The name badge says it all, Jay Miner, VIP, Father of the Amiga. During my recent jaunt to the A4000 launch in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to meet and talk to Jay as he cast his fatherly eye over the next generation of the architecture he created all those years ago. We talked and ate as he reiterated the fascinating history of the secret project that resulted in the birth of a remarkable machine, which has survived mainly because of his foresight and supreme effort. It was all far from plain sailing, however, and plenty of skullduggery was afoot from a number of parties, not least the design team themselves!
The story about the Amiga's genesis has been told before, but it is only relatively recently that Jay and Commodore have been seeing eye to eye about the machine and its evolution. Also, there are many little anecdotes untold before now...
"The story starts in the early 1980`s with a company not originally called Amiga, but Hi Toro, which was started by Dave Morris, our president, but before all that I used to work with Atari and I wanted to do a 68000 machine with them. We had just finished the Atari 800 box and they were not about to spend another umpteen dollars on research for a 16-bit machine and the processor chip itself cost $100 apiece. RAM was also real expensive and you need twice as much. They couldn't see the writing on the wall and they just said "No", so I quit!".
Jay Miner is not a man to say "No" to, and it's quite clear that Atari must still be regretting their myopic decision. Anyway, Jay still held the concept of an all-powerful 16-bit machine but the bills had to be paid.
"I went to a chip company called Xymos as I knew the guy who started it. He gave me some stock and it looked like an interesting startup company (I've worked for a lot of new companies). Going back to Atari, Larry Caplan was one of the top programmers on the Atari 2600 video game. Him and the other programmers wanted a pay rise, or at least a small royalty, a nickel per cartridge in fact, on the software that was selling like crazy. Atari was making a fortune and they said "No" so they all said "Goodbye" and they went off and started a little company called Activision. Larry rang me up about two years later in early '82 and said he wasn't happy at Activision and suggested we start up a company. I had a lot of stock in Xymos and suggested we get some outside finance from back East. We hired a little office on Scott Boulevard, Santa Clara and they got a Texas millionaire to put up some money. He liked the idea of a new video game company which is what Larry Caplan wanted to do. He was going to do the software. I had an idea about designing a games machine that was expandable to a real computer and he though that was a great idea but didn't tell any of his investors. I moved to Santa Clara from Xymos. They were still called Hi Toro but the investors wern't too keen so they chose "Amiga" and I didn't like it much - I thought using a Spanish name wasn't such a good move. I was wrong!"
The design team at Hi Toro/Amiga was assembled from a bunch of people over the next few months. Jay says that they were looking for people not just interested in a job, but with a passion for the Amiga (codenamed Lorraine after the president's wife) and the immense potential it offered.
"We worked out a deal whereby I got a salary and some stock and I also got to bring my dog Mitchy into work every day. Dave did reserve the right to go back on that one if anyone else objected but Mitchy was very popular."
I asked Jay to sum up what it was like to work on the Amiga:
"The great things about working on the Amiga? Number one I was allowed to take my dog to work and that set the tone for the whole atmosphere of the place. It was more than just companionship with Mitchy - the fact that she was there meant that the other people wouldn't be too critical of some of those we hired, who were quite frankly weird. There were guys coming to work in purple tights and pink bunny slippers. Dale Luck looked like your average off-the-street homeless hippy with long hair and was pretty laid back. In fact the whole group was pretty laid back. I wasn't about to say anything - I knew talent when I saw it and even Parasseau [the "Evangelist] who spread the word] was a bit weird in a lot of ways. The job gets done and that's all that matters. I didn't care how solutions came about even if people were working at home.
"There were a lot of various arguments and the way most were sorted out was by hitting each other with the foam baseball bats. The stung a bit if you got hit hard. There was a conflict in the fundamental design philosophy with some like RJ Mical wanting the low cost video game (the investors side, you might say). Others like Dale Luck and Carl Sassenrath wanted the best computer expansion capability for the future. This battle of cost was never ending, being internal; among us as well as with the investors and Commodore.
