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© 1997-2006
Gareth Knight
All Rights reserved

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It has been almost ten years since the Amiga began its sloth-like march to RISC processing. The path has been unpredictable and at many points it appeared that it would never reach its destination. The torch has been repeatedly dropped, only to be picked up by another developer. Now, in the third millennia, the Amiga is finally showing signs of moving away from the Motorola 68k. This is the story of the struggle to bring PowerPC to the Amiga users.

Pre-PowerPC: the Commodore Years
The Amigas' relationship with the Risc processor dates back to 1992. Against the odds, Commodore had released the A1200 & A4000 machines. These had proved to be a disappointment to Commodore engineering, who had been forced to cancel several projects that offered significant improvements over the top-of-the-line A4000 (such as the A3000+). Despite the budget cuts placed upon them, the Commodore engineering team were developing several solutions that would allow the Amiga brand to be associated with faster, better RISC processors. At the time, the PowerPC alliance was not even a gleam in IBM's eye. Instead, Commodore licensed Hewlett Packard's PA-RISC processor. This would form the basis of a new chipset, code named Hombre, that would provide a significant performance boost to the flagging Amiga market. Dave Haynie has repeatedly stated that Hombre was only intended for the console market, allowing Commodore to develop a Playstation-like unit (the HP deal did not allow the use of the RISC chip in desktop computers).
However, the project was hit by repeated delays over the next two years. Development funding was cut several times, forcing a number of ideas, prototypes, and projects to be abandoned. The CD32 became Commodore's last, best hope for profits. However, it failed in most countries (apart from the UK where it dominated the early CD market) and Commodore entered into liquidation.

In hindsight Dave Haynie, head of engineering at Commodore, assumed that a PowerPC-based 'Amiga' computer would have been developed at some point (had finances allowed). Whilst the decision may or may not have come to pass it would have been irrelevant for the Amiga market; could a PPC machine that ran Windows NT (or some other OS) still be called an Amiga. Aesthetically yes but, as the current definition of an Amiga is one that runs the Amiga operating system, it would not.

Good-bye PA-RISC. Hello PowerPC!
The Amiga's development was halted for over a year during the slow, painful process of liquidating the parent company. After almost a year, Escom purchased the remains of Commodore, and the Amiga along with it. In general, the Escom period was a dark time for all Amiga owners. The only light was the announcement by Amiga Technologies that they had formed a strategic alliance with Phase 5 to migrate the market towards the PowerPC. Apple had already had considerable success in this area, moving Macintosh users' to their PowerMac platform, Amiga Technologies hoped to emulate this success.
Both Amiga Technologies and Phase 5 recognized that the transition would be a difficult one. On average, Amiga users were concentrated in the low-end of the market, while the Macintosh was at the high-end of the scale. It would be difficult to persuade many Amiga owners to buy a new machine. A three-stage strategy was introduced.
 

Stage 1 Phase 5 develop and manufacture PPC accelerators for existing Amigas (A1200, A2000, A4000, and the soon to be launched, Walker).
Stage 2 Amiga Technologies would develop a PPC AmigaOS Port
Stage 3 An official PowerAmiga machine would be launched in 1997

The plan was optimistic, reliant upon a great deal of funding from Escom and Phase 5 to succeed. In reality Escom were having financial difficulties and the relationship between Phase 5 and Amiga Technologies was not as cozy as it first appeared. This was the least of their worries when Escom went into liquidation during July 1996 taking Amiga Technologies with them. Phase 5 were left to carry the PowerPC torch alone.

The Amiga Orphan
The Amiga had once again found itself in a state of flux. In the absence of an official parent company, several developers were laying claim to the Amiga market: VISCorp and Quikpak were fighting over the remains of Amiga Technologies, while Phase 5 and PIOS were fighting an ideological war to gain mind share in the Amiga market. This provided a confusing array of options for the Amiga market.
 

VISCorp Quikpak Phase 5 PIOS (later known as Met@box)
Sell the Amiga as a set-top box Port the AmigaOS to the Alpha CPU Migrate the Amiga market to the A/Box Migrate the Amiga market to the TransAM

The PPC alternatives were interesting by their diverse approach: PIOS, founded by the former Amiga Technologies, had  created their own CHRP based PowerPC based upon standard components. A combination of existing operating systems would be bundled with the machine - BeOS, LinuxPPC, MacOS and pOS. In contrast, Phase 5 were developing a custom-designed PPC system, utilizing a modern custom chipset. A custom OS, dubbed PhaseOS, would blend the distinction between AmigaOS 3.1 & Unix. The A\Box was promoted as a modern successor to the Amiga.

