Amiga and the revolution yet to come

I had some musings on the Amiga interface. I promise I’m not trying to start a flamewar, but I’m honestly puzzled about this OS and how the interface was supposed to carry this hardware to greatness.

(I post it here because I know folks won’t let this descend into petty squabbling.)


Well, it was a WIMP at reasonable cost at a time when there weren’t many of those.

But for me, the advantage of the Amiga was not in the GUI but in the OS: it seems nicely constructed, in terms of facilities and libraries. Not just the multitasking, but the interprocess communication, the runtime loading of libraries, the official interface to claiming and releasing resources, the hierarchical filesystem. The machine wasn’t too bad to program, it was affordable, it had pretty good performance for the time, there was a C compiler at reasonable cost, the graphics and sound facilities were impressive.


Thank you. These are awesome points.

I’m curious if you had a chance to look at Atari’s TOS and GEM. I’ve been looking at it and it seems to have some interesting construction (though I think most of the good bits came out of Atari’s efforts). I know it doesn’t have multitasking, but I’m finding that VDI is an interesting beast, albeit a bit slow.

Also, how much was a C compiler for the Amiga? I know the Atari development package was $300 fir the documentation and Alcyon (which was serviceable, but not great) but I’ve never been able to find a price on the Amiga development tools / kits.

I hear what you’re saying. My best friend in college had an Amiga 500 and worked at ASDG. He wrote some amazing things and I could see that there was a lot of intrinsic goodness about the Amiga, but as someone who is more design focused, I had a hard time seeing past the atrocious UI. It’s a shame because it seems that they could have easily fixed this issue even by just hiring one artistically minded person. I suspect that many others had the same impression as you and I - it shows the importance of design.

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Ah, there you have my weakness: I don’t have familiarity with GEM or TOS. I have, very very briefly, run GEM on the BBC Micro (with an (emulated) x86 second processor) but never tried to do anything with it, still less to program it.

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I was a long time Amiga user. I think what you’re missing is that the Amiga had all this stuff in 1985. Here are some of the things the Amiga gave:

  1. Plug-and-play. This is something boring today, but back then? You could just plug in an expansion card or drive or whatever and it just worked.
  2. Multi-tasking, which was really awesome for a whole ton of things rather than saving/quitting/opening another program and so on.
  3. Common file formats. The IFF format meant that you could create/save an image file with one program and do more work with it with another program. Remember, this was an era where it was common for you to only be able to open a file with the program that created it. Ugh!
  4. Multiple screens. On the Mac, Atari ST, and other GUIs, you didn’t have multiple screens. The Amiga let you have multiple screens - as many as you could fit in video RAM, each with its own resolution, bit depth, and palette if you wanted. Admittedly, this is a capability that only really shines if you also have multi-tasking, but it was sure awesome. You could even view multiple screens at a time, working like multiple windows separated vertically.

Factors 2-4 had a big synergistic effect. The Amiga was the first computer where you had this ability to set up a workflow of creating/rendering with one program, and then editing the output in another, compositing stuff, doing textures or whatever, and coding in another screen … you could modify what you needed and test. It was just so radically different and superior to working on single tasking computers.

That said, the overall look and feel was not consistent. Where Apple set guidelines on what the look-and-feel should be for applications, Commodore just threw out a toolset and let developers make their applications however they wanted. On balance, this was a good decision because it gave developers freedom to develop novel interfaces suitable for their applications.

The reason why most Amiga games booted directly into the game was because most users had a stock Amiga 500 with only 512k of RAM. Workbench consumed some of that RAM. But there were also a lot of games which could run from Workbench, and this was a nice thing for those of us with expanded Amigas with hard drives and such.

But the Amiga was able to do all this with extreme efficiency compared to other computers - even single tasking computers. It was really efficient with RAM, so an Amiga could cost a small fraction of a Mac or PC clone and offer better performance. (The custom chips helped a bit, but not really by the time we were getting into 68030s and such.) An Amiga with 1MB could do a lot of multi-tasking applications, whereas a *nix machine wouldn’t even work at all without at least 3MB.

Anyway, there’s very little that the Amiga has to offer that modern computing with Linux lacks. There’s not really any benefit to saving a slight amount of video RAM with mixed resolution and color depth. Who cares? The RAM efficiency is … yawn. We’re long past the days of caring about MEGAbytes of RAM. Multiple workspaces is a better paradigm than multiple screens. So whatever … there is no Amiga revolution awaiting us. It was an amazing computer for its time. But we have better stuff now.


I don’t remember how much I paid for Manx Aztec C compiler (one of the two popular C compilers for the Amiga, at least here in the USA). I think it was around $150. Anything close to $300 would have been way out of my league.

As with their 8-bit computers, Commodore was very open with Amiga documentation. You could get all the documentation you needed pretty cheap with the official Programmers Manual, but man it was a lot more complex than the 8-bit Programmers Manuals.

