WOW! Odd that I should’ve been in a fit of Commodore nostalgia all week and find out that Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, passed away yesterday at the age of 83. You created great things Jack. Rest in peace.
As I mentioned before, spring cleaning has triggered a fair amount of nostalgia for me with regards to old computer and video game systems. Here’s one question that’s come up for me while surfing YouTube and Google on various vintage computer systems … How could the Commodore Amiga have failed in the marketplace?
When we first started out with computers I remember stores in Waukegan‘s Lakehurst Mall carrying software and hardware for all sorts of different platforms. Service Merchandise was outside of the actual mall and you could generally find the computer hardware there as well as some software. To find the most software though there was a Software Etc. inside of Lakehurst Mall. In trying to figure out what the store was called (Thank you Lakehurst Mall History) I found that they first merged with Babbages and eventually, through an assortment of mergers, became GameStop)
Between those two stores we found everything we could’ve ever asked for on the Commodore 64/128 platform. They regularly had systems on display to play with. Software Etc used to set up games on the systems for customers to try out before purchase which was nice as well though they did carry productivity software as well. Eventually though the Commodore 64/128 software and hardware (along with the Apple’s Apple ][) become harder and harder to find even at retailers like these giving way to more popular computer systems (Apple’s Macintosh and “IBM Clones” running Microsoft’s DOS) and game consoles. (Primarily Nintendo’s Nintendo Entertainment System and Nintendo’s Game Boy)
Even though in the late 80s there was still a thriving software market for the Commodore 64/128 we had to turn to mail order solutions like Tennex (I believe, but cannot confirm, that they were eventually bought out by Egg Head Software) to obtain new software and accessories for these systems.
I remember at one point (I’d guess between 1987 and 1989) seeing a Commodore Amiga 500 on display at Software Etc. playing Shadow of the Beast. I was very impressed by it but we weren’t in much of a position to drop money on a new computer system when the ones we had were doing what we needed very well.
This was the only time I can recall ever seeing a Commodore Amiga system on display at any electronics or gaming store we went to. Generally what we saw were IBM Clones running MS DOS. Maybe a Macintosh every once in a while but not often.
Eventually in 1993 we reached the point where using the Commodore 64/128 for productivity was more of a hinderance than a help. Aside from the speed, or lack thereof, the files generated in software like GEOS‘s GeoWrite were unreadable by anything other than a Commodore 64/128 running GEOS.
The aforementioned Commodore Amiga didn’t even factor in to this equation. No one we knew used it. The only spot we were finding it or any software for it was the mail order catalog Tennex. Tennex did a great job, in their small blurbs of catalog marketing material, of talking up the Amiga and it’s capabilities but that didn’t help when no local stores carried the computer. Why would someone purchase a computer they can’t touch, try out or see in action when there were hoards of IBM Clones running MS DOS available? They wouldn’t.
As much as we would’ve liked to go with another Commodore product to replace our Commodore 128 we didn’t want to deal with the scarcity of software and hardware vendors like we had been dealing with for a few years at that point. A huge selling point of that platform originally was also several friends and relatives that used the same equipment. If we needed help it wasn’t an issue to talk to someone else. The Commodore Amiga platform would’ve put us on an island which wasn’t comfortable.
So in the summer of 1993 (I may be wrong on this year) we purchased a system by Leading Technology. It was a 386 SX-16 with VGA video output capabilities, a 100MB Hard Drive and 2MB of RAM. It ran HyperDOS on top of MS DOS 4.01. Eventually we removed HyperDOS as it was very unstable. MS Windows 3.0 was also installed but at that time it wasn’t worth it to run. In addition to the CPU we purchased a 14 inch VGA Monitor and a Panasonic KX-P1123 B&W Dot Matrix Printer. The total came in around $2,000.
The software that got the most use, outside of games, was Word Perfect 5.1 and The New Print Shop. The New Print Shop was more of the same that we had in the Commodore 64 version but much enhanced. Word Perfect was a step forward from GeoWrite in terms of capability and compatibility but the ease of use was not there. You interacted with a blue screen and had to code what you wanted the document to look like. We had keyboard overlays to go with the program to keep track of what commands and key combinations did what. There was a WYSIWIG view you could switch in and out of to see what the document would look like but, to my recollection, you could not edit within that mode until we upgraded to a Windows version of it years later. Power users loved it but we weren’t to that level.
Beyond that the system was used for games with varying success. Some games supported the VGA standard, others ran in EGA or CGA (less colors and … interesting choices on what colors were available)
That said, while what the VGA graphics chipset could produce for static images that didn’t always translate into anything great when it came time to animate them. The Commodore 64/128 had no issues animating the images it could produce while the VGA graphics couldn’t handle it very well if there was a fair amount of things going on. It wasn’t designed to be used for games primarily.
Also no game had sound beyond the beeps that the internal speaker of the computer could produce which was another big step down from what the Commodore 64/128 was capable of. This was remedied when you added a sound card like the Sound Blaster at an additional cost.
