The forgotten computer that changed the world

A rather hastily written and sloppily edited piece showed up on Slashdot yesterday morning that caught my attention, because it was about the Amiga 2000. The Amiga 2000 is a dear machine to me; in 1991, our family upgraded to one from a Commodore 128. I still have both machines, and there isn’t much that I know today that I didn’t first experience on one of those two machines.

This is an Amiga 2000 that looks fairly pristine. Inside there was lots of room for hard drives, memory, CPU upgrades, and video devices.
This is an Amiga 2000 that looks fairly pristine. Inside there was lots of room for hard drives, memory, CPU upgrades, and video devices.

Although I think the piece was little more than a used computer store’s effort to unload some hard-to-move inventory, I do agree with the premise. For a machine that had a tremendous impact on the world as we know it today, the A2000 is criminally unknown.For those who are unfamiliar, the Amiga 2000 was a massive battleship of a desktop computer. It sported nine expansion slots and three drive bays, and the only bigger Amigas came in tower format, years later. The expandability was the key to the machine’s design and eventual success. Commodore watched the Apple II and IBM PC series take off in part due to their inclusion of expansion slots, which allowed people to plug in additional boards to extend the machine’s capabilities beyond what the designers had initially envisioned, but they took it to another level. The Amiga had its own bus, the Zorro II, that had working plug and play long before anyone else thought that was important. The A2000 also had ISA slots that allowed a Bridgeboard, which was basically an overpriced PC or AT clone that could share a display, keyboard and mouse with the host Amiga. It also had dedicated slots for CPU expansion and video expansion.

Newtek’s Video Toaster, as the article states, was what put the A2000 on the map. At $2,400, it was an expensive peripheral, but it made modern video editing possible, in 1991. Its effects are frequently the butt of jokes today, but that doesn’t make the product any less groundbreaking. By modern standards, the output of Pagemaker with its choice of three scaleable fonts on the original Apple Laserwriter is a joke, but nobody dismisses it with a hand wave.

Not only did the Video Toaster make modern video production possible, it was also surprisingly affordable. Small TV studios could afford one. Deep-pocketed enthusiasts could afford one. You didn’t have to be George Lucas to edit video on a computer anymore.

It’s been said that the problem wasn’t that Commodore sold three million Amigas, it was that they sold three million Amigas to one million people. From a marketing standpoint, the A2000 and the Video Toaster probably extended the life of the Amiga, because the Toaster got people who would never consider buying a Commodore product to buy one. The “Video Toaster for Macintosh” was nothing more than an re-branded Amiga 2000 with a Video Toaster installed by Newtek. You connected it to your Mac and controlled it with the Mac, but really all you were doing was creating a Mac-Amiga network where the Mac provided the display, but the Amiga and the Toaster did the work.

The Amiga 3000 and 4000 were faster and more capable machines than the 2000, but if the 2000 hadn’t been released, I don’t think the product line would have survived long enough for those machines to come into being. Following the industry, rather than releasing another monster one-size-fits-all machine like the 2000, both the 3000 and 4000 came in desktop and tower versions, with the desktop versions taking up less space. The towers were much better suited to Toaster duties than the desktops.

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