The church of Amiga

Why do fans of the long-eclipsed computing platform keep the faith?

By Greg Lindsay
Published July 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

If you're not already part of the Amiga flock, entering the cramped exhibition hall at an Amiga convention can be profoundly disorienting. Browsing through the software racks and glancing at the aging Amiga 500 and Amiga 1000 machines running demos at the AmiWest conference earlier this month in Sacramento, I felt as if I'd entered a parallel universe where software development stopped in the early '90s. There was no Photoshop, only ImageFX. No Premiere either, but instead the granddaddy of desktop video, Video Toaster Flyer.

How could I take applications with copyrights from 1991 seriously? And these machines were from 1987; how could they be anything other than toys? To me these were inevitable questions, but they didn't seem to trouble anyone else: I had entered the Church of Amiga, and Mass was underway.

While most operating systems profess to have fans zealous enough to form a religion, they fail the fundamental test of faith. It takes no faith to be a Windows user; every application, it seems, will make its way to the platform, and the number of hardware manufacturers who cater to Wintel grows by the minute. Even the Macintosh's "Evangelistas," who were staging their own tent revival at the MacWorld Expo in New York last week, can expect new versions of Photoshop to arrive via FedEx at about the same time Windows users' will. But Amiga users never receive reassurances like these. They're on their own.

Who are they? "They tend to be not average, not mainstream, not in the bell curve," says Joe Torre, senior hardware engineer at Amiga Inc. "Not ho-hum. They're the mavericks, the secret weapons. The entrepreneur, the one that gets the worm. Not the one in the herd. The one that does his homework, and is quite proud of his prowess. They've turned their machines into personal creations. The users have by now filtered out their weak. The ones that remain are an elite club. We're not all in detention hall; we're the honor students."

They purchase machines from as early as 1985 and run applications from 1988. They bear the judgment from the world-at-large that theirs is a dead platform, a relic, the Tucker automobile of their industry. (The last new Amiga model shipped in 1992.) To be an Amiga user is to know that everything Windows and Mac users know about processor speed, memory requirements, bigger hard drives and application upgrades is wrong. It's to know that an Amiga 500 with a 16MHz processor and 4 megs of RAM -- the raw equivalent of an outmoded Intel 286 machine -- can run circles around a Pentium II PC. You just need to believe.

I can't. The world-at-large doesn't seem to, either. But Amiga devotees still do. And now, for the first time since Amiga's original parent company, Commodore, went under in 1994, there's hope their platform might rise again with its new owner, Gateway.

After Commodore went bankrupt, it sold the Amiga division to the German company ESCOM, who thought it could turn a profit in Europe -- where Amiga has traditionally flourished among hackers and in the demo scene (in which whole conventions of kids show off animations and mini-music videos they've assembled for fun). ESCOM, in turn, went bankrupt in 1997, and sold Amiga to Gateway for a fire-sale price of $16 million. Gateway finally announced earlier this year its plans for new versions of the Amiga operating system: AmigaOS 4.0 (a developer-only platform due this winter) and AmigaOS 5.0, available Christmas 1999, running on a new chip with new software foundations -- in short, an overhaul of everything.

Amiga Inc., Gateway's subsidiary, had little to announce at AmiWest, but that didn't seem to particularly upset the attendees. They were older men, mostly -- undoubtedly a few were retired hobbyists who enjoyed hacking their Amiga boxes and pondered over lunch whether to add a PowerPC accelerator to their machine. I was told repeatedly that this is one of the identifying traits of Amiga fans: Their machines are things to be picked apart, fine tuned and put back together -- not tools to be placed on the desk and booted only to run Microsoft Word.

A quintet of older men I found resting in the lobby of the Ramada Inn in Sacramento during a break at AmiWest included three math professors and a pair of software engineers. As one of them put it: "We are the ones who have been around long enough to know what we want. We know what we're looking for and we know how to put these things together. You won't find a higher degree of computer literacy among users of a particular OS." Another added, "We simply have less tolerance for inferior technology. We don't like the operating system's programmers making performance decisions for us."

They quickly switched topics to Microsoft, the "other OS" that they often had to use at work and whose inelegant design and slow performance irritated them. "A PC needs all that processing power to overcome its bottlenecks," said one. "It works fine when you throw enough hardware at it -- 400 MHz Pentium IIs, 128 megs of RAM. An Amiga can run multiple applications well on 1 megabyte of RAM ... A Pentium II running Windows is like a Corvette pulling a house trailer."

Unlike its rivals at Apple or Be, who are eager to embrace Microsoft or coexist with it, and even more so than the flag-wavers of Linux, Amiga fans readily display their contempt for the "Evil Empire" and its Intel ally. Amiga magazines (there are still 30 or so, more than a few of them glossies, according to Amiga Inc.) are the only trade publications that spell Windows "Windoze" with neither quotation marks nor irony.

Thus, when Amiga Inc. announced that AmigaOS 4.0 -- a "bridge" OS released for developers working on the consumer OS 5.0 -- would run on Intel-compatible chips, the Amiga clan acted as if the devil himself had suddenly been appointed the new chairman of Gateway. My posts to several Amiga newsgroups asking for feedback on the port to Intel chips yielded indignant responses like "AMIGA WILL NEVER RUN ON X86!!!" The feedback to Amiga Inc. was equally vociferous.

"It's basically 'Satan Inside' as far as they're concerned," says Bill McEwen, Amiga Inc.'s head of marketing and software evangelism. "We're not even saying we're using Intel chips. We might use Cyrix or AMD chips. But we are developing OS 5.0 on an Intel reference platform. That's where all the coding and debugging tools are. For instance, what do you use to develop a Sony Playstation title? You don't use a Playstation -- you use a reference platform."

