My personal history with operating systems other than MS-DOS and Windows – with which I grew up – begins with Mandrake Linux and BeOS. I’ve never visited the world of Amiga, so I never formed the kind of personal connection with it that is so prevalent on many of the Amiga websites and forums out there. The connection Amigans have with their platform is what I have with the BeOS. I understand them. You can’t put it into words, really. Without making it sound silly anyway.
This review, which covers both the hardware as well as the software, won’t be about if the AmigaOS4 can hold its stand against Mac OS X, Windows 7, or Ubuntu – it will be about what it feels like to use an Amiga, if it successfully manages to bring aspects of modern computing to the Amiga platform. I’ll first detail – in short – the tumultuous history of the Amiga, followed by a look at the hardware from ACube. I’ll then dive into every day usage of AmigaOS 4.1, followed by a more philosophical view of the platform. I won’t be able to touch on all aspects of the Amiga, but I’ll try to cover everything that stood out to me.
History of one destined for greatness
Back in the ’80s, many things we take for granted in computing today simply weren’t very widespread yet. The graphical user interface – pioneered by Xerox, brought to market by Apple – was something completely new. Multitasking on home machines, especially those that did have a GUI, was generally not possible, and even something as mundane as a colour display was a rarity to have at home.
The operating system on the Mac, simply dubbed System, was still a black and white fixed resolution single-tasking operating system. Windows was technologically slightly more advanced than crayons and a sheet of A4 paper. The Atari TOS had a colour interface, but everything was fixed-size and it didn’t do multitasking.
Then came the Amiga 1000, in 1985. It had a colour interface, with the colours being completely customisable. The Amiga could change resolutions on the fly, it had a pre-emptive multitasking kernel, and thanks to its custom hardware, could perform audio and video tricks other platforms could only dream of. The Amiga was easily 10 years ahead of its time.
The kernel of the AmigaOS, Exec, was a microkernel before the term was even coined. Even with as little as 256KB of memory (the amount of memory the first Amiga shipped with) it provided pre-emptive multitasking. The Exec microkernel did not suffer from the usual overhead associated with context switches and message passing in other microkernels because the Amiga only has one address space.
In his series of articles on the history of the Amiga, Jeremey Reimer (Ars Technica) explained the importance of having pre-emptive multitasking so early on in the game:
The decision to make a multitasking kernel would have a huge impact on the way the Amiga computer would perform, and even today the effects can still be felt. Because the mainstream PC market did not gain true multitasking until 1995 (with Windows 95) and the Macintosh until 2001 (with OSX), an entire generation of software developers grew up on these platforms without knowing or understanding its effects, whereas the Amiga, which had this feature since its inception, immediately gave its developers and users a different mindset: the user should never have to wait for the computer. As a result, programs developed for the Amiga tend to have a different, more responsive feel than those developed for other platforms.
Despite its obvious strengths compared to the competition, the Amiga never gained as prominent a role as the Mac or Windows; even the massive product announcement Commodore organised didn’t help here. The announcement is still unprecedented in the computer industry, showing off all the various features of the Amiga, such as its 4096 colour display, hardware accelerated graphics, and impressive sound chips – 4 channel sound with dedicated chips, leaving the actual processor idle. Because of the multitasking and advanced graphics capabilities of the Amiga, the full-screen demos were in fact applications that you could “slide down” to reveal the rest of the operating system running. The cherry on top? An IBM PC emulator called Amiga Transformer running DOS. To finish the demo, Andy Warhol and Deborah Harry (lead singer of Blondie) came on stage to demonstrate the Amiga further.
In a world where the Macintosh couldn’t even hold more than 8 pages in its word processor, this was pretty impressive.
Just like the people and the industry simply didn’t grasp Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration, people had trouble with the Amiga announcement too (to a lesser degree, though). It was dismissed as glitter that normal users didn’t need; people just didn’t understand it, it was simply too advanced for its time. Even the remarkably low price didn’t help. The Amiga 256KB went for 1295 USD, while the 512KB version went for 1495 USD. Compare this to the “archaic” monochrome and single tasking Macintosh, which only had 128KB, but sold for 2495 USD.
In the end, the early success of the Amiga was hindered by a number of bad business decisions, from bad retail strategy to bad advertising. Commodore was running out of money, the early operating system release suffered from the lack of protected memory, and sales came to a standstill. Later on, the company introduced the Amiga 500 and the Amiga 2000; especially the former invigorated the gaming market, which together with the graphics/video business was the primary market for the Amiga.
In 1992-1994, Commodore made a few key mistakes, such as announcing two “super Amigas” that took way too long to arrive, but people did wait for them, not buying any of the current Amigas. Commodore eventually ended up in the hands of Gateway, who created Amiga, Inc. in 1999, which would get all the patents and trademarks for the Amiga platform.
This is where everything starts to get complicated and cloudy, with two companies under the same name (Amiga Inc.) being registered in the US. All you need to know is that AmigaOS development continued, and that Hyperion Entertainment VOF from Belgium eventually developed AmigaOS 4 under license from Amiga, Inc. After a 5 year long development period, the completed version, dubbed The Final Update, was released in December 2006. AmigaOS 4.1 followed in the second half of 2008.