The 68000 Wars, Part 1: Lorraine

27 Mar
This is what a revolutionary technology looks like. In very early 1986 Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, began distributing these full-color digitized photographs, the first of their kind ever to be seen on a PC screen, to Amiga software exchanges. The age of multimedia computing had arrived.

This is what a revolutionary technology looks like. In very early 1986 Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, began distributing these full-color digitized photographs, the first of their kind ever to be seen on a PC screen, to Amiga public-domain software exchanges. The age of multimedia computing had arrived.

The Amiga was the damnedest computer. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, then all crammed into a plastic case; that was the Amiga. I wrote a book about the thing, and I’m still not sure I can make sense of all of its complications and contradictions.

The Amiga was a great computer when it made its debut in 1985, better by far than anything else on the market. At its heart was the wonderchip of the era, the Motorola 68000, the same CPU found in the Apple Macintosh and the Atari ST. But what made the Amiga special was the stuff found around the 68000: three custom chips with the unforgettable names of Paula, Denise, and Agnus. Together they gave the Amiga the best graphics and sound in the industry by a veritable order of magnitude. And by relieving the 68000 of a huge chunk of the burden for generating graphics and sound as well as performing many other tasks, such as disk access, they let the Amiga dazzle while also running rings around the competition in real-world performance by virtually any test you cared to name. It all added up not just to incremental improvement but rather to that rarest thing in any field of endeavor: a generational leap.

Guru Meditation

The Amiga, especially in its original 1985 incarnation, was a terrible computer. The operating system that shipped with it was painfully buggy. If you could manage to use the machine for just an hour or two without it inexplicably running out of memory and crashing you were doing well. Other glitches were bizarrely entertaining if they didn’t happen to you personally, such as the mysterious “date virus” that could start to spread through all your disks, setting the timestamp on every file to sometime in the year 65,000 and slowing the system to a crawl. (No, this “virus” wasn’t actual malware, just a weird bug.) Of course, software could be and to a large extent eventually was fixed. Other problems were more intractable. There was, for instance, the machine’s use of interlaced video for its higher resolution modes, which caused those marvelous graphics to flicker horribly in most color combinations. Baffled users who felt like their swollen eyeballs were about to pop right out of their heads after a few hours of trying to work like this could expect to be greeted with a lot of technical explanations of why it was happening and suggestions for changing their onscreen color palettes to try to minimize it. Certainly anyone who picked up an Amiga expecting an experience similar to the famously easy-to-use Macintosh was in for a disappointment. Despite the Amiga’s sporting a superficially similar mouse-and-windows interface, users hoping to get serious work or play done on the Amiga would need to educate themselves on such technical minutiae as the difference between “chip” and “fast” memory and learn what a program’s “stack” was and how to set it manually. Even on a good day the Amiga always felt like a house of cards ready to be blown over by the first breath of wind. When the breeze came, the user was left staring at an inscrutable “Guru Meditation Error” and a bunch of intimidating numbers. Sometimes the Amiga could seem positively designed to confound.

The Amiga anticipated the future, marked the beginning of a new era. It pointed forward to the way we live and compute today. I titled my book on the machine The Future Was Here for a reason. That aforementioned generational leap in graphics and sound was the most significant in the history of the personal computer in that it made the Amiga not just a new computer but something qualitatively new under the sun: the world’s first multimedia PC. With an Amiga you could for the first time store and play back in an aesthetically pleasing way imagery and sound captured from the real world, and combine and manipulate and interact with it within the digital environment inside the computer. This changed everything about the way we compute, the way we play, and eventually the way we live, making possible everything from the World Wide Web to the iPod, iPad, and iPhone. Almost as significantly, the Amiga pioneered multitasking on a PC, another feature enabled largely by that magnificent hardware that was able to stretch the 68000 so much farther than other computers. There is considerable psychological research today that indicates that, for better or for worse, multitasking has literally changed the way we think, changed our brains — not a bad claim to fame for any commercial gadget. When you listen to music whilst Skyping on-and-off with a friend whilst trying to get that term paper finished whilst looking for a new pair of shoes on Amazon, you are what the Amiga wrought.

The Amiga was stuck in the past way of doing things, thus marking the end of an era as well as the beginning of one. It was the punctuation mark at the end of the wild-and-wooly first decade of the American PC, the last time an American company would dare to release a brand new machine that was completely incompatible with what had come before. Its hardware design reflected the past as much as the future. Those custom chips, coupled together and to the 68000 so tightly that not a cycle was wasted, were a beautiful piece of high-wire engineering created by a bare handful of brilliant individuals. If a computer can be a work of art, the Amiga certainly qualified. Yet its design was also an evolutionary dead end; the custom chips and all the rest were all but impossible to pull apart and improve without breaking all of the software that had come before. The future would lie with modular, expandable design frameworks like those employed by the IBM PC and its clones, open hardware (and software) standards that were nowhere near as sexy or as elegant but that could grow and improve with time.

The Amiga was a great success, the last such before the Wintel hegemony expanded to dominate home computing like it already did business by the mid-1980s. Its gaming legacy is amongst the richest of any platform ever, including some fifteen years worth of titles that, especially during the first half of that period, broke boundaries at every turn and expanded the very notion of what a computer game could be. I won’t even begin to list here the groundbreaking classics that were born on the Amiga; suffice to say that they’ll be featuring in this blog for years to come. The Amiga was so popular a gaming platform in Europe that it survived many years after the death of its corporate parent Commodore, a phenomenon unprecedented in consumer computing. The last of the many glossy newsstand magazines devoted to it, Britain’s Amiga Active, didn’t cease publication until November of 2001, well over seven years after the platform became an orphan. It would prove to be just as long-lived in its other major niche of video-production workstation. Thanks to their unique ability to blend their own visuals with analog video signals — enabled, ironically, by those very same interlaced video modes that drove so many users crazy — Amigas could be found in the back rooms of small cable stations and video producers into the 2000s. Only the great changeover to digital HD broadcasting finally and definitively put an end to the Amiga’s career in this realm.

The Amiga was a bitter failure, one of the great might-have-beens of computer history. In 1985 so many expected it to become so much more than just another game machine or even “just” the pioneer of the whole new field of desktop video, forerunner of the YouTube generation. The Amiga, believed its early adopters, was so much better — not just technically better but conceptually better — than what was already out there that it was surely destined to conquer the world. After all, business-software heavy hitters like WordPerfect, Borland, Ashton-Tate, and Lotus knew a good thing when they saw it, were already porting their applications to it. And yet in the end only WordPerfect came through, for a while, and, while the Amiga did change the world in the long term, its innovations were refined and made into everyday life by Apple and Microsoft rather than the Amiga itself. The vast majority of heirs to the Amiga’s legacy today — a number which includes virtually every citizen of the developed world — have no idea a computer called the Amiga ever existed.

That’s just a sample of the contradictions awaiting any writer who tries to seriously tackle the Amiga as a subject. And there’s also another, more ironic sort of difficulty to be confronted: the sheer love the Amiga generated on the part of so many who had one. The Amiga, I must confess, was my own first computing love. Since that day in 1994 when I gave in and bought my first Wintel machine, I’ve been platform-agnostic. Linux and Apple zealots and Microsoft apologists all leave me cold, leave me wondering how people can get so passionate about any platform not called Amiga. Of course I’m smart enough to realize that none of this is really all that important, that a gadget is just that, a means to an end. I even recognize that, had the Amiga not come along when it did to pioneer a new paradigm for computing, something else would have. That’s just how history works. But still, there was something special about the Amiga for those of us who were there, something going far beyond even a hacker’s typical love for his first computer.

