The Time Capsule - Part IV

The transcript of a fascinating interview with Jay Miner reveals many insights into the early days of the Amiga

By Greg Noggle, Telecommunications Editor and Hardware Guru,

I have been spending the last couple of days trying to figure out what to write this month. So I started to read some of my archived material on the Amiga. I ran across a newsletter which had an interview with Jay Miner that took place in Pasadena, in September of 1992. I liked it and don't have anything better to say, and considering the current state of negotiations between QuikPak and VIScorp, and the morale of the Amiga market, I thought it might be appropriate.

Why? Because it speaks of what can happen when people work together with enthusiasm on something that they love. Maybe you can guess what that something is.

This was taken from the newsletter of the Tri State Commodore Users Group. This is a somewhat condensed version of an interview between who I assume are the newsletter editor(s) Mark Amunrud and Jeff Bodenhofer, and Jay Miner. I took out some parts which dealt with the difficulties with the management with Commodore and the buyout. Most of that information is common knowledge, or at least I printed a good chunk of it in one of my earlier Time Capsule articles.

I hope you enjoy reading this. I know I did.


----Condensed Article begins----

Jay: "The story starts in the early 1980's with a company not originally called Amiga, but Hi-Toro, which was started by Dave Morris, our president, but before that I used to work with Atari, and I wanted to make a 68000 machine with them. We had just finished the Atari 800 box, and they were not about to spend another umpteen dollars on research for a 16-bit machine, for which the processor chip itself cost $100.00 apiece. RAM was also real expensive, and you needed twice as much. They couldn't see the writing on the wall and they just said 'no,' so I quit."

Jay Miner isn't a man to say "no" to, and it's quite clear the Atari must still be regretting their myopic decision. Anyway, Jay still held the concept of an all-powerful 16-bit machine, but the bills had to be paid.

"I went to a chip company called Xymos, as I knew the guy who started it. He gave me some stock and it looked like an interesting start-up company (I've worked for a lot of new companies). Going back to Atari, Larry Caplan was one of the top programmers on the Atari 2600 video game. He and the other programmers wanted a pay raise, or at least a small royalty, a nickel per cartridge, in fact, on the software that was selling like crazy. Atari was making a fortune and they said "No," so they all said "good-bye," and went off and started a little company called Activision. Larry rang me about two years later in early '82 and said he wasn't happy at Activision and suggested we start up a company. I had a lot of stock in Xymos and suggested we get some out financing from back East. We hired a little office on Scott Boulevard, Santa Clara and they got a Texas millionaire to put up some money. He liked the idea of a new video game company, which is what Larry Caplan wanted to do. He was going to do the software and I was going to design the chips.

"I told Dave Morris about some of the ideas I had about designing a games machine that was expandable to a real computer, and he thought that was a great idea, but didn't tell any of his investors. I moved to Santa Clara from Xymos. The company was still called Hi-Toro, but the investors weren't too keen, so they chose "Amiga," and I didn't like it much - I thought using a Spanish name was not a good move. I was wrong.

The design team at Hi-Toro/Amiga was assembled from a bunch of people over the next few months. Jay says that they were looking for people not just interested in a job, but with a passion for the Amiga (codenamed Lorraine after the president's wife) and the immense potential it offered.

"We worked out a deal whereby I got a salary and some stock, and I also got to bring my dog Mitchy into work every day. Dave did reserve the right to go back on that one if anyone else objected, but Mitchy was very popular."

I asked Jay to sum up what it was like to work on the Amiga.

"The great things about working on the Amiga? Number one, I was allowed to take my dog to work and that set the tone for the whole atmosphere of the place. It was more than just companionship with Mitchy - the fact that she was there meant that the other people wouldn't be too critical of some of the those we hired, who were quite frankly weird. There were guys coming to work in purple tights and pink bunny slippers. Dale Luck looked like the average off-the-street homeless hippy with long hair, and was pretty laid back. In fact, the whole group was pretty laid back. I wasn't about to say anything - I knew talent when I saw it, and even Parasseau (the Evangelist), who spread (the work) was a bit weird in a lot of ways. The job gets done and that's all that matters. I didn't care how solutions came about even if people were working at home.

"There were a lot of various arguments, and the way most were sorted out was by hitting each other with the foam baseball bats. They stung a bit if you got hit hard. There was a conflict in the fundamental design philosophy with some like RJ Mical wanting the low-cost video game (the investors' side, you might say). Others like Dale Luck and Carl Sassenrath wanted the best computer expansion capability for the future. This battle of cost was never ending, being internal.

