Tuesday, April 22, 2008

and They Named it "Female Friend"

It seems I have always been a fan of the obscure. For me the choice was never "Beatles or Elvis" or "Beatles or Stones"... Pink Floyd was the clear choice; anything else is a false dichotomy. Given the choice, I didn't go for Coke, nor Pepsi; RC was my drink (Yes... I really can taste a difference). And when it was time to buy my very own first personal computer back in the 1980s, I didn't gravitate towards the IBM PC platform (even though I'd grown up with it) nor the Macintosh (though it was supposedly a life-changing niche machine.) I opted instead for a little-known machine made by Commodore, who'd previously come out with the best-selling computer of all time. This newer, state of the art machine did not enjoy such sales figures - for one thing, it always had an identity crisis; the creators originally designed it as the ultimate games machine... it was soon expanded and marketed as a "do-anything" machine; called "the computer for the creative mind," (and who wouldn't want to think of themselves as creative?)... and it ended up as a top choice for video editing and production.

They wanted a friendly, easy to remember name for their creation - they settled on "Amiga," and the fact that it came alphabetically before Apple and Atari didn't hurt. Later given the model number 1000 to differentiate from its siblings the home-aimed Amiga 500 and the more expandable Amiga 2000, the Amiga cost less than the IBM and Mac computers of the day, yet did much more. When it launched in 1985, the Amiga could display 4096 colors on screen at once, while the IBM of the day could display sixteen and the Macintosh, only two. The Amiga also featured stereophonic digital sound and music (up to four sound channels playing simultaneously) when the other guys mostly just beeped, and it could do true hardware multitasking - running multiple applications simultaneously in its various windows. All things we take for granted today, of course; but at the time, revolutionary. The Amiga had custom computer chips for sound, graphics, and so forth, just as computers today do - but other computers didn't begin to have custom chipsets until years after the Amiga was gone.

So given all this, why have most people never heard of Amiga? It's a tragic tale of squandered opportunity and corporate infighting. After a big splash debut in New York City, featuring appearances by Deborah Harry and Andy Warhol (both Amiga users, it seems), Commodore didn't do much to promote or market their new computer line; and what was done, was often done badly - I remember commercials showing a kid hijacking a TV broadcast, helping out various celebrities, or even levitating his house. Not things most people have a need for - but it showed the common confused conception of computers at that time: they were something that could do anything you wanted, if you just learned how to tap their power. A far cry from the common household appliance they are today.

I have linked below to an article in the August 1985 issue of Personal Computing, previewing the first Amiga (warning: the files are large in size, about 1 MB each). I like the sense of wonder it evokes... it really did seem like anything was possible back then.
Many thanks are due Gerd Frank, of the German site AmiATLAS, who so kindly scanned this for me after winning it on eBay.

More information: arstechnica did a piece on the history of the Amiga. And here's a page with some info on how Warhol used the Amiga.

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