Well, this sucks. Long time ago I'd hoped to being back some articles of mine for potential discussion by placing them here as jounal entries. But then I was disheartened to see it archives them very quickly (on the scheme of things) so that comments cannot be posted. I wonder if there are other interactive, journal-like systems out there???
(Originally posted to the internet December 23, 1999)
The anti-trust lawsuit underway by the Department of Justice against Microsoft has brought the bickering between pro-Microsoft and anti-Microsoft camps into the spotlight. As always, the anti's say MS is an evil empire that has the intention of crushing all the other companies, who happen to be the innovators that MS stole all their ideas from. On the other side, the pro's claim MS is an innovator of their own, and that without Microsoft, the computing world would be too complicated for the average user. I heard the latter argument myself recently, which is what finally triggered me to vent my frustration into this column.
Well, not every company besides Microsoft innovates. Other companies steal ideas from each other every day. And there are (rare) occasions when Microsoft itself actually does innovate.
But what I am going to present here is why the computing world would be no different -- or, rather, no worse, because it could certainly have turned out better -- if Microsoft had never existed. In fact, the only achievement I think Bill Gates deserves praise for was developing BASIC on the Altair 8800.
Which, nicely enough, was his first achievement. Together with Paul Allen, Bill Gates designed the first programming environment for the first major PC. Of course, it required more memory than the Altair shipped with, which required MITS to invent a memory expansion kit just to run it. (Yes, the forefather of modern bloatware, from none other than the company who has made bloatware a household word these days.) Anyway, before their BASIC environment came along, the Altair was not for just anyone - programming was done in machine code using switches and LEDs on the front panel, and there wasn't even an operating system. Afterwards, it was vastly easier to program and use the Altair, which meant more people could use it... and the home computer revolution was born.
Bill Gates did some other similar projects over the years, but by then, other people had taken his example. Most new home computers started shipping with BASIC standard (occasionally, they contracted Gates/Microsoft to write it, too). With the ease-of-use question out of the way, the market was proliferating with cheaper, faster, more colorful computers. Computer giants like Atari, TI, Sinclair, Apple, and Commodore all had machines on the market that were fairly close in specs. Some were cheaper, some had better expansion capabilities, some were smaller and lighter, etc. But there wasn't a real clear edge.
Somewhere along the line, IBM decided to get into the thick of things, and rolled out the IBM Personal Computer. They too needed an OS for their machine, and Digital Research was behind in their schedule for releasing CPM/86. But Microsoft had the answer: 86-DOS. formerly known as QDOS - QD stood for "Quick and Dirty." Microsoft hadn't even created QDOS, the had bought it from Seattle Computer Products. The IBM PC became a hit among businesses, simply because of the brand name.
Then, Xerox finished some research on a new-fangled graphical user iterface, and had assembled a system called the Star to show it off. Xerox cancelled the commercialization of the Star,though, so it wasn't until Steve Jobs of Apple visited one day that it actually affected the computer market. He became bent on making a computer with a next-generation operating system that was vastly easier to use than the command-line BASIC systems before it. After a failed start on the overprised Lisa series, it finally came to market with the Macintosh.
The computer for the masses. No combersome command-line interface. It, like the Star, used the window-icon-pointer system, with a simple one-button mouse. And the other companies had a hard time taking it seriously.
Microsoft, for example, laughed it down. By now, Bill Gates was living by the guiding principle that one day every computer in the world would run software from Microsoft. And he was developing the "evil empire" characteristics he is so famous for now, even back then.
It was now the mid-80's. The Macintosh wasn't the only GUI in town anymore. The Amiga and the Atari ST were unvieled, both with features that put them above any other computer around. And a few PC/Clone companies were getting some ideas about making a graphical front-end interface on top of Microsoft's DOS. It wasn't until Gates saw one of these interfaces being demoed at a trade show that he finally took the GUI seriously. And then, he set out to do what he does best.
Scrambling to outdo the competition, Microsoft threw together Windows 1.0, the second windowing interface released for MS-DOS. And, of course, since Microsoft owned DOS, it was fairly easy to outmanuever the competition. Just change a couple commands here, a few API calls there... Eventually, Windows 3 rolled around, with an overhauled GIU based on VGA graphics (remember, all PCs had when Windows 1 came out was 4-color CGA), which was much closer to the Star and the other GUIs of the time. So far, it was just playing catch-up.
