The Revolution of 1985

Twenty five years ago yesterday, a revolution happened. Nobody really noticed, and nobody thinks about it today, but the effects are still here. That we take these things for granted today shows just how wide-reaching the revolution was.

It took the form of a computer with a 32-bit Motorola CPU, full stereo sound, a display capable of 4,096 colors, and a fully pre-emptive multitasking operating system. At a starting price of $1,295, though it rose to closer to $2,000 by the time you added a second drive and a monitor.

The specs on that machine don’t sound all that impressive today, but keep in mind what else was available in 1985. The state of the art from IBM was the 16-bit IBM PC/AT with very limited sound capability, color as an expensive option, and DOS 2.1. Windows at the time was little more than a glorified DOS shell. Apple had its Macintosh, but it cost twice as much as an Amiga, had only slightly better sound than that IBM, and just a tiny black and white display.

Over the course of the next nine years, Commodore sold 3 million Amigas. Along the way, they worked out the early glitches in the machine, and upgraded the capabilities, though not always as quickly as the competition. But the machine aged remarkably well. And ultimately it did for television production what the Macintosh did for publishing, replacing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of specialized equipment with equipment that merely cost thousands, and fit comfortably on a large desk.

The big problem was that Commodore sold those three million machines to one million people, and never really knew what to do with it. It should have been a great business computer. It was the ultimate home computer. It could have been the ultimate education computer. And it was the ultimate video editing computer. But Commodore never marketed it effectively as any of those.

Mostly the company went through the motions while financier Irving Gould lined his pockets with whatever money was left after Commodore got done paying the bills each quarter. Some years, Commodore spent more money on Gould’s and his yes-man company president’s salaries than they spent on Amiga development.

So, slowly but surely, the competition caught up. VGA was better in some regards than the Amiga graphics and worse in others, but over time, the combination of VGA and fast 386 and 486 CPUs became enough to keep pace. Macintosh graphics followed a similar curve. Affordable sound cards for PCs started appearing in the late 1980s and were commonplace by 1992 or 93. It was a lot harder to get it all working on a PC, but when it worked, it worked pretty well. But making DOS boot disks to get it all working was a black art, an art I remember practicing at least until 1998.

It was in the early 1990s that PCs and Macs got multitasking. First it was horrible cooperative multitasking, followed later by pre-emptive multitasking like the Amiga had. Eventually they even added memory protection, something Amiga didn’t have (when it was initially designed with an 8 MHz CPU and 256K of RAM, that was the one thing they had to leave out).

The money ran out in 1994, and the rights to the architecture changed hands more times than most people can count. The Amiga’s days as a mainstream computer–if it ever could claim to be one–ended then.

The rest of the world spent the 1990s catching up. When Windows 95 came out with its promise of Plug and Play, improved multimedia, and pre-emptive multitasking, it was all old news to Amigans. Amigas had been doing all that for 10 years already.

For a long time after 1994, I was bitter. I’m less so now that the rest of the world has caught up. But I still wonder sometimes what might have been, if the industry had spent the 15 years between 1985 and 2000 innovating, rather than just catching up.

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