If you were a computer enthusiast in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the chances are that one of your objects of desire would have been a Commodore Amiga. These machines based on the 68000 line of processors and a series of specialized co-processors offered the best compromise between performance and affordability at the time, with multitasking, a GUI, and graphics capabilities that were streets ahead of their competition.
The Amiga story is littered with tales of what might have been, as dismal marketing and lacklustre product refreshes caused it to lurch from owner to owner and eventually fade away from the mainstream in the mid 1990s. But it’s been one of those products that never really died, as a band of enthusiasts have kept a small market for its software and hardware alive.
Earlier this year we showed you a prototype of an unusual graphics card, a modern GPU implemented on an FPGA board that brought up-to-date HDMI monitor support to the Zorro expansion slots found in the big-box Amigas. It’s thus very interesting today to find that the board made it to market, and that you can buy one for your Amiga if you have a spare 189 Euros (now sold out but taking pre-orders for another production run). Producing any niche electronic product is a significant challenge, so it is always positive to see one that makes it.
As well as HDMI output the board features a micro SD card slot that is mountable as an Amiga volume, and an expansion header that is toured as “Hacker friendly”. Best of all though, the whole board is open-source with all resources on a GitHub repository, so as well as reading our coverage of the prototype you can immerse yourself in its internals if that is your thing.
It’s always good to see a new piece of hardware for an old computer see the light of day, though it’s fair to say this development won’t revive the Amiga platform in the way that the Raspberry Pi has for RiscOS. Still, the mere fact of an open-source Zorro FPGA implementation being released should mean that other cards become possible, so we await developments with interest.
If you have a computer on your desk today, the chances are that it has an Intel architecture and is in some way a descendant of the IBM PC. It may have an Apple badge on the front, it may run Linux, or Windows, but in hardware terms the overwhelming probability is that it will be part of the Intel monoculture. A couple of decades ago though in the 16- and early 32-bit era you would have found a far greater diversity of architectures. Intel 3-, and 486s in PCs and clones, Macintosh, Commodore, and Atari platforms with the 68000 family, the WDC 65C816 in the Apple IIGS, and the Acorn Archimedes with an early ARM processor to name but a few.
In the tough environment of the 1990s most of these alternative platforms fell by the wayside. Apple survived to be revitalised under a returning Steve Jobs, Atari and Commodore withered under a bewildering succession of takeovers, and Acorn split up and lost its identity with its processor licensing subsidiary going on to power most of the mobile devices we take for granted today.
It’s the rare tech worker that manages a decade in any one job these days – employee loyalty is just so 1980s. But when you started your career in that fabled age, some of the cultural values might have rubbed off on you. Apparently that’s the case for an Amiga 2000 that’s been on the job since the late ’80s, keeping the heat and AC running at Grand Rapids Public Schools (YouTube video link.)
The local news story is predictably short on details and pushes the editorial edge into breathless indignation that taxpayer dollars have somehow been misspent. We just don’t see it that way. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is somewhat anathema to the hacker ethos. After all, there’s no better time to “fix” something than when it’s working properly and you can tell if you’ve done something wrong. But keeping an important system running with duct tape and wire ties is also part of the hacker way, so we applaud [Tim Hopkins] and his colleagues at the GRPS Facilities and Operations Department for their efforts to protect the public purse. And a round of applause is also due not only to the Amiga design team, who produced a machine that can run for nearly three decades, but also to Johnson Controls, whose equipment – apparently a wide area radio modem linking the HVAC systems in the district’s buildings – is being run by The Little Amiga That Could. Sounds like they built stuff to last way back when.