To say Amiga users had — still have — a reputation for zealotry hardly begins to state the case. General-computing magazines from the late 1980s until well into the 1990s learned to expect a deluge of hate mail from Amiga users every time they published an article that dared say an unfavorable word about the platform — or, worse, and as inevitably happened more and more frequently as time went on and the Amiga faded further from prominence, that didn’t mention it at all. Prominent mainstream columnist John C. Dvorak liked to say that, whereas Mac users were just arrogant and self-righteous, Amiga users were actively delusional. There are still folks out there clinging to their 25-year-old Amigas, patched together with the proverbial duct tape and baling wire, as their primary computing platform. A disturbing number of them are still waiting for the day when the Amiga shall rise again and take over the world, even as it’s hard to understand what a modern Amiga should even be or why it should exist in a world that long since incorporated all of the platform’s best ideas into slicker, simpler gadgets.

Every good cult needs an origin myth, and the Cult of Amiga is no exception. Beginning already in the machine’s North American heyday of the late 1980s, High Priest R.J. Mical, developer of the Amiga’s Intuition library of GUI widgets as well as other critical pieces of its software infrastructure, began traveling to trade shows and conventions telling in an unabashedly sentimental way the story of those earliest days, when the Amiga was being developed by a tiny independent company, itself called simply Amiga, Incorporated.

We were trying to find people that had fire, that had spirit, that had a dream they were trying to accomplish. Carl Sassenrath, the guy that did the Exec for the machine, it was his lifelong dream to do a multitasking operating system that would be a work of art, that would be a thing of beauty. Dale Luck, the guy that did the graphics, this was his undying dream since he was in college to do this incredible graphics stuff.

We were looking for people with that kind of passion, that kind of spirit. More than anything else, the thing that we were looking for was people who were trying to make a mark on the world, not just in the industry but on the world in general. We were looking for people that really wanted to make a statement, that really wanted to do an incredibly great thing, not just someone who was looking for a job.

Yes. Well. While idealism certainly has its place in the Amiga story, the story is also a very down-to-earth tale of competition inside Silicon Valley. It begins in 1982 with an old friend of ours: Larry Kaplan, one of the Fantastic Four game programmers from Atari who founded Activision along with Jim Levy.

Activison was flying high in 1982, the Fantastic Four provided in Kaplan’s own words with “limousine service, company cars, and a private chef” on top of a base salary of $150,000. Yet Kaplan, who is often described by others as the very apotheosis of “the grass is always greener,” was restless. He had the idea to form another company, one all his own this time, to enter the booming Atari VCS market. One day in early 1982 he called up an old colleague of his from the Atari days: Jay Miner, who had designed the Atari VCS’s display chip, then gone on to design the chipset at the heart of the Atari 400 and 800 home computers. Kaplan, along with two others of the Fantastic Four, had written the operating system and BASIC language implementation for those machines. He thus knew Miner well. Knowing the vagaries of business and starting his own company somewhat less well than he knew Miner and programming, his initial query was a simple one: “I’d like to start a company. Do you know any lawyers?”

Miner, who had left Atari at around the same time as the Fantastic Four out of a similar disgust with new CEO Ray Kassar, had also left Silicon Valley to move to Freeport, Texas, where he worked for a small semiconductor company called Zymos, designing chips for pacemakers and other medical devices. Miner said that, no, he wasn’t particularly well-acquainted with any lawyers, good or otherwise, but that his boss, Zymos founder Bert Braddock, had a pretty good head for business. He made the introduction, and Kaplan and Braddock hit it off. The plan that Kaplan presented to him was to combine hardware and software in the booming home videogame space, offering hardware to improve on the Atari VCS’s decidedly limited capabilities along with game cartridges that took advantage of the additional gadgetry. Such a scheme was hardly original to him; confronted with the VCS’s enormous popularity and equally enormous limitations, others were already working the same space. For example, two other former Atari engineers, Bob Brown and Craig Nelson, had already formed Starpath to develop a “Supercharger” hardware expansion for the VCS as well as games to play with it. (Starpath would go on to merge with the newly renamed Epyx — née Automated Simulations — and write games like Summer Games.)

Nevertheless, Braddock sensed a potentially fruitful partnership in the offing for a maker of chips like his Zymos. He found Kaplan some investors in nearby oil-rich Houston to put up the first $1 million or so to get the company off the ground. He also found and recruited one Dave Morse, a vice president of marketing at Tonka Toys, to join Kaplan, believing him to be exactly the savvy business mind and shrewd negotiator the venture needed. An informal agreement was reached amongst the group: Morse would run the new company; Kaplan would write the games; Miner (working under contract, being still employed by Zymos) would design the ancillary hardware; and Zymos would manufacture the hardware and the game cartridges. Somewhere at the back of everyone’s mind was the idea that, if they were successful with their games and add-on gadgets, they might just be able to take the next step: to make a complete original game console of their own, the successor to the Atari VCS that Ray Kassar’s Atari didn’t seem all that interested in seriously pursuing.

In June of 1982, Kaplan announced to his shocked colleagues at Activision that he was moving on to do his own thing; the bridges he thus burnt have never been mended to this day. He and Morse opened a small office in Santa Clara, California, for their new company, which Kaplan named Hi-Toro. Morse and Braddock — truly a sugar daddy to die for for a fledgling corporation — beat the bushes over the months that followed for additional financing, with success to the tune of another $5 million or so. The majority were dentists and other members of the medical establishment, thanks to Braddock’s connections in that field. They knew little to nothing about computer technology, but knew very well that videogames were hot, and were eager to get in on the ground floor of another Atari.

And then the squirrely Larry Kaplan nearly undid the whole thing. He called Atari founder Nolan Bushnell that October to talk up his new company, hoping to convince him to join Hi-Toro as chairman of the board; a name like his would confer instant legitimacy. Instead the hunter became the hunted. Bushnell, who was legendary for the buckets of charm at his fingertips, convinced Kaplan to come to him, convinced him they could start a new videogame company to rival Atari together, without Zymos or Morse or Miner. Just like that, Kaplan tendered his second shocking resignation of 1982. In the end, as Kaplan later put it, “Nolan, of course, flaked out,” leaving him high and dry, if quite possibly deservedly so. He would end up completing the circle by going back to Atari before the year was up, but that gig ended when the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 hit. Widely regarded as too untrustworthy to be worth the trouble inside the industry by that point, Kaplan’s career never recovered. On the plus side, he was able to cash out his Activision stock following that company’s IPO, making him quite a wealthy man and making future work largely optional anyway — not the worst of petards for a modern-day Claudius.

Dave Morse, meanwhile, was also left high and dry, with a company and an office and lots of financing but nobody to design his products. He asked Jay Miner to leave Zymos and join him full-time at Hi-Toro, to help fill the vacuum left by Kaplan’s departure. Miner, who had been nursing for some time now a dream of doing a game console and/or a computer based around the new Motorola 68000 and who saw Hi-Toro as just possibly his one and only chance to do that, agreed — so long as he could bring his beloved cockapoo Mitchy with him to the office every day.

