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The Amiga


Fans of the Amiga have attained cult status—that is, many behave as if they were in a cult. As fantatical as Mac and Linux users may be, no computer has attracted such loyal fans as the Amiga; even today, when the Amiga is practically dead, there are still numerous proponents of this marvelous machine. To understand the Amiga better, let's start with a little background.

Jay Miner, Dave Morse and RJ Mical got together in the early 80s and after securing some funding, set themselves up in Silicon Valley. Naming themselves Hi-Torro, they were interested mostly in producing video games hardware (e.g. joysticks). Interested in maintaining secrecy, they assigned code-names to their "products," often using women's names (their computer was named "Lorraine"), and they named their company "Amiga"—Spanish for "girlfriend."

By the mid-80s, the market for game machines was deteriorating (as evidence: note the fall of Atari and Intellivision)—the "PC" was on the rise. The developers were out of funding and in their search for investors, attempted a deal with Atari. While negotiations with Atari were underway, Commodore entered the picture and provided the money Amiga needed. In return, Amiga became a division of Commodore, and the first Amigas were produced.

The first Amiga was the 1000, followed by the 500 (confusing, eh?), and later the 1500 and 2000, and even a 3000. The Amiga computers were built around Motorola's 68K line of CPUs, just as were the Apple Macintosh computers and the Atari ST (which Atari threw together after the Amiga deal fell through). However, the Amiga went beyond—hardware-wise—its distant relatives (the Mac and ST) in that it incorporated a number of custom chips for sound and video, which lightened the CPU load, and allowed the Amiga rather amzing performance. In time, SCSI was added. Indeed, while the Macs of the time were only black and white (and had tiny screens), and PCs needed expensive add-on cards to do any sort of color and graphics, the Amiga did 4096 colors with ease. It did sound quite wonderfully—it was a multi-media PC years before the term was coined.

However, Commodore made several errors with the Amiga, the first of which was the attempt to introduce a set-top box—about a decade too early. The 4000 was over-priced, and the CPU and bus became a bottleneck for the newer Amiga systems. Commodore eventually went bankrupt and its assets were sold off for about $10 million US to a German firm, which also failed to succeed with the Amiga. After many twists and turns, Gateway bought the Amiga and started Amiga, Inc.. Their goal seemed to be to 1) develop a new Amiga Operating System and to 2) develop new Amiga hardware, and in pursuit of these goals, it appeared that Gateway was willing to licence Amiga technology rather liberally.

Commodore was rarely the driving force behind the Amiga's devlopment. Poor documentation led to users tinkering under the hood and knowing more about their computers than Commodore's engineers did. In fact, it is rather easy to argue that some of the most creative and resourceful hackers in the past two decades have come from the ranks of Amiga users. After Commodore's demise and Apple's switch from the 68K line to the PowerPC, various expansion board options appeared for the Amiga. Throughout its history, the Amiga has had extensive 3rd party hardware support.

Why Amiga?

As of now, you cannot go to a store and pick up a new Amiga. Most people on the lookout for a used Amiga system to pick up are already Amiga users, and the chance that the Amiga's marketshare will grow any time soon is zilch. Furthermore, any new "Amiga" to come out will hardly be be a "true" Amiga, despite the name. The best they can do is attempt to stay true to the Amiga's design concepts, which themselves may or may not be relevant in today's computer industry.

However, for someone lucky enough to have or to find an Amiga, there are many reasons to hold on to it and cherish it—and use it.

As impressive as the hardware feats the Amiga pulled off were, an equal share of the glory must go to the OS. (An historical look at the OS's development and features will not be attempted here. Such information, however, is welcome) The Amiga operating system offered a pre-emptive multi-tastking kernel and windowing system—and it was small, fitting in a tiny amount of RAM. Even the last releases of the Amiga's OS make Apple's and MS's offerings look like bloated piles of bug-ridden and inefficient code (that they are is another matter...). The GUI employed (the Work Bench) was simple and clean, and rather easy for new users to get used to. Numerous 3rd party enhancements helped to add a level of customization that other OSes could only dream of at that time (and even today in many regards). The one major "flaw" of the Amiga's OS was its lack of memory protection (but seeing as other "PC" OSes lacked/lack this feature as well, it doesn't seem like a great stumbling block).

The Amiga was tailored for multi-media work, partially due to its emphasis on games (which have often driven graphics and sound standards forward) and partially due to its customized hardware, and Amigas still play important roles in television (Babylon 5, for example). There are many older games for the Amiga, and even more recent ones have been ported (Myst, Quake, etc.).

However, that is not to say the Amiga only does games and graphics. There are productivity applications and network/internet programs available, many of them of very high quality. In short, almost anything a normal user would want to do with a computer can be done on an Amiga&$8212;and as many Amiga users would argue, can be done with greater joy on an Amiga.

Why not?

Yet, one has to remember, the Amiga is out of production and has been neglected. Its user-base has shrunk, and the latest and greatest new applications simply are not going to be released for the Amiga. The technical superiority the Amiga could rightfully claim over the Mac, Atari, and IBM PC no longer really exists: PCs have the marketshare and hence tons of software and hardware, and are quite cheap; Apple has gotten back on track; and the Ataris ST is dead and buried. Times have changed, and the arguments for the Amiga seem a great deal like nostalgia. Furthermore, the Amiga is not for all users or uses. The Amiga OS is not the best server OS around, and the OS in general is showing its age. (However, one would then have to add, there are forms of Linux and *BSD for Amiga computers, and these can very well make good server OSes.) Finding an Amiga can be difficult, and even if one is found it may be useful (or necessary) to perform memory, disk, and processor upgrades that the average user is not willing to make.


Some argue the Amiga is dead, and we should all let it rest in peace.

Not so, I would argue. The more the merrier in the world of computers and operating systems. Amiga, Inc. announced their partnership with QNX with regards to the "new" Amiga OS, and it is still quite possible to upgrade those older Amigas.

For some, using a real Amiga is out of the question. Luckily, there is an Amiga emulator&$8212;UAE&$8212;which runs on most platforms. In the Linux/Unix/X world, it is even possible to make your Window Manager under X look like&$8212;and behave to some extent like&$8212;the Amiga's Work Bench, so for those mourning the loss of their Amiga, there is still hope...

A lot of the intellectual mass that once collected around the Amiga now pushes Linux forward, and old Amiga users were clearly the target of the BeOS. Still, the Amiga is a beautiful thing, and while it may be on life support, it is clearly not dead, for as recent years have shown, you don't necessarily have to have commercial backing to survive as a computing platform.

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