Retro Computer Story: The Commodore Amiga

The history of the Commodore Amiga begins way back in 1980, inside the Atari research laboratories. Jay Miner – hardware designer – in those years he was developing 8-bit systems, like the 2600, the 400 and the Atari 800. These machines were all based on the same “custom” chips that managed graphics, audio and video displays.

Jay Miner su, La storia del Commodore Amiga

It was at that time that Jay himself proposed Atari (leader in the electronic home entertainment sector) to develop a new computer using technology based on the Motorola 68000 processor. Atari refused the project, devoting all its investments to strengthening the console sector that brought it to success. This was a big mistake for Atari: in 1984 when there was the video game crisis, only the companies that had bet on personal computers managed to save themselves from bankruptcy.

Jay Miner, after Atari refused, decided reluctantly to leave his job.

In 1982 Jay met Larry Kaplan, an ex-Atari colleague who, like him, had left the company to found his own (the future Activision). The two decide to unite to form a new computer company, tired of the current market which – in their opinion – did not offer innovative products to the users. Larry Kaplan and Jay Miner needed money to start their new business. They will find 7 million dollars thanks to the investments of three Florida dentists interested in the video game market. Thus was born Hi-Toro based in Santa Clara (USA).

Due prodotti della Hi-Toro: Il Power Stick e la Joyboard per Atari 2600. La Storia del Commodore Amiga su

However, they are not all roses for the new born, and Larry Kaplan will soon abandon the company, leaving the project to Miner. This handover will bring Hi-Toro to success.

The company had two very distinct work groups. The first dealt exclusively with gaming peripherals and software for the Atari 2600. The second, smaller group, was working full-time on a project called “Lorraine”. The Lorraine had to be a super gaming machine, with 3.5 inch floppy disks and a keyboard. Although Activision and Imagic were among the companies chosen for a possible development of games for the new machine, Hi-Toro did not disdain the idea of also self-producing software.

Alcune immagini di come i progettisti immaginavano il Lorraine definitivo. La storia del Commodore Amiga su

However, having external development companies was a counter-trend idea for the time. In fact, big names like Atari and Nintendo formed software development groups internally, openly fighting external developers. Hi-Toro, on the other hand, wanted there to be hundreds of potential software developers around the world. Jay Miner wanted his product to be very, very powerful. It was he who pushed the introduction into the new machine (and future Amiga) of the HAM mode (Hold and Modify) which allowed the use of 4096 colors on the screen simultaneously. The introduction of this feature will be a winning card in the future, when Commodore Amiga will confront competing computers, such as the Atari ST.

In 1982 Hi Toro changed its name to “Amiga Incorporated”. The change, which was more a necessity than a desire (there was already a company called Toro in Japan) added a small piece to the company’s success. The term Amiga was chosen because it sounded “friendly”, “familiar”. A figure to be reckoned with that was greatly appreciated by the public user who at the time was surrounded by computer manufacturers with strange names, “technological” and difficult to assimilate.

1983 was a dark period for first-generation video game producers. It was clear that the market was going to collapse and producers and media were wondering about the future of computer entertainment. Companies, even the biggest ones, started losing money. Much money. The Amiga Inc. therefore decided to abandon the development of peripherals and games as far as possible to channel all efforts into what appeared to be a lifeline: the Lorraine project. New designers were summoned, the development team was divided into the hardware section and the software section. Jay Miner was in charge of hardware development, while Dale Luck and his group were busy testing the operating system. At the end of the year the custom chips were practically finished: Agnus (Address Generator), Daphne (Display Adapter, later called Denise) and Portia (Doors and Audio, later called Paula).

La Boing Ball di Amiga. L'Amiga 500. La Storia del Commodore Amiga su

In 1984, after more than two years of gestation, the world had the chance to see the Amiga hardware. In an attempt to finance the project (at the time, Amiga Inc. was not made of money ) Lorraine was shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in 1984. For the show a small program was created showing a red and white checkered three-dimensional sphere on the Lorraine screen. that rotated and hopped. The Boing Ball will become a key symbol of the Amiga world in the future. Despite everyone’s great appreciation for the Lorraine project, Amiga Inc. failed to capture new investors.

The company was on the point of collapse and sought help from the big companies of the time, such as Sony, Apple, Silicon Graphics. But only Atari (then a Warner subsidiary) proved interested in the project by participating in the development with a loan of $ 500,000. But unfortunately Atari played dirty. The contractual clauses tightened the Amiga in a vice from which it could not come out and the total acquisition of the Lorraine project by the giant Warner was next. Atari’s goal was to get to 16-bit technology before Commodore (who was working on a Unix project at the time) and had no interest in keeping the team that was currently working in Lorraine. Those of the Amiga Inc. had understood this and, more or less secretly, started looking for new buyers.

Meanwhile, Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, leaves the company and establishes his own with the aim of taking over Atari from Warner. In no time his project succeeds and Tramiel Technologies becomes Atari Corp. Commodore immediately sues Tramiel, accusing him of having “stolen” business secrets to bring them to competition. Tramiel, having acquired all the Atari cards, is also aware of the agreement between Amiga Inc and Atari and the loan of 500,000 that the company had paid for the exclusive development of Lorraine. Tramiel also finds out that Amiga Inc. was looking for a new buyer in the Commodore for fear of losing the project. The result is that Tramiel ( both in revenge and to protect the interests of his new company and prevent Lorraine from falling into the hands of the competition ) is suing Commodore and Jay Miner of the Amiga Inc., accusing them of contract termination. Atari in fact had the exclusive on Lorraine at least until the Amiga inc. she had failed to pay off the $ 500,000 loan that had been advanced to her. Commodore inc. he thinks about it and realizes that the game is worth the candle. He pays the debt that Amiga had towards Atari and takes over the company that becomes its own subsidiary named “Commodore-Amiga Inc.”

