Evan Koblentz, Computer Historian, InfoAge Science Center
Jimmy Maher, "The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga", MIT Press, 2012, 344 pp.Historians of computing, when asked which 1980s personal computer most influenced the complex applications and now-ubiquitous design of Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OSX operating systems, will reflexively answer the original Apple Macintosh. In "The Future Was Here", self-described “digital antiquarian" Jimmy Maher offers a compelling argument that the Commodore Amiga may be a better response.
Maher notes that Amiga and Macintosh both debuted in the mid-1980s based on ideas conceived a decade earlier at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Evolving from prototype hardware originally intended for a videogame console, Amiga had two major features Macintosh lacked: a color display and preemptive multitasking. As such, "My central claim in this book is that the Amiga was the world's first true multimedia PC" (p. 5), he argues.
He fortunately observes that color and sound were available as early as 1979-1980* in the Apple 11+, Commodore VIC-20, and Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer and also in other mid-1980s systems such as the Atari ST, thereby making all technically multimedia in nature. None of those, however, nor any other personal computer by 1985, came close to Amiga's speciﬁcations. Emerging from Amiga's above-the-field hardware specifications, Maher concludes, were professional-quality programs for animation, art, gaming, and video production that were without peers.
Although each of these categories have some degree of precedent in other personal computers, I agree with Maher that none other than Amiga's were executed with as much foreshadowing and similarity to today's PCs, especially when programmers used the features in parallel. Macintosh ultimately won the war, considering Apple's present success, but Commodore won the battle, being used for leading-edge applications in a wider range of markets despite inferior corporate leadership.
I appreciated discussions of Amiga problems such as its inflexible hardware configurations, memory leaks, and software viruses. Maher also wisely includes context beyond Amiga technology itself. Readers will find tales of Commodore mismanagement, passionate business and hobbyist communities, and an interesting reference to the digitizing capability of the National Bureau of Standard's Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) mainframe computer, circa 1950.
I recommend this book, with the qualification that there are three shortcomings. Worst among them is that most chapters include painfully detailed technical descriptions, with one chapter showing actual code. The subject of Amiga's uniqueness at the programming level is worth studying, but as any developer would agree, it should be compiled separately, not interpreted at the history-minded reader's command line.
Another drawback is the author's frequent implication that Amiga user oommunities were more special than those devoted to other major platforms. For example, Maher argues that programmers and users of Amiga hobby software had distribution and development paths unique enough to be considered ancestors of the Linux revolution. It is easy to counter that previous user communities from IBM Share to the Homebrew Computer Club were equally or more influential to the present free software movement and that an Amiga-centric underground shareware guild was matched by those devoted to rival platfomis from Apple to Zenith.
Third, there is an oversight in the discussion of Amiga operating systems in Chapter 6. Maher, in passing, mentions the existence of Amiga Unix, without providing any background on what could be a fascinating topic of the system's crossover into industrial applications. The book should give readers an opportunity to leam how and why Commodore offered Unix. Even a footnote to direct readers to the informative wiki site, www.amigaunix.com, would be welcome.
Reading about Amiga leaves historians to consider other subjects in the wider spectrum of personal computing history. Our field has ample room for a survey of early commercial altematives to Macintosh and Windows, an examination of how personal computers enabled the fomiation of new kinds of small businesses, or a study of the uniqueness of personal computing Culture after vendors readied the mass market.
On the Amiga front itself, historians can already find alternative perspectives in "Commodore: A Company on the Edge" by Brain Bagnall, in Commodore engineer Dave Haynie's film "The Deathbed Vigil," and in the forthcoming documentary "Viva Amiga" by Zachary Weddington. All are self-published.
* Maher should have noted that computer users performed primitive multimedia a generation prior on mid-1970s homebrew kits, such as the M.I.T.S. Altair 8800. Users could purchase a Cromemco Dazzler card (wvvw.bit.ly/ tCxgAG) ior color and could even program the right amount of radio interference (www.bit.ly/9Yz) to play a Beatles song.
Copyright 2013 "IEEE Annals of the History of Computing", Vol. 35, #3, July-September 2013