Amiga 30 and the Unkillable Machine

A group of about 30 people standing in front of banner reading
Photo: Adam Spring
Original, and later, members of the Amiga development team

The story of the Amiga family of microcomputers is akin to that of a musical band that breaks up after one incandescent, groundbreaking album: the band may be forgotten by many, but the cognoscenti can discern its impact on work produced decades later.

So the Amiga 30 event held at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum in late July was more than a commemoration of some interesting technology of the past. It was also a celebration of the Amiga’s persistent influence on personal computing.

The highlight of the event was the premiere of Viva Amiga, a crowdfunded documentary telling the Amiga story. Directed and produced by Zach Weddington, the documentary is an impressive achievement. Following the introduction and initial success of the original Amiga A1000 in 1985 by Commodore, the story could easily have become bogged down in the business machinations that eventually led to the almost complete loss of market share for Amiga computers. But Weddington manages to capture the essence of the story, and bring fresh light to several aspects of the Amiga rollercoaster.

For example, Jay Miner is often lauded for his role as the technical father of the Amiga. But Weddington gives Dave Morse a role equal to that of Miner. Morse was the businessman in the Amiga story, and he had, until Amiga 30, been somewhat overshadowed by Miner.

The movie also examined the forces that made Amiga computers—in particular the Amiga 500—considerably more successful outside North America than in its home territory. Especially in the United Kingdom, this success created a huge pool of enthusiasts entranced by its multitasking, graphics and audio capabilities, which no other similarly priced computer of the day could match. For example, Eben Upton—who attended Amiga 30—cites computers like the Amiga as an influence on his creation of the Raspberry Pi.

That pool of enthusiasts produced a grassroots movement of Amiga supporters that persists to this day. Weddington ends Viva Amiga on a high note, looking at this movement and how chiptune muscians and DJ’s still use Amiga computers, seeing them as instruments that have a life and sound of their own.

Amiga’s outsized impact on home computing is not just due to the devotions of enthusiastic users however. Games machines like the Atari Lynx and 3DO can all be traced back to Amiga engineering alumni, and even the Roku TV streaming media player has a little bit of Amiga DNA infused in it.

The original Amiga development team was selected by Miner and Morse. Miner, a former integrated circuit designer for Atari, was the lead engineer for the original Amiga Corporation, which was bought by Commodore in 1984. Employees at Amiga Corporation were selected for their passion as well as their technical abilities. Miner and Morse wanted hardware and software engineers who had no problem being different and who genuinely wanted to change the world.

Amongst this group were Carl Sassenrath, Dale Luck, Dave Needle, Joe Decuir, RJ Mical, and Ron Nicholson. Decuir and Nicholson were instrumental in the early designs of the Agnus, Denise, and Paula custom chips that gave the Amiga its advanced sound and graphics capabilities. Needle later joined and continued on with them up to production as part of the hardware. At the same time, Sassenrath, Luck and Mical became contemporaries on the software side of things. Sassenrath developed the kernel of the AmigaOS operating system, while Luck handled the graphics layer and Mical the GUI.

Needle and Mical went on to create notable gaming hardware like the Atari Lynx handheld games console and the 3DO home games console. Dave Morse also played a key role in both endeavours.

The Lynx was the first handheld games system to feature a color LCD screen and was the first to feature hardware support for zooming and distortion of sprites. Other impressive features included the Comlynx, which enabled 17 Lynx’s to be tethered together.  Homebrew gaming communities still produce games for the Lynx.

3DO started out as a prototype Needle and Mical developed which was ultimately licensed to Panasonic, Sanyo and Goldstar. This resulted in several variations of the console being released in the market. Though 3DO was not a commercial success, it was Time magazine’s “Product of the Year” in 1993.

By the time of Amiga 30, Luck and Sassenrath were working in software development for Roku. Dale works on graphics for the company while Carl puts his multitasking skillsets to good use. Much like Stan Sheppard, who worked on chip diagnostics at Amiga, Dale also worked on the 3DO—members of the original team have often worked on each others’ products since their Amiga days.

Decuir and Nicholson now play active roles in the IEEE. Amongst other things, Decuir is an IEEE fellow and board member for the Consumer Electronics Society. Decuir was a pioneer in Bluetooth technologies, and was heavily involved in Microsoft Windows modem, network and Fax support.

Nicholson went on to work on RISC based workstation development at Hewlett Packard and on the chipset for the Nintendo 64 at Silicon Graphics. Nicholson now works for himself as Hotpaw Productions, where he works on iOS applications.

And Amiga technology continues to live on in more direct forms. The Amiga brand and its associated intellectual property eventually got split into two. This occurred after Commodore went bankrupt in 1994. For a short period, both were owned by a German company called Escom and then came back to the US via Gateway 2000 in 1997. Eventually Gateway would sell the rights to the Amiga trademarks and copyrights to Bill McEwen of the somewhat mysterious Amiga Inc. Gateway retained the patents and they were later acquired by Acer; the intellectual property has continued to bounce around since.

During the Escom years, a PowerPC architecture and new OS was proposed for Amiga. But Escom went bankrupt as well, leaving the Amiga OS technologically stranded. The need to create a version of the OS that could run on modern personal computers led to the creation of AROS, an open source effort to recreate version 3.1 of AmigaOS. Code from AROS was later incorporated into two other modern incarnations of AmigaOS, MorphOS and AmigaOS 4. Recently, a website was created so that users of all flavors of AmigaOS can keep track of one another, called Amiga Maps. There is even new AmigaOne hardware being produced by companies like Acube Systems and A-EON Technologies.

As for the future, Friend Software Labs is a Norwegian company that credits the multitasking capabilities of the AmigaOS and its GUI as direct inspiration. Hogne Titlestad, chief architect of Friend, used an Amiga as his primary computer until 2001. His new operating system, FriendUP, exists in the cloud and is platform agnostic. This means it can used to bring the best of other operating systems like Windows, Mac OS or Linux together. Arne Peder Blix, Friend’s CEO, was quick to point out the importance of Amiga to his company: “While the Amiga OS made multitasking work elegantly on one hardware unit, FriendUP is making multiple multitasking environments work together as a single whole.” He went on to add: “Amiga OS showed us how the GUI should reflect the multitasking nature of the OS.”

The ultimate takeaway is this: Amiga 30 proved itself to be a celebration of not just a long technological heritage, but a living one. Roll on Amiga 40!

(The Amiga 30 event was made possible by a committee who rented out the Computer History Museum, as well as a host of sponsors and volunteers.)

Clarification and correction made 17 August.

Advertisement

View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
Contact us:  t.perry@ieee.org

Senior Editor
Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
Advertisement