One of the first things to go after Kaplan left was the company name he had come up with. Everyone Morse and Miner spoke to agreed that “Hi-Toro” was a terrible name that made one think of nothing so much as lawn mowers. Morse therefore started flipping through a dictionary one day, looking for something that would come before Apple and Atari in corporate directories. He hit upon the Spanish word for “friend”: “amigo.” That had a nice ring to it, especially with “user-friendliness” being one of the buzzwords of the era. But the feminine version of the word — “amiga” — sounded even better, friendly and elegant maybe even a little bit sexy. Miner by his own later admission was ambivalent about the new name, but everyone Morse spoke to seemed very taken with it, so he let it go. Thus did Hi-Toro become Amiga.

Of course, Morse and Miner couldn’t do all the work by themselves. Over the months that followed they assembled a team whose names would go down in hacker lore. An old colleague from Atari who had worked with Miner on the VCS as well as the 400 and 800, Joe Decuir, came in under a temporary contract to help Miner start work on a new set of custom chips. A few other young hardware engineers were hired as full-time employees. Morse hired one Bob Pariseau to put together a software team; he became essentially the equivalent of Jay Miner on that side of the house. The software people would soon grow to outnumber the hardware people. Among their ranks were now-legendary Amiga names like R.J. Mical, Dale Luck, and Carl Sassenrath.

The folks who came to work at Amiga were almost universally young and largely inexperienced. While tarring them with the clichéd “dreamers and misfits” label may be going too far, it is true that their backgrounds were more diverse than the Silicon Valley norm; Mical, for instance, was a failed English major who had recently spent nine months backpacking his way around the world. While their youthful idealism would do much to give the eventual Amiga computer its character, there was also a very practical reason that Morse had to fill his office with all these bright young sparks: what with financing getting harder and harder to come by as the videogame industry began to go distinctly soft, he simply couldn’t afford to pay for more experienced hands. Amiga’s financial difficulties provided the opportunity of a lifetime to a bunch of folks that may have struggled to get in the door in even the most junior of positions at someplace like Apple, IBM, or Microsoft.

The glaring exception to the demographic rule at Amiga was Jay Miner himself. Creative, bleeding-edge engineering is normally a young person’s game. Miner, however, was fully 50 years old when he created his masterpiece, the Amiga chipset. He’d been designing circuits already twenty years before the microprocessor even existed and well before some of his colleagues around the office were even born. Thanks perhaps to intermittent but chronic kidney problems that would eventually kill him at age 62, he looked and in some ways acted even older than his years, favoring quiet, contemplative hobbies like cultivating bonsai trees and carving model airplanes out of balsa wood. Adjectives like “fatherly” rival “soft-spoken” and “wise” in popularity when people who knew him remember him today. While the higher-strung Dave Morse became the face Amiga showed to the outside world, Miner set the internal tone, tolerating and even encouraging the cheerful insanity that was life inside the Amiga offices. Miner:

The great things about working on the Amiga? Number one I was allowed to take my dog to work, and that set the tone for the whole atmosphere of the place. It was more than just companionship with Mitchy — the fact that she was there meant that the other people wouldn’t be too critical of some of those we hired, who were quite frankly weird. There were guys coming to work in purple tights and pink bunny slippers. Dale Luck looked like your average off-the-street homeless hippy with long hair and was pretty laid-back. In fact the whole group was pretty laid-back. I wasn’t about to say anything — I knew talent when I saw it and even Parasseau who spread the word was a bit weird in a lot of ways. The job gets done and that’s all that matters. I didn’t care how solutions came about even if people were working at home.

The question of just what this group was working on, and when, is a harder question to answer than you might expect. When we use the word “Amiga” to refer to this era, we could be talking about any of three possibilities. Firstly, there’s Amiga the company, which during its early months put well over half of its personnel and resources into games and add-ons for the old Atari VCS rather than revolutionary new technology. Then there’s the Amiga chipset being designed by Miner and his team. And finally there’s a completed game console and/or computer to incorporate the chipset. Making sense of this tangle is complicated by revisionist retellings, which tend to find grand plans and coherent narratives where none actually existed. So, let’s take a careful look at each of these Amigas, one at a time.

The Amiga Joyboard

The Amiga Joyboard

Kaplan’s original plan had envisioned Hi-Toro/Amiga as a maker first and foremost of cartridges and hardware add-ons for the VCS, with a whole new console possibly to follow if things went gangbusters. These plans got reprioritized somewhat when Kaplan left and Miner came aboard with his eagerness to do a console and/or computer, but they were by no means entirely discarded. Thus Amiga did indeed create a handful of original games over the course of 1983, along with joysticks and other hardware. By far the most innovative and best-remembered of these products was something called the Joyboard: a large, flat slab of plastic on which the player stood and leaned side to side and front to back to control a game in lieu of a joystick. Amiga packaged a skiing game, Mogul Maniac, with the Joyboard, and developed at least two more — a surfing game called Surf’s Up and a pattern-matching exercise called Off Your Rocker — that never saw release. The Joyboard and its companion products have been frequently characterized as little more than elaborate ruses designed to keep the real Amiga project under wraps. In reality, though, Morse had high commercial hopes for this side of his company; he was in fact depending on these products to fund the other side of the operation. He spent quite lavishly to give the Joyboard a splashy introduction at the New York Toy Fair in February of 1983, and briefly hired former Olympic skier Suzy Chaffee — better known to a generation of Americans as “Suzy Chapstick” thanks to her long-running endorsement of that brand — to serve as spokesperson. His plans were undone by the Great Videogame Crash. The peripherals and games all failed miserably, precipitating a financial crisis at Amiga to which I’ll return shortly.

The chips were always Jay Miner’s babies. Known in the early days as Portia, Daphne, and Agnus, later iterations would see Portia renamed to Paula and Daphne to Denise. Combined with a 68000, they offered unprecedented audiovisual capabilities, including a palette of 4096 colors and four-channel stereo sound. Their most innovative features were the so-called “copper” and “blitter” housed inside Agnus. The former, which could also be found in a less advanced version in Miner’s previous Atari 400 and 800, could run short programs independent of the CPU to change the display setup on the fly in response to the perpetually repainting electron gun behind the television or monitor reaching certain points in its cycle. This opened the door to a whole universe of visual trickery. The blitter, meanwhile, could be programmed to copy blocks of memory from place to place at lightning speeds, and in the process perform transformations and combinations on the data  — once again, independent of the CPU. It was a miracle worker in the realm of fast animation. While not programmable in the same sense as the copper and the blitter, Denise autonomously handled the task of actually painting the display, while Paula could autonomously play back up to four sound samples or waveforms at a time, and also independently handle input and output to disk. (This is the briefest of technical summaries of the Amiga chipset. For a detailed description of the chipset’s internal workings as well as many important aspects of its host platform’s history that I’ll never get to in this game-focused blog, I point you again to my own book on the subject.)

Amiga’s ultimate vision for their chipset — whether in the form of a game console, a computer, a standup arcade game, or all three — is the most difficult part of all their tangled skein of intentionality to unravel, and the one most subject to revisionist history. Amiga fanatics of later years, desperate to have their platform accepted as a “serious” computer like the IBM PC or Apple Macintosh, became rather ashamed of its origins in the videogame industry. This has occasionally led them to say that the Amiga was always secretly intended to be a computer, that the videogame plans were just there to fool the investors and keep the money flowing. In truth, there’s good reason to question whether there was any real long-term plan at all. Miner noted in later interviews that the company was quite split on the subject, with — ironically in light of his later status of Amiga High Priest — R.J. Mical on the “investors’ side,” pushing for a low-cost game console, while others like Dale Luck and Carl Sassenrath wanted an Amiga computer. Miner himself claimed to have envisioned a console that could be expanded into a real computer with the addition of an optional keyboard and disk drive. (Amiga also had similar plans for the Atari VCS in the form of something to be called the Amiga Power Module, yet another project killed by the videogame collapse.) Dave Morse, who died in 2007, is not on record at all on the subject. One suspects that he was simply in wait-and-see mode through much of 1983.

