Commodore Reborn?

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

 

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Bankruptcy can be a cruel and untimely thing, just when you think all is going well, your business is on top of the world, a sudden shift in sands occurs, your products are no longer as competitive as they once where and your once legion of fans  desert you for only a slightly more advanced version of what you currently sell, all of a sudden you wish you’d spent a little bit more on research and development and not made all those poor hardware choices and experimental consoles that you thought would drive the market. Sound familiar? Why yes of course it does, it’s the tale of Commodore International, who back in the 80’s and 90’s released two of the most popular home computers the world has seen, the Commodore 64 and the Amiga 500.    

If your not old enough to remember, Commodore 64 and the Amiga 500 where the powerhouse for home computing back in the 80’s and the 90’s, bringing not only home computing, but gaming to millions. They where versatile machines that where a lot cheaper than a fully decked out IBM Compatible but a little more pricey than your average home console.

Commodore who where extremely competitive during the 80’s, started to slip at the beginning of the 90’s, failing to   properly invest in updating their computer systems and simply cashing in on the popularity of the Amiga line of computers. By the time they realised that regular system and graphic upgrades where required to stay popular in the market place, the credibility they’d earned began to slide, along with the interest of dedicated gamers. To make matters worse, both  PC manufacturers and Nintendo had made an aggressive entries into the market place with the introduction of the VGA & Super VGA graphic adapters becoming available for the PC desktop and arrival of the powerful Super Nintendo console which lured away Amiga gamers with the promise of colourful arcade like graphics.

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The Amiga 500 Plus (In Carbonite!)

Things began to look dire and in an last ditch attempt to stay in the market, Commodore eventually released their final piece of hardware (A console!), the Amiga CD32. Unfortunately this release just came a little too late and hit the market place only just before the more powerful Sony Playstation, 3DO, Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 where all released. This decimated Commodore, who where left in the position of not being able to sell pre-made units or find suitable software developers for the platform. Just as they where beginning to catch up with their competitors, the game changed, leaving Commodore in a financial position that lead to bankruptcy.

The Amiga brand was sold off to a European company who attempted to revive the flailing computer system for a number of years, but was sadly unable to move with the times in terms of hardware  or attract popular developers to rebuild mass market appeal. The Amiga became a computer on the fringe, supported only by it’s hardcore fan base. In the mean time, the Commodore brand was sold off during the bankruptcy and transferred to Dutch company, who sat on it for a number of years. With no market presence and no hardware releases of any kind for many years, it was (almost) safe to say that Commodore was dead and buried.

Back from the dead (sort of…)

In an alarming number of cases, most of the pioneers of the computing industry started out by being talented guys who just knew how to sell stuff and then imaginatively getting others to believe in their cause. These guys often worked out garages and family homes, before their wares went on to hit the mass market. In fact if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs hadn’t dropped out of university to work on their own projects, the computing world of today, would be vastly different. There’s a small element of this at play with the sudden reappearance of the old Commodore brand. As it happens, a guy who runs a furniture store in the US (Barry Altman), has single handily negotiated the rights to the Commodore brand for use with his own recently created company, Commodore USA. Inspired by the look and feel of an already existing all-in-one PC, Barry set about to rebrand it with the Commodore logo and is now in the process of trying to put together a replicated version of the both the Commodore 64  and the Amiga (500 or 1200?) computers, with the outside shell retaining the retro Commodore look and feel, but the internals containing a modern PC and up to date operating system.    

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The Commodore Phoenix

The first computer released under the new brand name is The Commodore Phoenix (a rebranded Cybernetman ZPC-GX31), the name alone is meant to symbolise the rebirth of the company, although the choice of hardware is a little questionable. The computer itself is a very slick looking machine but is limited in it’s capabilities, it doesn’t use a stock video card internally (but a small video card may be added) and depending on the internal graphics processor and memory, it will most likely only just be capable of playing the odd 1080p movie. Most of the day to day functions that you come to expect from a computer will be covered (music, email, word, etc.) Just don’t expect the latest or greatest Direct X11 game to even remotely run well on this thing.

It can support either a dual core processor or quad core and can run with up to 4GB of ram. It also includes a choice between installing either Windows 7 or Ubuntu (meaning just about any Intel OS will be installable on it).There do seem to be some small items missing from the set up though, first is a HDMI port (which is generally crucial to the all-in-one device these days) and also Bluetooth. Both can be installed manually (HDMI VGA Adapter & Bluetooth USB Dongle) but seeing as most phones use Bluetooth and most TV’s now have a HDMI port, there’s no excuse not to have these features include from the outset. Possibly the most captivating thing about the product, is it’s shape, it really does look a bit like a futuristic Commodore 64 and adding the Commodore brand does somehow warm you to the computer! (ahh nostalgia).

