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The Amiga is dead. Long live the Amiga!

AmigaOS 4 launches after last Amiga compatible dies
Wed Jan 03 2007, 10:54
THE END OF 2006 brought good and bad news for nostalgic geeks.

On the plus side, an unexpected Christmas pressie: on December 24, Amiga, Inc. released AmigaOS 4.0, the all-new PowerPC version of the classic 1980s operating system.

The bad news is rather more serious, though - just a month earlier, the only remaining PowerPC Amiga-compatible went out of production, as Genesi announced that it was ending production of the Pegasos.

So although there is, at long last, a new, modern version of the OS, there's nothing to run it on. Bit of a snag, that.

But all isn't lost. The first successor to the Pegasos, Efika, a low-end motherboard based on a PowerPC system-on-a-chip intended for the embedded market, is sampling and will be available Real Soon Now(TM). Genesi is also considering a more powerful high-end dual-core machine.

Just to complicate things, though, the AmigaOS 4 betas wouldn't run on Pegasos hardware; the only machine the new OS would run on, the AmigaOne, has been out of production for years, and its creators, small British manufacturer Eyetech, have sold off their remaining stock of Amiga bits to Leaman Computing and left the business.

What's an Amiga and why should I care?
Launched in 1985, the Amiga was the first multimedia personal computer. Based like the Mac on a Motorola 68000, it sported 4,096 colour graphics, multichannel digital stereo sound and a fully preemptively-multitasking operating system - in 512K. That's kilobytes, not meg - 0.5MB of RAM and no hard disk. It's hard to convey today how advanced this was, but '85 is the same year that Windows 1.0 was released, when a top-end PC had an 80286, EGA graphics and could go "beep". EGA means sixteen colours at 640x350. My last phone did better than that. Macs of the time offered 512x384 black and white pixels and one channel of sound.

The Amiga dominated multimedia and graphics computing at the time. Babylon 5 was made possible because it used Amiga-generated special effects: cinematic quality at TV programme prices.

But even in today's Windows-dominated world, it's never gone away. The original 68000 OS continued development until 2000 - you can still buy version 3.9 from Haage & Partner in Germany today. You'll need a seriously-uprated Amiga though: recommended specs are a 68030 and 32MB of RAM. Do they think we're made of money?

Hang on - Amiga is still around?
Oh, yes. It never went away. But it's had a rough time of it.

After Commodore went bust in 1994, the Amiga line was sold off to Escom as that company expanded rapidly through multiple acquisitions - including that of British high-street electronics vendor Rumbelows. Escom grew too fast and went under in 1996, and Amiga was sold to Gateway. In 2000, a new company was set up by former Amiga employees Fleecy Moss and Bill McEwen, which licensed the name and rights from Gateway. The OS itself was sold off to KMOS, Inc. in 2003, which subsequently changed its name to Amiga, Inc.

Over the years, Amiga Inc. has tried several times to come up with a new product to recapture the Miggy magic.

The first effort was to be based on the Unix-like embedded OS QNX. It's small, fast and highly efficient, but not very Amiga-like. Negotiations broke down, though since then, QNX has boasted a GUI and multimedia support. Then there was a plan based around the Linux kernel.

Then came AmigaAnywhere, based on Tao Group's remarkable Intent OS. Intent is amazing, like Java on steroids: the entire OS and all apps are compiled for a nonexistent, generalised "Virtual Processor". Code is translated for the actual CPU as it's loaded from disk - no "virtual machine" involved. Complete binary compatibility across every supported marchitecture. It's very clever, but it's not got much to do with the original Amiga and the fans weren't very interested.

Finally, Amiga Inc. came up with an idea to get the fans on board - a new, PowerPC-native version of the Amiga OS: AmigaOS 4. This would run on new PowerPC hardware, but look and feel like an updated version of classic AmigaOS and offer backwards compatibility. Amiga no longer had the manpower to develop this in-house, so the product was licensed to Hyperion, a games house specialising in ports of Windows games for Amiga, Mac and Linux.

Pegasos: the IBM Amiga
The idea of moving to PowerPC came from Phase5, a German maker of accelerator cards for Amigas and Macs. Some of Phase5's later Amiga accelerators, the Blizzard and Cyberstorm range, featured PowerPC processors and some nifty code to allow apps to be compiled for PowerPC but run on the 68K-based Amiga OS.

As the Amiga market withered, Phase5 went under, but a group of its former engineers set up bPlan GmbH. Amongst other products, bPlan agreed to license OS4 from Amiga and make PowerPC-based Amiga-compatibles.

Around the turn of the century, things were looking very bleak for Amiga and little progress was being made. Growing impatient, bPlan set up Genesi with the management of Thendic, a vendor of embedded and Point-Of-Sale equipment, and decided to go it alone. Genesi designed a new PowerPC-based desktop machine, Pegasos, based on OpenFirmware and IBM's Common Hardware Reference Platform - the Mac/PC hybrid that was the basis of some of the last models of licensed Mac clones, which could even run the short-lived PowerPC version of Windows NT.

