Jun 20, 2009

AmigaOS: Dragging Ass into the 21st Century

Fourteen years before Apple released iMovie, Amiga offered video editing for the masses. But no matter how vociferously studios and hobbyists swore by their favored platform, Amiga failed, hard, almost overnight.

Today, the Amiga community is a church of zealots praying desperately to its dead saints of outdated hardware and a primitive operating system using two-dozen year old technology. So what went wrong? What caused Amiga to go from the top of the computing heap to the bargain basement practically overnight?

The answer to that is long, complicated, and slow, just like the course of the Amiga's operating system, which is exactly at the heart of the issue.

Strength from Humble Origins

Between 1995 and 2008 no less than three versions of the AmigaOS existed, each produced by different camps within the Amiga world. After being divested from the defunct Commodore, AmigaOS stagnated while the Amiga IP was passed around like a boy in a prison for the criminally insane. Escom, Gateway, Lotus, and Power Computing all took their turns with the dossier, letting the OS languish to the point that projects like AROS and MorphOS sprung up to take its place.

AmigaOS, as it was originally conceived, was quick and dirty. Kickstart, the low-level part of the system stored in ROM, included the GUI and Workbench, the actual operating system as one might understand it today, was almost an afterthought. As it evolved, however, AmigaOS developers made some mature decisions about where to go with things like memory pages, multitasking, and multiple monitors so that Workbench became an integral part of the Amiga experience and, compared to other operating systems of the day, was years ahead of the standard.

One of the key strengths of the Amiga, one that any old-timer will tear up when recollecting, was the tight integration the Amiga had between its hardware and software. The Kickstart was just one example, but AmigaOS could run any processing on any of its system chips. So you had the operating system and several tasks keeping the CPU busy, your FPU was chugging away on a Video Toaster project, and you still had some more work to do. AmigaOS could allocate the sound chips to do your bidding since it had drivers hardwired into the ROM.

Hunker in the Bunker

After the Video Game Crash of '83, in which control of Amiga passed from Atari to Commodore, money for video game systems disappeared from company portfolios. The Amiga was seen as a gaming system by Commodore, who secretly feared the threat that the horsepower of the Amiga presented to their antique Commodore 64. The AmigaOS development team was moved to a locker room next door to the Commodore offices and told to get comfortable; money was funneled in secret by sympathetic board members or private donation.

After almost a decade of this, in which AmigaOS was left behind Mac, Windows, and Unix, Commodore finally screwed itself into insolvency and Amiga intellectual property was sold. AmigaOS 3.1 would be the last release for years.

Stagnation & Impatience

In the absence of any real Amiga leadership, and as the Amiga intellectual property was passed from one holding company to another, several groups of Amiga enthusiasts, developers, and ex-employees mobilized in order to update the existing system and take advantage of new hardware.

AROS, AtheOS, and MorphOS were hobbyist outfits designed to reverse-engineer the AmigaOS. AROS wrapped the Amiga apps in wrappers in order to get them to run on PowerPC hardware while AtheOS used ancient Commodore POKE commands to reverse engineer the APIs. MorphOS used stolen source code supplied by a disgruntled ex-Amiga software engineer. Each had differences from the other that prevented them from supporting each other.

After the dust settled from all this community grousing, AmigaOS 3.5 was released. It trumped, for the time being, the efforts of the hobbyist systems but still lagged seriously behind other mainstream operating systems. Amiga conceded that another operating system upgrade was needed to unify the Amiga software market.

By this time, Gateway, Inc. owned Amiga intellectual property and began setting up a new company for it. AROS, AtheOS, and MorphOS were joined by the workalike BeOS which borrowed many of AmigaOS's ideas and ideals and was programmed by several ex-Amiga developers and ran fast on PowerPC Mac hardware. (Noticing a pattern here?)

With this intense, fertile period of operating system diversification Gateway wanted to reassert its legal rights to Amiga software and wanted to do so with a two-pronged approach: it began working on AmigaOS 3.5, which was basically a rehashing of some one-off third-party updates for AmigaOS 3.1 and a paltry GUI repaint, and also contracted with QNX Software Systems, with which they hoped to make a new, legacy-free platform called AmigaOS 4.

