A history of the Amiga, part 1: Genesis


The Amiga 1000

The Amiga computer was a dream given form: an inexpensive, fast, flexible multimedia computer that could do virtually anything. It handled graphics, sound, and video as easily as other computers of its time manipulated plain text. It was easily ten years ahead of its time. It was everything its designers imagined it could be, except for one crucial problem: the world was essentially unaware of its existence.

With personal computers now playing such a prominent role in modern society, it's surprising to discover that a machine with most of the features of modern PCs actually first came to light back in 1985. Almost without exception, the people who bought and used Amigas became diehard fans. Many of these people would later look back fondly on their Amiga days and lament the loss of the platform. Some would even state categorically that despite all the speed and power of modern PCs, the new machines have yet to capture the fun and the spirit of their Amiga predecessors. A few still use their Amigas, long after the equivalent mainstream personal computers of the same vintage have been relegated to the recycling bin. Amiga users, far more than any other group, were and are extremely passionate about their platform.

So if the Amiga was so great, why did so few people hear about it? The world has plenty of books about the IBM PC and its numerous clones, and even a large library about Apple Computer and the Macintosh platform. There are many also many books and documentaries about the early days of the personal computing industry. A few well-known examples are the excellent book Accidental Empires (which became a PBS documentary called Triumph of the Nerds) and the seminal work Fire in the Valley (which became a TV movie on HBO entitled Pirates of Silicon Valley.)

These works tell an exciting tale about the early days of personal computing, and show us characters such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs battling each other while they were still struggling to establish their new industry and be taken seriously by the rest of the world. They do a great job telling the story of Microsoft, IBM, and Apple, and other companies that did not survive as they did. But they mention Commodore and the Amiga rarely and in passing, if at all. Why?

When I first went looking for the corresponding story of the Amiga computer, I came up empty-handed. An exhaustive search for Amiga books came up with only a handful of old technical manuals, software how-to guides, and programming references. I couldn't believe it. Was the story so uninteresting? Was the Amiga really just a footnote in computing history, contributing nothing new and different from the other platforms?

As I began researching, I discovered the answer, and it surprised me even more than the existence of the computer itself. The story of Commodore and the Amiga was, by far, even more interesting than that of Apple or Microsoft. It is a tale of vision, of technical brilliance, dedication, and camaraderie. It is also a tale of deceit, of treachery, and of betrayal. It is a tale that has largely remained untold.

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.


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