Now it was time to actually make something better. So what does Microsoft do? It joins with IBM in developing OS/2. However, IBM and Microsoft just couldn't live with each other, and they broke the cooperation effort. A court ruled that both companies could take the current joint code and use it as their own, but only IBM could use the OS/2 trademark. Shortly afterwards, Microsoft released their version: Windows NT.
WinNT is nothing like OS/2 now, of course, because it's been through years of changes. The new NT5.0 has a new kernel, too -- naturally, it isn't a kernel Microsoft wrote either, it's one they licensed from DEC. They made WinNT 32-bit (again, playing catch-up to the other 'modern' OSes) and slowly incorporated some of it's features back into the old Windows for Windows 4.0, what we know now as Windows95. And now, after years of promising, Microsoft is finally replacing the DOS/Windows series with OS/2,..er, Windows NT.
So far, I fail to see any real innovation on Microsoft's part. I also fail to see why computing would be any worse now than if Microsoft weren't around. Even if a better OS than QDOS hadn't been chosen, graphical front-ends were being created for it before Microsoft ever started. OS/2 would have been there as the next age, with or without Microsoft. And even if that hadn't happened, much better OSes were already around on the Amiga, Atari, and Macintosh. There was enough competition there that they would have continued to bring about new features and advancements, had Commodore and Atari not been driven out of business.
Yes, Commodore and Atari had some real innovators in their crew. Well, more appropriately, Atari had them, and then they left and went to Amiga, which was bought by Commodore. Jay Miner is one in particular, for without him computer graphics might be generations behind where they are today. Without the minds behind the Amiga OS, like Carl Sassenrath, the PC world would not have had the example of excellence to look up to for the decade that they took to equal it. That, my friends, is innovation and worthy of honor.
Let's take a look somewhere else. Say... Browsers and Java. It starts at the NCSA, where Mosaic was born as the first graphical WWW browser. It was free, being developed by college students by grants. Some of the people graduated and got capitalistic, and started their own companies to continue development of their own browsers.
One of these was Netscape. Netscape took the HTML language and made some enhancements to it, most of which were integrated into HTML 2 and HTML 3.2. The main problem with what they did was that there was already a HTML standard, and new standards were being released through the W3C. Netscape's additions set the precident for incompatibilities among the vendors - which is the problem below.
Meanwhile, Microsoft bought another company's browser and renamed it Internet Explorer. They did some development to it, but it was buggy and feature-less even at version 2.0. But Gates didn't care, because he didn't realize the Web was anything important.
In fact, it wasn't until Netscape reached version 3.0, which included Sun's brand-new platform-independant Java, that Microsoft took notice. All the sudden, Java was a buzzword. Now you could write a program with Java, and you could run it on almost any computer platform there was. And you could even use it across the web to create new interactive media. This made Microsoft nervous. Over the last many years, Microsoft had thrived on the self-perpetuating cycle of dominance: since Windows owns most the PC market share, most programs are written for Windows. Since most programs are written for Windows, most people want to run Windows on their computers. Platform-independance was a threat to that. If programs were made to run on any platform, Microsoft would have to actually make Windows a competitive offering to other OSes, or people would just buy the OS that ran Java the best. And considering Java was made by Sun, the possibility that Sun's Solaris OS would be that platform was a guarantee.
Microsoft created new classes for Java that made many things about creating large applications easier. But there was just one problem (or feature) with it. Namely, it tied the application to Windows, or at the least, a platform with one of Microsoft's interpreters, like inside IE3/4 on the Macintosh. And Microsoft made sure to limit how widely they ported IE. Despite claims that they would be more cross-platform supportive than Netscape, IE continues to only have one Unix port, and a poor 16-bit Windows port, while Netscape has a very complete 16-bit Windows version as well as a dozen ports for various Unix platforms.
Again, I really fail to see where they have innovated. It's more desperation here than innovation. Now, sure, Netscape was based entirely upon Mosiac, and they've done some stupid things of their own, but my focus here is on Microsoft. Without Microsoft, we'd still have a great web experience.
I can go on about other markets. Like word processors. I don't see much about Word that makes it any more innovative than WordPerfect. And WordPerfect has been around for as long as Word has. Even on the tiny market of the Amiga, there are some word processors that could stand up to Word, and they don't even directly compete. Where would we be without Word? Probably exactly where we are today.
So, now you see why I don't think too highly of claims that Microsoft is an innovator in the industry. And I also don't understand how Microsoft has done anything good for us that wouldn't have come from someone else anyway.