But Amiga users are not simply passive-aggressive about hating Microsoft: They refuse to just complain without doing something. "[Amiga users] are an eclectic group and a passionate group," says McEwen. "And they're great with a hacksaw. Once I couldn't fit a PCI card into my Amiga 4000. So a friend produced a hacksaw and sawed off the end of the card. It fit right in." On most PCs and Macs, doing anything more ambitious than opening the case practically voids the warranty.

"Some will never use a Windows box," McEwen continues. "Others will never admit to it. You'll see in the full headers of their e-mail that it was sent via Outlook98, and they'll say, 'No, no. It's a friend's machine.' They get very defensive about their choice of platforms, but they're very proactive. I regularly get entire marketing plans, complete with full-color charts and animation. Along with the passion and sometimes the abuse, there are people who really want to help."

Amiga users' attitudes toward community and support are also holdovers from the '80s, before the giant, institutionalized technical support staffs of Microsoft and PC makers came into being. The bankruptcy of Commodore only made them depend on each other even more. Amiga user groups -- local communities of fellow Amigans -- have grown over time even as the user-group phenomenon has faded among users of more popular computer platforms. Making its debut at AmiWest was the User Group Network (UGN), a fledgling worldwide organization of user groups trying to meld an Amiga news agency, a technical support database and community into a single organization.

Robert Hamilton, UGN's North American coordinator, blames the fall of user groups on the '90s vision of computers as "information appliances": "They think a computer is a microwave. But Amiga users still have the original focus. It's more than just a video toaster machine -- it's a lifestyle for us. The whole demo scene in Europe, where Amiga is very popular, is something so totally different from the corporate structure of support. If someone sees you wearing an Amiga T-shirt or holding an Amiga key chain, they're going to come up to you like a friend."

Wayne Hunt, UGN's administrator, adds, "You don't see that enthusiasm on any other platform. Guy Kawasaki [Apple's former "Chief Evangelist"] is manufactured enthusiasm. But Robert and I are bonded by Amiga. If Robert comes to Huntsville, he knows he can sleep at my place. And I know vice versa is true."

Hamilton also stresses the tinkering nature of Amiga fans, a trait so deep-rooted that it eventually worked to the frustration of Commodore. "When Commodore tried to release a set-top box [a device for making a TV set more like a computer], the response from users was, 'What's inside?' They were busier hacking it than trying to use it," says Hamilton. "Imagine if all the microchips in cars today ran on Amiga; think of the hacks -- people would be adding spare gas tanks, ethanol converters, DVD players," he laughs.

But a more appropriate car comparison is with the automobiles of Cuba -- where 40-year-old pre-Castro cars have been ingeniously fixed over the years to keep them running. Being shut out in the cold has left more than a few Amiga fans embittered. The flip side of their community is often a communal bunker mentality.

I ask Torre, who's also a former head of the Atlanta Amiga User's Group, about what it's like to work with a "ghetto" OS. "I don't like to use 'ghetto.' I use 'underground' or 'resistance,'" he says.

Gateway intends to bring Amiga up from the underground. According to McEwen, the next-generation Amiga planned for 1999 will be priced in the $1,000 range; the promise is a high-end machine for a low-end price. McEwen also said that Amiga has plans for releasing a set-top box soon after for around $300-$500. As for the machines themselves, none will have Amiga Inc.'s name on them; the company's only product is the operating system. The right to build hardware will be licensed to any interested parties -- Gateway presumably among them.

The licensees come later, and the OS plans have been announced, but the choice of processor remains under tight wraps. Its unofficial name in the Amiga community is the "Magical Mystery Chip," and McEwen says that the manufacturer is neither Intel nor Motorola, nor any other top-10 chipmaker. Its specifications have been released, however: By the time of its release at the end of 1999, this chip is supposed to be able to decode four MPEG streams simultaneously -- in other words, play four movies at once, if need be. And it's also supposed to do this five to 10 times faster than the Pentium II line.

Dave Haynie, a former Amiga hardware engineer from the early days and now a VP of German computer manufacture PIOS, says that any number of "media chips" could possibly deliver this performance by 1999 -- including chips by Chromatic, in which Gateway is a 20 percent investor but that has fallen on hard times; Phillips' TriMedia, which was once slated to be added to PowerPC chips; and VM Labs, recently the subject of a favorable Wired story.

But are these chips really going to be faster than a Pentium II? "Is the thing really a CPU?" Haynie asks. "Oh sure, you could take any MPEG-2 chip and say it'll decode video five to 10 times faster, but what about doing ordinary mix stuff?" McEwen says that the chip will be announced in January 1999.

How do the Amiga faithful feel about this impending shakeup of their world -- are they yearning for "world domination" like Linux's legions? "I think every Amiga user wants in their heart for it to become mainstream," Aaron Ruscetta, another former president of the Atlanta User Group, says. "They cannot understand why anyone would want another computer. For myself, I would be very comfortable with a substantial market of 500,000 or a million people -- although that's getting very difficult to do, the way Intel and Microsoft are holding guns to the heads of peripheral manufacturers."

But some Amiga connoisseurs look darkly on the notion of their beloved platform becoming Everyman's computer. Torre says: "The average, and by definition, mediocre user will use a PC with Windows. If the average user is using an Amiga, then I think it's time to switch to another platform."

Greg Lindsay

Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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