PowerUP PrototypeAnother year passed (1997), allowing Phase 5 to continue their work alone. The company had made significant progress in the design of the PPC accelerators and were undergoing final testing. Meanwhile, the Amiga had moved onto its fourth owner - Gateway 2000. At first the company was only interested in the Amiga patents, but soon realized that they had bought a previously untouched market-share. The times were changing and the Amiga was ready for its comeback tour.

At last! PowerPC on the Amiga!
During October 1997, Phase 5 finally launched their range of PowerPC accelerators. The PowerUP boards were divided into low and high-end markets. The Cyberstorm PPC was aimed at the high-end markets (A2000 & A4000). The card was attached via the CPU slot. The low-end (A1200) was served by the Blizzard PPC, that was slotted into the A1200 trapdoor. In addition to the launch of PPC boards, Phase 5 did not neglect their graphics card market. The BlizzardVision and CyberVisionPPC offered a significant performance boost over existing solutions, using the PerMedia 2 chipset, rather than the ancient S3 found in previous CyberVision cards.
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The PowerUP boards interact with the Amiga operating system in an interesting fashion. They are essentially dual-processor boards, incorporating the PPC and a 68k processor (68LC040, 68040 or 68060). The AmigaOS still requires a 68k processor, while the PPC acts as an extremely fast coprocessor that carries out specific instructions. Unfortunately, this causes significant slowdown when the OS task switches between the 68k and PPC. Rather than being the Amigas' saviour, the PPC boards attracted even more criticism by Windows and Mac users. The hope that PowerPC would bring the price of a fast Amiga system down had been dashed.
The production version of the BlizzardVision and CyberVision PPC
In an attempt to solve many of the problems experienced and increase the PPC's performance, Haage & Partner developed a competing API called WarpOS. Phase 5 reacted strongly to this competition, writing a stream of criticism, open letters, and threats to H&P. The ELF format implemented by Phase 5 was aimed at steering the Amiga PPC market towards their own A/Box solution. In contrast, the WarpOS approach was more system friendly, implementing the Amiga HUNK format and using instructions that were made illegal by Phase 5. The child-like bickering spread across the public forums, dividing the tiny PPC market into two smaller cults. A line had been drawn in the sand and the two gun slingers were prepared to take the entire town with them. A sheriff was needed to protect the peace.

Gateway, Amiga, MCC, and all that malarkey
The PowerPC was a disappointment to even the most ardent Amiga fanatic, demonstrating problems that could only be repaired by a clean rewrite of the OS. To strengthen the market, Amiga International announced that the 68k&PPC approach was officially supported. This was a temporary measure that, it was hoped, would buy the company some time to develop a long-term PowerPC strategy. This announcement was followed by a second, indicating an AmigaOS license had been granted to Phase 5, for its use in their pre\box system. The machine, retailing between £1500 - 4000UKP, would be marketed at the high-end of the market. The specifications were most interesting, indicating that the pre\box would be shipped with four PPC processors as standard (possibly more). The announcement gained widespread attention from the Macintosh market, who looked at their Amiga owning cousin with new-found envy. In the lower end of the market, Index Information's BoXeR ATX motherboard was altered to allow connection of a PowerUP accelerator.
For the first time in years, the Amiga market became a predictable entity - Amiga magazines cheerfully announced that a PPC AmigaOS would soon be released, and a range of Mac/PC titles were in negotiation for porting to PowerPC. The PowerPC future looked bright if slightly boring, unknown to everyone but Amiga Incorporated, the future was to be thrown into confusion again.

At the World of Amiga show (1998) in London, all bets on the Amigas' future were off. Amiga Inc. announced that the future of the Amiga did not lie with PowerPC, but an as-yet unannounced CPU that was due for release during the next year. In one day the PPC market had changed, looking bleaker than ever - contracts were canceled and panic spread to all corners of the Amiga world. It was feared that, without the official support of Amiga Inc., PowerPC sales would flop and Phase 5 would abandon the market. In the aftermath of the announcement, Haage & Partner organized an emergency meeting with their old enemies, Phase 5. While Phase 5's business practices had been compared to Microsofts' on occasions, they were forced to change their attitude to outside developers, or become irrelevant in the new Amiga market. A fragile partnership was formed between the two warring developers: Haage & Partner would develop software drivers and Phase 5 would continue to produce PPC hardware. Neither business were happy about the arrangement, but it became a necessary move in the fragile market conditions. Phase 5 also submitted an alternative OS5 development proposal that suggested the Amiga market could be better supported by creating a PPC developers board, as well as the x86 model that Amiga Inc. had announced. Amiga Inc. accepted the proposal and gave permission for a PPC 'AmigaOS v5' port.. At the time of announcement Amiga Inc. were not sure where they would find a new operating system. A strategic partnership with Be had been abandoned a few days previous and it would be a few months until QNX was proposed as an alternative solution. The deal with Phase 5 to port the new OS to PPC was an empty gesture that may have been impossible later (based upon the OS partner choice)

