Viva Amiga!

Last July, the Sacramento Amiga Computer Club (SACC) hosted the AmiWest ’98 show and Videomaker was on-hand amidst rumors and anticipation that the next generation of Amiga computers would be unveiled in a surprise announcement. In a pattern that’s all too familiar to Amiga fans and followers, it didn’t happen, and the ensuing event was pleasant but largely anticlimactic. No matter. Amiga users have lived through plenty of disappointment before. Although the rebirth of perhaps the favorite video editing system of all time is not yet complete, there is much room for hope. A new version of the operating system will soon be available for developers, a consumer version of the OS is on the near horizon, and it is practically guaranteed new hardware will be available by the end of 1999. For any videographer toiling on a Pentium-class editing system who ever wished, hoped or prayed that someday, somehow, Amiga would break from the ranks of cultish obscurity and back into the mainstream, take heart. The pieces are in place, and if everything goes as planned, that time is near.

Birth of a System

Way back in the middle of the 1980s, a little-known computer company called Amiga set out to make the best game machine in the history of personal computers. Fortunately for Videomaker‘s readers, by making the best game machine in the personal computer realm, Amiga also made the most advanced multimedia computer available at the time. When it was released in the mid-’80s, the Amiga 1000, with a 7MHz chip, could capture full-frame, 30 frame-per-second video. By comparison, 200+MHz Intel/Windows computers still cannot capture full-frame video at 30fps without the help of a video capture card and a speedy hard drive.

When Amiga introduced the A1000 at the 1985 Comdex trade show, attendees were amazed at the 3D graphics, and the new machine quickly gained favor as THE multimedia computer. Commodore (makers of the Commodore 64) bought Amiga and began pushing the introduction of new models. By this time, the Amiga was gaining a fervent following, and many videographers discovered the amazing video editing power of the Amiga. In 1990, NewTek introduced the Video Toaster for the Amiga. The Video Toaster is a four-input video switcher (mixer) with a built-in character generator, special effects generator and Light Wave (a professional 3D animation program that is still being used to produce animation for network broadcast programs). The Video Toaster turned the Amiga into a broadcast-
quality studio. Five years later, NewTek introduced the Toaster/Flyer, which was the Toaster with a hardware card that allowed for a complete nonlinear editing environment. However, things weren’t all rosy for the Amiga crew.

Someone Dropped the Checkered Ball

NewTek’s Toaster/Flyer should have been a landmark introduction that brought videographers to the Amiga system by the droves. Unfortunately, in 1993 (three years after the introduction of the Toaster, and two years before the Flyer), Commodore went bankrupt. There were many rumors and accusations concerning the demise of Commodore, but the consensus among old Amiga employees was that Commodore’s mismanagement caused Amiga’s demise. Part of the Commodore fire sale was the auctioning of Amiga to a German company called ESCOM in 1995. This effectively banished the Amiga to silicon obscurity on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The funny thing was that, although Amiga was dead as far as the mainstream American market was concerned, Amiga’s popularity was still growing. This left the Amiga world in a state of flux where users had to rely upon each other to keep their machines running. If you wanted to connect your Amiga to the Internet, you had to write your own TCP/IP stack (the networking protocol used by the Internet). This is exactly what Holger Kruse, a German Amiga user, did. He wrote Miami, the Internet software for the Amiga. It is this type of can-do attitude and community esprit de Amiga that could finally lead to Amiga escaping from the "they’re still using those?" realm to the mainstream. Of course, the NewTek Video Toaster/Flyer always kept the Amiga close to the heart of video editors.

The Toaster/Flyer allowed such a high-level of video editing power that many TV shows, such as Babylon 5, still use an Amiga. Never to be one to die easily, Amiga has been the most popular out-of-production computer on the market. It was this level of enthusiasm for a computer that wasn’t on even in production anymore that helped influence Gateway Computers (yes, the same Gateway that sells Intel/Windows PCs in a black-and-white-cow colored box) to purchase Amiga in 1997.


The Phoenix of PCs

When Gateway bought Amiga in 1997, there immediately was speculation concerning the rebirth of Amiga as a major player in the PC industry. After a yearlong wait, Amiga finally made announcements about their new computer at the May 1998 World of Amiga show in London. Unfortunately for the diehard Amiga fans that attended the show, Amiga didn’t announce any new hardware. Instead, they announced a roadmap for the future, along with a developer version of the AmigaOS (version 4.0). Amiga is also working on a final version of the OS for the existing Amiga hardware, version 3.5. This is expected to prime the pump for the anticipated release of the new consumer AmigaOS, version 5.0, built with from QNX Software, sometime in 1999.

A Roadmap for the Future

Now that Gateway owns Amiga, what are they actually doing to pull the computer from the realm of "Ubernerds only" and into the computing mainstream? First, they are releasing a new version of their OS for existing Amiga hardware (version 3.5), and a developer’s version of the OS for the new hardware (version 4.0). Second, they have announced a partnership with QNX software to develop the AmigaOS 5.0. They have also made sweeping statements regarding the long-awaited hardware upgrade that is expected to propel Amiga into the 21st century.

The new Amigas should be available by Christmas 1999, according to Bill McEwan, Amiga’s head of marketing and software evangelist. Expect the new machines to sport a radical new chip that runs 5-10 times faster than current PC CPUs do. This new chip is yet unannounced, but according to McEwan, several companies are designing chips as powerful as the announced specifications for the new Amiga. Rumor has it that they aren’t the usual chip-making suspects: Intel, AMD, Compaq/Digital or IBM. Beyond that, however, it’s all very hush-hush.

The original Amigas were renowned for their graphic processing ability, and the next generation of Amiga is sure to please in this area too. The new Amiga, for example, promises the ability to process 400 million pixels per second. By comparison, a high-end Pentium with a good 3D card is only able to process 50-100 million pixels per second. If the specs are true, you can expect some amazing graphics on these machines.

Another promised ability of the new Amiga is the ability to play four simultaneous MPEG streams at one time. Current Intel/Windows computers have enough trouble running one MPEG stream without dropping frames, so the new Amiga will be on many digital video editors’ Christmas lists…at least for Christmas 1999.

It Won’t Cost an Arm or a Leg

With the current state of the computer industry, Amiga knows that they won’t be able to sell many computers if they set the initial price above the vaunted $1000 price point. If Amiga is able to build new high-powered systems at this reasonable price range, there could be a red checkered ball bouncing back into the computer industry limelight. Otherwise, it could be the second coming of the best machine that only your nerdy silicon-lusting friends could ever love.

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