"You go through stages in large projects like the Amiga of thinking 'This looks great and it's going to sell really well', and then things go wrong and you just want to quit!"

The unique spirit at Amiga was such that people worked tirelessly on their various projects, remembering the software was well on the way to completion before any silicon had been pounded into the graphics chips. Carl Sassenrath was brought in to do the operating system and was asked at the interview, "What would you like to design?". He just replied that he wanted to do a multitasking operating system, and thus was born the Exec which lies at the very heart of the Amiga.

"I started thinking about what we wanted to design. Right from the beginning I wanted to make a computer like the 2000 with lots of expansion slots for drives, a keyboard, etc. I'd also read a bit about blitters and so I talked with a friend called Ron Nicholson who was interested in them, and he came to join us. We came up with all sorts of functions for the Blitter. Line drawing was added much later at the request of Dale Luck, one of our software guys. This was about two weeks before the CES show where the Amiga was unveiled. I told him we couldn't put that in there, as the chips were nearly done, and there wasn't enough room. He then showed me what registers were needed, so in it went.

"Hold And Modify came from a trip to see flight simulators in action, and I had a kind of idea about a primitive type of virtual reality. NTSC on the chip meant you could hold the hue and change the luminance by only altering four bits. When we changed to RGB, I said that wasn't needed anymore, as it wasn't useful, and I asked the chip layout guy to take it off. He came back and said that this would either leave a big hole in the middle of the chip or take a three-month redesign, and we couldn't do that. I didn't think anyone would use it. I was wrong again, so that has really given The Amiga its edge in terms of the colour palette."

Tell us something we don't know, Jay!! What about MIDI; why wasn't that included?

"Actually, MIDI isn't so far away from the standard serial port on the Amiga, and soon after the machine was released, someone came up with a tiny plug-in box that gave you all the MIDI inputs and outputs, but Commodore refused to manufacture and push it, which was one of my big disagreements with them. If you've got a little company doing great third-party products which makes your machine so much more competitive, you've got to support them. Commodore in the past have been too greedy, wanting everything for themselves without paying for it, but I think they're changing. I hope they're changing, anyway."

Jay was asked to tell a bit about the development of Intuition.

"RJ Mical pretty much did it all himself. He was holed up for three weeks(!) and came out once to ask Carl Sassenrath about message ports. That's it, really! He wrote Intuition and went on to do the graphics package Graphicraft, as no one else could do it right. Remember the Jarvik 7 heart animation - they actually talked to the guy and got permission to draw it, with the animation done by cycling the colour registers. A lot of quite beautiful pseudo-animations were done that way. That's how we did the rotating pattern of the bouncing ball. Other machines couldn't use that system.

"I was really pleased to see Commodore moving in the direction of the A2000. It was the first Amiga you could really tailor to your own needs, and this was one of the reasons for the success of the early Apples. We then wanted to go on to horizontal slots, like the 3000, so that it would be easier to cool and shield - there was a design to do it, but the A2000 came from Germany, so that's the way we went. We wanted to do the Autoconfiguration for the slots, but Commodore weren't keen because it added .50 cents to the cost, so we had a big battle with them and did it anyway. Our divisional manager from Commodore was a guy called Rick Geiger. He was pretty good at keeping Commodore off our backs. However, there were others who were good at figuring out what we were up to and saying "No" all the time. Sometimes Rick would protect, and he was trying hard to give Commodore something they wanted badly, MS-DOS compatibility. Some company promised they could deliver a software solution but it never really worked that well.

There was a young fellow of Jewish persuasion, an engineer. I knew he was Jewish because he wore one of those funny little hats to work. That's no problem for me - I didn't care if people wore pink bunny slippers as long as the job got done. Anyway, he promised MS-DOS on a small card to make an IBM interface. He worked alone, and weeks went by with nothing appearing despite all the promises, which worried me a lot, and this really led to Rick's downfall. He promised he could do it and nobody kept close enough tabs on him, always a few more weeks. Commodore started advertising and the board didn't work so both men were canned. This was the start of the downfall for the Los Gatos division. I've never really told this before as it was too personal, but I can't remember the designer now so it doesn't matter so much. It shows that you need your peers looking over work to get things right.

The Toaster is a killer product over here. What do you think?

"It's a fantastic product. Commodore made a really big mistake in not embracing the Toaster in its early days, and getting a real piece of it. I never even envisaged it back in the design stages. TV image manipulation just wasn't around then - I put genlock circuitry and sync signalling into the first designs, so that side we appreciated. I had no idea that things like the Toaster were coming."