What is clear is that the first Amiga machine to be shown to the public wasn’t so much a prototype of a real or potential computer or game console as the most minimalist possible frame to show off the capabilities of the Amiga chipset. Named after Morse’s wife, the Amiga Lorraine began to come together in the dying days of 1983, in a mad scramble leading up to the Winter Consumer Electronics Show that was scheduled to begin on January 4. Any mad scientist would have been proud to lay claim to the contraption. Miner and his team built their chipset, destined eventually to be miniaturized and etched into silicon, out of off-the-shelf electronics components, creating a pile of breadboards large enough to fill a kitchen table, linked together by a spaghetti-like tangle of wires, often precariously held in place with simple alligator clips. It had no keyboard or other input method; the software team wrote programs for it on a workstation-class 68000-based computer called the Sage IV, then uploaded them to the Lorraine and ran them via a cabled connection. The whole mess was a nightmare to maintain, with wires constantly falling off, pieces overheating, or circuits shorting out seemingly at random. But when it worked it provided the first tangible demonstration of Miner’s extraordinary design. Amiga accordingly packed it all up and transported it — very carefully! — to Las Vegas for its coming-out party at Winter CES.

R.J. Mical and Dale Luck, amongst others, had worked feverishly to create a handful of demos to show off in a private corner of Amiga’s CES booth, open only by invitation to hand-selected members of the press and industry. The hit of the bunch, written by Mical and Luck at the show itself in one feverish all-night hacking session fueled by “a six pack of warm beer,” was a huge, checked soccer ball that bounced up and down, prototype of one of the most famous computerized demos of all time. The bouncing soccer ball — the “boing” ball — would soon become the unofficial symbol of Amiga.

Boing and the other demos were impressive, but the hardware was obviously still in a very rough state, still a long, long way away from any sort of salable product. Many observers were frankly skeptical whether this mass of breadboards and wires even could be turned into the three chips Amiga promised, and if so whether those chips could, complicated as they must inevitably be, be cost-effectively manufactured. Two obvious applications of the chipset, to a new videogame console or to standup arcade games, were facing a gale-force headwind following the Great Videogame Crash of the previous year. Nobody wanted anything to do with that market anymore. And introducing yet another incompatible computer into the market, no matter how impressive its hardware, looked like a high-risk proposition as well. Thus most visitors were impressed but carefully noncommittal. Was there really a place for Amiga’s admittedly extraordinary technology? That was the question. Tellingly, of the glossy magazines, only Creative Computing bothered to write about Lorraine in any real detail, excitedly declaring it to have “the most amazing graphics and sound that will ever have been offered in the consumer market.” (Just to show that prescience isn’t always an either/or proposition, the same journalist, John J. Anderson, noted how important it would be to make sure any eventual Amiga computer was compatible with the IBM PCjr, which was sure to take over the industry.)

Thus Amiga’s coming-out party is best characterized as having mixed results on the whole, leading to lots of impressed observers but no new investors. And that was a big, big problem because Amiga was quickly running out of money. With the VCS products having not only failed to sell but also absorbed millions in their own right to develop, Amiga’s financial picture was getting more desperate by the week. One thing was becoming clear: there was no way they were going to be able to secure the investment needed to turn the Lorraine into a completed computer — or a completed anything else — and market it themselves. It seemed that they had three options: license the technology to someone else with deeper pockets, sell themselves outright to someone else, or go quietly out of business. As the founders mortgaged their houses to make payroll and Morse begged his creditors for loan extensions, the only company that seemed seriously interested in the Amiga chipset was the one Jay Miner would least prefer to get in bed with once again: Atari.

An Atari old-timer named Mike Albaugh had first visited Amiga well before the CES show, in November of 1983. He was given an overview of the as-yet-extant-on-paper-only chipset’s features and, knowing very well the capabilities of Jay Miner, expressed cautious interest. After their first tangible glimpse of the chipset’s capabilities at CES, Atari got serious about acquiring this incredible technology from a company that seemed all but at their mercy, desperate to make a deal that would let them stay alive a little longer. With no other realistic options on the table, Dave Morse negotiated with Atari as best he could from his position of weakness. Atari had no interest in buying a completed machine, whether of the game-console or computer variety. They just wanted that wonderful chipset. The preliminary letter of intent that Amiga and Atari signed on March 7, 1984, reflects this.

That same letter of intent, and the $500,000 that Atari transferred to Amiga as part of it, would lead to a legal imbroglio lasting years. The specifics that the letter contained, as well as — equally importantly — what it did not contain, remain persistently misunderstood to this day. Thankfully, the original agreement has been preserved and made available online by Atari historians Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel. I’ve taken the time to parse this document closely, and also enlisted the aid of a couple of acquaintances with better legal and financial minds than my own. Because it’s so critical to the story of Amiga, and because it’s been so widely misunderstood and misconstrued, I think it’s worth taking a moment here to look fairly closely at its specifics.

The document outlines a proposed arrangement granting Atari exclusive license to the chipset for use in home videogame consoles and standup arcade games, in perpetuity from the time that the finalized agreement is signed. The proposal also grants Atari a nonexclusive license to use the chips in a personal computer, subject to the restriction that Atari may first offer an add-on kit to turn a game console using the chips into a full-blown computer in June of 1985, and a standalone computer using the chips only in March of 1986. Before and continuing after Atari makes their computer using the chips, Amiga may make one of their own, but may only sell it through specialized computer dealers, not mass merchandisers like Sears or Toys ‘R’ Us. Atari, conversely, will be restricted to the mass merchandisers. The obvious intention here is to target Amiga’s products to the high-end, professional market, Atari’s to gamers and casual users. Atari will pay Amiga a royalty of $2 per computer or game console containing the chipset sold, $15 per standup arcade videogame. Note that the terms I’ve just described are only a proposal pending a finalized license agreement, without legal force — unless certain things happen to automatically trigger their going into effect, which I’ll get to momentarily.

Now let’s look at the parts of the document that do have immediate legal force. Amiga being starved for cash and still needing to do considerable work to complete the chipset, Atari will give Amiga an immediate “loan” of $500,000, albeit one which they never really expect to see paid back; again, I’ll explain why momentarily. Atari will then continue to give Amiga more loans on a milestone basis: $1 million when a finalized licensing agreement is signed; $500,000 when each of the three chips is completed and delivered to Atari ready for manufacturing. And here’s where things get tricky: once all of the chips are delivered and a licensing agreement is in place, Amiga’s outstanding loan obligations will be converted into a purchase by Atari of $3 million worth of Amiga stock. If, on the other hand, a finalized licensing agreement has not been signed by March 31 — just three weeks from the date of this preliminary agreement — Amiga will be expected to pay back the $500,000 to Atari by June 30, plus interest of 120 percent of the current Bank of America prime rate, assuming some other deal is not negotiated in the interim. If Amiga cannot or will not do so, the proposed licensing agreement outlined above will automatically go into effect as a legally binding contract, with the one very significant change that Atari will not need to pay any royalties at all — the license “shall be fully paid in exchange for cancellation of the loan.” The Amiga chipset thus serves as collateral for the loan, its blueprints and technical specifications being held in escrow by a neutral third party (the Bank of America).