"You go through stages in any large project like the Amiga of thinking "This looks great and it's going to sell really well", and then things go wrong and you just want to quit!"
The unique spirit at Amiga was such that people worked tirelessly on their various projects, remembering that the software was well on the way to completion before any silicon had been pounded into the graphics chips. Carl Sassenrath was brought in to do the operating system and was asked at the interview "What would you like to design?". He just replied that he wanted to do a multi-tasking operating system, and thus was born the Exec which lies at the very heart of the Amiga. Carl has maintained his close links with Commodore and was instrumental in designing CDTV. Incredible really that they opted for such a sophisticated backdrop for a games machine. Already, strange things were afoot....
"I started thinking about what we wanted to design. Right from the beginning I wanted to do a computer like the A2000 with lots of expansion slots for drives, a keyboard etc. I'd also read a bit about blitters and so I talked with a friend called Ron Nicholson who was also interested in them and he came to join us. We came up with all sorts of functions for the blitter. Line drawing was added much later at the request of Dale Luck, one of our software guys. This was about two weeks before the CES show where the Amiga was unveiled. I told him we can't put that in there as the chips were nearly done and there wasn't enough room. He fiddled about and showed me what registers were needed, so in it went".
The chips took three designers including Jay (who did the Agnus) almost two years to design (1982-84) and throughout this time the ever-expanding software team were working on what became the Amiga's operating system libraries and such like. They had a pretty tough job writing for the most advanced, radical hardware ever conceived for a home machine, and which didn't really exist, except for a zillion and one ideas and a white board of obscure diagrams.
"Once you've got the design concept for the chips, all you need to do then is pick names for the registers and tell the software people something like "I'm going to have a register here that's going to hold the colours for this part and it's called whatever." They can the simulate it in their software. We then built hardware simulators called bread boards and that was a chore. We originally did the chips using the NMOS process which has much higher current consumption than the state of the art CMOS. I'm surprised that Commodore haven't re-designed the chips in CMOS which is the big stumbling block to bringing out a protable. We did that because at the time, CMOS was much slower than NMOS and not as reliable. It's now much faster, so why are Commodore still using NMOS for some of their chips?"
"Hold and Modify came from a trip to see flight simulators in action and I had a kind of idea about a primitive type of virtual reality. NTSC on the chip meant you could hold the Hue and change the luminance by only altering four bits. When we changed to RGB I said that wasn't needed any more at it wasn't useful and I asked the chip layout guy to take it off. He came back and said that this would either leave a big hole in the middle of the chip or take a three-month redesign and we couldn't do that. I didn't think anyone would use it. I was wrong again as that has really given the Amiga its edge in terms of the colour palette."
It was Commodore who wanted to leave things as NTSC/PAL output. We wanted to make them RGB but monitors were so expensive in those days - IBM's and Mac's were monochrome. I'd put the converter on the chip and this was a very low cost way of doing things as it saved a lot of parts, but by the time Commodore bought us, the bottom had fallen out of the video game market and we were moving more towards a computer so Commodore agreed to finance RGB as well.
Seeing pictures of the early Amiga, it's almost impossible to imagine that the piles of wires and boards could eventually be reduced to something the size of an A500. The first Agnus was three lots of eight bread boards, each with 250 chips, and this was repeated for the other two custom chips which were nicknamed Daphne and Portia in those days and metamorphosed into Denise and Paula.
"Those were a nightmare to keep running with all the connections keeping breaking down. They're still around somewhere. We hired lots of other people to design peripherals which kept the notorious silicon valley spies away from the office. All they could see were joysticks and they weren't too much of a threat."
