ArsTechnica posts part 6 of “The History of the Amiga.”

It’s been awhile since the last installment, but it’s still a worthwhile read. They pick up on the history of my all-time favorite computer with Commodore’s attempt to stop bleeding money all over the place:

A history of the Amiga, part 6: stopping the bleeding.

When a corporation is bleeding money, often the only way to save it is to drastically lower fixed expenses by firing staff. Commodore had lost over $300 million between September 1985 and March 1986, and over $21 million in March alone. Commodore’s new CEO, Thomas Rattigan, was determined to stop the bleeding.

Rattigan began three separate rounds of layoffs. The first to go were the layabouts, people who hadn’t proven their worth to the company and were never likely to. The second round coincided with the cancellation of many internal projects. The last round was necessary for the company to regain profitability, but affected many good people and ultimately may have hurt the company in the long run. Engineer Dave Haynie recalled that the first round was actually a good thing, the second was of debatable value, and the last was “hitting bone.”

Good stuff. Go check it out.

ArsTechnica’s “A history of the Amiga, part 5” is now available.

The latest installment of the excellent A History of the Amiga is now up on ArsTechnica’s website. A small sample:

By July 1985, Commodore had everything going for it. The Amiga computer had been demonstrated in public to rave reviews, and everyone was excited at the potential of this great technology.

That’s when the problems started.

Commodore’s primary woes were always about money, and 1985 was no exception. Sales of the Commodore 64 were still going strong, but the price wars had slashed the profits on the little computer. The company had invested millions of dollars creating new and bizarre 8-bit computers that competed directly against the venerable C-64, such as the wholly incompatible Plus/4, that had no chance in the marketplace. To make things worse, the company had to deal with lawsuits from its ousted founder, Jack Tramiel. Finally, Commodore had invested $24 million to purchase Amiga outright, but as the computer had not gone on sale yet, there was no return on this investment.

All these financial problems put a strain on the company’s ability to get the Amiga ready to sell to the public. Without a lot of spare cash, it was difficult to rush the production of the computer. Further software delays pushed back the launch as well. The end result was that the Amiga did not go on sale until August of 1985.

I always knew Commodore had been making bad decisions almost from the start with the Amiga, but I hadn’t realized the extent of it at the time. This article points out, for example, that Commodore had actually developed a precursor to the laptop and shown it off at a trade show where it was an instant hit:

At the January 1985 CES, Commodore had shown off an innovative portable computer using an LCD screen. The laptop computer had a display that could show 16 lines of 80-column text, which compared favorably to the then-popular Tandy Model 100’s 8 lines and 30 columns. Commodore took orders for 15,000 units of the machine just at the show itself, and it looked like it would be a smash success. That was when the CEO of Tandy/Radio Shack took Marshall Smith aside and told him that there was no money in LCD computers. Smith not only canceled the machine, but sold off Commodore’s entire LCD development and manufacturing division, based solely on this dubious “advice” from his competition! Commodore had a chance to take an early lead in the emerging market of portable computers. Instead, the company would never produce a laptop again.

Marshall Smith was running Commodore at the time, a former steel company CEO, Smith had cheese for brains when it came to running a computer company and he’s at least partially responsible for the downfall of Commodore. It’s so frustrating to learn that Commodore was on the verge of so many great things only to have stupid people at the company make stupid decisions.

ArsTechnica’s part 4 of “A history of the Amiga.”

The excellent series of articles on the history of my all-time favorite computer continues with A history of the Amiga, part 4: Enter Commodore:

The CAOS debacle

Originally, that third layer was known as CAOS, which stood for the Commodore Amiga Operating System. Exec programmer Carl Sassenrath wrote up the design spec for CAOS, which had all sorts of neat features such as an advanced file system and resource tracking. The latter was a method of keeping track of such things as file control blocks, I/O blocks, message ports, libraries, memory usage, shared data, and overlays, and freeing them up if a program quit unexpectedly. As the Amiga software engineers were already behind schedule, they had contracted out parts of CAOS development to a third party. Still, as is often the case in software, the development hit some unforeseen roadblocks.

According to Commodore engineer Andy Finkel, the management team “decided that it wouldn’t be possible to complete [CAOS] and still launch the Amiga on time, especially since the software guys had already given up weekends at home. And going home. And sleeping.”

Lack of time wasn’t the only problem. The third-party development house learned that Amiga, Inc., had been bought out by Commodore, and they suddenly demanded significantly more money than had originally been agreed upon. “Commodore tried to negotiate with them in good faith, but the whole thing fell apart in the end,” recalled RJ Mical, who was upset by the whole event. “It was a jerk-butt thing that they did there.”

