- The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga by Jimmy Maher
Amiga. Today the name is barely recognized among hardcore gamers or professional multimedia workers under the age of twenty-five. For the older set, though, the word Amiga often triggers intense nostalgia for a personal computer seemingly years ahead of its time in both capability and creative potential. Almost anyone seriously into computer games, desktop publishing, or video and/or sound editing during the late 1980s and early 1990s will remember the Amiga well, and many still mourn the passing of “the world’s first true multimedia PC” (p. 5).
In the fifteen years since Amigas stopped being produced in large numbers, a considerable body of mythology has arisen around the machine. In cautionary tales, Amiga has come to exemplify the risks of thinking too far ahead. In screeds against corporate capitalists, Amiga is cast as a victim of feckless, greedy businessmen. Even the user base, which numbered in the millions, is routinely drubbed for being too fickle, too idiosyncratic, and too European for the Amiga to have succeeded. Although each of these narratives has compelling elements, they tend to mask the most important lessons offered by the story of the Amiga. Thus, Jimmy Maher’s carefully sourced and technically cognizant The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga is an invaluable resource to anyone trying to make historical sense of the Amiga and indeed the world of personal computing circa 1990.
Maher introduces readers to the Amiga the same way Commodore did in 1985, by showing off Amiga’s iconic “Boing” demo, an animation of a bouncing ball that was far more believable than what could be displayed by home computers of that time. A visit to Maher’s website (http://amiga.filfre.net/) will readily show that Boing is far more reminiscent of mid-1990s PC graphics than of mid-1980s graphics. More precisely, Commodore’s Amiga 1000 was capable of displaying 4096-color images at a 640 x 400–pixel resolution, and could therefore far exceed the aesthetic range of the IBM PC, Atari, or even Apple Macintosh. Yet its pricing was not significantly above the market norms for personal computers. While the most popular variants of Amiga, the 500 and the 1200, were primarily used for gaming, Commodore also developed several models—such as the 2000—explicitly for graphic and sound-editing work.
Helpfully, Maher takes the reader through a nuts-and-bolts explanation of how Boing works in order to clarify what separated Amiga from its contemporaries. In a style reminiscent of Fred Brooks’s The Mythical Man Month (1975), Maher provides a series of insightful “lessons” provided by the Boing demo. They include: “Effects can often be accomplished in unexpected ways that take good advantage of the machine’s design quirks” (p. 39); [End Page 513] and “One must on occasion do things the ‘wrong’ way to achieve the desired result” (p. 40).
The lion’s share of the book is devoted to examining Amiga as a device for creating multimedia, and to clarifying its exemplary role in this now enormous field. Maher shows the reader how creativity programs like Deluxe Paint worked, and how they paved the way for now widely used products like Photoshop and Flash. Beyond examining the programs themselves, Maher delves into the various “demo scenes,” freewheeling forums in which thousands of users gathered—in person or via modem—to show off their creations. In these environments, as Maher shows, novel demos of graphical and musical art abounded, and individuals were celebrated for their ingenuity and skill.
Maher also takes great care to show the influence of Amiga graphical tools on the wider, non-computer-using culture. For instance, Amigas were used to create the animations in the iconic 1980s TV show Max Headroom. By the early 1990s, as Amigas were fading from the marketplace, they were being used to create some of the most widely watched early CGI, such as that found in Babylon V, seaQuest DSV, and Jurassic Park.
About a third of the...