The Pegasos was designed and built to run Morphos. This started out as an OS for Amigas with PowerPC accelerators and required the presence of classic 68000 AmigaOS. Genesi sponsored development of a stand-alone version of Morphos for the Pegasos. Rather than re-implementing AmigaOS from scratch, this uses an entirely new microkernel, Quark, which hosts an Amiga-compatible environment, ABox. Morphos looks like an updated AmigaOS, provides 68K emulation so that it can run cleanly-written Amiga apps. There's also an emulator for code - like games - which hits the hardware directly.

The Mark 1 Pegasos has problems due to the Articia northbridge chip, causing major arguments between Genesi and chipset designer MAI Logic. Despite production of a patch chip, "April", the Pegasos I was quickly replaced by the Pegasos II with a different chipset.

So what happened with AmigaOS 4, then?
While Genesi worked on the Pegasos, Amiga made its own deal with MAI and announced a new range of PowerPC-based Amigas. The original plan was that the new machines would connect to an original Amiga 1200 or 4000 motherboard, allowing the Miggy's custom chipset to be used - for compatibility with original Amiga apps. That didn't pan out, so a simpler, all-new design was adopted based on MAI's Teron motherboards. These were put into production by Eyetech as the AmigaOne.

The snag is that AmigaOS 4 wasn't ready, so the AmigaOne shipped in 2002 with only Linux. The first public betas of OS4 followed 18 months later.

Unfortunately for Amiga, MAI went bankrupt, and unable to source bridge chips, Eyetech ended production of the AmigaOne in 2005. Only around 1,500 units were shipped.

So as of the end of 2006, AmigaOS 4.0 is finally complete, but there's no currently-shipping hardware to run it on. It's tiny, fast, can run clean classic Amiga apps and is compatible enough with the older version that veteran Amiga users - of which there were hundreds of thousands - will find it instantly familiar. But because Genesi and Amiga Inc. don't exactly see eye to eye, OS4 won't run on Pegasos - only on near-identical official Amiga hardware with Hyperion's "U-Boot" firmware.

And where's the Pegasos gone?
Genesi realised that the Amiga market was not only a small one but potentially crowded, too, and changed the emphasis of the Pegasos II from being an Amiga-compatible to being an open PowerPC desktop machine running Linux - a course that's brought it rather greater success. After Apple's move to Intel processors, the Pegasos II-based Open Desktop Workstation is the main desktop PowerPC machine. But it still runs Morphos and thus Amiga apps.

Now, though, the ODW is the latest victim of RoHS - the Reduction of Hazardous Substances legislation that amongst other things compels European manufacturers to use only lead-free solder. It's hit minority platforms particularly hard and the sad result is the end of Pegasos' flight.

The future
PowerPC was - and is - the main alternative workstation CPU to x86. Indeed, with the Nintendo Wii, Microsoft XBox 360 and Sony Playstation 3 all based on PowerPC derivatives, sales prospects for PowerPC are looking great, despite Apple defecting to Intel processors.

The story of the Amiga isn't over. The successor to Pegasos II has been announced: the Efika. This is a tiny low-end motherboard based on a PowerPC 5200 system-on-a-chip. It's not fast, but it's small, cheap, quiet and cool-running with extremely low power requirements. It's being described as ideal for use in tough or constrained environments, such as Third World education.

Amiga Inc. has also announced a similar product, codenamed "Samantha": again, a small-form-factor, highly-integrated system based around the PPC5200 SoC.

Either way, PowerPC Amigas are interesting machines. Sure, they can run Linux, from Yellow Dog to Ubuntu or Fedora, or even Gentoo if you're masochistic enough. But running Morphos or OS4 they show their real power. These tiny, elegant OSs occupy a few dozen meg of disk space, run happily in 128MB RAM and boot to their graphical desktops in seconds. Both are very fast and relatively full-featured, Internet-capable OSs, fully buzzword-compliant from MP3 to USB. Finally, they share a library of thousands of high-quality apps from the 1980s and 1990s and a lot of experienced users and developers.

The main problem they face now, though, is compatibility with one another. Genesi has done the only sane thing - gone with open standards where they exist and courted the Linux market. Amiga and Hyperion still fear the rife piracy of the 1980s, when kids traded duplicated floppies of Amiga software freely. OS4 only runs on machines with Amiga firmware. It's too late for that now: it has to run on anything with a PowerPC or it's already-meagre chances shrink to nothing. If anything, the best market for OS4 is probably on the PowerPC consoles. They have abundant anti-piracy measures built in.

If you fondly remember your old Miggy but aren't interested in this exotic minority kit, then check out the FOSS project AROS - a reimplementation of AmigaOS 3 for generic x86 hardware. It's not binary-compatible but Amiga code need only be recompiled, and it will be instantly familiar to anyone who knew the classic Amiga.

If plans come together, these future PPC5200 machines will offer a choice of OSs: as well as Linux, both Morphos and AmigaOS 4 - and maybe AROS too. Twenty-two years after its introduction, the Amiga is not quite dead yet. If you need a low-resource, high-performance Internet-ready graphical embedded or kiosk OS, even in 2007, you could do a lot worse than check out the world of the Amiga.

L'Inqs
Amiga, Inc.
AmigaOS 4.0
Genesi
bPlan
Efika
Morphos
Tao Group and Intent
AROS

 

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