Historical Operating Systems – AmigaOS

With the 1980s came the microcomputer revolution, and with it, a chance for a wide variety of manufacturers to try their hand at producing a machine to compete in the rapidly expanding home computer market. Some machines proved very successful indeed, such as the IBM PC and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, while others were destined to become cult classics, such as Acorn Computers’ BBC Micro, an educational computer built in conjunction with the BBC Computer Literacy Project, and Microsoft’s MSX, a computer designed to tap into the massive potential Japanese market. Yet others, finding that the market could not sustain such variety indefinitely, remained obscure even in their own time.

Most of these early home computers followed the same basic layout – based around a cheap 8-bit processor, often an MOS 6502 or a Zilog Z80, and an amount of chip RAM, usually ranging from 2 to 128KB, depending on the specification, such computers regularly plugged into televisions and used a command-line interface based around a simple, crude variant of BASIC carried on a ROM chip, many of the variants being programmed by Microsoft. Then, in 1984, Apple released its Macintosh, and things started to change rapidly in the personal computer market.

With a graphical user interface based on the work of Apple’s previous, more expensive workstation model, the Lisa, which in turn took design cues from the Alto and Star machines from Xerox PARC, the Macintosh was arguably too short of RAM and too held back by its single-tasking model for its earliest variants to be particularly useful, but it introduced a far more user-friendly interface to the fray than the older command lines.

Commodore Business Machines was one of the lucky companies during the early 1980s, creating one of the iconic computers of the time: The Commodore 64. Relatively affordable, and with a generous amount of RAM, the Commodore 64 would go on to become the single-best selling computer model of all time. However, by 1985, this machine was beginning to look a bit long in the tooth to be sold as the flagship model for the company.

The original Amiga, later dubbed the Amiga 1000, was not originally designed by Commodore; it was developed by a group of discontent ex-Atari staff who formed a company named Amiga Corporation. Through several complicated deals, involving Amiga Corporation, Atari and the dismissed president of Commodore, Jack Tramiel, Amiga Corporation was bought out by Commodore Business Machines, and the first Amiga was released in 1985.

Looking closely at the image on the screen, it looks like something that my second PC could produce – in 1996.

With a 32-bit Motorola 68000 processor and 256KB of RAM as standard, it was an amazingly quick machine for the time. As the machine had originally been intended as a games console, it featured impressive graphical and sound capabilities, which put it far ahead of most of its contemporaries. It also featured a very impressive operating system, known as AmigaOS – giving full pre-emptive multitasking when the standard operating systems of its competitors were limited to single-tasking or cooperative multitasking.

It’s sometimes difficult to contemplate just how much more flexible and powerful pre-emptive multitasking can be over the co-operative sort, especially if you’ve never used an operating system with co-operative multitasking. Pre-emptive multitasking is a development in operating systems which essentially underpins all modern personal computer operating systems, and allows for multimedia applications and for appropriate background processing.

Imagine that you’re playing a music or video file, in conjunction with another program. With a pre-emptive system, the operating system itself divides up processor cycles evenly between each of the programs. In contrast, with a co-operative system, it is up to the programs themselves to cede control of the processor to the other applications, and all it takes is one poorly-programmed application, or one which is a bit too selfish with the processor cycles, and your music file will start skipping – or even worse, stop playing at all. As I think you’ll agree, this can get rather annoying.

By providing full pre-emptive multitasking in 1985, AmigaOS was even further ahead of its contemporaries than it had been with its lauded graphical and sound capabilities. Mac OS wouldn’t even develop co-operative multitasking until 1988, and it took until 2000 and the development of Mac OS X for it to finally develop pre-emptive multitasking. The IBM PC platform didn’t get a pre-emptive system until the development of OS/2 and Windows 95, and while some previous computers had support for varying forms of UNIX, this was of limited utility, had no GUI (the X Window System being notoriously bloated at the time), and ran slowly on the hardware.

AmigaOS is an operating system consisting of two parts: the Kickstart ROM, which contained most of the necessary base components for the operating system in a stunningly limited amount of space, and Workbench, the GUI layer for the OS, originally contained on a series of floppy discs. Such a dual-layer system may seem odd to more recent adopters of computer technology, but in the days of limited permanent storage, it showed itself to be an ideal way to allow for a complex operating system without compromise. It also allowed for games to use all of the Amiga’s RAM without having the GUI resident in RAM and taking up precious memory; such games thus booted directly from the Kickstart kernel.

Aesthetically, the Workbench GUI of AmigaOS was arguably not as clean or attractive as Apple’s Mac OS to begin with, but had the major advantage of being able to output in colour, which was not available on the Macintosh platform until 1987, and only then on their high-end Macintosh II computers with non-integrated monitors. The ability, exhibited by the Amiga, to output graphics in 4096 colours was a major advantage in the gaming field that the machine had originally been designed for, and only the Atari ST, a similar sort of computer also using a Motorola 68000 processor, could really come close to the Amiga in terms of graphical power.

The Mac OS interface may have been more elegant, but the Amiga had the decided power advantage.

Unfortunately for Commodore, though, a focus on computer gaming and multimedia power gave the machine a “toy-like” reputation which was not to serve them well at a time when computers were only just making their way into businesses. The original IBM PC could hardly be described as a graphical powerhouse, but it was developed by a company which had up to then absolutely dominated the computer market. IBM’s reputation for business machines meant that the IBM PC became a de facto standard in the workplace despite not being as powerful as some of its competitors, and at a time when the computer market was homogenising, IBM managed to secure a healthy share of the high-price end of the market. As such, at this early stage, the Amiga did not manage to attain the success that its powerful hardware and advanced operating system would suggest it deserved.