TripOS to the rescue

When the CAOS deal fell apart, the Amiga team suddenly needed a replacement operating system. Relief came in the form of TripOS, written by Dr. Tim King at the University of Cambridge in the 1970s and 80s, and later ported to the PDP-11. Dr. King formed a small company called MetaComCo to quickly rewrite TripOS for the Amiga, where it became known as AmigaDOS.

AmigaDOS handled many of the same tasks as CAOS, but it was an inferior replacement. “Their code was university-quality code,” said Mical, “where optimized performance was not important, but where theoretical purity was important.” The operating system also lacked resource tracking, which hurt the overall stability of the system. This oversight had repercussions that remain to this day: the very latest PowerPC-compiled version of AmigaOS will still sometimes fail to free up all resources when a program crashes.

Reading through the history now it’s seems almost as if the Amiga was doomed from the start and it’s somewhat amazing it survived as long as it did. In addition to the CAOS debacle mentioned above the article goes on to discuss how Commodore had originally wanted the Amiga 1000 to only have 256K of RAM whereas Jay Miner knew it really needed a minimum of 512K and he ends up putting his job on the line to get a compromise that shipped the machine with 256K and an expansion port for an additional 256K on the front.

Even that wasn’t enough. One of the most popular add-ons for the Amiga 1000 was the Insider Board, which was a 1MB RAM expansion that you had to void your warranty to install (I have one in my A1000 to this day). It involved opening the case, removing the 68000 processor, plugging it into the RAM expansion board (which was huge), plugging the board into the 68000 socket, and, if I recall correctly, connecting an alligator clip or two to various spots on the motherboard. I’d have to open mine up to be sure on that last bit, I may be confusing it with the Buscard Interface (IEEE) I once installed inside one of my Commodore 64s.

The rest of the article goes on to describe the massive launch party Commodore held for the Amiga 1000. They went all out not only demonstrating the machine’s strengths, but bringing in celebrities such as Andy Warhol who painted Debbie Harry on stage using the Amiga 1000. If you were a Commodore fan then it was a very exciting time. At least it was at the beginning. Part 5 promises to delve into the early blunders by Commodore that would turn their new dream made reality into a nightmare. Good stuff.

ArsTechnica on the Birth of the Amiga, Part 2.

Part two of ArsTechnica’s excellent series on The Birth of the Amiga is now up on their site. Here’s a sample:

This short-lived era of the young company’s history had one long-lasting impact on the Amiga computer. RJ Mical, a programmer writing some of the complicated routines that would bring the Amiga to life, developed a simple game that used the Joyboard and was designed to try and help him to relax. The game was called “Zen Meditation” and the object was to try and sit absolutely still. The game was a kind of running joke in the Amiga offices, and when the time came to write the text for a serious error message for the Amiga operating system, a programmer came up with the term “Guru Meditation Error.” This would remain in the operating system for years to come, until a nameless and unimaginative Commodore executive insisted on removing the Guru and making the message into “Software Failure.”

The second front of deception against industrial espionage involved codenames for the powerful new custom chips the team was designing for the Amiga computer. Dave Morse decided that henceforth all these chips would be referred to by women’s names. The idea was that if anyone intercepted telephone conversations between Amiga people, they would be unable to figure out that they were discussing parts of a computer. The idea of “Agnes” being temperamental or “Denise” not living up to expectations also appealed to the engineers’ sense of humor. The computer itself was codenamed “Lorraine,” the name of Dave’s wife.

Oh the fond memories I have of the Guru Meditation Error. It was to the Amiga what the Blue Screen of Death is to Windows, though much smaller and with a nice flashing border effect. OK, that’s not quite true. The Guru Meditation Error was annoying, but it rarely inspired the sense of impending doom that BSODs tend to bring to mind. BSODs often signal the death of your PC thanks to a corrupted registry or bad driver update which could mean having to wipe out your hard drive and reinstall everything from scratch whereas the Guru Meditation generally meant you needed to reboot your Amiga.

Still it was always a thrill when you’d spot one in public. Lots of cable companies used Amiga 500s to run their scrolling displays on the Public Access channels and when they’d crash you’d see that good old Guru Meditation blinking away on your cable channel. The informational monitors at the metal detectors in Detroit Metro Airport used to run on Amigas as well and I can recall spotting a Guru Meditation when boarding a flight years ago.

The ArsTechnica article goes on to discuss the fledgling Amiga company’s method of working out in design meetings what would and wouldn’t make its way into the first Amiga and talks about the original custom chipset with its three specialized chips: Agnes, Denise, and Paula. A chipset that still does a trick or two no modern day PC is capable of. Good stuff. Go check it out.

ArsTechnica starts a series on the history of the Amiga computer.

I’ve mentioned many times in the past how I was once a die-hard Amiga fan having owned four of the machines over the years with three still packed away among the boxes in the basement. I’m about to add a fourth back into the mix as my good friend Hairboy is going to give me his old Amiga 500 which is one of the few models I haven’t owned previously. I didn’t make the switch to a Windows based PC until 1996 after Windows 95 had established itself and even then I continued to make heavy use of my Amigas for another year or so which is impressive when you consider that Commodore kicked the bucket in 1994.