I also used Atari STs, but not nearly as much. I actually used Atari STs before Amiga. As a simple launcher for (single tasking) applications, it was fine. I liked the fact that it booted up fast due to being in ROM. But other than that, it was nothing remarkable.

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Oh, another thing that was really sweet about the Amiga OS - sensible ramdisk. Like modern tmpfs, the Amiga had a ramdisk that dynamically took up as much or as little space as needed. (Contrast with fixed size ramdisks, which are … a pain.) Tmpfs is nice on modern Linux, but an absolute game changer on stock floppy Amigas.

Think about it. You only have one floppy drive, but you want to work on stuff which requires multiple discs. Maybe you want to store working files on the ram disk while swapping application floppies. Maybe you want to store some executables on the ram disk so you don’t need to swap discs. With a flexible ram disk, you can do this.

It’s also great even if you have a hard drive. A hard drive is pretty slow, but you can copy your heavily used executables on your ram disk … it is FAST! And this applies to stuff you’re working on in general. Remember, this is way before fast SSDs. If you had 3MB of RAM? Oh, you could really sizzle.

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I bought a half-share in Matt Dillon’s DICE, which can be found online here (described as a generally useful small 68k compiler) (1995 review here). I think it was £30 or thereabouts, although I see now it’s described as shareware. (I also see the review says it’s £130.)


Hey, sorry to necro but I had to point out the misunderstanding here.

Very few people that I knew used Workbench on an Amiga. It was a clunky shell app that wasted RAM. Keep in mind that the OS had a window manager that wasn’t tied to Workbench like it is on modern Windows. Workbench was just another app. Most of what you did was command-line based, like the contemporary DOS machines or early Linux implementations. You could spawn windowed apps from the command line. Also many games took over the hardware completely.

The potential most people felt was more to do with the hardware, which at the time was about as good as you could get short of studio-quality (and studio-priced) bespoke hardware, combined with the excellent low-overhead pre-emptive multitasking.

Its failures were mostly in not using a CPU with an MMU, meaning anything could destroy the kernel at any time if it wrote to the wrong addresses, and, as noted, in not writing a decent desktop UI, although to be fair, the best desktop UI at the time the Amiga was designed was the original Mac UI, which was also pretty crap and only B&W. Also you could run it on an Amiga, so you might as well buy an Amiga.

The other failure was in not continuing to innovate, but that’s where the sadness about lost potential comes from, so that’s kind of the whole point.

I would say the failure was it was ‘home’ computer, ie a games machine. If you wanted
it for something else you got sold a " Commodore PC " instead.

I used it heavily. Almost everything I used ran from WB. Shell was okay, but it had weird syntax.

I think the Commodore Colt PC compatibles were non-existent here in the USA, or at least practically so. Here, the Amiga’s thing was professional desktop video. The Amiga 2000’s video slot in particular was an important expansion with a number of important video expansions - the most important of which by far was, of course, the Video Toaster.

The Amiga 3000 was a serious go at the professional workstation market, and it was lauded in the USA business computing press at the time. Of course, it failed to dislodge the PC compatible, but so did everyone else - including the entire lot of the Unix Wars circular firing squad.

It was introduced at a time, when nobody really knew what to do with a GUI. Perhaps that is the basic reason, why every single GUI from the middle of the 1980’s to early 1990’s, seem to be so different. As if they were grasping at antthing from left to right. But things got better and better and I believe it is around Win95 and Mac OS 7 that you really start to see things take the correct direction. Even Next Step seems like a beta/alpha idea of what a GUI really should be.

But that is all evolution.

Well true… The Amiga were mostly used as a professional machine, in the north american market. Here in Europe, it was mostly used as a personal computer between 1985(87) and to around 1993. Here it was not seen as a professional machine, but a non professional personal computer.

But no rule without the exception. Of course people bought Amiga for personal use in the north american market, and of course it was used in professional ways here in europe. Just. Things were pretty much polarised as such, when comparing north american and european markets.

I guess there were differences between the UK and mainland Europe, too. Do you think the Amiga was used for more serious purposes in Europe than in the UK, where it seemed to be destined to be seen as only a games computer.

Not if you were in Europe. It was a time, when regions and markets did not look anything the same. When Apple reighned surpreme in America, the Amiga did the same in Europe. And Apple machines were an unusual and lesser used underdog in europe.

I’d say, there may have been more awareness regarding a higher potential of the Amiga, but Commodore made nothing of it and did not promote or market the Amiga as such. Moreover, there was no well known software (for business or DTP). I’d even say that for a couple of years the Atari ST may have been seen more as a possible alternative. (A notion, which soon drizzled away.) The creative/DTP market was soon Mac only and the business market PCs. Even the reign in video production was somewhat short lived: by the mid 1990s, this was an established Mac/Avid arena.

I have a small library of scans of computer magazines from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Mostly Danish. However in the 1988 January edition of “Uafhængigt Computer Commodore Magasin”, there is a big article of DTP on the Amiga, on page 50 of that magazine. Infochannels on local cable television were also driven by Amiga.