Questionable Decisions

by Eric W. Schwartz
From the AmiTech Gazette, February 2020

I have some sad news to relay, brought to my attention by Eric Hill of Amigalove.com on the passing of Greg Tibbs. Veteran members may remember Greg from the early days of the Dayton group, back when there were the two Amiga groups, AFIT and Amiga-Dayton. He was also a talented hardware engineer whose best-known Amiga product was the ‘Rejuvenator’ board, an expansion for Amiga 1000 systems to bring them up to spec with their newer A500 and A2000 contemporaries. Mr. Hill was working to revive this product, and thus was working to contact Greg previously, which leads us to our current unfortunate news. Greg Tibbs will be missed, and the Amiga community as a whole is diminished by his loss.

As 2020 is the 35th anniversary of the Amiga’s debut (in the form of the A1000), I have been motivated to look over the Amiga and its history, and have been posting tidbits roughly chronologically on Twitter under the #Amiga35Years hashtag. I have been working through it starting with its inception as Jay Miner’s dream concept at the start of this year, and as of this writing I’m still only at around 1986. Perhaps the density of information will drop somewhat once I get past 1994 or so—only time will tell.

In my reading and research on the Amiga and Commodore’s history, you find several points where a choice was made that affected all going forward, and wonder what might have been if a different path had been taken. People often talk about Commodore’s inept marketing or short-sighted decision-making, but there are other more subtle or obscure choices that may have had just as profound an effect on the Amiga as a whole. Here are but a few.

When the early Amiga team was developing the operating system, along with the Exec multitasking kernel by Carl Sassenrath and the Intuition user interface from RJ Mical, there was to be the layer between them, called CAOS in-house, for Commodore Amiga Operating System, which would handle the file system, memory usage, and pretty much everything else under the hood. This part was lagging behind the other components, and it was determined it would not be finished by the already overworked programmers in time for the projected launch of the Amiga. Even worse, the third-party commissioned programmers upped their price once they learned the Amiga company had been bought by Commodore, causing negotiations to fall through. A replacement OS component was found in TripOS by Dr. Tim King and MetaComCo, quickly rewritten to become the original AmigaDOS 1.x we know today. The downside was TripOS/AmigaDOS lacked the resource tracking facilities of the original CAOS design specs, which affected the overall stability of the OS. I wonder what might be if CAOS had gone forward instead, either by allowing the needed time and delaying the Amiga’s release further, which might have given more market share to competitors like the Atari ST, or bringing it in as a replacement to TripOS ASAP for OS version 1.1 or 1.2. That would presumably break the earliest Amiga software, but hopefully would lead to a stronger and more stable OS and software base going forward. Maybe even stem the tide of Amiga instability-bashing its detractors liked to harp on. The Amiga’s OS was so ahead of its time upon its debut, it’s just too unfortunate circumstances prevented it from being that little bit better.

Shortly before parting ways with Commodore after being asked to locate to Pennsylvania from California, Jay Miner was working on designs for the next Amiga following the A1000, a set of specifications, concepts, and prototype boards code-named “Ranger.” These included an enhanced custom chip set with more colors and speed. Based on reports, the Ranger chipset offered more than the OCS/ECS chips, but not as powerful as the AGA system. A Ranger system would use either a 68010 or 68020 CPU and required pricey high-speed Video RAM (not sure if this was for display memory only, like a video card, or shared CHIP RAM like Amigas we know) which is part of why Commodore rejected the design in favor of its own updated design from in-house and the German branch, which would become the Amiga 500 and 2000. It’s clear a ‘Ranger’ Amiga would be a much bigger leap over the A1000 than the more incremental 500 and 2000, but those cost-reduced designs were Commodore’s most successful and best-selling Amiga systems overall—the A500 especially—while a Ranger-Amiga would almost undoubtedly be substantially more expensive than the A500 and have perhaps less mass-appeal. On the other hand, the Ranger pushed the Amiga chip set tech forward more than Commodore ever did until the A1200 and A4000 in 1992, and conceivably could have kept the Amiga line ahead of the PC systems graphically longer than it did, especially if that momentum was held. It’s a hard outcome to predict.

Finally, there was one big decision from Commodore’s management. Shortly after the release of the Amiga 1000, former Pepsi manager Thomas Rattigan was installed as Commodore CEO, replacing the lackluster Marshall Smith, and inheriting a company that was hemorrhaging money after buying, finishing, and launching Amiga, along with less well-advised Commodore products. Having little choice, Rattigan ruthlessly cut budgets, staff, projects, and products to bring Commodore back into the black. He also allegedly recommended the Amiga line be split into low and high-end systems, which would become the Amiga 500 and 2000. He basically wrestled Commodore into its most successful period since the height of Jack Tramiel and the C-64, but he wouldn’t stick around to see it. Apparently chairman Irving Gould wasn’t happy with Rattigan, believing he was being too high-profile about his role, so when an outside consultant, whose name happened to be Mehdi Ali, recommended firing Rattigan, Gould was happy to do so, even though it resulted in a breach of contract lawsuit. We know the rest, with Irving Gould and Mehdi Ali presiding over Commodore’s slow spiral into the dirt. It would be interesting to know what would have happened if Thomas Rattigan had been allowed to serve out his full five-year contract, or better yet if Irving Gould got over whatever weird hate-boner he had for Rattigan and kept him on for the duration. Thomas Rattigan’s track record in other businesses shows he was hardly infallible, but his brief tenure at Commodore was competent, fiscally responsible, and appeared to show a decent understanding of how to sell the Amiga and grow its user base. He also seemed to be good at trimming projects that were superfluous or unlikely to pan out. While it’s possible nothing might have prevented Commodore or Amiga from falling to Windows PC dominance in the long run, with Rattigan at the helm, it looks like Commodore probably could have held out longer, and in better overall shape, wasting less money on side projects (wasting less money overall) and focusing harder on what worked. While we can never know exactly what quantum results these alternate, presumably smarter decisions would have produced, we can only assume the world would naturally be a better place if it meant a few more, and more powerful Amigas were in it.