I’ve long been surprised that no one has ever written a book about the history of the Amiga or of Commodore so that makes the ArsTechnica article long overdue in my book. Here’s an excerpt from A history of the Amiga, part 1: Genesis:

This series of articles attempts to explain what the Amiga was, what it meant to its designers and users, and why, despite its relative obscurity and early demise, it mattered so much to the computer industry. It follows some of the people whose lives were changed by their contact with the Amiga and shows what they are doing today. Finally, it looks at the small but dedicated group of people who have done what many thought was impossible and developed a new Amiga computer and operating system, ten years after the bankruptcy of Commodore. Long after most people had given up the Amiga for dead, these people have given their time, expertise and money in pursuit of this goal.

To many people, these efforts seem futile, even foolish. But to those who understand, who were there and lived through the Amiga at the height of its powers, they do not seem foolish at all.

But the story is about something else as well. More than a tale about a computer maker, this is the story about the age-old battle between mediocrity and excellence, the struggle between merely existing and trying to go beyond expectations. At many points in the story, the struggle is manifested by two sides: the hard-working, idealistic engineers driven to the bursting point and beyond to create something new and wonderful, and the incompetent and often avaricious managers and executives who end up destroying that dream. But the story goes beyond that. At its core, it is about people, not just the designers and programmers, but the users and enthusiasts, everyone whose lives were touched by the Amiga. And it is about me, because I count myself among those people, despite being over a decade too late to the party.

All these people have one thing in common. They understand the power of the dream.

I can recall engaging in big arguments on various BBS forums back in the day about whether or not the Amiga would ever overtake the industry. At one time I was an Amiga True Believer™ and argued that it was only a matter of time before the machine would come out on top purely by virtue of it being a better mousetrap with an evangelical zeal that would’ve made Jerry Falwell envious. I remember the slowly dawning sense of disillusionment as it became clear that Commodore was run by people who were more interested in short-term profits than longtime viability. People often say they can remember where they were when they heard JFK had been assassinated and the day Commodore closed its doors forever holds a similar spot in my memory. I was the very definition of an Amiga Fan Boy and if I suddenly were to come into wealth beyond imagination the one thing I’d seriously consider doing would be to try and revive that platform from the grave. And buy a nice home. I mean, as long as I’m dreaming…

Anyway, the first article at Ars is off to a good start and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. If you’re an old Amiga fan, or just interested in computer history, then go check it out.

Oh, and if any of you happen to have an old A3000 compatible Ethernet card laying around let me know as I’ve been trying to track one down for ages.

Commodore computers are back, at least in name.

The very first computer I owned, or rather my family owned, was a Commodore 64 with a 1530/C2N Datassette (tape drive) and it was the start of a beautiful relationship. Or at least it was once we landed a 1541 floppy disk drive and it didn’t take 30 minutes to load up a program. Before I bought my first PC in 1996 I went through 5 Commodore 64’s (several were given to me by friends for various reasons), a Commodore 128, and no less then four models of Commodore Amiga —of which I still own three of them. Needless to say the Commodore name holds quite a bit of nostalgia for me.

Now a Netherlands-based company seeks to bring that familiar name back from the dead after having purchased the rights to it this past March with a new line of gaming PCs:

Commodore will re-emerge with four basic systems, each with a little bit of wiggle room in terms of its configuration, at least when you order online. Prices start around the $1,700 mark for the most basic Commodore Cg, and they climb progressively to the highest-end Cxx, although Commodore is still working out the baseline costs of the pricier models. All will come with Intel quad-core processors, Nvidia 8000-series graphics cards, Corsair RAM, and Asus-made NForce motherboards. And while Commodore won’t be overclocking out of the box, it will be providing all of its systems with a proprietary Peltier-cooling heat sink, that it claims will give gamers room to ramp up their parts themselves.

Well, OK, I suppose. It’s still a Windows PC, it just has the Commodore name and logo on it. Somehow that’s less than overwhelming. I mean I could carve a Commodore logo into the case of the PC I built myself and have more or less the same product and probably cheaper to boot, though the Peltier-cooling heat sink does tend to add a little “cool” to the Commodore rigs, if you’ll pardon the pun. Still the cases look nice and they come with “skins” so you can personalize them somewhat without having to know how to casemod.

It’s hard to guess how well having the Commodore name will benefit sales here in the U.S., but it may help quite a bit in Europe where the company was held in much higher regard. Just the same I won’t be rushing out to buy one myself. Though it does make me itch to dig out the old A3000 and boot it up. Wish I could find a cheap networking card for it so I could fire up the old BBS system over telnet.