Opinion: It came from the grave

Amiga's legendary A500 computer

Amiga's legendary A500 computer

Fourteen years after the last model appeared the Amiga is back, reports Jason Walsh.

Old computers never die, they just become objects of fascination for small groups of geeks.

It’s true. There is not a computer out there that doesn’t interest someone – from Vaxen to BeBoxes, NeXT Cubes to Atari Falcons and SGI Irix boxes, every kind of weird and wonderful machine you can imagine has a kind of afterlife. Most rapidly become objets d’art but one or two have clung on to life as tenaciously as a barnacle on the side of a supertanker.

One such machine is the Amiga. Late of Commodore (remember them?), the Amiga was the land that never was. Festooned with custom video and audio processing chips when the Mac was black and white and Windows couldn’t even, well, do anything much at all really, the Amiga was like a glimpse of the future. Now only remembered by most, if at all, as a games machine with a vestigial keyboard loyalist owners knew better, saying it was the definition of multimedia “before Windows screwed it up”.

Let’s be clear about latter-day Amiga users: these people are nuts, but they are interesting nuts and they appear to have money in their pockets.

Well, like something from a George Romero movie, the Amiga is back.

A new system, the AmigaOne X1000, has been announced by Hyperion Entertainment, the company that holds the rights to the Amiga operating system after countless incomprehensible copyright fire sales.

Asking if it’s too late is a fairly pointless question. The simple answer is yes – after all, the Amiga belongs to an era of ‘home computers’ that simply no longer exists. Today the vast majority of what we now call desktop and laptop computers run Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X, with Linux bringing up the rear but always jockeying for position.

On the other hand, there is clearly a space for alternative computing platforms. Acorn’s Risc OS is still around and there are literally dozens of small operating system projects out there from Syllable to Haiku and SkyOS.

Asking whether or not the Amiga can challenge the Windows or Mac platforms is asking the wrong question. Not only is it far too late for that, it’s also the case that the battle for the computing platform of tomorrow won’t be on the desktop at all.

Nevertheless, the Amiga can survive and thrive – if Hyperion plays its cards right. After all, there is an entire cottage industry dedicated to the Amiga. Consider the Amiga accelerator market: like most of the advanced microcomputers of the mid and late 1980s, the Amiga was centred on the 68000 CPU from Motorola, 68k for short.

This chip ceased development with the little used 68060 and there was no direct upgrade path to anything else. Apple, IBM and Motorola developed the PowerPC CPU as a replacement but the two systems were not compatible. Apple did an amazing job of truly invisible emulation, so few Mac users noticed the switch from 68k to PowerPC. Amiga owners had no such luck – by the time the PowerPC was around Commodore was too busy going bankrupt to port its operating system to the new chip.

So in stepped third party manufacturers of PowerPC-based accelerator cards. In fact, it was the existence of devices such as these that allowed Amiga owners to engage with the modern world of the internet, DVDs and MP3s on their machines.

Piggybacking off Apple, as the Amiga has in recent years, is no longer a useful strategy since the Mac maker switched to Intel processors a few years back. While there is an open source effort to recreate the Amiga experience on Intel CPUs, the AmigaOne X1000 is a fully-fledged platform, not just an operating system.

It sports a dual-core PowerPC processor which will be clocked at over 1.6GHz – not blisteringly fast but fast enough, and clock frequencies don’t compare directly across different architectures anyway. More interestingly, however, it features an XCore processor developed by Xmos. This chip can run multiple real-time threads simultaneously and each thread has access to a set of general purpose processor registers. Xmos’ basic concept is the development of fully customisable processors under the rubric of ‘Software Defined Silicon’, allowing for far greater flexibility in use.

Hyperion’s hope is that this flexibility will appeal to hackers as well as developers of specialist computing applications, thus making the Amiga a commercial viability by widening the community. Will it work? Who knows, but if it is a success then the rebirth of this anachronistic computing platform will, at the very least, make the world of computing that little bit more varied.

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