Staggering Forward

The late Nineties were a period of tense waiting for Amigans: the Gateway QNX effort was slow in coming and short in features and, just as AmigaOS 3.5 was released, 3.9 was promised in order to placate cries of broken promises, bugs, and fraud.

Just at this time, however, Gateway divested its Amiga IP to Escom, who immediately spun Amiga off using capital from Larry Ellison, Oracle Corporation's billionaire CEO. Rumors of AmigaOS (whichever one) serving as a platform for network computers running Oracle ran rampant.

After further rounds of rumors and missed deadlines, QNX failed the Amiga and Amiga was left scrambling, and the fact that Amiga had never reached out to AROS, MorphOS, or BeOS, among others, was a point of controversy from within the Amiga community.

By 2000, after all this mess, AmigaOS 3.9 went live, running on classic Amigas, Amigas upgraded with PowerPC add-in cards, and several of the new, off-brand PowerPC Amiga systems, largely covering the territory that AROS and MorphOS had overtaken in the last several years. With this last move, Amiga, Inc. was solidly on its own feet and making deals for a new hardware platform and outlining its aggressive new AmigaOS 4 platform.

Lawsuits flew and AROS and MorphOS developers scrambled. AROS is a 90% reimplementation of AmigaOS 3.1, though entirely dependent on an Amiga emulator to run any legacy software. MorphOS is now available for free, sans support, for several legacy Amiga systems with PowerPC cards, and for the handful of supported PowerPC Open Platform-based systems still running in damp, dark European basements.

Through the Noughts

By 2006, the official release of AmigaOS 4 was a nonevent since the prerelease had been available, and stable, for the last several years. The developers at Hyperion, the firm contracted by Amiga, Inc., had done the impossible and built a next-generation foundation for the Amiga out of its own deficient underpinnings. Over the course of six years they had publicly brought the Amiga platform forward.

The other surprise was the lawsuit filed by Amiga, Inc. against Hyperion, demanding they cease and desist developing or marketing AmigaOS. Hyperion was actually a collection of spurned Amiga developers from the previous two decades and reflected the Amiga's brainshare; Amiga, Inc. was just the latest in a series of corporate reanimations that, by this late date, had little to do with the Amiga beyond owning its intellectual property.

Because of this cultural difference, and the fact that European courts are too busy with genocides to listen to feuds over dead operating systems, Hyperion has ignored Amiga's requests and has even gone on to release a significant update, AmigaOS 4.1. Rumors during the Summer of 2009 include another update, AmigaOS 4.2, and a port to 64-bit Intel by the end of the decade, dubbed AmigaOS 5.

The Greater Picture

The greater picture is what Amiga and all of its owners have lost sight of: for Amiga to thrive as a platform, clever finagling of intellectual property rights must be negotiated and capitalized on, not shuffled back and forth every 18 months to the tune of this cash injection or that stock option. Just look at SCO for a more relevant example.

Hyperion, as the only bastion of long-term Amiga experience, care, and skill, is the only hope for the future of the operating system. If rumors of AmigaOS 5 on Intel are true, the hardware issue will fix itself. But look at the numbers: it's been over 20 years since Amiga had any sort of security; there have been four pretenders to the Amiga software throne; dozens of hardware platforms and kludges have come and gone under the checkerboard beachball banner. Amiga has spent longer in developmental and financial liability hell than either Mac or Windows has been extant.

If you're still here, you're one of the few faithful. But there's a Mac right around the corner doing now what Amiga promises it will do "soon," measured in years. You have work to do, so what are you waiting for? The Ubiquitous Amiga Emulator runs just fine under Mac OS X, which will satiate your need for nostalgia just fine. And that's why you've been patient so long, right?


  1. Have I been trolled, or is this the first real honest account of the amiga's state in decades?!

    well done.

  2. If Morphos is now available for free why did I just pay 150 euros for it?
    The free version is a demo that runs for about 30 minutes.

  3. Could you prove the stolen source code you assured?. It seems that you are a big ...

  4. AROS is developed to run on multiple platforms, including classic Amiga, x86, x86-64, PowerPC, and Arm. The primary target platform is and always has been x86. Your post seems to have a lot of other inaccurate information too. You should stop worshiping at the alter of Jobs and do some research before writing.