21 February, 2005

The Amiga is dead — Long live the Amiga!

I'm back. The Passion is back. The Amiga is back. It's shaping up to be a crazy year!

Truth be told, I'm not so sure the Amiga is back. The jury's still out on that one.

In the summer of 1992 or thereabouts, I acquired a used Amiga 500 computer. It was the best $500 I ever spent. The Amiga was way ahead of its time — and I was catching up to it seven years after the fact! It had a color GUI and a powerful command-line shell. It featured a pre-emptively multitasking OS at a time when Microsoft and Apple were still working out co-operative multitasking. (Even Linux did not work out pre-emptive multitasking until kernel 2.6, if I understand correctly.) It incorporated co-processors that handled the graphic, sound, and I/O; these co-processors accessed memory through a DMA bus. These features made it a fantastic system to work with. AmigaOS lacked only two things that would have made it unbeatable: memory protection, and marketing prowess.

Over the next few years, I would make some hardware and OS upgrades to the A500. Without fail, this would break my machine, and I would spend two or three hours in a panic, until I fixed it. I acquired a C compiler and a Modula-2 compiler. I like to think that my research in symbolic computation began with a program I wrote when I got tired of trying to compute by hand several steps of an algorithm that Drs. Job and Jameson had developed. One of my programs is still available on Aminet, and you can download and run it if you have an Amiga or an Amiga emulator: GraphDQ. It graphs two differential equations in two variables. That program has its origin in my graduate-school homework.

Commodore, the owner of the Amiga brand, went bankrupt a couple of years after I bought an Amiga. The reasons for this are many and I'm not going to name names, especially since Amiga fans have done more than enough of that over the last 12 years of self-flagellation. It should be remarked, though, that Commodore bought Amiga from the company that created it, then treated it pretty much like an ugly stepchild with which it didn't know what to do. No further serious hardware advancements would follow, and while the OS did feature some brilliant fine-tuning (datatypes and BOOPSI, for example), a lack of commitment until it was "too little, too late" didn't help The Cause.

The fall of Commodore, the once-mighty king of computers (PET, VIC 20, C-64, C-128, and Amiga) began a string of misadventures that have been dubbed "The Amiga Curse." A number of companies acquired the rights to the Amiga name and technology: Escom, Viscorp, Gateway (yes, that Gateway!), and Amino... all of them would quickly encounter insurmountable financial straits. I still remember the thrill of reading that Gateway would be partnering with QNX to produce a new operating system... and then it wasn't QNX but Linux, but QNX would still make available the work they had done, but then they never did, or else it was inconsequential. In any case, Gateway didn't make the mistake that Commodore made by focusing on both the Amiga and its PC-compatible machines; Gateway simply fired the head of the Amiga division and more or less killed the project.

Amiga, however, is like a phoenix that, after dying rises ag— Oh, for crying out loud! I am so sick and tired of that mindless, optimistic cliché! Let's try again.

Amiga, however, is like a zombie whose rotting, fetid corpse keeps staggering up to chase you, no matter how many times you knock it down. The latest soon-to-be-victim of the Amiga curse is KMOS, who apparently rescued Amino's corporate officials from what appeared to be serious mismanagement by infusing cash and paying off creditors. KMOS doesn't have a webpage, as far as I can tell, but they're doing a lot better than anyone could have expected: and it all has to do with a $50 T-shirt.

One of the more infamous and morale-breaking moves of Amino management (who had renamed their company to Amiga, Inc.) was to invite Amiga fans to join a club. This required a one-time, $50 fee. You would receive a free online newsletter, a discount for purchase of the new Amiga OS (whenever it came out), and a T-shirt.

Obviously, this was a move to raise investment capital. The move apparently failed, and badly. Amino held a contest for club members to select a design for the T-shirt. After the winner was announced, months dragged by with no T-shirt appearing to the public. The CEO admitted after a while that Amino had had problems with the T-shirt production, but these had now been resolved and the T-shirts would be going out shortly. More months passed by. Amino offices were shut down; furniture and "non-essential" equipment were auctioned off. It was pretty clear that no T-shirts would be forthcoming anytime soon, if ever.

At this time, a war was raging between two camps in the Amiga community: the Reds and the Blues. The Reds (like myself) derived their name from the red Amiga boing ball. They were company supporters; they had joined the club, and they greeted every company announcement with exuberant faith. The Blues were fairly cynical about the company, many reporting bad experiences. The name derives from the blue MorphOS moth (butterfly? I never was sure). MorphOS, originally developed for PPC-accelerated Amiga hardware, had joined up with an Amiga rival called Pegasos. I'm not 100% clear on the company (companies?) that were involved in the Pegasos platform, but their point man is a man intimately connected with the failed Viscorpse — cough — Viscorp. Pegasos is billed as an open PowerPC platform that would welcome other OS's besides its flagship, MorphOS.

MorphOS predated Pegasos, but its first serious incarnation was on the Pegasos, and it wasn't long before all serious MorphOS development was for the Pegasos. The Pegasos I had some hardware problems, but was soon replaced by the Pegasos II. I have heard recent reports that there will be a Pegasos III, but the Pegasos web page does not reflect this.

Somehwere along the line, though, MorphOS and Pegasos had a serious falling out. Apparently, this is related to financial problems. The OpenBSD port has also been canceled: not only for lack of payment, but also for lack of hardware information.

Most Blues who do own a Pegasos have reported satisfcation delighted with it, although I have read of problems and unfulfilled promises. Somehow, the Amiga scene turned into a war between apparent teenagers, and a number of people in the Blue camp gloated openly at Amino's financial troubles and failed promises. Many of these same people attacked the developer of OpenBSD when he announced that he was dropping the Pegasos port, but the horror of reality set in when MorphOS also abandoned the Pegasos. I'm not sure how things are going now, because I stopped following the scene long ago.

In the meantime, Amino licensed the OS to Hyperion, Inc. and the hardware to Eyetech, Inc. I thought I recalled that Amino actually sold OS4.0 to Hyperion, with an option to buy it back, but I can't find that now, and the website seems to suggest that Amino owned it the entire time. Whatever the case, many in both the Red and Blue camps saw this as an effort to avoid surrendering the technology in a series of lawsuits brought by Pegasos' manufacturer: Amino couldn't pay its legal bills, so was losing the cases by default, and nearly lost the Amiga trademark as well!

The result has been that the Red camp also has hardware and software now, and a fairly high morale. For all intents and purposes, there is now a "modern", working Amiga. I have seen it in action. The OS is still lightweight and fast. The two serious defects, universally acknowledged, are the lack of a modern web browser and of Java support. New Amiga hardware platforms being announced, manufactured, and even delivered, and the OS (in pre-release for years, but to be released this year, hopefully) is under constant improvement. As you can imagine, it had a long way to go when they revived it after what was, effectively, a 10-year coma.

All the same, the project seemed more or less more of a hobby than a serious work platform. My Amiga 500 died on 24 Dec 1998 (or thereabouts). I bought an Amiga 1200 in 2000, then sold it in 2001 to make room for an iBook (which I needed for work reasons, and which I am using now). I acquired a used Amiga 2000, but I haven't touched the thing. After some years, I removed all Amiga websites from my bookmarks and stopped frequenting Amiga sites. I would have loved to buy a new Amiga and develop some programs for it, but I lack both time and money.

Imagine then my surprise when I received through the mail two weeks ago the item in the image below:



Like a zombie indeed... :-)

You can check out KMOS Amiga's web site here. They say that a new website is coming soon, but in Amiga terms "soon" means "before several years have passed". Don't hold your breath. :-)

No comments: