January 30th, 2016

Hard Stare

Fallen giants - comparing the '80s second-generation home computers

A friend of mine who is a Commodore enthusiast commented that if the company had handled it better, the Amiga would have killed the Apple Mac off.

But I wonder. I mean, the $10K Lisa ('83) and the $2.5K Mac ('84) may only have been a year or two before the $1.3K Amiga 1000 ('85), but in those years, chip prices were plummeting -- maybe rapidly enough to account for the discrepancy.

The 256kB Amiga 1000 was half the price of the original 128kB Mac a year earlier.

Could Tramiel's Commodore have sold Macs at a profit for much less? I'm not sure. Later, yes, but then, Mac prices fell, and anyway, Apple has long been a premium-products-only sort of company. But the R&D process behind the Lisa & the Mac was long, complex & expensive. (Yes, true, it was behind the Amiga chipset, too, but less so on the OS -- the original CAOS got axed, remember. The TRIPOS thing was a last-minute stand-in, as was Arthur/RISC OS on the Acorn Archimedes.)

The existence of the Amiga also pushed development of the Mac II, the first colour model. (Although I think it probably more directly prompted the Apple ][GS.)

It's much easier to copy something that someone else has already done. Without the precedent of the Lisa, the Mac would have been a much more limited 8-bit machine with a 6809. Without the precedent of the Mac, the Amiga would have been a games console.


I think the contrast between the Atari ST and the Sinclair QL, in terms of business decisions, product focus and so on, is more instructive.
The QL could have been one of the imporant 2nd-generation home computers. It was launched a couple of weeks before the Mac.
But Sinclair went too far with its hallmark cost-cutting on the project, and the launch date was too ambitious. The result was a 16-bit machine that was barely more capable than an 8-bit one from the previous generation. Most of the later 8-bit machines had better graphics and sound; some (Memotech, Elan Enterprise) as much RAM, and some (e.g. the SAM Coupé) also supported built-in mass storage.
But Sinclair's OS, QDOS, was impressive. An excellent BASIC, front & centre like an 8-bit machine, but also full multitasking, modularity so it readily handled new peripherals -- but no GUI by default.
The Mac, similarly RAM deprived and with even poorer graphics, blew it away. Also, with the Lisa and the Mac, Apple had spotted that the future lay in GUIs, which Sinclair had missed -- the QL didn't get its "pointer environment" until later, and when it did, it was primitive-looking. Even the modern version is:



Atari, entering the game a year or so later, had a much better idea where to spend the money. The ST was an excellent demonstration of cost-cutting. Unlike the bespoke custom chipsets of the Mac and the Amiga, or Sinclair's manic focus on cheapness, Atari took off-the-shelf hardware and off-the-shelf software and assembled something that was good enough. A decent GUI, an OS that worked well in 512kB, graphics and sound that were good enough. Marginally faster CPU than an Amiga, and a floppy format interchangeable with PCs.
Yes, the Amiga was a better machine in almost every way, but the ST was good enough, and at first, significantly cheaper. Commodore had to cost-trim the Amiga to match, and the first result, the Amiga 500, was a good games machine but too compromised for much else.

The QL was built down to a price, and suffered for it. Later replacement motherboards and third-party clones such as the Thor fixed much of this, but it was no match for the GUI-based machines.

The Mac was in some ways a sort of cut-down Lisa, trying to get that ten-thousand-dollar machine down to a more affordable quarter of the price. Sadly, this meant losing the hard disk and the innovative multitasking OS, which were added back later in compromised form -- the latter cursed the classic MacOS until it was replaced with Mac OS X at the turn of the century.

The Amiga was a no-compromise games machine, later cleverly shoehorned into the role of a very capable multimedia GUI coomputer.

The ST was also built down to a price, but learned from the lessons of the Mac. Its spec wasn't as good as the Amiga, its OS wasn't as elegant as the Mac, but it was good enough.

The result was that games developers aimed at both, limiting the quality of Amiga games to the capabilities of the ST. The Amiga wasn't differentiated enough -- yes, Commodore did high-end three-box versions, but the basic machines remained too low-spec. The third-generation Amiga 1200 had a faster 68020 chip which the OS didn't really utilise, it had provision for a built-in hard disk which was an optional extra. AmigaOS was a pain to use with only floppies, like the Mac -- whereas the ST's ROM-based OS was fairly usable with a single drive. A dual-floppy-drive Amiga was the minimum usable spec, really, and it benefited hugely from a hard disk -- but Commodore didn't fit one.

The ST killed the Amiga, in effect. By providing an experience that was nearly as good in the important, visible ways, Commodore had to price-cut the Amiga to keep it competitive, hobbling the lower-end models. And as games were written to be portable between them both without too much work, they mostly didn't exploit the Amiga's superior abilities.

Acorn went its own way with the Archimedes -- it shared almost no apps or games with the mainstream machines, and while its OS is still around, it hasn't kept up with the times and is mainly a curiosity. Acorn kept its machines a bit higher-end, having affordable three-box models with hard disks right from the start, and focused on the educational niche where it was strong.

But Acorn's decision to go its own way was entirely vindicated -- its ARM chip is now the world's best-selling CPU. Both Microsoft and Apple OSes run on ARMs now. In a way, it won.

The poor Sinclair QL, of course, failed in the market and Amstrad killed it off when it was still young. But even so, it inspired a whole line of successors -- the CST Thor, the ICL One-Per-Desk (AKA Merlin Tonto, AKA Telecom Australia ComputerPhone), the Qubbesoft Aurora replacement main board and later the Q40 and Q60 QL-compatible PC-style motherboards. It had the first ever multitasking OS for a home computer, QDOS, which evolved into SMSQ/e and moved over to the ST platform instead. It's now open source, too.

And Linus Torvalds owned a QL, giving him a taste for multitasking so that he wrote his own multitasking OS when he got a PC. That, of course, was Linux.

The Amiga OS is still limping along, now running on a CPU line -- PowerPC -- that is also all but dead. The open-source version, AROS, is working on an ARM port, which might make it slightly more relevant, but it's hard to see a future or purpose for the two PowerPC versions, MorphOS and AmigaOS 4.

The ST OS also evolved, into a rich multitasking app environment for PCs and Macs (MagiC) and into a rich multitasking FOSS version, AFROS, running on an emulator on the PC, Aranym. A great and very clever little project but which went nowhere, as did PC GEM, sadly.

All of these clever OSes -- AROS, AFROS, QDOS AKA SMSQ/E. All went FOSS too late and are forgotten. Me, I'd love Raspberry Pi versions of any and all of them to play with!

In its final death throes, a flailing Atari even embraced the Transputer. The Atari ABAQ could run Parhelion's HELIOS, another interesting long-dead OS. Acorn's machines ran one of the most amazing OSes I've ever seen, TAOS, which nearly became the next-generation Amiga OS. That could have shaken up the industry -- it was truly radical.

And in a funny little side-note, the next next-gen Amiga OS after TAOS was to be QNX. It didn't happen, but QNX added a GUI and rich multimedia support to its embedded microkernel OS for the deal. That OS is now what powers my Blackberry Passport smartphone. Blackberry 10 is now all but dead -- Blackberry has conceded the inevitable and gone Android -- but BB10 is a beautiful piece of work, way better than its rivals.

But all the successful machines that sold well? The ST and Amiga lines are effectively dead. The Motorola 68K processor line they used is all but dead, too. So is its successor, PowerPC.

So it's the two niche machines that left the real legacy. In a way, Sinclair Research did have the right idea after all -- but prematurely. It thought that the justification for 16-bit home/business computers was multitasking. In the end, it was, but only in the later 32-bit era: the defining characteristic of the 16-bit era was bringing the GUI to the masses. True robust multitasking for all followed later. Sinclair picked the wrong feature to emphasise -- even though the QL post-dated the Apple Lisa, so the writing was there on the wall for all to see.

But in the end, the QL inspired Linux and the Archimedes gave us the ARM chip, the most successful RISC chip ever and the one that could still conceivably drive the last great CISC architecture, x86, into extinction.

Funny how things turn out.