The Time Capsule - Part I

Where it ALL began

By Greg Noggle, Contributing Editor, g.noggle@genie.com

"Always hold your head high, my little friend, you've done very well for yourself, and I'm proud of you."
-RJ Mical, Director of Intuition-

The following is based on a presentation by RJ Mical in Boston in late 1986 or early 1987, as recorded by Gary Oberbrunner.

The Early Days

Amiga Computer Inc. had its beginnings, strangely enough, RJ began, with the idea of three Florida doctors who had a spare $7 million to invest. They thought of opening a department store franchise, but (as RJ said) they wanted to try something a bit more exciting. So they decided to start a computer company. "Yeah, that's it! A computer company! That's the ticket! :-)"

They found Jay Miner, who was then at Atari (boo hiss) and Dave Morse, the VP of sales (you can see their orientation right off..) they lifted from Tonka Toys. The idea right from the start was to make the most killer game box they could. That was it, and nothing more. However Jay and the techies had other ideas. Fortunately they concealed them well, so the upper management types still thought they were just getting a great game machine. Of course the market for machines like that was hot in 1982...

They got the name out of the thesaurus; they wanted to convey the thought of friendliness, and Amiga was the first synonym in the list. The fact that it came lexically before Apple didn't hurt any either.

However before they could get a machine out the door, they wanted to establish a "market presence" which would give them an established name and some distribution channels - keep thinking "game machine" - which they did by selling peripherals and software that they bought the rights to from other vendors. Principal among these was the Joyboard, a sort of joystick that you stand on, and you sway and wiggle your hips to control the switches under the base. They had a ski game of course, and some track & field type games that they sold with this Joyboard. But one game the folks at Amiga Inc. thought up themselves was the Zen Meditation game, where you sat on the Joyboard and tried to remain perfectly motionless. This was perfect relaxation from product development, as well as from the ski game. And in fact, this is where the term Guru Meditation comes from; the only way to keep sane when your machine crashes all the time is the Joyboard. The execs tried to get them to take out the Guru, but the early developers, bless 'em, raised such a hue and cry they had to put it back in right away.

When RJ interviewed with Amiga Computer (he had been at Williams) in July 1983, the retail price target for the Amiga was $400. Perfect for a killer game machine. By the time he accepted three weeks later, the target was up to $600 and rising fast. Partly this was due to the bottom dropping completely out of the game market; the doctors and the execs knew they had to have something more than just another game box to survive. That's when the techies' foresight in designing in everything from disk controllers to keyboard (yes, the original original Amiga had NO KEYBOARD), ports, and disk drives began to pay off.

The exciting part of the Amiga's development, in a way its adolescence, that magical time of loss of innocence and exposure to the beauties and cruelties of the real world, began as plans were made to introduce it, secretly of course, at the winter CES on January 4th, 1984(?).

Adolescence

The software was done ten days before the CES, and running fine on the simulators. Unfortunately when the hardware was finally powered up several days later, (surprise) it didn't match its simulations. This hardware, of course, was still not in silicon. The custom chips were in fact large breadboards, placed vertically around a central core and wired together round the edges like a Cray. Each of the three custom `chips' had one of these towers, each one a mass of wires. According to RJ, the path leading up to the first Amiga breadboard, with its roll-out antistatic flooring, the antistatic walls just wide enough apart for one person to fit through and all the signs saying Ground Thyself, made one think of nothing so much as an altar to some technology god.

After working feverishly right up to the opening minutes of the CES, including most everybody working on Christmas, they had a working Amiga, still in breadboard, at the show in the booth in a special enclosed gray room, so they could give private demos. Unfortunately if you rode up the exhibit-hall escalator and craned your neck, you could see into the room from the top.

The Amiga was, RJ reminisced, the hardest he or most anyone there had ever worked. "We worked with a great passion.. my most cherished memory is how much we cared about what we were doing. We had something to prove. .a real love for it. We created our own sense of family out there."

After the first successful night of the CES, all the marketing guys got dollar signs in their eyes because the Amiga made SUCH a splash even though they were trying to keep it "secret."

And so they took out all the technical staff for Italian food, everyone got drunk and then they wandered back to the exhibit hall to work some more on demos, quick bug fixes, features that didn't work, and so on. At CES everyone worked about 20 hours a day, when they weren't eating or sleeping.

RJ and Dale Luck were known as the "dancing fools" around the office because they'd play really loud music and dance around during compiles to stay awake.

Late that night, in their drunken stupor, Dale and RJ put the finishing touches on what would become the canonical Amiga demo, Boing. (Editor's Note: So this is where "multiflasking" truly got its start, eh?)

At last the true story is told.

Money Problems

After the CES, Amiga Inc. was very nearly broke and heavily in debt. It had cost quite a bit more than the original $7 million to bring the Amiga even that far, and lots more time and money were needed to bring it to the market. Unfortunately the doctors wanted out, and wouldn't invest any more. So outside funding was needed, and quick.

