The Amiga Story: Conceived at Atari, Born at Commodore

The Commodore Amiga began its life at Atari. Jay Miner, an engineer at the enormous video game company and the creator of the Atari 800 personal computer, wanted to create a console centered around a 16-bit processor and a floppy drive, which would make development for the new console very easy and inexpensive.

Atari 800The executives at Atari were unwilling to risk damaging sales of their popular 8-bit consoles and expensive developer systems (and the licensing fees from the ROM media) and didn’t allow Miner to pursue his idea any further.

Miner’s idea for the new console was revived in 1982 after he was contacted by Larry Kaplan, an old Atari employee who was enamored with the idea. Kaplan was interested in starting a game company that would create a brand new console and license it to Atari.

Amiga’s Origin

Miner lined up $7 million in investments from a group of dentists, and Hi-Toro was formed.

Hi-Toro had two divisions: one to produce games and peripherals for the Atari 2600, the other to develop the new console, which was named Lorraine (after the wife of CEO Dave Morse). The company marketed several successful peripherals for the Atari 2600 and also released several games. As a result, Hi-Toro was flush with cash to be used on the Lorraine project.

Miner headed the Lorraine project and envisioned a very ambitious feature set. The console would be much more powerful than its contemporaries, and it would be much less expensive to develop for – unlike the 2600.

The Motorola 68000 processor was adopted as the CPU, a processor more commonly used in workstations than in game consoles.

The Lorraine chipset was also very powerful. It took advantage of blitters, chips that allowed information to bypass the CPU completely. Thanks in part to the blitters on the mainboard, the machine was capable of displaying up to 4,096 colors. This was unheard of in the video game industry.

More important than its performance and features, Lorraine would be an easy platform to develop for. Unlike Atari (and Sony and Microsoft today), developers would not need a special development workstation to create games. The Lorraine would be bundled with a keyboard and 3.5″ floppy drive, eliminating the need for expensive developer workstations.

And once a game was finished, the company didn’t need to license cartridge media from Hi-Toro; 3.5″ floppy disks (a relatively unproven technology) could be used.

amiga_logoAround the time that the Lorraine was entering early development, Hi-Toro needed to changes its name after it was discovered that a Japanese lawn mower company already had the same name. The new name, chosen by Dave Morse, was Amiga, Portuguese and Spanish for “female friend”.

Video Game Industry Collapse

In 1983, the video game industry was on the brink of collapse. Atari had not updated its line of consoles since the late 1970s, and most consumers were uninterested in the company’s underpowered line of 8-bit computers.

After a series of failed game launches (including the infamous ET), the market fell through. Time Warner, parent company of Atari, saw its stock price plummet from $60 to $20, and many game development companies went out of business.

Amiga was not immune to the dip in demand and was forced to look for more investors as revenues for its Atari products fell. The first demonstration of Lorraine was slated for the 1984 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show in Chicago, a seemingly impossible deadline.

The project was divided into to two groups. One, headed by Miner, focused on completing the computer’s hardware, while the other, led by Dale Luck, created an operating system for the new system. Hardware design was nearly finished by mid-1983. It was mostly centered around miniaturizing the machine’s components. On the other hand, the software team had a major task ahead of them.

Amiga boing ball demoInstead of develop an entire operating system in time for CES, the software team focused on creating several demos that would show off the technical prowess of the machine. The most popular and impressive of these demos was the “Boing Ball” demo, where a red checkered sphere bounced around the screen.

By early 1984, Amiga was ready for CES . . . kind of. The hardware prototype was on four different breadboards and not in the custom case that Miner had designed. The prototype was so fragile that Amiga bought it a seat for its trip to Chicago under the name Joe Pillow. Nonetheless, many of the show’s visitors were impressed by the machine’s power.

However, Amiga was unable to find an investor to help complete the project.

Amiga 1000

The original Amiga, later named the 1000.

Atari was also present during the show and was impressed by Lorraine. Instead of offering to invest in the company outright, Atari offered a $500,000 loan in exchange for Lorraine’s motherboard design. The loan would have to be paid back in one month, and if Amiga was unable to repay the loan, the entire Lorraine project would be forfeited to Atari.

Nobody at Amiga liked the plan, but there was no alternative, so the company accepted. Atari knew that Amiga wouldn’t be able to cover the loan and would be forced to cede Lorraine for a fraction of its real price.

Many of the engineers at Amiga feared that Atari had no interest in the team itself, only in the chipset, which would be used to thwart Commodore’s plans to release a 16-bit home Unix computer.

Commodore to the Rescue

Jack TramielIn a corporate coup at Commodore, Jack Tramiel walked out of the company with much of its engineering staff and bought Atari from Time Warner. He used the Amiga deal to get back at Commodore and then sued the company for interfering with the deal. The unsuccessful suit served only to pique Commodore’s interest in Amiga’s technologies.

Commodore logoCommodore bought Amiga and repaid Atari’s loan just days before it was due. Lorraine was renamed Amiga and would be released in one year.

Commodore 64

Commodore 64, the most popular computer in history.

Commodore had no experience in the console market and decided to pitch the Amiga as a home computer – the successor to its wildly successful Commodore 64. A brand new case was also designed with the characteristic keyboard space below the display.