"In 1983 we made a motherboard for the breads to be plugged in, took this to the CES show and we showed some little demos to selected people away from the main floor. At the show itself, they wrote the bouncing ball demo and this blew people away. They couldn't believe that all this wiring was going to be three chips. The booming noise of the ball was Bob Parasseau hitting a foam baseball bat against our garage door. It was sampled on an Apple ][ and the data massaged into Amiga samples. CES was really important to us as we were getting short of money and the response from that show really lifted the team. We were still short of money and several re-mortgages later we managed to keep up with the payroll. It's amazing how much it costs to pay 15 or 20 people!"
With things running desperately close, Amiga were forced to look for more finance to keep the ball bouncing. They turned eventually to Jay's old employer, Atari:
"Atari gave us $500,000 with the stipulation that we had one month to come to a deal with them about the future of the Amiga chipset or pay them back, or they got the rights. This was a dumb thing to agree to but there was no choice."
They offered $1 per share but Amiga were hoping for much more than that. The offer was refused and as Atari knew about the troubles of Amiga, they then cut the offer to 85 cents a share. Commodore stepped in at the last minute to scoop the prize from under the noses of their arch rivals and take the Amiga for themselves, shelling out a mere $4.25 per share and installing the team in the Los Gatos office. Jay continued the story:
"Tramiel [the president of Atari] was livid when he found out he couldn't get his hands on the chips, as the whole idea of financing us was just to get the chips, not the people designing them, unlike Commodore who needed to keep the team intact. The Atari 400 and 800 [which Jay designed also] series were great computers in their day, but you know things move on. When he didn't get the chipset his only alternative was to design a new computer without the custom chips so he came up with the ST. This wasn't a bad little computer but lacked the power of the Amiga's chipset."
Tell us something we don't know, Jay!! What about MIDI, why wasn't that included?
"Actually MIDI isn't so far away from the standard serial port on the Amiga, and soon after the machine was released, someone came up with a tiny plug-in box that gave you all the MIDI inputs and outputs, but Commodore refused to manufacture and push it which was one of my big disagreements with them. If you've got a little company doing great third party products which makes your machine so much more competitive, you've got to support them. Commodore in the past have been too greedy, wanting everything for themselves without paying for it, but I think they're changing. I hope they're changing, anyway."
The Amiga 1000 really didn't take shape until long after Commodore bought it. The president had the idea of sliding the keyboard underneath the machine and it took nearly a year to redesign the motherboard to fit in. Everything was set and then Commodore decided that 512K of RAM was too much:
"They wanted a 256K machine as the 512 was too expensive. Back in those days RAM was very pricey, but I could see it had to come down. I told them it couldn't be done as we were too close to being finished, it would spoil the architecture, etc, etc. Dave Needle came up with the idea of putting the cartridge on the front which worked. I was in favour of putting sockets on the motherboard so the user could just drop in the chips."
As events turned out, Jay's opinion was vindicated when, on release, it became patently obvious that the machine needed the 512K to do anything meaningful and this was the shipping form in the UK. Commodore's short sightednes cost the world another 6 months without the Amiga, during which time RAM prices fell anyway!
"I spent this time polishing up the software/hardware documentation, renaming registers to be more meaningful. This was actually time well spent in the end."
Regular readers will know that I'm always going on about how wonderful Intuition is to work with so I asked Jay to tell me a bit about its development.
"RJ Mical pretty much did it all himself. He was holed up for three weeks(!) and came out once to ask Carl Sassenrath about message ports. That's it, really! He wrote Intuition and went on to do the graphics package, Graphicraft, as noone else could do it right. Remember the Jarvik 7 heart animation - they actually talked to the guy and got permission to draw it, and the animation was cycling the colour registers. A lot of quite beautiful pseudo-animations were done that way. That's how we did the rotating pattern of the bouncing ball. Other machines couldn't use that system".
Once all the software was done, it was time for the big release of the A1000. Jay's reaction:
"There were a lot of compromises which I didn't like, but it was better than it might have been if we hadn't gotten our way on a lot of things. We didn't get our way on everything, though. The 256K RAM was a real problem. The software people knew it was inadequate but nobody could stand up to Commodore about it. We had to really argue to put the expansion connector on the side and this was before the deal was finalised so we were close to sinking everything. The lowest cost way of doing it was the edge connector and I'm glad it got through".
