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The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga

by Jimmy Maher
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
344 pp., illus. 60 b/w. Trade, $26.95/£18.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01720-6.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


The Platform Series from The MIT Press, edited by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, seeks to investigate computing systems and how they enable, constrain, shape, and support creative work as well as to explore the cultural and social contexts in which these platforms exist. The most recent release in this series, The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga by Jimmy Maher, achieves both these goals with distinction. Maher describes the cultural and historical context in which the Amiga computer was developed, introduced, and eventually faded to obscurity; the features that made this particular computer unique; and explains why this is important with technical rigor, and the grace, elegance, and style often associated with the Amiga itself.

Maher's central claim is that the Commodore Amiga 1000 was the world's first multimedia personal computer. With its palette of 4,096 colors, capacity to store and manipulate color photographs, unprecedented animation capabilities, access to professional tools for video manipulation, four-channel stereo and the ability to utilize recordings of real world sounds, and the capacity to run multiple applications simultaneously, the Amiga was not only the first computer to provide a bridge between the bifurcated world of business and game computers, but the harbinger of present day digital media like digital cameras, Photoshop, MP3 players, YouTube, Flickr, and the blogosphere.

Maher backs these bold claims with individual chapters detailing how the Amiga community of practice brought features and developments from evolving institutional computers to personal computers. For example, the chapter "Deluxe Paint" provides a deep and rich background discussion of the development of features and affordances for the creation and manipulation of digital images now taken for granted when using programs such as Photoshop or GIMP. "SSG and Sculpt-Animate" discusses vector drawing and animation. "New Tex" focuses on the successful efforts to bring desktop video manipulation to the Amiga. "Cinemaware and Psygnosis" details how the Amiga's power, resolution, animation and stereo sound capabilities, and custom chip processing all contributed to the development of realistic, immersive gameplay environments and experiences.

Along the way, Maher is careful, and successful, to realize another goal: to credit and properly document the work of the visionary engineers, developers, and designers who played roles in the success of the Amiga, and therefore influenced our current-day technological world. Additionally, Maher provides insights into the technical, cultural, and economic factors that influenced the Amiga's development and lifecycle.

In the end, the future of the Amiga was hampered by its lack of support from Commodore management, as well as its closed, and limited, hardware configuration and operating system. Both prevented the revolutionary computer from competing successfully in a technological environment turned to modularization and adaptation. But the beloved underdog computer still attracts a loyal following. The Aminet online repository of public domain and open source software for Amiga computers declares itself the world's largest collection of freely distributed software for any computer system. The Amiga remains a favorite platform for the Internet retrogaming community.

The success of Maher's narrative is not necessarily to provide a study of the technology and/or sociology associated with the Commodore Amiga computer platform, although he does so quite compellingly. The original technology of the Amiga is no longer viable, and the community of developers, artists, hackers, and gamers has moved on. While nostalgia might be an easy mark for such a book, Maher's study aims higher, situating the original vision of the Commodore Amiga as a computer to make multimedia and multitasking possible. The success of The Way the Future Was is to reveal how the Amiga computer contributed so significantly to the development of today's digital multimedia-rich personal computers.

At once challenging, rewarding, emotional, and insightful The Way the Future Was is a compelling read for those interested in the Amiga platform, as well as those interested to learn more about the culture of computing.

Last Updated 2 August 2012

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