivering desktop-class CPUs (by 1997, the only answer was x86 for a full-powered desktop/workstation class PC). We discsussed what they wanted (a PowerPC replacement for the Amiga 1200 with, of course, a compatible OS), we made recommendations, and Amiga Technologies was headed in the right direction.

    In Feburary of 1996, they called a meeting with a bunch of the Amiga 3rd party companies, including Phase V and others, mostly European, to discuss the plans we had and get some of their feedback. One of the OS plans was to build a hardware abstraction layer as a basic for the OS< so that any 3rd party (for example, Phase V) could deliver PowerPC accelerators for older machines.

    A number of companies had been looking at PPC by then. That was not anything close to a foregone conclusion in the Commodore days. In fact, the system that would have been the Amiga 5000 in 1995, had Comodore survived, was intended to be CPU-agnostic. We were probably going to launch with a 68060, but other options would have been possible once the company made a decision about direction. At the time, the only other CPU being worked-on was the PA-RSIC processor in the "Hombe" chipset, the successor to AAA. But Amiga Technologies did make it official in early 1996, despite not lasting into the summer.

    Like

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