In some ways the Leading Technology was a step forward from the Commodore 128. The output we got from The New Print Shop (unavailable on the Commodore 64/128 platform) was much improved. Word Perfect and it’s interoperability with the business world was very useful for a project my mom was working on (which subsequently paid for the computer) I wonder today if a plain ASCII text editor would’ve suited the purpose just as well as Word Perfect for what she was doing. Not sure if she had to use any special features of Word Perfect or not.
I also learned quite a bit on system configuration and it served as the basis for my current career path. I can’t complain about that!
As capable as this system was back in the day I’ve been looking through YouTube videos of what the Commodore Amiga platform was capable of. It’s everything that the mail order advertisements claimed it was back in the day. Some of these demos I look at in shock and say “This was 1987? There were computers capable of this in 1987??” Some of these animations would’ve choked our Leading Technology with an Intel 386 SX processor running at 16Mhz but were designed on an Amiga 500 with a Motorola 68000 processor running at 7.16Mhz. The difference was the Amiga 500 started at $699 without a monitor (it could plug into a standard television) when it was released in 1987.
By the time we purchased the Leading Technology 386 SX-16, Commodore had released their Amiga 1200 machine with a Motorola 68EC020 processor running at 14 Mhz and 2MB of RAM for $599. Likely we would’ve purchased that with a monitor and I believe that would’ve run about $300 back then and came bundled with an animation program as well as a word processor known as Final Copy (Word Perfect was available on the Amiga for a time too) The Panasonic KX-P1123 printer (which should have worked fine on an Amiga) likely would’ve been $200. So out of the box we would’ve had a usable system for $1,100. It would not have had a hard drive or a 2nd floppy drive for that cost but those were apparently easily added later on.
Note how I mentioned that this came with a graphic animation program as well as a word processor. Our Leading Technology came with what was needed to run the computer. This was the days before PCs were loaded with bloatware. We had to buy any useful software separately.
The Amiga did have a solution known as CrossDOS to read and write data into the MS DOS format so it’s possible, not sure, that my mom would’ve been able to work on the project she was assigned using this machine and provide the disks after it was complete.
There was also possibilities on the Amiga for video capture, editing and output. Video Toaster was the big one that everyone knew about but that was for the more professional grade Amiga systems (and also carried a price tag of around $2,500 for the card and software itself) but it appears there were less expensive systems available to be used on the machines targeted for the home market …. All I can see of that is an expansion card for the Amiga 500 called the Imagen but I haven’t been able to find any information about it online as far as costs or software that supports it is concerned. Being as how that machine was targeted at the home market I can’t imagine it being more than $400 for the expansion card, maybe less. It likely would’ve come with at least basic software to make use of it as well.
My point with that is, we had wanted to do some semi-advanced video editing for a while. During the late 90s we tried a couple of video capture solutions on Intel Pentium class machines which did not give us any results we were happy with. We ended up going old school and just hooking the camera up to a VHS machine and clipping footage by pausing and starting the recording. It wasn’t until I purchased an Apple iMac G4 800 Mhz machine in 2002 that we had a system that could do a good job of editing video.
I wish I had better information than the brief Amiga 500 promo video on how video capture could be done in the consumer line of Amiga systems … All I can say is that I speculate that setup would’ve handled exactly what we wanted to produce some good quality home movies.
Another thought is a home user likely could’ve made a higher end Amiga pay for itself if they started a home based video editing business with an Amiga and a Video Toaster card. That type of setup was just pricey and complex enough to be out of reach of the general consumer who had no ideas of using it for anything other than light productivity and general home use. Even a low end solution for editing video like I’m thinking we could’ve gotten would’ve been a potential money maker. Nowadays it’s built in to most every computer sold.
That all said you might be interested to see what the Amiga could do graphics-wise for it’s time. Here’s some videos I found on YouTube. Bear in mind, this isn’t overly impressive when you compare to today’s Mac OS, Linux and Windows platforms … Compare it to those same platforms that were available in the late 80s and early 90s. All that can be said is it appears to be a comedy of bad business decisions leading to Commodore’s bankruptcy and the subsequent sale of the rights to the Amiga platform to various companies that had no idea what to do with it.
Amiga 500 Promo Video (You’ll need to click the gear icon towards the bottom right and select 240p if you don’t hear any sound. It’s a flaw in the video)
Another Amiga 500 Promo Video – The ease of use and other functionality this video highlights may have people thinking the Apple Macintosh was at least a match for it back in this time. From the ease of use standpoint I’d say they were a match based on what I know. From a value standpoint however … By 1987 Apple had only just released the Macintosh II which included color capability … For $5,500 (Costs surging upwards of $10,000 for full color capability if Wikipedia’s information is accurate). It wasn’t until the Macintosh LC line of computers in 1992 before color Macintosh computers came within range of the home … And they started at around $2,500. I’m not sure they had the animation, sound and video capture capability that the Amiga had either.
Video Toaster System 2.0 Demo by NewTek
Commodore Amiga Demo Scene (Another Version of This and Part 2)
Amiga Games vs DOS Games (Part 1 — Part 2) – Since there are no direct comparisons between office applications that I can see … Let’s take a look at a very interesting direct comparison between titles released for the Amiga and the same titles released for DOS.
Amiga 500 Review by Lazy Game Reviews – This review was done in 2010.