By late 1984, the Amiga’s hardware was finished, but the operating system and GUI were still lagging behind. Commodore, worried that it would miss its ship date, decided to adopt an existing operating system, TRIPOS (TRIvial Portable Operating System), which was licensed from MetaComCo, a company founded by Dr. Tim King to market his OS.

TRIPOS was not nearly as advanced as the operating system that Luck and Miner had wanted, but it was still far more advanced than the Macintosh operating system (the Mac had been introduced in January 1984 with 128 KB of memory, half as much as the Amiga 1000) or MS-DOS (then at version 2.11).

Amiga software developers set to work creating a user interface for the new operating system. Instead of using a desktop metaphor, which Digital Research’s GEM and the Mac OS did, Amiga adopted a workbench metaphor. Files were called projects and were stored in drawers.

The developers at Amiga also decided to include a command interpreter with the Amiga, making it more attractive to power users. Since most users would probably use the Amiga with a television set, a high contrast theme of blue and orange was used to make it easier to see.

Atari Fires Back

Tramiel’s Atari did not intend to surrender the 16-bit market to Commodore and produced its own 68000-based computer (mostly from off the shelf components), the Atari 520ST, which was released shortly before the Amiga. The machine was not nearly as impressive as the Amiga, using the single tasking CP/M-68k operating system (also available for Apple’s Lisa) with the GEM GUI, but the 520ST was good enough for many home users and had twice the memory of the Amiga 1000.

Commodore was apparently unfazed by the Atari ST and released the Amiga in Lincoln Center on July 11, 1985.

Andy Warhol, who had been a devoted Mac user since 1983, showed off the machine’s graphical abilities, and several musicians took advantage of its sound system. The audience was thrilled, and the press was impressed by the Amiga.

A Slow Start

Mac Plus with floppy driveUnfortunately, the machine’s price kept it out of most consumers’ homes. The Atari ST cost less than half as much as the Amiga, and it had many of the same features. The Amiga would be going head to head with the black-and-white only Macintosh Plus (which shipped with 1 MB of memory and supported up to 4 MB) and, without the vast collection of software the Mac had, the Amiga didn’t fare well.

Despite its slow start, many developers were thrilled with the computer’s capabilities. Electronic Arts embraced the Amiga and became its largest developer, releasing Deluxe Paint for the Amiga, which had features impossible to duplicate on any other platform.

The Amiga was also popular among television producers, since it had an onboard NTSC interface. Video Toaster was released on the Amiga and is still used today by many producers.

Commodore Amiga 2000

Commodore was not oblivious to the limited appeal of the expensive Amiga and worked to widen it. Commodore created the Amiga 2000, developed by a separate team based in Germany, which added IBM compatibility, and repriced the original Amiga, renamed the Amiga 1000, to be more competitive with the Atari ST.

The original Amiga team was upset with Commodore’s management of their product, especially after the release of the 2000 (which was seen as being technically inferior to the 1000), and most of its members left.

Amiga 500

1987 was the most significant year in Amiga history. Commodore released the German designed Amiga 500, which cost less than the Atari ST, and began a marketing blitz to sell home users on the Amiga. The scheme was relatively successful in North America, and it was especially effective in Europe, which became the largest market for Amigas.

At the end of the fiscal year of 1987, Commodore had posted a $28 million profit and seemed destined to regain its glory days.

Passing Atari

The Atari ST began to sputter in 1987. Its software had not had a major update since its launch, and it was well behind Amiga and the Macintosh in terms of features. Atari completely abandoned the North American market and focused its last efforts in Europe, where it enjoyed mild success for several years to come.

Commodore continued to release new products spanning a huge price range. From the inexpensive A500 to the high-end Amiga 3000. During this time, Workbench received a major facelift. A gray and blue color scheme replaced the garish orange and blue of the earlier workbench.

Commodore CDTVMoving beyond the personal computer, Commodore attempted to put Amiga in the living room (as Miner had intended in 1979). The result was the CD32 and CDTV.

The CDTV, introduced in 1991, was a basic Amiga 500 with a bundled TV tuner. The CD32 had the distinction of being the first “32-bit console” – but almost no software was written for the device, forcing users to use standard Amiga programs with interfaces optimized for the computer screen.

For both devices, Commodore was eager to differentiate the Amiga brand from its consumer electronics devices. Retailers were not permitted to display the devices within five yards of the computer section and were encouraged not to stress the presence of Workbench.

Commodore’s Collapse

Commodore began to falter in the early 1990s as Windows PCs became more advanced. The multimedia features that wowed audiences in 1985 were commonplace in even inexpensive computers of the early 1990s.

With the advent of VGA graphics, SoundBlasters, and Windows 3.1, Amiga had little to offer. Commodore failed to update its line as technology advanced, ultimately resulting in the company marketing pitifully underequipped computers in the same price range as PC clones (at one point, a 7 MHz A500+ cost more than a 33 MHz Windows PC).

Not until the early 1990s did Commodore release Amigas that had comparable specs to similarly priced PCs, but the Amiga brand had already been associated with low-end home computers in the public eye.

Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, and the Amiga brand has bounced around from owner to owner since then with little success. Today, it’s owned by Amiga Inc., which licenses the software to several hardware manufacturers, whose computers are mainly used in video production.

Further Reading

Amiga 1000 Links

Amiga 2000 Links

Amiga 500 Links

Amiga 3000 Links

Commodore CDTV Links

This article was first published in 2006 and has been updated slightly since then.

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