There are plenty of other technicalities — for instance, Atari will be allowed to bill Amiga for their time and other resources if Amiga fails to complete the chipset, thus forcing Atari’s engineers to finish the job — but I believe I’ve covered the salient points here. (Those deeply interested or skeptical of my conclusions may want to look at a more detailed summary I prepared, or, best of all, just have a look at the original.) Looking at the contract, what jumps out first is that it wasn’t a particularly good deal for Amiga. To pay a mere $2 per console or computer sold when the chipset being paid for must be the component that literally makes that console or computer what it is seems shabby indeed. For Atari it would have represented the steal of the century. Why would Morse sign such an awful deal?

The obvious answer must of course be that he was desperate. While it’s perhaps dangerous to ascribe too much motivation to a dead man who never publicly commented on the subject, circumstantial evidence would seem to characterize this agreement as the wind-up to a final Hail Mary, a way to secure a quick $500,000 for the here and now, to keep the lights on a little longer and hope for a miracle. Morse did not sign a final licensing agreement by March 31, a very risky move indeed, as it gave Atari the right to automatically start using Amiga’s chipset, without having to pay Amiga another cent, if Morse couldn’t negotiate some other arrangement with them or find some way to pay back the $500,000 plus interest before June 30. Carl Sassenrath once described Morse as “my model for how to be cool in business.” Truly he must have had nerves of steel. And, incredibly, he would get his miracle.

(Sources: On the Edge by Brian Bagnall. Amiga User International of June 1988 and March 1993. Info of January/February 1987 and July/August 1988. Creative Computing of April 1984. Amazing  Computing, premiere issue. InfoWorld of July 12 1982. Commander of August 1983. Scott Stilphen’s interview with Larry Kaplan on the 2600 Connection website. Thanks also to Marty Goldberg for patiently corresponding with me and giving me Atari’s perspective, although I believe his conclusions about the Amiga/Atari negotiations and particularly his reading of the March 7 1984 agreement to be in error. And yeah, there’s my own book too…)


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63 Responses to The 68000 Wars, Part 1: Lorraine

  1. iPadCary

    March 27, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    Nowwww we’re getting to the good stuff ….
    Macintosh/Amiga/Apple][GS *drool*

  2. Lisa H.

    March 27, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    Paula, Denise, and Agnus

    Odd spelling. I wonder why not “Agnes.”

    Any fans of MST3K who happen to read this may remember a sketch they did one time about PC-Mac UI wars, which contained a reference to the Amiga. After Crow arguing on behalf of the PC and Tom for the Mac, there’s this exchange:

    Joel: You can have a lot of fun with people hopelessly mired in computer nuances. Watch this. Hey! Has anyone seen the mouse to my Amiga?
    Tom: Oh! Hahaha! Amiga!! Ha hah!
    Crow: Amiga? Oh come on!
    Both (derisive laughter): Hahahaha!!
    Tom: Now THERE’S a machine for you…Hahah!
    Crow: Hey! Has anyone seen my Fat Angus drive?? Hahah!

    (All I know about the Amiga I just learned from reading this post, but it would seem there’s at least one error there. I don’t know without checking whether they actually said “Angus” or whether it was just mistranscribed on the site I copied the text from; but also, it would seem any “drive”, assuming they mean a disk drive, would have to be related to Paula, not Agnus?)

    • Keith Palmer

      March 27, 2015 at 10:55 pm

      I went looking and found that specific sketch excerpted to YouTube, just as many other MST3K moments have been. The same season it showed up another episode included a segment where some painted-over stills from a movie were presented as “the video toaster” was mentioned, although the show never quite got around to that again, as much as it now seems to me to mesh with its “lo-fi,” “in-camera” effects…

      Anyway, having bought a copy of The Future Was Here, I was actually a little surprised when this weblog pushed into 1986 without mentioning the introduction of the Amiga; I can imagine certain reasons for that in the posts soon to show up, though. While I started off on the outside looking in at “Amiga evangelism,” I’ve learned enough to understand how it has its own constellation of “what might have beens.” My family did have the October 1992 issue of Amiga World, and I wonder if my father bought it because it had a review of the AMax II Plus Macintosh emulator board (he was using an SE/30 at work) right around when he’d finally decided to spend a lot more money than our Tandy Color Computer 3s had cost to buy a new computer; it would have been late in the day to have started using an Amiga, but it’s at least something to wonder about. I’ve managed to learn a few people around my age at work had Amigas in their families (having moved up from Commodore 64s); one of them mentioned how her father had given it up with great reluctance.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 28, 2015 at 6:30 am

      It is an odd spelling. It’s claimed in a few places that Miner named the chip “Agnus” after the Latin phrase “agnus dei”: “lamb of God.” I tend to be a bit skeptical of this because a) while Miner was obviously a very smart guy he wasn’t really an *erudite* (pretentious?) guy in the way you’d have to be to come up with something like that; and b) why the hell would you name a computer chip the “lamb of God” anyway?

      And yeah, the MST3K line about Agnus makes no sense whatsoever — which is a big part of what makes it funny. :)

    • Jeff Nyman

      November 7, 2021 at 9:41 pm

      Way late to this but Agnus was known to be derived from Address GeNerator UnitS. It was a bit tortured but Agnus was the Address Generator for the machine. There were “thin” (48-pin DIP) and “fat” (84-pin PLCC) Agnus variants produced; it thus seems an oddly sophisticated (for lack of a better term) reference for the MST3K show to use. And, yet, agreed that “drive” would be a misnomer in this context. My guess is they knew enough to make something sound funny that was in context but actually lacked the full context to know what they were making fun of!

      • Lisa H.

        November 8, 2021 at 2:44 am

        I subscribe to the comments feed for this blog, so I have seen you tearing through the archive and leaving tons of comments ;)

        I have this vague idea that Joel? maybe? actually had an Amiga? but I could be wrong. The writing-room clips that are on the scrapbook tape or something show a Mac, I think (like a Mac Classic or something?), though, so I could be totally making that up in my head.

  3. Sniffnoy

    March 27, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    The two links to your book currently go through Google rather than directly to the page; would you mind fixing this? Thank you!

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 28, 2015 at 6:22 am

      Woops! Fixed.

  4. Matt W

    March 28, 2015 at 6:47 am

    Thanks also to Marty Goldberg […], although I believe his conclusions about the Amiga/Atari negotiations and particularly his reading of the March 7 1984 agreement to be in error.

    Now, I’m curious. What is his reading of the agreement? Where does it significantly differ from yours?

    Great, great article. I never got into the Amiga craze myself; my family could only afford a C 64 and, much later, in 1993, I think, our first PC, so I only got to admire it from afar (at a friend’s was the closest I ever came to it).

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 28, 2015 at 7:04 am


      In Business Is Fun, he makes a number of misreadings of a document which can admittedly be a bit tough to parse. (I found doing so oddly entertaining. It’s a bit like a good adventure-game puzzle when it all comes together and you say, “Now I get it!”) Rather than understanding Atari’s payments to Amiga as loans to be converted into a stock purchase after certain conditions are met, he construes them to be advances, and makes the stock purchase its own animal — thus effectively doubling Atari’s planned pre-royalty payments to Amiga, from $3 million to $6 million.

