20 September, 2008

The computer that Will. Not. Die.

The greatest Cinderella story in personal computing, the Amiga, is back. Yes, again. I've written about it all of twice before: The Amiga is dead—Long live the Amiga! and Top 100 (?) signs you were (are) an Amiga user. A brief history:

1985The first Amiga computer is marketed by Commodore Business Machines. The IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh look like stone-age relics in comparison. Atari, which had tried to purchase the Amiga technology but failed to outbid Commodore, in a rage of envy releases the grossly inferior ST, and a rivalry emerges.
1994ishCommodore, after years of mismanagement and neglecting development, goes bankrupt. Up to this point, its Amiga division had manufactured several remarkable computers: the Amiga 1000, 500, 2000, CDTV, 3000, 4000, 1200, and CD32. It also released the somewhat underwhelming Amiga 600, a sort of "Amiga Jr.", also so called because the manager who had pushed strenuously for it had been responsible for the failed "IBM PC Jr." some years prior. Each of the machines came multimedia-ready out of the box, and ran a pre-emptive multitasking, windowed operating system (the last version, 3.1, included many innovative ideas that are still not in use today, such as datatypes). The design was years ahead of its time, which means that business owners looked at it and said, "not a real computer".
1993-2000The Amiga Curse. Various companies acquire the technology, then enter bankruptcy—or, if not, do everything they can to get rid of it. Escom, VisCorp, Amiga Technologies, and Gateway are names I'd love to forget. The infamous Amiga Walker design is shown before Amiga Technologies goes belly up. (Is it a toaster? Is it a vacuum cleaner? You decide.)The operating system is occasionally revised, first to 3.5, then to 3.9. Allegations arise that the companies involved are not paying developers for their work.
Christmas 1998My Amiga 500, which I had used for more than 5 years to read email, navigate the web, run mathematical computations, type papers, etc., dies in a literal puff of smoke. I can't afford a new one because I had left seminary only a few days before. Message from God? maybe.
2000Amino, Inc., consisting of some former Gateway managers disappointed with how Gateway didn't do anything with the Amiga technology, purchases certain intellectual property, renames itself Amiga, Inc., and promises something new Real Soon Now.
I don't remember when exactly…That "something new" eventually emerges to be a multimedia layer added to a Java-like virtual machine called TAOS. The faithful are not amused.
early this decadeAmiga (as Amino has renamed itself) promises new hardware to run a newly revised OS. Eventually the British company Eyetech, Inc. releases something with Amiga's approval, called the AmigaOne, which is very expensive, rather buggy, and not particularly impressive. A few people buy it. The new operating system, contracted to Belgian game developer Hyperion Entertainment, which is well-known in the Amiga world, is not yet available, so buyers have to run Linux on their AmigaOnes for a while. AmigaOS 4.0 remains in a near-perpetual beta state for several years. Alternatives such as AROS (an open-source re-implementation of AmigaOS3.1) and MorphOS (a new direction) emerge and progress.
A couple of years agoAmigaOS 4.0 is finally released, but Eyetech no longer makes AmigaOnes.
Two years ago or early last yearAmiga, Inc. catches wind that Hyperion is trying to make the OS run on new hardware that they have not seen, let alone licensed. Amiga's pet Java-like virtual machine failed miserably in the marketplace, even after they survived bankruptcy, re-organized themselves twice in somewhat shady circumstances, and outsourced development to an Indian company. They want to remind everyone that they still own the Amiga name and intellectual property. Being an American company, what do they do? File a lawsuit, with various allegations, recriminations, countersuits, etc. The lawsuit is ongoing, with mediation scheduled for November. The curse seems to persist, considering that the only people who appear to be making money off the Amiga name are lawyers.
Last weekHyperion announces AmigaOS 4.1. Only a few days later, ACube SRL, an Italian company, announces new hardware on which AmigaOS 4.1 will run. For the first time in 15 years, you can actually buy a new Amiga computer with a new Amiga OS.

Unfortunately, after 15 years of stagnation, there isn't much about the Amiga that's so special anymore. The datatypes system is still there, and the operating system is still lean and mean. It's also fairly insecure, and a lot of the software (web browsers, word processors, etc.) are terribly out of date. Sadly, I don't have $1000 burning a hole in my pocket.


Tom L said...

I bought one of the first Amigas off the assembly line in 1985. Had a lot of fun playing with it for a few years. It's been sitting in my attic for the last 20 years. I wonder if it still works.

jack perry said...

Only one way to find out! :-) and if you have kids now, they might enjoy some of those old games. Even the graphics tend to hold up over time.

Clemens said...

Believe it or not, I used to do a lot of research into the history of computers: IBM, Echard/Mauchley, Sperry Rand, and ERA especially. IBM was my bete noir.

Any idea why early computer companies were so poorly run? And I mean wretchedly run. Like the sad example of Amiga, another case of superior technology mismanaged. If I understand you right.