The disaster had been averted, but the Amiga market was still shaken by Amiga Inc's turnaround in the PowerPC decision. The Amiga PPC market had changed from the processor of the future, to an interesting sideline for existing Amigas. The market would continue to develop, but its expansion was slower than if the processor had Amiga's official blessing.

PowerPC: The Second Generation
The PowerPC market had changed considerably since 1996 - Apple had moved to faster PPC processors and launched a sub-£1000 machine called the iMac, CHRP was dead, and Motorola and IBM were having significant disagreements over their future direction. In the turbulent Amiga market, the PPC boards had been accepted as the only existing method of upgrading many user's machines. A range of interesting titles were released or in development - PPC Doom, Quake, WipeOut 2097, Heretic 2 are particularly interesting for PPC gamers. In the midst of these events, many developers who had fought in the first Amiga PPC war were preparing a second attack.
 

Phase 5 Met@Box (formerly PIOS) Escena
Announced G3 & G4 boards, later canceled the G3.
Late 1999 they announced a deal with QSSL and the AMIRAGE K2
Announced the AmiJoe G3 card Demonstrated G3 PPC Zorro III board at the Computer '98 show.

Though smaller than it was a year previous, early 1999 was a cheerful time for the Amiga market. The Amigas' future was secure, thanks to the QNX operating system, and Amiga Inc. had announced that the first OS upgrade in four years, AmigaOS 3.5, would support existing PPC boards. There were also indications that they had given Haage & Partner permission to develop the OS for PPC.
Three other businesses were expressing interest in developing a PowerPC expansion for the Amiga. The first announcement came from Escena, followed by Phase 5 & Met@Box. Unlike earlier efforts, these boards would utilize 68k emulation, allowing the production of cheaper PPC-pure systems that did not require the 68k CPU or time-consuming task switching. Unfortunately, the announcements and prototypes never resulted in a tactile product. The Phase 5 G3 were canceled to allow them to better market the G4 board and the Escena board was delayed. After two years of silence, Eyetech indicated that the updated card would be used in the AmigaOne.

The story of Phase 5 at the time is particularly interesting. They had been irritated by their partnership with Haage & Partner for years and were desperate to find an alternative solution that would allow the business to expand. They were also beginning to recognize that their software support did not meet the high quality of their hardware. They needed a high profile ally that would allow them to expand beyond the limited Amiga/Mac markets. In the aftermath of Amiga's Linux decision, Phase 5 found the ally that they needed. In a questionable move, Amiga Inc. had dropped the OS partnership with QNX, in favour of Linux. QSSL were understandably annoyed at the expense and promotion they had wasted in the Amiga market. They still had plans to expand into the desktop market, but needed an initial hardware partner that could deliver. Phase 5 and QSSL were the perfect couple that had both been jilted by Amiga at different stages.
In a series of announcements, the two companies indicated their intention to develop an Amiga-competitor in the desktop market. The Neutrino OS would be ported to the Phase 5 PowerUP & G4 cards and a QNX-based PPC system, called AMIRAGE K2, would be launched. Once again, Phase 5 were attempting to migrate Amiga users' to another operating system. Existing Amigas could use legacy Amiga applications and their QNX alternative. To continue using QNX, they would upgrade to the custom-built AMIRAGE K2. It was a cunning, yet obvious move that would shift the Amiga user base onto the QNX OS. Sympathy for QNX gave them the upper hand, potentially damaging Amiga's image. Although Amiga had promised to port the Amiga OE to PowerPC platforms, an alternative may have moved the tide against them if it was released first.
Unfortunately the AMIRAGE was never released when, on January 26th 2000, Phase 5 applied for insolvency with their local court. In the absence of an Amiga partner, QSSL canceled their plans to port Neutrino to the Amiga hardware. The company (QSSL) had gained considerable expertise from the Amiga market, particularly from the newly formed Phoenix Consortium, and were preparing to launch their operating system for the x86. Like BeOS before it, QNX would be available as a free download, allowing consumers to try it for themselves.

