Griping about the demise of ancient (but technologically superior) systems‎

Every now and then there’s a post/article/opinion-paper by someone lamenting about the demise of such and such cool device/computer/technology/service thingy. Which is cool – I’ve done my share of bemoaning too, and its definitely fun! (it goes well with the whole ranting thing that bloging is all about).

But its easy to lose perspective of the reality of the situation – more often then not, it wasn’t because the “bad guys” weren’t playing fair and messed up the market – to gain dominance with their inferior technology. A lot of time, the “superior” technology in question got trashed had it coming for and we’re all for the better because of that.

I encountered another of those nostalgic blurbs on Ranjit Mathew’s blog where he tackles one of the more popular choices for such posts – the Commodore Amiga, and I had a too light a finger on the comment trigger (as you could see if you follow the link to Mathew’s blog). After thinking more about it, I figured this deserves a blog post of its own:

The main problem I guess, is that I never had an Amiga. I saw an Amiga a couple of times, but never got a chance to fully experience it. So you can jot it all down to computer envy if you like – I don’t mind 😉 . My parents had a Commodore 64, which I enjoyed immensely and it was also an under appreciated device with a lot of potential that was mostly under-used – except for cracking groups’ demos and some computer games that where more advanced then what could be found on the PC until many years later.

The Amiga computer was actually developed after the release of the IBM PC and for a while, I guess, they competed with each other.

And the Amiga lost.

Which is of course a terrible consequence as the Amiga was clearly a technologically superior device, at the time – heck, the Commodore 64 was technologically superior to the IBM PC at the time (except for the keyboard, which was kind of lousy).

But as I mentioned in the comment on Mathew’s blog, I don’t think the Amiga (and the many other consumer class computers that were available at the time) lost because of the dark marketing machine that was IBM1 – it lost because it wasn’t the open platform that IBM offered.

Today we talk about open systems like it the most natural thing in the world and every vendor advertises how open their systems are2, but it wasn’t like that in the eighties. Back then, every computer was different – you couldn’t even take a diskette or a cassette from one computer and load the data from it on another computer, even networking (what little of it was had) was different from one device to another, and there was no way in the world that you could buy a peripheral from one vendor and connect it to another vendor’s computer.

IBM’s personal computer changed all that. Yes, it was clunky and big and had really poor hardware capabilities (only 2 colors or 4, then – years later it had 16. The C64 had 16 when it came out, and the Amiga had 4096 in the early models and up to 16.8 million later. And don’t get me started on the sound support). But IBM did something brand new – they built an open system, that accepted peripherals manufactured and distributed by other people, and on purpose or by incompetence3 eventually let other manufacturers build and sell IBM PC “clones”. And they all worked (almost) exactly the same – you could transfer data from one computer to the other, and if you had problems with your vendor then you could just go ahead and buy from another vendor and you could still use all your data and programs. I think this is something so fundamentally good that it was well worth ditching Amiga for.

Lastly, I hate to do this but I’ll need a closing line and I think I’ve put that relatively well in the comment to Mathew’s blog post, so I might as well just quote myself:

While I also am sorry for the demise of good technology, it troubles me to see people (technologists mainly) lament the PC’s dominance without acknowledging the fact that without the IBM PC we would not have the amazingly fast and cheap devices that had made household computing and the internet available for the average person.

The reason that you are using a computer that is hundreds of times faster and several times cheaper then the Amiga 500 (which my parents couldn’t afford as it was way to expensive) is only because IBM had made the PC a market killer, not by killing the market but by expanding it. I too wish that Amiga would have survived, but if Commodore would not open the platform and compete with other manufacturers on price and performance – then they better go the way of the dodo.

  1. not that IBM weren’t notorious for malicious marketing campaigns – the term FUD was invented to describe IBM’s tactics, after all []
  2. although arguably for some vendors its open only in the marketing slogans []
  3. you can find people arguing both sides []

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