Greatness, luck and storytelling

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Recently, I’ve done some reading on computer history again. If you’re interested in that sort of stuff and haven’t read it yet go and have a look at Ars Technica’s in-depth series on the history of the Amiga home computer. It’s quite a comprehensive piece on a significant part of computer history that’s largely forgotten today.

This series and other documents such Dave Haynie’s Deathbed Vigil remind me of how far ahead the Amiga was in many respects at that time. I’m not talking about ahead of IBM PCs – that’s a given anyway. From a technology point of view the Amiga in some respect also was pretty much ahead of anything Apple, Atari and less known manufacturers such as Acorn provided (in an interesting turn of events Acorn’s ARM architecture is what powers most smartphones nowadays) at that time, especially when it comes to computer graphics.

I don’t want to rekindle old flamewars but this got me thinking.

Amiga had all those great engineers and from 1985 to roughly the beginning of the nineties they had an awesome and highly competitive product. The Amiga failed because basically Commodore was a highly dysfunctional company. In the end they pretty much looked like IBM’s ugly sibling: They displayed all of Big Blue’s nasty big boy habits and presumptuousness without IBM’s ability to bring a product to the market the customers in the end actually wanted.

However, I think this is only part of the story. What Amiga mostly lacked – especially when compared to illustrious competitors such as Apple – was a story.

While Apple pretty much from the outset thanks to Steve Jobs had this intense focus on design and wanting to change the world, Amiga was like “Yeah, we got this pretty cool custom chips that do all sorts of nifty graphics tricks. Oh, and preemptive multitasking. That’s cool, too, isn’t it?”.

Amiga didn’t even start with an idea for a computer. Back when the company was still named HiToro – a name they fortunately later had to change because of a lawnmower producer of the same name – they wanted to create a gaming console. So apart from engineering prowess (personified by founder Jay Miner and people such as RJ Mical to name but a few) there wasn’t much in terms of a product vision or purpose.

Then again, Steve Jobs himself said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards.”. So perhaps, Apple’s crisp and clear story only fully emerged after they had long been successful.

If Commodore hadn’t been such a bunch of bozos in the end – who knows – things might have turned out differently and we’d be celebrating a different story today.

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