2000: New World Order
After Gateway canceled the Amiga MCC, Amino had entered into negotiations to purchase the Amiga (minus the patents). Their announcement, at the end of December 1999, bought considerable joy to the Amiga market. Once again the Amiga had been saved! However, this was bad news for Haage & Partner, who were informed that their AmigaOS4 PPC contract was canceled. An official PPC AmigaOS port was no longer possible, but this did not stop an unofficial version being developed. In April 2000 an announcement was made that immediately made the Amiga world hopeful. It read:

Are you frustrated that there have been no major steps
forward towards an updated Amiga Operating System since 1993 ?
The people which formed the face of the Amiga desktop since 1993
     ...will bring you now what you've always wished for....
                    AmigaOS running on PPC in 2000
Unlike previous promises this was followed by results - MorphOS, an Amiga-compatible operating system, was released as an open beta. Several developers had promised versions of their popular applications for the new operating system and existing 68k programs could be executed through emulation. MorphOS symbolized the product that everyone had wished for, yet no one had been able to deliver.
These announcements were followed by the launch of a new busboard solution by Elbox. Unlike previous boards (Zorro 2/3/4, ISA), the Mediator offered a modern interface, utilizing PCI slots. CyberVision & Picasso drivers were also being written to allow the use of S3, Voodoo 3 graphic cards, Ethernet cards, and more. This was followed by announcements that they would release the SharkPPC, a G3 card that could be used with the Mediator.
These announcements sparked a wave of criticism from competing companies, that accused Elbox of using an unethical methods to develop the Picasso96 drivers without permission from the Picasso96 API authors. The argument quickly broke down to the childish attacks seen in the P5 Vs. H&P war, 3 years previous.
The Amiga market is divided into three hardware possibilities and three operating systems.

Hardware mind share is equally divided between the following:
 

Elbox Eyetech Met@Box
Launch Mediator PCI busboard and announce SharkPPC Developing the official AmigaONE upgrade.
Launch the Predator PCI/AGP busboard and G3 card
No news on the AmiJoe front

While the 'Classic' market had been promised a new lease of life, Amiga Inc. were issuing a series of announcements regarding the next generation Amigas. They promised compatibility across platforms, new hardware within a year, and a clean break from the past. Eyetech became a Amiga DE  hardware partner, announcing the Predator PCI busboard and G3 card, a competitor to the Elbox model. Though Amiga Inc. are having little to do with the argument, it is clear that they are supportive the Eyetech solution due to their long years of service to the market.

The announcement at the Amiga 2001 show in St. Louis that Amiga Inc. were resurrecting the AmigaOS came as a shock to many people. The promise that OS4.0 would be PPC-native and provide 68k emulation was too good to be true. After seven years, the AmigaOS is following the Macintosh onto the PowerPC platform, acting as a desktop/server OS. However, the concern that the PPC AmigaOS market will become another niche product has become a major stumbling block. Who would buy a PPC server? How will Amiga Inc. attract new users to the AmigaOS. At present, the only obvious method would be to promote the AmigaOS as the perfect platform for Amiga DE. However, it is still a high risk option - the Amiga DE remains an obscure, unknown to the rest of the computing world.

Operating System mind share:
 

PPC-native  Amiga OS 4.x Amiga DE (x86, PPC, etc.) MorphOS QNX x86
The official next generation Amiga product. Available for AmigaOne and Classic Amiga PPC boards. Multi-platform solution. Amiga users' who can't afford a PPC machine will go for this option. Has gained significant support from the PDA market. AmigaOS-compatible PPC operating system that runs on Classic Amiga PPC hardware. Will be available for the bPlan Pegasos motherboard. QSSL & Phoenix continue to gain support from Amiga users'. Not available for Amiga hardware.

The market is in a familiar position that has been seen many times before:

  • The 'Classic Amiga' is awaiting the launch of new PPC boards, PPC operating system, and PCI busboards that will liberate their old and outdated machines.
  • Just over the horizon AmigaOS 4.0 promises new PPC hardware and software. Amiga DE will take the Amiga name beyond the confines of the PPC to the PDA and x86 market.
It would appear that the wait is almost over. It has taken many years, but the Amiga has finally broken free of the slow, propriety solutions that characterized the Commodore era, and has moved onto cheap industry standard parts that offer significant advantages over the old. The only question that remains unanswered is, which market will the Amiga user support - the unofficial MorphOS or the official AmigaOS4.x and Amiga Anywhere?
Which market will you support?

External Links
DCE
Escena
MorphOS

 

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Last Update: 13/6/2002
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