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From the Desktop: Amiga, We Hardly Knew Ye

Looking at AmiWM

October 4, 2000

I have never really understood people who go traipsing off into the woods with only a knife and the clothes on their backs and then manage to survive on three meals of bark a day. Sure, they're living, but are they enjoying themselves as much as if they had some pizza rolls sitting in front to the tube watching the Big Game?

Actually, they almost always reply "yes" to this question, taking enormous satisfaction out of being able to make do with little more than their wits. Having negotiated Manhattan traffic in a station wagon, I can kind of relate to this. When I first took a look at AmiWM, the image of wilderness survival popped into my head unbidden. What was I getting into now?

Journey Into the Past

AmiWM is a window manager designed to emulate the classic Amiga OS Workbench interface, circa 1997. AmiWM is the brainchild of Marcus Comsteldt, a Swedish programmer and computer engineer strongly devoted to the Amiga platform. The devotion was enough to get him to create this Amiga-like window manager for the X server for those occasions he needed to use a *nix box.

This devotion to the Amiga platform is shared by a lot of users around the world. Even though its parent company Commodore went bankrupt and was sold at auction to the German firm ESCOM AG in 1995, Amiga's following rivals our own passion for the Penguin, at times.

The story of Amiga's fans is reminiscent of the devoted spouse, waiting at home, fixating on the promises of better times to come, while the husband blithely makes goofy decisions and spends horrendous amounts of money. Over and over, the wife's heart is broken, but over and over she forgives him after he makes promises of a new beginning.

Such is the case with Commodore's development and subsequent mishandling of the Amiga OS, starting when the first Amiga machine, the Amiga 1000, was released in 1985.

In the beginning years, Amiga was kicking butt and taking names. The Amiga 2000 and 500 were launched, the latter's 1987 release becoming the most popular Amiga platform ever. Life was going well for Commodore, and by 1990 it released the first 32-bit PC, the Amiga 3000. This box used a Motorola 68030 processor and could handle VGA graphics. There was even a UNIX version of the machine released that same year, the 3000UX.

But in June of 1990, the honeymoon was over, because Commodore snapped.

It was in this year that Commodore released the CDTV, the first home PC to have a CD-ROM drive installed. This box, even though it used the Amiga OS, was never marketed as an Amiga product and so never attracted the Amiga user base. It was also pretty expensive and had technical problems--all of which kept the Amiga users right where they were and potential users away in droves.

Eventually, Commodore released an update that converted the CDTV to an Amiga 500, and all seemed well. That lasted until March of 1992, when Commodore, with hardly any warning to the market, launched the Amiga 600, completely alienating the users who had been happily buying the 500 and 500+ models right up until the last minute. With now-obsolete yet brand-new machines, the user base quickly began to erode.

Between 1992 and 1993, Commodore tried releasing a number of different machines, each trying to tap into a specific market. There was even a last-gasp effort to release a 32-bit game machine similar to the present-day Sony Playstation called the CD32. But despite high demand for this and other PC lines, Commodore could not keep its books in order long enough to deliver the goods, and by 1994 it filed for bankruptcy.

After ESCOM bought the Amiga product, there were actually other releases in 1996, this time of products called the Amiga Surfer Pack, which was essentially a tooled-up Amiga 1200 and Amiga Walker, a modified 1200+ model running Amiga OS 3.2.

In 1997, Gateway bought Amiga, and after about a year of thinking about what to do with its new acquisition, Gateway came out with a number of announcements promoting the release of a brand-new generation of the Amiga OS, OS 4, which would be made to run on x86-compatible machines. At the same time, the old 3.2 OS would be updated to version 3.5 and another next-generation platform, OS 5, would be developed as well. Ultimately, work on OS 4 would fold into the OS 5 project.

No sooner than these last announcements hit the stunned Amiga users was word that the 3.5 development was cancelled. Once again, they were getting their share of torment. But by October of that same year, the decision to release OS 3.5 was changed again, and the "classic" OS would be released after all.

One year later, OS 3.5 was released to an Amiga community hoping for something to pin their devotion to once more.

To date, more product announcements have been made, but nothing concrete has been released. The original Amiga, Inc. was pulled into the Gateway Development Group earlier this year and now a shift towards the creation of a developer's platform has been announced.

Amiga's new sales slogan is Back Into the Future, but the actual direction they will take to that murky future is going to be in question for the time being.