Computer user since 1985
(Originally posted to the internet December 3, 1999)
Well, this turned out to be about half history, half commentary. So if you know all about the Amiga's history, you can skip down a bit. If not, read on, and learn why the Amiga is in the position it is today.
The Amiga computer, an innovation in 1985, was slowly repressed over the years by it's own company. One advanced project after another was cancelled or reshaped into something inferior, and by the time Commodore finally killed itself in 1995, the Amiga was barely (if at all) keeping up with the PCs and Macs of the time. But, in the midst of the Commodore bankruptcy, several other companies (such as Commodore-UK, Commodore's US distributer, and even a big-league player -- Dell) stepped forward with offers to buy Commodore's properties, all with various promises of what they would do for the Amiga's future. After all, the Amiga was the only thing useful of Commodore's anymore.
After a year of postponed deadlines, the Bahamian court finally ended the auction and Commodore was bought by a german PC manufacturer ESCOM. They created a subsidiary called Amiga International to coordinate the production of the current Amiga models and develop a roadmap to a future platform. After another year, things weren't much different. AI had some ideas, and they were designing a new system, but in those two years the Amiga had ben left in the dust. Nothing AI was planning would even be a catch-up system to current PCs and Macs.
Now, some other companies stepped in. In particular, phase5, a german company known for it's accellerators and graphics cards. phase5 ushered in the next generation for the Amiga with dual-processor PowerPC/680x0 add-on boards for the existing computers. The idea was to do what Apple had done, move the computer frmo the 68k processor to the PPC, but in a slower manner as dictated by the tiny market. The idea was to eventually port the Amiga OS to PowerPC, and include a 68k emulator. Then, you could remove the 68k from the picture altogether while still retaining 100% compatibility with existing applications.
AI endorsed phase5's plan, saying they would not only license a PPC port of the OS, but would do so for any CPU. They envisioned a CPU independant architecture... but that would never fly. Each port would have to emulate all the other CPUs for compatibility, and developers would still have to compile their programs for each different CPU so that they could get the most performance out of it. People clamored for AI to decide on one future standard CPU, but AI didn't have the chance.
In 1997, a year after ESCOM had bought the bankrupt Commodore, ESCOM itself went bankrupt. Once again, the Amiga community was left in painful limbo, wondering who would hold the future of the Amiga this time. The answer was more shocking than ESCOM had been -- it was none other than the largest direct-market PC manufacturer, Gateway2000. (It's funny to note that Gateway's closest competitor is Dell... Take a look back at the first liquidation bidders.) Now the rumors started. Would they merge the Amiga and the PC? Would they make a set-top box out of it? Would they throw it away, since they had only bought it for the numerous patents?
Well, it turns out, they had intended to do the latter. But once they started recieving thousands of emails about their plans for the future, they decided they should make a plan for the future. And so Amiga, Inc was born. Amiga International still existed, and would handle marketing and licensing, while Amiga, Inc. would be purely R&D. And with Gateway's deep pockets, almost anything seemed possible.
The first thing that came out was that they weren't going to be coming out with anything. They did decide they would release a minor upgrade to the OS, v3.5, but they wouldn't elaborate much further into the future. Jeff Schindler just kept saying they needed time to lay out a 5-year development roadmap, and that it had to be finished before it could be announced.
In the meantime, life in Amiga-land went on as it had before. We had little official guidance from a parent company since '95 (or earlier), and we were used to it. Sick of it, but used to it. The PPC cards were finally released, cool new graphics cards come out, new 100%-compatible chipsets are announced, redesigned motherboards with new buses like PCI, and so forth. But time was taking it's toll. As I look out at the shareware scene, I can tell things aren't as great as they used to be.
But, eventually, we did get to hear the plan for the new Amigas, in 1998. But it wasn't quite what we expected. Basically, Amiga is starting a new age, with a completely new OS on a completely new architecture. The only thing that is the same is the philosophy.
(Okay, now the history is out of the way. Here's the real program.)
You see, Amiga Inc. has declared the current Amiga architecture as legacy, now commonly termed Amiga Classic. This is the Amiga we all know and sometimes love. This is the Amiga that runs all our software. This is the Amiga that drives the Video Toaster / Flyer. This is the Amiga that is just now beginning to get critical mass in the PPC area so that a more complete PPC solution could be made. This is the Amiga that hasn't had an OS or chipset upgrade since 1994.