The VP of Finance balanced things for a little while, and even though they were $11 million in the hole they managed to pay off the longest-standing debts and keep one step ahead of Chapter 11. After much scrounging, they got enough money to take them to the June CES; for that they had REAL WORKING SILICON. People kept peeking under the skirts of the booth tables asking "Where's the REAL computer generating these displays?"

Now money started flowing and interest was really being generated in the media. And like most small companies, as soon as the money came in the door it was spent. More people were added - hardware folks to optimize and cost-reduce the design; software people to finish the OS. Even the sudden influx of cash was only enough to keep them out of bankruptcy, though; they were still broke and getting broker all the time. How much WOULD have been enough? RJ said that if he were starting over, he'd need about $49 million to take the machine from design idea to market. Of course Amiga Inc. had nowhere near that much, and they were feeling the crunch. Every-body tightened their belts and persevered somehow. They actually were at one point so broke they couldn't meet their payroll; Dave Morse, the VP of Sales, took out a second mortgage on his house to help cover it, but it still wasn't enough.

They knew they were going under, and unless they could find someone quick to buy them out they were going to be looking for jobs very shortly. They talked to Sony, to Apple, to Phillips and HP, Silicon Graphics (who just wanted the chips) and even Sears. Finally.. they called Atari. (Boo! Hiss! [literally - the audience hissed at Jack Tramiel's name!]) Trying to be discreet, RJ's only personal comment on Jack Tramiel was (and it took him a while to formulate this sentence) "an interesting product of the capitalist system." Ahem. Apparently Tramiel has been quoted as saying "Business is War." Tramiel had recently left Commodore in a huff and bought Atari "undercover" so that by the time he left C= he was already CEO of Atari.

Realizing that Commodore was coming out with their own hot game machine, Tramiel figured he'd revenge himself on them for dumping him by buying Amiga Inc. and driving C= down the tubes with "his" superior product. So Atari gave them half a million just for negotiating for a month; that money was gone in a day.

Of course Tramiel saw that Amiga Inc. wasn't in a very good bargaining position; basically, unless they were bought they were on the street. So he offered them 98 cents a share; Dave Morse held out for $2.00. But instead of bargaining in good faith, every time Morse and Amiga tried to meet them halfway their bid went down!

"Okay, $1.50 a share.
No, we think we'll give you 80 cents.
How about $1.25?
..70 cents."

And so on...

Even Dave Morse, the staunchest believer in the concept that was the Amiga, the guiding light who made everyone's hair stand on end when he walked into the room, was getting depressed.

Gloom set in. Things looked grim.

Then, just three days before the month deadline was up, Commodore called. Two days later they bought Amiga Inc. for $4.25 a share. They offered them $4.00, but Dave Morse TURNED THEM DOWN saying it wasn't acceptable to his employees; he was on the verge of walking out when they offered $4.25. He signed right then and there.

The Commodore Years

Commodore gave them $27 million for development; they'd never seen that much money in one place before. They went right out and bought a Sun workstation for every software person, with Ethernet and disk servers and everything. The excitement was back.

Commodore did many good things for the Amiga; not only did they cost- reduce it without losing much functionality, they had this concept of it as a business machine; this was a very different attitude from what Amiga Inc. had been working with. Because of that philosophy, they improved the keyboard and made lots of other little improvements. What could Commodore have given them that they didn't? The one thing RJ wanted most from them was an extra 18 months of development time. Unfortunately Commodore wasn't exactly rich right then either, so they had to bring out the product ASAP [and when is it ever any different?] Also, he said, they could have MARKETED it. (applause!). If he'd had that extra 18 months, he could have made Intuition a device rather than a separate kind of thing; he could have released it much more bug-free.

The Future

RJ's advice for A1000 owners: "Keep what you've got. It's not worth it to trade up. The A1000 is really a better machine."

This may be sour grapes on RJ's part, since the Amiga 2000 was designed in Braunschweig, West Germany, and the version of the A2000 being worked on in Los Gatos was rejected in favor of the Braunschweig-Commodore version. However the A1000 compares to the A2000, though, the Los Gatos 2000 would have certainly been better than either machine. C= management vetoed it because Braunschweig promised a faster design turnaround (and, to their credit, were much faster in execution than the Los Gatos group would have been) and more cost-reduction, which was their specialty. Los Gatos, on the other hand, wanted a dream machine with vastly expanded capabilities in every facet of the machine. The cruel financial facts forced C= to go with the Business Computer Group, who did the Sidecar in Braunschweig as well, and quickly and cheaply.

So they fired more than half the staff at the original Los Gatos facility, one by one. That trauma was to some extent played out on the net; no doubt many of you remember it as a very difficult and emotional time. There are now only six people left in Los Gatos, and their lease expires in March, so thus expires the original Amiga group.

And that's how RJ ended his talk; the rise and fall of Amiga Computer Inc. The future of the Amiga is now in the hands of Westchester and Braunschweig, and who knows what direction it will take?


-"The Time Capsule," by Greg Noggle, will continue next month in The Amiga 
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