"Once the A1000 was out were kind of at a loss. There was so much dealer and developer support necessary that a large proportion of our company went into that. We had 11 or 12 people in that and we wanted to expand, but Commodore wouldn't let us, and in fact they made us lay off some people. We tried to talk Commodore into building a machine with vertical slots and they eventually came out with the A2000, but they weren't keen at first".
Once the Amiga was released, work at Los Gatos continued, but the days for this fine, but maverick, design team were numbered.
"I was really pleased to see Commodore moving in the direction of the A2000 - it was the first Amiga you could really tailor to your own needs and this was one of the reasons for the success of the early Apples. We then wanted to go onto horizontal slots, like the A3000 as that would be easier to cool and shield - there was a design to do it but at that time the A2000 came from Germany so that's the way we went. We wanted to do the Autoconfiguration for the slots but Commodore weren't keen because it added 50c to the cost, so we had a big battle with them and did it anyway. Our divisional manager from Commodore was a guy called Rick Geiger. He was pretty good at keeping Commodore off our backs. However, there were others who were good at figuring out what we were up to and saying "No" all the time. Sometimes Rick would protect us and he was trying hard to give Commodore something they wanted badly, MS-DOS compatability. Some company promised they could deliver a software solution but it never really worked knew he was Jewish because he wore one of those funny little hats to work. That's no problem for me - I didn't mind if people wore pink bunny slippers as long as the job got done.
Anyway, he promised MS-DOS on a small card to make an IBM interface. He worked alone, and weeks went by with nothing appearing despite all the promises which worried me a lot, and this really led to Rick's downfall. He promised he could do it and nobody kept close enough tags on him, always a few more weeks. Commodore started advertising and the board didn't work so both men were canned. This was the start of the downfall for the Los Gatos division. I've never really told this before as it was too personal but I can't remember the designer now so it doesn't matter so much. It shows that you need your peers looking over your work to get things right".
How important did you think PC compatability was going to be?
"Eventually Sidecar came out from Germany but there were a lot of bugs in the software and the Los Gatos team helped with solving those. They did that before the 2000. It's funny but I never really saw MS-DOS compatability as being that important for the Amiga. I said at the time to Commodore "Hey, we're different. Try to take advantage of that, not imitate or simulate other people". We could make our commands more similar to theirs. There's a tendancy when you're writing new software to try and be different with names and functions, but it isn't really necessary. We could do a better job than MS-DOS, which would have been enough with the Amiga's superior operating system and colour resolution capabilities to take a really big bite out of IBM. Instead they kept promising compatability and not delivering which is worse."
After that, Commodore wanted the design team to move back East, and not surprisingly they declined, so gradually the Los Gatos facility was closed down and Jay left. We carried on talking about the interim period and also about the staff recently at Commodore:
"The VP of engineering [Bill Sydnes] got canned. He designed the PC Junior which really crashed, one of IBM's big mistakes, and gave the Amiga a window of opportunity which Commodore failed to exploit - a little competitive advertising would have gone a long way."
What about the overall handling of the Amiga over the years? Does it annoy you that there are 10 times as many PCs as Amigas?
"Yeah, that really does annoy me. I don't have any financial connections with Commodore any more so I don't get anything out of Amiga sales. Things should have been a lot different. I still feel fatherly towards to Amiga, more so than any of the Ataris. What frustrates me the most is that people are missing out on something very special in the Amiga. They tell me about their IBMs and wonderful Macs but they're still missing out".
The Toaster is a killer product over here, what do you think?