The result of this successful rescue is the lifeblood of the Lorraine project. The project is refined, modeled and updated. Lorraine becomes a real computer with amazing technology and resources for the time. The memory was doubled and also from the aesthetic point of view the computer was made more streamlined and “modern”.

Commodore knew he had found a potential gold mine in the Lorraine project. The company’s entry into the 16bit world was guaranteed. Commodore invested heavily in the software design of the new machine, asking several external developers to build a real mouse-driven operating system for the new machine.

And what did Jack Tramiel and his Atari do while Commodore was taking care of the future Amiga? Definitely wounded by the initial defeat Tramiel designs, builds and produces a 16-bit computer, the Atari ST, in record time. The use of perhaps less advanced technologies and the adaptation of pre-existing software made the design of the new Atari computer simpler than the future Amiga, favoring an entry into the market several months before the competitor.

L'Atari ST. L'Amiga 500. La Storia del Commodore Amiga su

The Commodore Amiga 1000 made its 11-month debut after the Commodore deal – Amiga Inc. It was a spectacular presentation, at the Lincoln Center in New York. Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry (lead singer of Blondie) showed the skills of the new supercomputer with graphic and musical programs. When it arrived on the market the Amiga 1000 really cost a lot, $ 1500, and ended up occupying the market area of high-end computers, then dominated by the Macintosh. The Atari ST, on the other hand, cost about half, and it made it much less difficult to gain a slice of the market thanks to Commodore’s big commercial errors. In fact, the Amiga 1000 was never adequately promoted as a machine for professional use, but pushed exclusively as an alternative to the Atari ST.

L'Amiga 1000 su La storia del Commodore Amiga
L'Amiga 2000 su La storia del Commodore Amiga

In 1986 Commodore began developing new systems based on the Amiga 1000. The first, called A2000, was designed by two distinct teams: the original one of the creators of the Amiga in the USA and a new one in Germany. After a short time, however, due to staff cuts, Commodore decided to dismiss the original team, retaining only the German one. The Amiga 2000 was technically considered a product inferior to 1000 but had on its side a design much more oriented towards expandability.

Meanwhile, the Atari ST continued to dominate the home market, thanks to a considerable amount of software. Commodore’s decision not to sell Amiga systems as professional computers also left the field open to Apple and IBM who began to see the home market with great interest. 1987 saw the commercialization of the new Amiga 2000 and above all of the small Amiga 500. In Europe above all the Amiga 500 slowly succeeded in stealing space from the Atari ST thanks to the commercialization of software that highlighted its graphic and sound characteristics.

L'Amiga 500. La Storia del Commodore Amiga su

The Amiga 500, despite the higher price than the competition, soon became the object of desire of many people, thanks to features such as the intensive use of color and the multitasking that at the time was a luxury reserved for expensive Apple or some Microsoft product. Unfortunately while commercially the Commodore collected successes with the Amiga inside it suffered from big problems of administration. There were numerous changes to the summits and controversies related to the management of resources that led to personnel cuts and closures of some operational centers. In 1988 the Amiga became the best-selling computer on the market thanks to games and programs that – to put it simply – the Atari ST was unable to run. The 8-bit market, which seemed to be finished by now, finds new life thanks to houses like Codemasters and Alternative that continue to churn out hundreds of low-cost programs. The efforts of these companies will allow the small 8-bit to stand on the market for a few more years.

L'Amiga 1200 su La storia del Commodore Amiga

By 1989 Commodore was now resting on its laurels. Convinced, as it happened with the Commodore 64, of having found the golden goose, the company produced few updates for the Amiga limiting itself to the possibility in the new versions to expand the internal memory to 1MB. The 90s saw the birth of the new Amiga 3000, a 32-bit computer filled with “serious” technologies such as SCSI and a more solid and aesthetically less clumsy operating system. Shortly after the market launch of the new Amiga, Commodore also introduced the CDTV which was basically an Amiga 500 with 1 megabyte of ram and a CD player. This last product had a short life: in 1991 it disappeared from the shelves and from the shop windows. Between 1991 and 1992 the Amiga 500+ and the Amiga 600 will be produced, “updated” versions of the classic Amiga 500. In particular, the experts note with regret the Amiga 600, a smaller and stubby version of the classic Amiga, deprived of the numeric keypad, produced with technological solutions aimed at saving and with a more “toy” than computer appearance. In 1992 the Amiga 4000 also saw the light, which Commodore itself will define as a major technological breakthrough in the Amiga line. The system was equipped with a new expensive chipset called AA (Advanced Amiga) then renamed AGA (Advanced Graphics Architecture) which allowed graphics performance much higher than those of the previous Amigas. The new Amiga OS 3.0 operating system was also a Commodore first step towards a professional operating system: Compatibility with floppy dos, datatypes (a sort of primordial plugins), standardized software installers, localization and much more … Will be produced two versions of the Amiga with AGA chipset: the Amiga 4000 and a low end version, the Amiga 1200. The latter will succeed, over time, in establishing itself on the market, replicating (almost) the success that the Amiga 500 had at the time .

In 1993 things are getting really nasty and Commodore starts a long series of layoffs. In 1994, there are only 1000 official employees, only 30. The PCs, like vultures, begin to invade the home market. On April 29th 1994 at 16.10 pm the Commodore will close its doors for bankruptcy and will go into liquidation. Ironically Jay Miner, the Amiga’s father will die two months later, following a disease that had slowly weakened him.