And in a year or so, there will be a new Amiga, commonly called AmigaNG. I nicknamed it Amiga II myself. But the most important thing to remember is that it is _not_ the Amiga we all know and sometimes love. It _might_ include enough emulation to run all our software. It _won't_ drive the Video Toaster / Flyer. And it would have futuristic multimedia capabilities with no compatibility to the above-mentioned chipset.
Some people are upset. Some people are overjoyed. I was... both.
I'm sad that official Amiga Classic development will halt with OS3.5. I'm sad that I may never be able to upgrade my aging A2000 to anything better than it is now. I'm afraid that companies like phase5 and Haage&Partner will collapse as the Amiga Classic market can only shrink from here, and that would mean the end of the road for the amazing Amiga that was born in 1985.
I'm glad, however, to see a new "alternative" platform emerge. I like the idea of an OS with design goals similar to that of the Amiga being used in TVs, game consoles, network appliances, and desktops. The QNX/AmigaOS 5 should be interesting, and it's future seems bright and promising.
But the name Amiga is misleading. Jeff Schindler invites the Amiga community to evangelize the Amiga name. But what do I, a user of a 10+ year old Amiga 2000, have to do with the Amiga II? It might have a few similar philosophies, but so does BeOS, or perhaps QNX. What Jeff asks the Amiga community to do is like Microsoft asking MS-DOS users to evangelize about Windows2000 against Linux or the Macintosh, just because it's got the Microsoft label.
Regardless, the Amiga community is accepting the Amiga II plans. We waited eagerly to hear that QNX was the kernel partner for the OS. Now we wait eagerly to find out what the Magical Mystery Chip is that is supposed to be the heart of the new architecture. We are accepting the doom of the Amiga we know so that the Amiga can rise again. But is it really the Amiga? If it doesn't have a backwards- compatible custom chipset, is it an Amiga? If it's not Intuition- based, is it an Amiga? If the kernel isn't Exec, is it an Amiga? If it's not on a 68000, is it an Amiga?* If it doesn't have a keyboard garage, is it an Amiga?**
*: Some people asked the same thing when the Macintosh became the PowerMac. I still call it a Mac...
**: This question was raised in 1987, regarding the A500 and A2000 replacing the A1000. I still call them Amigas...
So, the question is, where do we draw the line? Amiga Inc says the philosophy is the same, so that's that. "So what" to the fact you won't be running ImageFX or Lightwave3D or Arkanoid; it's still an Amiga anyway. I drew the line somewhere else, though. It has a new CPU. It has a new OS. It has new APIs. It has new market targets. The only link it has to Amiga Classic is the possibility of running the UAE Amiga emulator - but if that makes it an Amiga, then my Win95 PC can be called an Amiga, too.
People say that the Amiga Classic is too far gone to be ressurrected, and that the only thing to do is start from scratch. Believe me, I know how outdated the Amiga is. I haven't upgraded my A2000's graphics, so they're still at 1987's standards. Yet I did manage to make the very same A2000 my only computer until just a year and a half ago. And if phase5 had pulled through with a PowerPC card for the 2000 series (currently, they only support the A3000, A4000, and A1200) I might not have even done it then. And consider this: Index is creating a brand new chipset that is register-level compatible with AGA, while at the same time having 16-bit audio and SVGA video modes, with a 32-bit core and a much wider and faster memory bus. Combine that with their planned new motherboard that has both ZorroIII and PCI slots and an improved processor interface, and you have a real Amiga that is at least as good as current PC offerings. It's not even the fabled 'AAA' chipset, but I'd kill for one of these puppies. Who knows, maybe with some more time and money, they could bring the Amiga out to the front again.
Why am I not content to let brave companies like Index do it all themselves? Because there aren't enough of them left. I can count the number of good hardware developers for the Amiga on one hand. Without some central direction, that number will only decrease. AmigaOS3.5 is one small step in that direction, because they are forcing phase5 and H&P to set a standard and create a unified PowerPC interface in what is now a splintered and incompatible market. But AmigaOS3.5 is also the final step for the Amiga Classic, at least from Amiga itself.
Jeff, I love your plans for Amiga II. I just wish you could have taken those dreams and named it something different. And someone else could have given us official PPC standards, official RTG/RTA standards, new chipsets... I'm not asking for a return to glory, but these are the things that I need to make the computer I love - the AMIGA - an even more enjoyable computer to use.
And all we have now is a name.
Amiga veteran since 1987