The story of the Commodore Amiga is the story of highs and lows. Like a Hollywood star burning out in front of our eyes. The Amiga built on Commodore’s momentum, the C64′s success and managed to go from the lofty heights of the being the number one selling computer in 1990 to being a part of a bankrupt company by 1994. The life of the Amiga had many twists and turns.
If you walked through the Myers department store – electronics department – in Australia during the late 80′s you would have seen a Commodore Amiga, chances are it was running one of the Boing Ball graphics demonstrations. These simple animations of a chequered ball rotating and bouncing around a window or three boing balls being juggled on the desktop was one of the great wow moments of computers in the 80′s. It was also one of the greatest pieces of marketing ever, these demo’s alone sold millions of Amiga’s.
The most popular Amiga was the Amiga 500, it’s all in one shape fit perfectly into a teenagers bedroom. With most Amiga monitors just being TVs with a scart input they often did double duty as a bedroom TV once a video was plugged in. The integrated shape was continued on with the 600 and 1200. The 1200 was the last model to be released by Commodore, even though it was released 5 years after the 500 it was the first real upgrade to the chipset. The desktop shaped Amiga’s were the 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000 with the last models sharing the 1200′s chipset.
Even the early life of the Amiga was full of controversy. The team that designed the chipset – lead by Jay Miner – originally worked for Atari, overtime they become disillusioned with management, splitting off to design their next-gen chipset. This chipset would eventually become the Amiga once Commodore had paid off Atari and brought the design team in house. Ironically most of this original team would leave Commodore over management issues. At the same time, the board of Commodore had force Commodore’s founder – Jack Tramiel – out. Tramiel then bought Atari. How many awkward moments would have happened during this phase ?
One of the things that made these early computers special was the ability to directly connect a TV as the display. In fact the Amiga’s chipset was designed to synchronize with TV and could drive TV’s to their maximum resolution of 720×576 pixels. Because of these special features the Amiga made a natural video editing and effects machine. The video boom peaked with NewTek’s VideoToaster and Lightwave 3D Software. Many large studio’s – Industrial Light and Magic, Amblin – used Amiga’s with this hardware and software combination. Movies and TV shows such as Robocop, The Abyss, Terminator 2, Babylon 5, SeaQuest DSV and MaxHeadroom were produced with Amiga’s doing effects and other video tasks.
The Amiga’s real specialty though was playing games on your living room TV. In it’s day it was considered arcade quality, with even the early games having highly detailed and colourful graphics that was silky smooth.
Many small software companies experienced rapid growth with the Amiga, Electronic Arts who produced the Amiga’s standard file format IFF and Deluxe Paint were one of the early players on the Amiga. Other game companies that found success on the Amiga include Psygnosis (now Sony’s in-house development team on the PlayStation), a sub-set of Psygnosis called DMA Design (later to became Rockstar Games — and develop the Grand Theft Auto series). Factor 5, now a PlayStation developer created classics such as Turrican.
The birth of the bedroom musician started on Amiga’s and Atari ST’s. By the early 1990′s a number of musicians had released albums completely recorded and produced on Amiga’s using OctoMed software, Paradox, DJ Zink and Christian Vogel all released albums produced on Amiga’s.
All of the early Amiga’s used Motorola’s 68000 CPU with custom chips to do the grunt work – Graphics, Audio, Video Processing. The members of the chipset family were Angus, Denise, Paula, Gary, Gayle and Buster amongst others. Angus was the controller chip, Denise did video and Paula the audio. Most of the other chips were responsible for various input and output operations like controlling floppy drives. Back in the days when one man designed a chip he got to name it and often the names were quite personal. The Paula chip was named after the designers girlfriend for example. Now with whole teams required to design a chip you won’t see this happen.
Within a computers CPU – Central Processor Unit – or brain each memory unit is broken up into bits like the lanes on a highway. Each of these lanes is added up to allow a number to be represented. An 8-bit computer could represent 0-256 in one memory unit. The transition to 16bits allowed 0-65,536 and 32bits 0-4billion. As computers transition from 8bit to 16bit to 32bit the amount and complexity of the work they can do grows. Current computers operate using a 64bit highway and 128bit systems are already in the works. The shift to 16bit was really the first bit transition that the computer industry went through. It was the first and last time that everyone dumped the old software and hardware – 8bit -and started from scratch.
Development of the Amiga platform continued after Commodore went bust. It did go through a few hands before settling in to its current iteration. For a while there it almost seemed to be cursed with the companies that brought the brand getting into serious trouble before handing it on, Escom and Gateway both went through this. The operating system continues to evolve in the hands of Hyperion, hardware is produced by a number of manufacturers, ACubeSystems and SAM. The community is still alive and just as enthusiastic as ever, not as numerous as it once once but they love their Amiga.
For its day the Amiga was well ahead of its time. It was the first proper multi-tasking machine, had a windowed operating system and advanced graphics chipset. Even with all of that it wasn’t enough to stop mis-management and incompetence from bringing down the whole company. Amiga fans are made of tuff stuff though, to this day there are still developments happening in the Amiga world. The operating system has reached V4.1 and they have transitioned to a new CPU – PowerPC architecture. Emulators for the original machines are available – AmigaForever -. Even though the Amiga has been through more hands than a five dollar bill there’s still some life in the old horse.
Pictures courtesy of oldcomputers.net
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