By Harry McCracken | Friday, July 23, 2010 at 10:53 am
Twenty-five years ago today, a new personal computer was unveiled at a black-tie, celebrity-studded gala at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center. It debuted to rave reviews and great expectations–heck, InfoWorld said it might be the “third milestone” in personal computing after the Apple II and the IBM PC.
The computer was Commodore’s Amiga. In an era in which the most common form of microcomputer was an IBM PC-compatible system with a text-only display and a tinny internal speaker, the Amiga had dazzling color graphics and stereo sound. Its Intuition user interface looked like the Mac, but offered an advanced feature known as “multitasking.” The machine was a stunner, especially given that it came from a company previously known for rinkydink home computers such as the VIC-20 and Commodore 64.
Over the next nine years, Commodore sold millions of Amigas. People who liked the system really liked it, and its graphical chops were so potent that it was the first PC widely used by TV broadcasters and movie studios. None of which was enough to keep Commodore from declaring bankruptcy and ceasing operations in 1994.
The Amiga was one of the greatest computers ever made–and for my money, it was the greatest cult computer, period (Macintosh users would come to be accused of cultlike tendencies, but when the Mac arrived eighteen months before the Amiga, its whole marketing message was that other computers were cultish–its TV commercials carried the slogan “The computer for the rest of us” and showed IBM PC owners as zombie slaves.)
Amiga users were indomitable. They were outraged that obviously-inferior IBM PC clones dominated the market. They rejoiced when the computer hit major sales milestones. They petitioned major software companies to support the machine, and wrote angry letters to computer magazines that failed to give it its due. And they kept on using their Amigas for years after Commodore went kaput: The market for Amiga-specific magazines lasted into this century.
Other platforms and tech products would inspire similarly fanatical followings–most notably OS/2 and Linux, both of which developed Amigaesque reputations for technical superiority. But Amiga nuts of the 1980s and early 1990s–like, um, me–remain the ultimate fanboys, even though it hadn’t yet occurred to anyone to hurl that word at computer users.
When the Amiga was born, consumers and businesses were still figuring out what computers were and why anybody would want one. But you didn’t have to spend much time in the presence of an Amiga to get why it was cool–all you had to do was see and hear what it could do. I bought mine after walking by a computer retailer and spying an Amiga in the window, where it was displaying a full-motion video clip. And to this day, the system is synonymous with the “Boing” demo that its creators used to show off its capabilities even before it went on the market:
If you weren’t using computers in the 1980s, trust me: that bouncing ball was spectacular enough to sell Amigas by itself.
Even before it hit the market, the Amiga had an uncommonly checkered history. It began as the project of an independent startup called Amiga Corporation. (It was otherwise best known for the Joyboard, a game controller you stood on.) Amiga cofounder Jay Miner was the man behind the potent graphics capabilities of Atari’s 800 and 400 models; Atari advanced the fledging Amiga company money in return for rights to the chips it was developing.
There’s probably some alternate universe in which Amiga ended up being an Atari product. But in September 1984, it was Commodore that acquired Amiga Corporation and the computer it was developing (which was code-named “Lorraine”) for an estimated $30 million. Atari CEO and Commodore founder Jack Tramiel–who had acquired Atari from Warner Communications after Commodore had fired in January of 1984–sued. He also introduced the computer his company had been developing, the Atari ST, a low-rent Amiga rival that was known in the industry as the “Jackintosh.”
Commodore was a famously parsimonious outfit, but it splurged on the Amiga’s introduction. The highlight of that Lincoln Center product launch was a demo in which pop art legend Andy Warhol used an Amiga to “paint” Blondie’s Debbie Harry. The exercise didn’t prove much of anything other than that Warhol was able to use the paint program’s fill command, but it was heady stuff:
The company also ponied up for TV commercials that looked like outtakes from 2001: A Space Odyssey:
From the start, Commodore struggled mightily to position the Amiga in a way that made sense in the 1980s computer market. An Amiga A1000 with 256KB of RAM and one floppy disk went for $1295. Even after you added $500 for a color monitor, it offered vastly better bang for the buck than a $2795 black-and-white Macintosh. But as home computers go, the Amiga was pricey. The Atari 520ST, which started shipping a couple of weeks before the Amiga was announced, packed double the RAM and cost $999–with a color display.
So even though Amiga Corp.’s original idea had been to build the ultimate home computer, Commodore spun the Amiga as a business machine, and talked up an option that let the system run IBM PC compatible software. It turned out to be a tough sell, especially few major business applications were available and most of the major computer retail chains refused to sell it. (The machine ended up being sold mostly by mom-and-pop stores such as The Memory Location, where I bought my Amiga in 1987.)
Why wouldn’t big computer retailers carry an impressive computer like the Amiga? Commodore itself was part of the problem. It was famous for selling undistinguished home computers at bargain-basement prices at stores such as Toys “R” Us. The very idea of it launching a computer as slick and powerful as the Amiga was jarring–it was as if Yugo had bought out DeLorean. And without Jack Tramiel, Commodore lacked the ambition, heart, guerilla tactics, and raw nervous energy that hade made the Commodore 64 the best-selling computer of its time.
In July of 1985, computer magazines had talked about the Amiga overtaking the Mac; within a few months, they were questioning whether Commodore had a future. Like Mac owners of the mid-1990s, Amiga users had to deal with constant predictions of the imminent demise of their platform. Except in the case of Commodore, the naysayers turned out to be right.