      Most importantly, he claims that the agreement does not allow Amiga to back out by paying back the $500,000 plus interest before June 30, when it very clearly does. He also claims that Amiga and Atari had an agreement that Amiga would not sell itself to a list of “forbidden” companies, among them Commodore. If such an agreement existed in written form — i.e., with legal force — it’s not in this document, and he so far hasn’t found any other to show me. I’m always willing to revise upon getting more information, but at this point the only way his narrative of the events surrounding the Amiga/Atari/Commodore negotiations could be correct is if there was another agreement signed between Amiga and Atari that I haven’t seen.

      We’ll get more into why this is so important in future articles.

  5. William Hern

    March 28, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    Another superb article, well up to your usual high standards.

    My only quibble is with your statement that the Amiga “pioneered multitasking on a PC”. Multitasking was not an unknown concept prior to the Amiga launching in the summer of 1985. In 1983 computers such as the Apple Lisa had featured pre-emptive multi-tasking and software on the PC such as IBM’s TopView and VisiCorp’s Visi On provided this feature. Windows 1.0, announced in 1983 but not available until late 1985, had co-operative multitasking.

    My own recollections from 1985 were that the Amiga’s multitasking capabilities were impressive but not revolutionary. Byte’s preliminary review of the Amiga 1000 in the August 1985 edition spends much time on the Amiga’s hardware, and relatively little space on the multitasking functions in its OS.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 29, 2015 at 9:30 am


      On multitasking:

      1. I wouldn’t place the examples you mention in the class of an ordinary PC, but rather in the category of the workstation computer. This category has now largely faded into history thanks to Moore’s Law, but in the 1980s it connoted a very high-end machine — albeit still technically a microcomputer — normally affordable only by big companies for their most important workers. Other examples in the category which did allow multitasking were the various 68000-based Unix workstations, like the Sage IV and later the Sun systems used to develop most of the Amiga’s operating system and lots of its other early software. However, a $10,000 or $20,000 workstation is simply another beast entirely from a $1500 — and, soon, much cheaper — consumer-level PC.

      2. All of the systems you listed provided cooperative multitasking, not true preemptive multitasking at the process level like the Amiga. As I’m sure you know, cooperative multitasking is, again, a very different animal from preemptive multitasking. Unix workstations are actually probably a better example to use from this class of machine because Unix did of course offer preemptive multitasking.

      3. With the exception of LisaOS, the systems you mention are all built on top of MS-DOS and are thus not really self-contained operating systems in their own right at all. This forces a lot of compromises and inelegance at both the technical level and user level which the Amiga’s OS, which has multitasking built into its very foundation — the Exec layer — does not fall victim to.

      If we carry this sort of argument to extremes — not that I necessarily think this is what you’re doing — we end up saying that the Amiga originated absolutely nothing, as everything in the system was done before — and usually done better — by big institutional-class machine. But what’s important about the Amiga is that it made these ideas practical and accessible to ordinary users for the very first time. I would actually say that the best candidate for the title of “multitasking pioneer” not named Amiga would not be any of the examples you cited but rather OS-9, which offered preemptive multitasking all the way in 1979 and became a favorite of some hobbyists. But as a hacker plaything and tool for embedded systems, it also wasn’t quite the same animal as AmigaOS.

      Finally, trying to determine what makes the Amiga important by looking at magazine articles from the earliest days is a dangerous practice. Most, for instance, were weirdly obsessed with making the Amiga compatitible with the IBM PC, an idea which today strikes us as rather missing the whole point of the Amiga. ;) That said, there was plenty of awareness even on the part of Commodore’s sales reps — not always the most clueful bunch — that multitasking was one of the things that made the Amiga stand apart. A favorite sales tactic was to start up the Boing demo, then pull the screen down halfway to start running other commands or typing in a word processor, etc., while the Boing ball merrily boomed and bounced away on the other half of the screen. This was, in the context of 1985, *stunning*.

      • Felix

        March 29, 2015 at 7:04 pm

        On a similar note, a friend notes that technically the Professional Graphics Controller was capable of 640x480x8 in 1984… but it cost nearly $5K all by itself. So definitely not a product for the mass market. Still, it was there two years earlier for what it’s worth. And it was fully programmable if I understand correctly.

      • William Hern

        March 29, 2015 at 8:25 pm

        Fair points Jimmy – the Lisa was most definitely in the workstation category of computers. As such, the Amiga was the first moderately priced computer to support pre-emptive multitasking. The bouncing ball multitasking demo was unrivalled for many years.

        One small correction though – the Lisa did have pre-emptive multi-tasking (check out the scan of the Lisa OS Reference Manual – Chapter 2 – in the Internet Archive for evidence of this).

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 30, 2015 at 6:58 am

          Hmm… are we sure of this? From the document you mention, section 1.4 (“Process Management”):

          “A process can lose the CPU when one of the following happens:

          The process calls an operating-system procedure or function.

          The process references one of its code segments that is not currently in memory.

          If neither of these occur, the process will not lose the CPU.”

          Compare this to Chapter 17 of the Amiga Rom Kernal Reference Manual: Libraries.

          “A running task is currently using the CPU. It will remain the current task until one of three things occur:

          A higher priority task becomes ready, so the OS preempts the current task and switches to the higher priority task.

          The currently running task needs to wait for an event, so it goes to sleep and Exec switches to the highest priority task in Exec’s ready list.

          The currently running task had had control of the CPU for at least a preset time period called a quantum and there is another task of equal priority ready to run. In this case, the Exec will preempt the current task for the ready one with the same priority. This is known as time-slicing.”

          It’s the Amiga’s ability to do the first and third thing from the list just above that makes it a preemptive multitasking system. It is, unless I’m missing something, the Lisa’s *guarantee* never to do that sort of thing to a process that makes it a cooperative multitasking system.

          • William Hern

            March 30, 2015 at 8:45 am

            Re-reading the Lisa OS Reference Manual, I spotted this telling paragraph on Page 36: “Because the Operating System currently cannot seize the CPU from an executing process except in the cases noted above, background processes should be liberally sprinkled with YIELD_CPU calls.”

            A pre-emptive multitasking OS *has* to be able to grab control of the CPU from a process. You are right – the Lisa used co-operative multitasking, not pre-emptive. I stand corrected.

          • Ian Schmidt

            April 1, 2015 at 12:42 am

            Yup. The Lisa *hardware* was set up for preemptive multitasking (the MMU has multiple contexts, very much like the 680×0-based Suns), but the stock LisaOS never got there. (You could run XENIX on the Lisa and it of course had real preemptive multitasking).

        • Alex Evans

          April 9, 2015 at 3:36 am

          The TRS-80 Color Computer had OS-9 with preemptive multitasking before the Amigacame out.

      • kjs3

        April 7, 2015 at 3:52 pm

        MS Xenix and Venturecom Venix were both available on the PC at this time, and were preemptive. Not for $1500, but certainly vastly cheaper than a Sage/Sun. And, as you point out, they’re not exactly targeted at the consumer market.

    • Dave Haynie

      March 14, 2017 at 4:19 am

      A couple of things on multitasking. Yes, there were a handful of systems that could multitask in some consumer’s hands before the Amiga. But it really took a GUI coupled with multitasking and an OS with lightweight threads to fully real use the promise. That’s what the Amiga brought to the masses.

      And multitasking was not something the Amiga had to teach you. You already knew that. Put a kid at a desk with a bunch of spinnable toys. It won’t take long to see most of them spinning. Put a kid in from of an Amiga with a drawer full of desktop demos, and it won’t take long before you find the screen covered with boxes, lines, and circles. It’s the other systems that had to teach you that only one thing worked at a time.

