Remembering the Little Computer That Could: The Commodore Amiga

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Commodore Amiga 1000A few weeks back, eHow’s Melanie Pinola wrote a great little ode to “everyone’s favorite childhood computer,” the Commodore 64. That post got me reminiscing about Commodore’s second act: A computer that was even more ahead of its time than the C64. A machine that dared to challenge IBM and an army of clones. A platform that inspired magazines, clubs, a remarkable video-production tool and legions of passionate fans.

I’m talking, of course, about the Commodore Amiga.

Amiga 101

Back in 1987, my sophomore year at Michigan State University, I was particularly broke. My search for a much-needed, part-time job led me to a little computer shop one town over. Back then I was an Apple guy, specifically an Apple IIe user who’d purchased a Laser 128 — a IIe clone — for college.Commodore Amiga 500

So when the owner of Central Park Computers asked if I had any experience with Amigas, I told the truth: “Amigas? Never heard of them.” Even so, I got the job, and my life would never be the same.

The Amiga introduced me to things I’d never seen a computer do: desktop publishing, video production, and arcade-quality gaming that blew away anything an IBM or Mac could manage. The platform was all about graphics and sound, with a friendly, colorful graphical user interface, four-channel audio, and dedicated chipsets for everything.

Rocket RangerIt wasn’t long before I was drinking — no, gulping — the Commodore Kool-Aid. As a rabid gamer, I spent hours on premiere titles like Blood Money, Lemmings, Speedball, Test Drive, and pretty much everything ever made by the incomparable Cinemaware: Defender of the Crown, Rocket Ranger, Wings, and all the rest.

Meanwhile, Central Park Computers changed hands, a Detroit-area chain (the whimsically named Slipped Disk) took over and, thank heavens, kept me on. That store’s newsletter was produced entirely on Amigas, and that’s when I learned desktop publishing. I don’t recall if I cut my teeth on PageStream or Pagesetter, but one of those programs gave me a DTP foundation that would serve me well later.

Similarly, I later took an internship at MSU’s public-access cable station, where I was excited to find a couple of Amiga 500s performing Chyron duties, overlaying text and graphics during student-produced news segments and other shows.

NewTek Video Toaster

I’d heard of the Amiga’s prowess in video production, most notably the famed NewTek Video Toaster, but seeing them in action this way was thrilling. Surely if these machines were making inroads in such high-profile places, they were well on their way to mass-market success.

Not enough amigos for Amigas

Despite rabid popularity in Europe, Amigas just didn’t catch on in the U.S. There’s plenty of debate as to why. Although you could buy an Amiga for less than an IBM PC or Apple Macintosh, the visual, creativity-oriented platform didn’t appeal to businesses seeking buttoned-down word processing and spreadsheets. I suspect that’s a key reason the IBM juggernaut was able to plow past Commodore: People were introduced to that platform at work, then chose something similar for home.

It was another VHS-versus-Betamax scenario: The Amiga was clearly the superior machine, but a variety of market forces conspired to keep it from dominating.

[Editor’s note: Sorry, Rick. I need to bust that myth: Betamax was not  superior to VHS, even though that’s the conventional wisdom.]

Mostly, though, history places the blame squarely at Commodore’s feet. Bad marketing, bad management, slow development of new products — to many outside observers, it seemed Commodore could do no right. And once Microsoft Windows 3.0 hit the scene in 1990, the writing was on the wall: Users wanted a GUI, they just didn’t want it from Commodore.

The end of the three-party system

Could the company have survived against Apple and the “WinTel” platform? Or even put one of them out to pasture? We’ll never know. Creative types migrated to Macs for desktop publishing as well as photo and video work, while the business world adopted Windows — with home users largely following suit. Commodore filed for bankruptcy in 1994.

Amiga logo

Interestingly, the Amiga name didn’t go down with that ship. German PC maker Escom bought the brand — then went belly-up a few years later. No less than Gateway acquired the rights to Amiga after that, but eventually sold it without releasing any related products.

Today, Amiga Inc. owns the name and is reviving classic Amiga games — but only for, inexplicably, the BlackBerry Q10, Z10 and PlayBook. So all five of you who own one of those products, you can enjoy Speedball 2, Wings and other gems.

Of course, as with most dead platforms, much original software lives on in the form of emulators, including WINUAE, a Windows port of the UAE Amiga Emulator.

Personally, I don’t see the point in chasing after 25-year-old games. They were amazing then, but simply don’t hold a candle to what we’ve got now — and on our phones, no less.

Even so, the Amiga holds a huge place in my heart. My very first published work was in an Amiga magazine. When I started a magazine of my own, about the PalmPilot, I did the layout myself — using skills I’d learned on Amigas. And when Palm faltered against the likes of BlackBerry and Microsoft, I couldn’t help thinking about Commodore and what might have been.

For a brief, glorious period in the late 80s, there was no better computer than the Commodore Amiga. I’m glad I had the chance to experience it.

Photo credits: Cinemaware, Commodore, Wikipedia

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