By 1987, the Amiga computer line-up diversified with the introduction of the low-end Amiga 500 and the high-end Amiga 2000, and with it came a new market for the Amiga. Capable of properly taking the fight to the Atari ST, the Amiga began to pull away from its less powerful competition at the low-end of its market segment. Amiga OS updates with these early machines were of limited scope, but with the advanced base of the programming, the OS hardly needed to be updated.

People were beginning to discover the potential of the Amiga as well, with the powerful graphics hardware for an inexpensive price allowing for the editing of television shows by broadcasters who could not afford more expensive workstations for the job. With applications outside the gaming market, the Amiga managed to carve out its own niche, although this was still relatively insubstantial compared to the office and desktop publishing markets dominated by the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh respectively.

On the home market front, the Amiga may have had the legs on the Atari ST, but there was another competitor which held it back. Just as the IBM PC had managed to secure the office market, inexpensive IBM-compatible computers had acquired a significant share of the home market. The use of a relatively cheap Intel 8086 processor and an easily-reverse-engineered BIOS in the IBM PC 5150 had led other companies to quickly sell their own cheaper variants of the PC architecture.

As the cross-compatibility between these machines and the IBM machines that occupied offices allowed people to bring their work home, the IBM architecture quickly got a foothold on the home market as well. Computer gaming, the forte of the Amiga, was never as big of a priority at the time. By the time it was, IBM-compatible machines had bridged the gap between their previously slow efforts and the advanced Amigas with more powerful graphics hardware.

In 1990, the first significant change in AmigaOS came in conjunction with the release of the Amiga 3000, a complete upgrade to the Amiga architecture. Workbench 2.0 presented users with a more fluid and unified interface, in comparison to the somewhat messy and chaotic presentation in Workbench 1.x. The improved hardware in the Amiga 3000 gave it a new lease of life – if a short one – and some of the most technically advanced games of the time were to be originally found on the Amiga, including the incredible technical achievements of Frontier: Elite II, a space simulator designed by David Braben of Frontier Development fame, and exhibiting features which really made the most of the hardware.

This might not look like much now, but when I started using PCs in 1994, this was state-of-the-art.

To be honest, the demise of Commodore four years later looked inevitable with the increasing domination of the IBM-compatible architecture and its rapidly-improving graphical technology. Commodore hardly helped things with some of their later developments, though. In 1990, the development of the expensive CDTV, which was intended more as an expensive games console than Commodore’s previous developments, failed utterly when slotted into the market beside the far less expensive Nintendo and Sega games consoles of the time, both of which had far more variety of game titles. The later CD32 was less expensive, but the SNES and Sega Mega Drive made a complete mockery of Commodore’s efforts.

Commodore didn’t seem to do any better marketing their computers than their games consoles. The replacements for the Amiga 500 were intended to give Commodore something to contest the low-end market, but their sales were blunted by a marketing disaster which gave the public the impression that new “super-Amigas” would soon be on the market. Customers held back, creating further problems for the struggling company.

Finally, in 1994, Commodore was finished, going bankrupt and selling the intellectual property of the Amiga in order to pay its tremendous debts. Along with the Amiga died the Commodore 64, which had amazingly lasted 12 years in a market which had accelerated considerably since then. Soon after came the release of Windows 95 and the earliest 3D graphics accelerators, which would have nailed Commodore’s coffin shut, if their poor decisions hadn’t already done so. The Amiga had some final moments of glory after Commodore was gone, though – it was involved in the editing of the acclaimed science-fiction series, Babylon 5, for one thing.

Commodore may have been dead, but AmigaOS lived on – to some extent. Passing from company to company like the British contemporary, RISC OS, AmigaOS maintained a niche market of enthusiasts who were either unwilling to make the shift to the PC platform, or else wished to continue using their programs and games. The OS survives today, now at version 4.1 and being marketed by a Belgian company named Hyperion Entertainment. The nostalgic sorts can indulge themselves by using UAE (Universal Amiga Emulator), which allows one to emulate a wide variety of Amiga hardware from the earliest A1000s to the A4000s produced in 1994. UAE, as befits an open-source emulator, is available on several operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

Like the Acorn Archimedes, a British contemporary of the Amiga which was itself ahead of the IBM PCs and Apple Macintoshes of the time, the Amiga was a computer which deserved to do well. Poor marketing on the part of Commodore may have had its role, but perhaps a more likely explanation for its failure was that the market wasn’t quite ready for a multimedia computer – or one that was dominant at computer gaming.

What is perplexing, though, is that the advanced operating system didn’t provide more inspiration to its competitors – its mixture of efficient programming (today, the Kickstart ROM is only 1MB!) and advanced multitasking could probably have given more power to the PCs which took over, which only gained pre-emptive multitasking with Windows 95, a notoriously unreliable and bloated operating system. The relative homogeneity of the operating system market may have largely eliminated the problems with software compatibility, but at the cost of computing efficiency, and with mobile platforms becoming more prevalent, perhaps that’s something that programmers should be taking a closer look at.

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3 Responses

  1. Why would the best win? As in being most prevalent? Just look at Nature to see the 60% is what you get. The middling 60% on the idealized Bell Curve.

  2. […] I’ve indicated before ([1], [2], [3]), the mid-1980s transition from 8-bit to 16-bit processors in personal computers marked a turning […]

  3. […] pre-emptive multitasking operating system which was close to ten years ahead of its time. (I have discussed AmigaOS in a previous article.) Yet, despite that, it was not absurdly expensive; at an introductory price of $1,295 (with a […]

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