  6. Carl

    March 29, 2015 at 1:11 am

    Nice article. I loved reading The Future Was Here. Highly recommended. Anyway, if anyone is interested, some people are trying to set up a 30-year anniversary event for the Amiga in Mountain View, CA on July 24th & 25th. I’m hoping to attend but my wife is schedule to deliver our first child the week before so I’m probably not going to make it. Here’s the link:

  7. Adam Sampson

    March 29, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    The last of the many glossy newsstand magazines devoted to it, Britain’s Amiga User, didn’t cease publication until May of 2000

    You mean Amiga Format. (There was an Amiga User International magazine in the UK, but it ceased in 1997; Amiga Format’s last issue was May 2000.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 30, 2015 at 6:42 am

      Fixed. Thanks!

  8. Matthew

    March 29, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    Great article – as always.

    However, as an ex-Atari ST user I feel it’s my duty to pick holes in your claims for the Amiga…

    The Sinclair QL microcomputer pioneered multi-tasking at least a year before the Amiga.

    (I used to own one of those as well…)

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 30, 2015 at 7:40 am

      Fair point. I’d forgotten about that one. Although given the half-finished nature of the OS and, indeed, the computer that housed it, it would seem to have been relatively little-noticed and to have had little impact. And while some rough approximation of the multitasking scenario I described in the article was possible on the Amiga, it certainly wasn’t likely on the QL, with its lack of windows and a GUI. This makes the QL’s multitasking more a power-user feature than a paradigm shift.

  9. Orion

    March 31, 2015 at 1:17 am

    If Amiga cannot or will not do so, the proposed licensing agreement outlined above will automatically go into effect as a legally binding contract, with the one change that Atari’s royalty rate will increase to $4 per chipset used in videogame consoles or computers.

    This is perhaps a bit nitpicky, but I think this isn’t quite right. What the letter of intent actually says, in paragraph 2 of section 8 on page 4, is that if they don’t sign the license agreement by March 31, and if Amiga doesn’t pay back the $500,000 by June 30, then:

    Atari shall have the right to obtain the documentation held in escrow and use such documentation as permitted by the above described licenses … except that such licenses shall be fully paid in exchange for cancellation of the $500,000 note.

    That is, in that case Amiga never has to pay back the loan, but Atari gets to put the chips in consoles, computers, and arcade machines without paying any royalties at all. At least, that’s how I’m reading it.

    The $4 royalty comes in in the next paragraph, which says that if the completed chips aren’t delivered by September 1, then Atari can choose to demand immediate repayment of whatever money they have advanced to Amiga, but if they do that then the royalty is $4 “per Chip set” — which I assume covers both arcade and consoles/computers since the letter doesn’t specify.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 31, 2015 at 6:06 am

      Nitpicky, but that’s par for the course here. It’s important. And yes, you’re right. We were getting tripped up by that second tortured sentence you quoted. Edits made. Thanks so much!

    • Marty Goldberg

      April 2, 2015 at 11:25 pm

      Orion: Which is how I actually interpret it as well based on the corresponding court depositions we have and interviews we did. The spirit of the contract was a bridge loan, and as was identified in the depositions Amiga already had several other investors before coming to Atari Inc. With how bad the company was financially (as that’s what precipitated them even approaching Atari Inc. in the first place) they needed some way to recover said initial payment should they go under before the licensing agreement was signed. Atari Inc. gave them that initial 500,000 and the documentation and chip layouts were put into escrow as collateral. That also bought Atari Inc. access to Amiga’s team for the technical knowledge necessary to start working on said gaming consoles codenamed Mickey. Furthermore, when Morse cancelled the planned June 28 signing meeting and instead came in on the 29th with the money plus interest (all received from Commodore), the situation gets more interesting because Morse’s answer tried to address both sections you’re talking about: He stated he was returning the money because they couldn’t get the chips to work (and he later testified that Lorraine didn’t work properly and was dismantled and could not be produced). His counterpart at Atari Inc. John Ferrand stated trying to ease Morse’s concerns about the date. Per his deposition:

      Q. Had you any recollection at that time about a June
      30th date in the letter of intent?
      A. Not until Dave raised the date. It wasn’t
      something that was prominent in my mind; no.
      Q. And what was your response to that?
      A. To —
      Q. To his mention of the June 30th date.
      A. My response was, “There’s absolutely no need to
      concern yourself with it. Atari are not going to go into
      e s c r ow. ”
      Q. Did you tell him in words or substance that on
      behalf of Atari you’d be prepared to waive that June 30th date
      A. No, and I was not asked to.

      I.E. Morse just wanted out period and was not interested in any extensions.

  10. James

    April 2, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    Depending on what types of machines you are considering, I think I would take minor issue with this: “… the last time an American company would dare to release a brand new machine that was completely incompatible with what had come before.”

    The obvious machine that comes to mind from an American company that was completely incompatible was the Apple Newton. Introduced in 1993, it was a completely new OS with a completely new language and SDK. It was not a PC so maybe it is not what you are talking about. In the same space, the more successful Palm Pilot was also completely new and completely incompatible and it came out a couple of years after the original Newton but wasn’t quite the same broad vision that Apple had for the Newton. These were the gateways to the current smartphone.

    Anyway, minor nitpick. Great article.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 3, 2015 at 6:52 am

      Yeah, I was thinking purely in terms of general-purpose PCs.

    • Frédéric Grosshans

      September 5, 2017 at 10:28 pm

      Another short lived incompatible PC was the BeBox . (As a student in those years, I actually met someone who owned one). However, the fate of Be Inc. indeed proves your point about introducing a completely incompatible machine.

  11. Zardoz

    April 2, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    Those custom chips, coupled together and to the 68000 so tightly that not a cycle was wasted, were a beautiful piece of high-wire engineering created by a bare handful of brilliant individuals. If a computer can be a work of art, the Amiga certainly qualified. Yet its design was also an evolutionary dead end; the custom chips and all the rest were all but impossible to pull apart and improve without breaking all of the software that had come before. The future would lie with modular, expandable design frameworks like those employed by the IBM PC and its clones, open hardware (and software) standards that were nowhere near as sexy or as elegant but that could grow and improve with time.

    Yeas and not. The Amiga, not was a dead end. Indeed was the AGA chipset expanded it being backward compatible, and was the human project to release a new generation chipset. Amiga was killed by :
    – PCs being more and more cheap thanks a lot of clones (and this thanks because was highly modular and not had any custom chip)
    – Commodore failure to adapt to the new times, trying to repeat the success of the C64, doing a lot of flops. If Commodore would allow to the C64 lineage to die (or do a correct evolution of it, instad of doing a lot of not totally compatible successor machines) and focused to the Amiga line, perhaps could had survive like Apple did.

    PD: Yep, the aGA cmachiens not was 100% backwarsds compatible, but this happened with the PCs. You can find software for the original IBM PC (and clones), that can’t run on a 80286/386 based PC’s .

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 3, 2015 at 6:59 am

      The problem was that the Amiga was primarily regarded in its biggest market of Europe as a games machine by the time the AGA chipset arrived, and a huge swathe of games wouldn’t run on the new machines. Any program that abided by all of Commodore’s guidelines and did everything through the OS rather than hitting the hardware directly would probably be okay. But how many games did that? This was a huge problem for the Amiga, much more so than the IBM architecture that was designed to accept a lot of different video cards and a lot of different configurations in general from the start.

      See also the ridiculous lengths Amiga users had to go to to work with custom video cards like the Picasso boards. This was, again, a huge problem for the platform as graphics standards on Wintel improved by leaps and bounds thanks to a stream of drop-in video card replacements during the early 1990s. I deal with these issues in more depth in my book.

