Commodore Amiga History

In the early eighties the home computer market was exploding. Dozens of different computers tried to succeed. Among them were famous names such as Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad (aka Schneider) and Dragon.

When these classic systems got too old (technically speaking) a new generation of home computers were fighting their way into many a kid's room. Famous machines as Atari ST and Acorn Archimedes and (of course) AMIGA 1000 were known all over the world. The Atari was used for all kinds of MIDI applications while the AMIGA was used for Video and games.

At this time the PC was too expensive for private use (and not as powerful). At home Atari and AMIGA were fighting for customers. This battle was lost by Atari after several years because they were not able to push their system to the newest level of technology without losing compatibility. In the meantime the AMIGA was well known as a video computer and was used in lots of TV-Series (Robocop, Babylon 5, Seaquest) and cinema pre-productions (Jurassic Park, Titanic).

The biggest problem the AMIGA always had was it's owner. Commodore being once a major player in the PC-business took most of the profit from the AMIGA division to keep up in the PC-market. In the end they didn't succeed and Commodore was liquidated. Then every AMIGA-User was looking for a saviour. When Escom came by it all looked so good... but Escom acquired too much in a short time which forced them into liquidation themselves. After that the Amigans had to wait for nearly one year and were begging for a new saviour with lots of cash and good customer-service. Well, we were lucky, because Gateway2000 bought the remains of AMIGA Technologies. They founded a second company for R&D and they were working on really crazy stuff.

But once again, the big guys screwed up and two years went by, almost without a change. In Autumn 1999 the AmigaOS got updated to V3.5 by Haage & Partner. This much-needed update brought many valuable features, but there was still some bug squashing to do. Christmas 1999 the first update for AmigaOS3.5 was downloadable. Lots of bugs were fixed and some new functions were added. We're waiting for the next update to the Classic AmigaOS.

 Jay Miner - The Father of Amiga

"The story starts in the early 1980's with a company not originally called Amiga, but Hi Toro, which was started by Dave Morris, our president, but before all that I used to work with Atari and I wanted to do a 68000 machine with them. We had just finished the Atari 800 box and they were not about to spend another umpteen dollars on research for a 16-bit machine and the processor chip itself cost $100 apiece. RAM was also real expensive and you need twice as much. They couldn't see the writing on the wall and they just said "No", so I quit!

"I went to a chip company called Xymos as I knew the guy who started it. He gave me some stock and it looked like an interesting startup company (I've worked for a lot of new companies). We hired a little office on Scott Boulevard, Santa Clara and they got a Texas millionaire to put up some money. I had an idea about designing a games machine that was expandable to a real computer and he though that was a great idea but didn't tell any of his investors. I moved to Santa Clara from Xymos. They were still called Hi Toro but the investors weren't too keen so they chose "Amiga" and I didn't like it much - I thought using a Spanish name wasn't such a good move. I was wrong!

"We worked out a deal whereby I got a salary and some stock and I also got to bring my dog Mitchy into work every day. Dave did reserve the right to go back on that one if anyone else objected but Mitchy was very popular. There were a lot of various arguments and the way most were sorted out was by hitting each other with the foam baseball bats. The stung a bit if you got hit hard. There was a conflict in the fundamental design philosophy with some like RJ Mical wanting the low cost video game (the investors side, you might say). Others like Dale Luck and Carl Sassenrath wanted the best computer expansion capability for the future. This battle of cost was never ending, being internal; among us as well as with the investors and Commodore.

"I started thinking about what we wanted to design. Right from the beginning I wanted to do a computer like the A2000 with lots of expansion slots for drives, a keyboard etc. I'd also read a bit about blitters and so I talked with a friend called Ron Nicholson who was also interested in them and he came to join us. We came up with all sorts of functions for the blitter. Once you've got the design concept for the chips, all you need to do then is pick names for the registers and tell the software people something like "I'm going to have a register here that's going to hold the colours for this part and it's called whatever." They can then simulate it in their software.

"In 1983 we made a motherboard for the chips to be plugged in, took this to the CES show and we showed some little demos to selected people away from the main floor. At the show itself, they wrote the bouncing ball demo and this blew people away. They couldn't believe that all this wiring was going to be three chips. The booming noise of the ball was Bob Parasseau hitting a foam baseball bat against our garage door. It was sampled on an Apple ][ and the data massaged into Amiga samples.

"With things running desperately close, we were forced to look for more finance to keep the ball bouncing. Commodore stepped in at the last minute to take the Amiga for themselves, shelling out a mere $4.25 per share and installing the team in the Los Gatos office.

"The Amiga 1000 really didn't take shape until long after Commodore bought it. The president had the idea of sliding the keyboard underneath the machine and it took nearly a year to redesign the motherboard to fit in. Everything was set... and then Commodore decided that 512K of RAM was too much. They wanted a 256K machine as the 512 was too expensive. Back in those days RAM was very pricey, but I could see it had to come down. I told them it couldn't be done as we were too close to being finished, it would spoil the architecture, etc, etc. Dave Needle came up with the idea of putting the cartridge on the front which worked. I was in favour of putting sockets on the motherboard so the user could just drop in the chips."

"There were a lot of compromises which I didn't like, but it was better than it might have been if we hadn't gotten our way on a lot of things. We didn't get our way on everything, though. The 256K RAM was a real problem. The software people knew it was inadequate but nobody could stand up to Commodore about it. We had to really argue to put the expansion connector on the side and this was before the deal was finalised so we were close to sinking everything. The lowest cost way of doing it was the edge connector and I'm glad it got through".

"Once the Amiga was released, work at Los Gatos continued, but the days for this fine, but maverick, design team were numbered. I was really pleased to see Commodore moving in the direction of the A2000 - it was the first Amiga you could really tailor to your own needs and this was one of the reasons for the success of the early Apples. We then wanted to go onto horizontal slots, like the A3000 as that would be easier to cool and shield - there was a design to do it but at that time the A2000 came from Germany so that's the way we went. We wanted to do the Autoconfiguration for the slots but Commodore weren't keen because it added 50c to the cost, so we had a big battle with them and did it anyway. Our divisional manager from Commodore was a guy called Rick Geiger. He promised MS-DOS on a small card to make an IBM interface. He worked alone, and weeks went by with nothing appearing despite all the promises which worried me a lot, and this really led to Rick's downfall. He promised he could do it and nobody kept close enough tags on him, always a few more weeks. Commodore started advertising and the board didn't work so both men were canned. This was the start of the downfall for the Los Gatos division.

Footnote: After suffering a long bout with a kidney illness, Jay Miner passed during the summer of 1994. His death is mourned by all the Faithful and the light he lit burns on.

See the full interview at the AUGWA Inc. Online Magazine


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