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How the Suburbs Killed the Amiga Computer

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 08/09/2010

This post is about the how the suburban mediocrity broke my heart, ruined a computer platform, and the learned lessons that have dramatically colored my life ever since.

I barely escaped the suburban trap that swallowed up Commodore, thanks to the intervention of a friend who followed his dream to NY, and opened the door for me. I was uniquely prepared for the move to NYC by the unlikely presence of Commodore Computers in my back yard. That’s right—that little beige box everyone had. But I never had a C64, because it just seemed so mediocre to me. It wasn’t until the opportunity to get an Amiga Computer came along that my interest was sparked, and I got my first one in a slightly shady exchange.

My first Amiga was a broken unit retired to the junk closet of the local tech-school—tragically symbolic of the Amiga’s ultimate fate. The A1000 was liberated by a friend from it’s dusty closet, and for the $300 it took to replace the floppy drive, I found my first love, the Amiga 1000–what I perceived to be a veritable supercomputer compared to everything I had seen before. The color, the movement, the DeluxePaint program that let me tap it. I proceeded to get swept up in the biggest fanboy platform since…

…well, has there really ever been another fanboy platform like the Amiga. It’s 25 years later, and you will still find rabid fanboys fervently singing it’s praises.

Back then in 1987 I was a high school student entering Drexel University a few scant years after they named the Macintosh as the official computer every student had to buy. It was the first college to require all incoming students to buy a computer, and was a pretty big deal back then, and went a long way towards establishing the Mac in education. As an Amiga fanboy, I was mo exception, and my Readysoft Mac Emulator apparently didn’t impress Drexel. To my mind, it was ridiculous that a computer that could run Mac software while multi-tasking when the Mac couldn’t, didn’t qualify AS the prerequsite Mac. I chalked it up to politics and begrudgingly bought a Mac, and entered the heart of a enemy territory.

Meanwhile, I was actively involved in the Philadelphia Amiga Users Group, or PAUG, which met at Drexel but was about to loose it’s faculty sponsorship and meeting place unless it found a student to sponsor it as a student activity. See the dots starting to connect? I soon became the president of the group and the student sponsor securing its room at the college. Membership was over 200 at its peek, and a single meeting could turn out 100 people easily. I wrote for the newsletter, and led quite a few the meetings of these wacky free-thinking nerds. It was quite a high for someone my age before the Internet and YouTube.

At exactly the same time, it turns out that the executives du jour at Commodore just happened to be forming an Educational Marketing department, and were looking for on-campus student representatives. At a trade-show where I was helping to man the PAUG booth, I was told that there were a couple of Commodore executives that were looking for me. What?!?!

I met up with them, and they were surprised our club didn’t have its own computer, and that we had to lug our own to every meeting. So, they set our user group up with an Amiga 2000, which at subsequent user group meeting, we managed to blow a floppy drive. We called our Executive angels, and they said send it in for a repair, I was like, why don’t I just drive it out there? They agreed, and upon arriving, I got a whirlwind tour of the place, was brought to the cafeteria, and met the president du jour, Harry Copperman, an Apple executive retread, and reason the education department was getting a lot of clout.

By the end of it, I had my summer job–working at Commodore! Put yourself in my shoes for a moment. This is the ultimate fanboy’s dream, and was the single biggest single thing that ever happened to me to set my life course. But I probably should have taken the Easter Egg warning left planted deep embedded in the Amiga 1000, when you hold Left-Shift, Left-Alt, Right-Shift and Right-Alt, pressed a Function key and popped in a floppy disk when there were no hands left over. The message read: “We made the Amiga. They fucked it up”.

The full, deep and profound meaning of that message, and how it was to become a recurring theme in my life was lost on me. I, like so many people, was like, well Commodore was successful with the C64. How could they possibly screw up the Amiga. But they did. And I went futilely to two of the Commodore shareholder meetings that were held by this time fortified against their very users and shareholders, at the Lyford Cay Club in the Bahamas, to talk to Irving Gould. And Commodore went under, and I hopped ship to a local Commodore spin-off, that also captured its fair portion of the element the Easter Egg was talking about.

Again, little did I know exactly what it meant to be suburban. And no matter how much the Commodore engineers I came to know would insist it was marketing that killed the Amiga, I am utterly convinced it was suburbia. A beacon of excellence was dragged kicking and screaming into the middle of nowhere. It drove away the founders, who retreated back to Silicon Valley. It was crammed into the C128 box, a successor to the C64 which never sold very well. It was crammed again into a big ugly PC case. All this energy of changing its form-factor never went into actually improving the number of colors, the speed of the famous co-possessor chips… until of course it was too late, and utterly overtaken by the PC industry.

I spent 8 years of my career at the Commodore spin-off, baffled at why the work which I produced and perceived to be world-class was still actually amounting to nothing for me. That’s not to say it didn’t have its impact on the company, and was later recognized as one of the key factors resulting in a turn-around and achieving of profitability. But while I was there, I was faced with mind-numbing condescension from people who frankly were not on a sufficient elevation to condescend.

I was like a the proverbial fish who isn’t aware of water. I viewed the Amiga 1000 Easter Egg from the Commodore side, saying “oh, those irreverent developers”. I undervalued my passion and work-ethic, chalking it up to “some get lucky and some don’t”. I never saw the connection to the suburban existence. Collect enough mediocrity together, and drip a drop of excellence into it, and it will be diluted and absorbed into the body.

Now, 25 years after the launch of the Amiga 1000, and 5 years into living in New York City, I see the world from the other side. A great work ethic, passion, and good ideas can amount to something. All the factors around you that either contribute or detract from that effort. For many, it is the start-up culture of Silicon Valley. For me, it seems to be the energy and recognition of New York. Either way, excellence is all around you as a basis for comparison.

Now its time for me to spot the “next big thing”… for me in my career. And I believe I have done it. Even though everything now feels anti-climatic in comparison to the Amiga Computer, there is something brewing. In part, it’s coming from the iPhone and iPad, which are re-calibrating expectations in computing in a way I have not seen happen since the Amiga. And in part, its coming from open source, which lets you breath surprising functional life into a surprising variety of devices.

As much as I would love to go the iPhone/iPad direction, I just cannot get myself to take the plunge into Objective C and expose myself to heartbreak.

Building up my platform virtually from scratch on the other hand, to create a sort of whack-a-mole server to do my bidding, leveraging 25 years of kooky platform know-how, well that’s another matter entirely, and is where I’m devoting my current energies.