    • ZoltanTheHun

      April 8, 2015 at 8:22 pm

      My two cents to the topic: It is not the falling price of the PC that killed the Amiga, but the thing that it was not ready for the upper segment of the market, where most of the money was made with the bigger margins. It was a very bad idea to get the base machine out there with 256k of RAM and HDD support was pretty weak in the beginning. And of course the lack of business software didn’t help either.

      Basically it made more sense to get an Atari ST or an IBM PC clone because you could get more business functionality for less bucks until the release of the Amiga 2000 and the Amiga 500. Even after that I would argue that PC was more suitable for the office. For example color display in offices was pretty useless at the time, and sound is almost useless even in today’s world. In some way therefore, the PC market was concerned more with speed and practicality. In the Spring of 85 you could get a Tandy with 256k RAM and 10 Megs of HDD for 2000$, and it had many disadvantages to the Amiga, but the HDD was a big advantage. And if you wanted to scale upward what could you do with the Amiga? Yes, turbocards became available in 1986, but by then 32bit 386PCs started to appear and the 1000 was no match for those. The A2000 helped somewhat, but still did not provide a flicker free high res experience, and the rigid architecture started to become the limiting factor.

  12. iPadCary

    April 4, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    An Amiga console in tne age of NES ….
    *sigh* Greedy bastards.

  13. John Foust

    April 5, 2015 at 4:12 am

    Minor correction: “Bob Pariseau” is the spelling of his name.

    Lisa – yes, the MST3K guys knew the Amiga well enough. They had an Amiga and then a Video Toaster, although I seem to remember that they only used its genlock and chroma key at first. Newtek loved their show and invited them to their company parties.

    I’m tempted to attend the event!

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 5, 2015 at 7:26 am

      Thanks! I’ve just been looking through some of your articles from the early days of Amazing Computing…

  14. Steve Dowe

    April 8, 2015 at 8:26 am

    Great article and certainly a strong incentive to pick up a copy of your book!

    One point about glossy Amiga magazines… There was an independent monthly periodical called Amiga Active in the UK which outlasted Amiga Format.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 8, 2015 at 8:34 am

      Thank you! I *thought* there was one that lasted longer. I’ve actually been known to use a line in mixed company about how there was actually still an Amiga magazine on the newsstands in Britain after the September 11 attacks, and how strange that strikes me as an American. But then when I went looking for it for this article I couldn’t seem to find it. Edit made.

  15. Mark Andrews

    April 8, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    Great stuff!

    In August of 1985, I was considering a Mac. A good friend of mine, Nick, and I traveled to the local Apple retailer where I got a chance to play with a Mac SE with a starting price of $3,995 or somewhere there abouts. That was a lot of money for a young computer programmer making $18,500/yr.

    Nick asked the salesgeek if he had heard anything about some computer called “Amiga”. “Oh yeah. That’s some game computer that Commodore is getting ready to release. I’ve seen the specs. It’s not a Mac by any means.” He was obviously defensive of his beloved Mac. Eventually we would call his type a “Fanboy”.

    We left the Apple retailer. Nick told me he had heard about the Amiga while in another retail computer store about a block away. Being a geek, my curiosity was piqued and off we went. Once there, we spent the next two hours going over all the literature, talking to the salesgeek, Dave, and watching the video of the Amiga launch in NYC. I was mesmerized. Multitasking, high color – high res graphics, four channel stereo sound, a GUI. And not a single machine in the store!

    At that point I made a vow I would have one. I went to my bank, talked to the loan officer and borrowed the $2,500 ($1,895 for the box and $495 for the monitor) it would take to make it mine. I waited and waited. Everyday I would go by the retailer and pester Dave, begging him to give me a delivery date. One day, six weeks later, he called me at work. My Amiga had arrived. I was the first one to take delivery in the New Orleans area. Actually, one of the first in the country.

    I still have that computer, but its been packed up in storage for many years. Maybe it’s time to get it out and resurrect it. Then I can show all these young engineers around here the first, true multimedia computer and explain how it set the standard for processing, graphics and audio five to ten years before many of them were born.

  16. Stefan Winterstein

    April 14, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    Interesting read, as always.

    There’s a Kickstarter campain to support Amiga’s 30th anniversary, with only 4 days left, and they have some fascinating photos of Lorraine on their Facebook page.

  17. RVP

    May 5, 2015 at 8:51 am

    A minor correction: “…patched together with the proverbial duct tape and bailing wire…”
    should be: “…duct tape and baling wire…” (Ref. “Baling wire” on Wikipedia)

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 8, 2015 at 9:21 am


  18. Scott S.

    August 17, 2015 at 12:23 am

    “In the end, as Kaplan later put it, “Nolan, of course, flaked out,”

    I see you lifted a quote from my interview with Larry Kaplan ( but there’s no mention of it in your sources.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 17, 2015 at 7:52 am

      Sorry about that! Added.

  19. DZ-Jay

    March 12, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    >> “This opened to the door to a whole universe of visual trickery.”

    “Opened to the door” should be “opened the door…”

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 13, 2017 at 12:18 pm


  20. DZ-Jay

    March 12, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    >> “checked soccer ball”

    I think you mean “checkered.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 13, 2017 at 12:17 pm

      “Checked” and “checkered” are synonyms (when applied to a visual pattern, that is).

  21. YULI

    April 6, 2019 at 10:50 am

    If Commodore would allow to the C64 lineage to die (or do a correct evolution of it, instad of doing a lot of not totally compatible successor machines) and focused to the Amiga line

  22. Charles

    March 26, 2020 at 9:34 am

    No, unfortunately not all of the best ideas of the Amiga have been incorporated into other operating systems.

    I can’t add an ILBM.datatype to my Mac or Windows PC and magically have all applications that work with pictures read and write IFF/ILBM files.

    The datatypes.library is a concept that does not exist elsewhere, and that’s not the only thing. Heck, I can’t even change the size of the menubar font on my Mac!

  23. Keith S.

    June 14, 2020 at 10:30 pm

    >> whether in the form a game console

    should be “whether in the form of a game console”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 15, 2020 at 8:50 am


  24. Jeff Nyman

    November 24, 2021 at 8:52 pm

    “There is considerable psychological research today that indicates that, for better or for worse, multitasking has literally changed the way we think, changed our brains — not a bad claim to fame for any commercial gadget.”

    Since it’s well-demonstrated to be quite literally impossible for humans to psychologically or cognitively multitask, I think it’s safer to say that what computing platforms did was start to encourage more context-switching in a technical context.

    Putting aside things like the Sinclair QL (with Sinclair QDOS), it’s certainly true that the Amiga was the first successfully commercial application of multitasking. But I think it’s really important to recognize the distinction between what computers do and what humans do when using computers.

    In this context, cooperative multitasking (what the Mac was doing) or appropriative multitasking (what the Amiga was doing) becomes much less important because the impact was on what the human was doing: switching contexts. We were doing that long before computers came along. What the Amiga did was show how what humans already did worked in the context of a computing platform.

    And, thus, that is what I think historically should be called out about the Amiga: it provided one of the first popular contexts that allowed humans to cognitively work inside a computing context the way they did outside of a computing context.

  25. Steve Pitts

    January 26, 2022 at 11:58 am

    Is ‘Bob Bob Pariseau’ a mistaken word double or was he really called that?

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 28, 2022 at 8:04 am

      Just a mistake. ;) Thanks!


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