"It's a fantastic product. Commodore made a really big mistake in not embracing the Toaster in its early days, and getting a real piece of it. I never even envisaged it back in the design stages. TV image manipulation just wasn't around then - I put genlock circuitry and sync signalling into the first designs so that side of things we appreciated. I had no idea that things like the Toaster were coming."
What would you like to see in the future?
"I'd like to see Commodore grab hold of one of these 24-bit cards like the GVP or DMI boards and put it in as standard. The Amiga badly needs a standardisation of high resolution 24-bit colour modes. The JPEG board from DMI is another wonderful product which needs to be standard in high end Amigas. They'll wait like they always do until someone else has made the standard and try and add something in while others are going to make a bundle of money - look at GVP. Gerard Bucas was VP of Engineering and he wasn't doing things the way Commodore liked, so he left. He saw a chance to make some money and look at the size of GVP - they're competing with Commodore. The next generation Amiga needs a real time JPEG converter and 24-bit graphics to stay ahead.
"I did get together with Lou Eggibrecht [the new VP Engineering] for about 10 minutes and I was very pleased. He promised he'd fly out to have dinner with me and talk about the Amiga. I asked him some questions about the future direction of the chips and got the kind of answers I was looking for - the kind of things we've been talking about. High resolution, new architecture, more competitive. His understanding of the present architecture was very encouraging. I'd love to work as a consultant for them, but I don't know how much I could contribute."
What's your opinion of the A4000?
"You know, Commodore actually gave me one today at the show - the first time I ever got anything out of them!
Putting the IDE drive onto the A4000 motherboard was a terrible mistake - every previous Amiga has benefitted from SCSI. I'm really tickled with the A4000 though. I was looking at it over the last few days and thinking how could I get to buy one of these without the wife getting to know. I have two A2000s which are fine for the BBS stuff I do at the moment.
They've improved the chipset in the 4000, taking the colours to 256 from 8 bitplanes. The higher resolution and more colours are really fast. The MS-DOS interface [CrossDOS] is quite nice but I'm unhappy about the SCSI and they didn't go to full 16-bit audio, but according to Eggibrecht that's coming soon. I'm also a little disappointed they didn't use the 040's memory management facilities. The 3.0 operating system looks very good with datatypes and a number of other great features. Who needs MS-DOS and Windows?".
What about CDTV?
"CDTV is quite a nice idea, but the software has to be right. Can you think of anything more horrible than trying to read an encyclopaedia or the Bible on a TV, rather than a nice crisp RGB monitor? As a low cost entertainment system it's a good viable long term project. I hope Commodore won't drop the ball if things aren't as good initially; they can take on Philips."
What's your favourite products?
"I love the bulletin board software as that's what I'm into at the moment. ADPro is also a fantastic program. I picked up a program called Scala and I'd like to get into that - it's user interface is very impressive. I have a GVP '030 accelerator and that's incredible. The hard drive on the 32-bit card is very fast indeed - it's like a new machine".
Talking with Jay Miner is one of the best experiences an Amiga owner can have. He really is the Father of the Amiga and his passion for the machine is so apparent. It's easy to understand the frustrations he must have at not seeing things go exactly as he wanted, with the full potential of the machine yet to be realised, some Aight years after its release. One has to marvel that it is still around and selling well given its superior competition and the natural tendancy for serious users to turn to the IBM/Mac platforms. It's also clear that the Amiga Corporation contained one of the most innovative design teams ever assembled, and it is so tempting to speculate where the Amiga would be today if they had stuck together, and the efforts of Commodore had been more constructive. Their marketing people have yet to understand what the Amiga is truly about, and why it is so special. Trying to sell it as a PC is wrong as it is far more than a spreadsheet, word processing machine. Unlocking doors is what the Amiga is remarkable hardware justice. Only time will tell if the Amiga can make the impact it is capable of and maybe Commodore should take on board the views of the Padre.
|Sad footnote: After suffering a long bout with a kidney illness, Jay Miner passed during the summer of 1994. His death is mourned by all the Faithful.|
The light he lit burns on.