Categorizing Amiga Users

by Eric Schwartz
From the AmiTech Gazette, January 2018

Welcome to the new year. Only time will tell if this year will be as crazy as the last year or so. It’s only barely started and it’s already tried to kill us a couple times with frigid weather, so it’s not the best of starts so far.

In the news, the magazine “Amiga Future” celebrates twenty years of existence this month. This is pretty special in my opinion, mainly because I’m not aware of any Amiga-centric publications that lasted that long, aside from slightly less “official” publications like the AmiTech Gazette. Hardly any Amiga mags (or many mags in general) last from 1985 to 2005, or whatever corresponds to “x+20” from whatever the year of first publication was. This newsletter has that beat of course, but that’s not that difficult at only a couple pages each month.

This month’s meeting is our usual, January 20th at the Kettering-Moraine library study room. I’m planning to bring my Vampire’d-up Amiga 600 to the meeting, with a bit more to show than previous months. I’ve been meaning to be further along building the system and software, but it’s not as easy to find the time as I wish it were. Still, I’ll be there, and so will the system. Hope to see you there as well.

In the past, I’ve written about the various types of Amiga enthusiasts, divided into a few basic categories. The available technologies in the field have changed since my last visit to the subject, shifting the balance somewhat, if not the categories themselves. On one end of the spectrum lie the “retro” types, whose main goal is to run classic Amiga software, primarily games. This group has the greatest number of “casual” Amiga fans, and people who might’ve had no direct experience with Amiga systems when they were new, and are in it for the retro gaming experience. Some may do this through emulation on their home computers, Raspberry Pi or other small systems, or even sufficiently powerful game consoles. Some may take the route of the FPGA “remake” systems like MiniMig and others. Still others are purists about it, and might only accept real discs on real hardware (probably an A500, maybe the A600, A1200, or CD-32), preferably attached to a real CRT monitor. Whether the hardware is real or virtual, it is usually modest, as most Amiga games rarely made use of anything beyond a baseline system (as opposed to modern PC gaming, where the opposite tends to be true).

The next step up are the “Power Classic” people. This group has expanded quite a bit recently thanks to an expansion of available options. In the old days, these were the Amiga users who had the big box systems, and/or spent the big bucks expanding them with RAM, storage, accelerators, new video cards, and more. Their goal is to maintain compatibility with a wide range of Amiga software, from entertainment to productivity to the stuff that needs a heavy-duty machine just to run. If they run classic games, it’s probably done off the hard drive with the aid of software like WHDLoad, alongside ports of Doom or Quake.

Some in this category are happy with classic Amiga hardware with classic expansions, though that is considered the low end by today’s standards. Others take the emulation route, as the average PC or even the humble Raspberry Pi is capable of running the Amiga system at beefed-up specs. The biggest bump to interest in this power class has been the Vampire FPGA-based hardware expansions from Apollo, which bump “small” Amigas like the A500 or A600 well beyond the power and speed of previously available A4000s with 68060 accelerators for a moderate price, with newer versions for the A1200 and a stand-alone version that requires no legacy hardware on the way. The Vampire hardware family has been the best fulfillment of previous promises to create a system beyond the spec of the classic Amigas, while maintaining a high level of past compatibility, at least for the time being, and has become very popular in a short time.

Next up are the “Modern Amiga” enthusiasts, those who hoped to bring the Amiga experience into the modern day and keep up with the likes of the Windows PCs, Macs, and Linux boxes, if not entirely successfully. These were the people that adopted one of the “successor” operating systems like OS4 or MorphOS, which run on PowerPC CPU-based hardware, such as the Aeon OS4 systems or the PPC Macs abandoned by Apple for Morph. The “Amithlon” partial emulation suite did much the same on PC hardware. While there is a good deal of compatibility with well-behaved classic Amiga productivity and other software, anything that depends on actual Amiga hardware and “bangs the metal” will not work at all, unless it’s done inside an emulator. Still, that classic software can run at speeds far beyond what it would on original hardware, and new software directly written to the new OS and hardware is faster still.

Sadly, maintaining classic compatibility imposes limits to the potential system specs, at least the way it is now. Also, the PowerPC line of hardware is more and more of a dead end as Intel and ARM-based stuff moves further along. Switching to something new breaks classic compatibility too, leaving the users in this category with a dilemma as they try to move forward themselves. Do they push for classic compatibility and live with the possible performance penalties that imposes, or do they cast off the past like a gangrenous foot, and shoot for the moon? Considering new software development, especially for high profile software and applications hasn’t exactly taken off for OS4 or MorphOS, this isn’t exactly a simple answer, and divides people as much as the divide between MorphOS and Amiga OS4, Still…

The final category is the “no limits” group, those who advocate taking the Amiga experience at least as far as any other computer system, and far beyond the current Amiga experience. This category is closer to hypothetical than practical, with the basis of making a fully modern computer operating systems around the positive points of the Amiga, but running original software or hardware is not a requirement. (That can be emulated if you want). Examples include the open-source AROS project (which is actually a wide-ranging project with fingers in every category in this article) and Amiga-inspired OS projects like BeOS or Haiku.

One of the constant issues here is that all software has to be written new for the platform, or ported across from something else. People in this group tend to be enthusiasts for a lot of different operating systems, comparing and contrasting them. Everyone has a different view of where the ‘line of “Amiganess” lies—where something stops being sufficiently Amiga. Is an Amiga its hardware? Its software? Only some of that hardware or software? Is it the operating system? The name? Or is it just a set of ideas and philosophies for a computing experience? You could probably get a slightly different answer from every Amiga fan you ask, and perhaps that’s the best thing about it. While the differences of opinions may serve to spread thin the limited resources and efforts of the community, we’re spoiled for choice, and that just makes it easier (and sometimes cheaper) to find exactly the kind of Amiga experience you want.