This does leave a rather a glaring question though, since the computer has been rebranded to include the commodore label, what where the intentions of the original designer by bringing out this type of computer?

Since the elegant iMac made it’s way into the market place, many hardware developers have gone out of their way to attempt to mimic Apple’s all-in-one approach. Many designers have started to incorporate the computer hardware straight into the monitor (as Apple have), but a few truly experimental designers have gone in the other direction and revived the concept of the all-in-one keyboard (which houses both the keyboard and hardware together). This particular hardware choice does has some advantages, the first being that your not tied to just the one monitor, the second is, it also makes the device much more portable (so you only have to move the keyboard and not the monitor). The cost of this portability is usually weighed against CPU power and upgradability, which become limited due to the space restrictions. This is where the Commodore Phoenix was originally derived from, an attempt to find the ultimate PC version of the iMac.

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Fan mock up of the modern day Amiga

The two next releases which are thought to be on the horizon by Commodore USA, are the all-in-one Amiga  and Commodore 64 look a likes. Ideally when these systems are released they will much more powerful than the current Commodore Phoenix and actually resemble real versions of the legacy computers.  They are rumoured to be potentially installed with the open source Amiga OSAROS (Amiga Research Operating System), which in it’s latest edition has a somewhat modernised version of Workbench as it’s GUI and uses a heavily modified and improved version of the old Amiga 3.1 OS.

AROS is a branch away project from the official Amiga OS, which removes it’s dependency on the Power PC articheture and can be run across the majority of Intel and AMD platforms. It’s compatible across the board with almost all of the legacy Amiga software, is highly portable and uses a very small amount of resources in it’s operations. It’s based on Unix, so there may be some scope to potentially to compile Unix based software which has been developed for other systems (Linux?). One of it’s best features is being able to run ADF’s (Amiga Disk File) straight from the desktop, which are disk images that often used by the Amiga emulation community.

The downside though is a distinct lack of direct compatibility with either the Mac, Linux or Windows and is a somewhat under polished OS which lacks many of the modern features you come to expect from either Linux or Windows. Worse still, Wine (Windows) compatibility has not even been seriously contemplated and is only now just being considered as something the system may need. These seem to herald some major challenges if the OS actually going to be taken seriously and I wonder if Commodore USA would be better off simply installing Windows or Linux and then virtualizing AROS or even having some sort of dual booting arrangement instead.

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Available in Black or Silver!!

Personally if I had to choose a dedicated Amiga OS to install, I would go for the amazingly beautiful MorphOS, which takes the very best aspects of the latest  closed source version of the Amiga OS and adds an amazing beautiful Mac like fronted to the equation. It also retains all the legacy software compatibility from the Amiga. Sadly though MorphOS appears to limited to the PowerPC articheture so it won’t be coming to the Intel platform anytime soon and still has the problem of living in an Amiga only world in terms of software.

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The Original Commodore 64!

Some of things that could really help get the ball rolling with AROS could be an overhaul of it’s default frontend, which desperately needs modernising in terms of both tasteful icons and more modern windows. Making sure all of the basic  functions that you’d find across Linux, Windows and Mac are properly implemented (Such as flash & Open GL). Getting some  compatibility software similar to Apple’s X11, would also be useful and allow far more programs to be easily ported, launched or compiled directly from Unix, Linux and Mac code. The ultimate finale for all this would be top it off with a compatible version of Wine (or the commercially supported Crossover), this would just about make a native version of the Amiga OS an almost appealing choice.

Even though the rumour is that the new Amiga / C64 will use AROS as it’s main operating system, I think it would be a real surprise if they released these computers without the choice of another OS such as Linux or Windows 7 (in fact it would probably be commercial suicide…)

Whilst I really like the concept of the modern C64 and Amiga computers, there’s nothing here that couldn’t already be done with your existing PC. The majority of the Amiga software is already emulated across the Windows/Linux platforms and there’s nothing new or cutting edge about the AROS platform that will actually draw you in. The only draw cards the Amiga has these days is nostalgia and perhaps quite literally the efficiency of the OS itself.

If Commodore USA are clever enough to not simply limit themselves to one OS choice with their new forth coming systems, then there will definitely be a lot of potential for their products. In fact if they get the look and feel right, then the nostalgia market will be theirs for the taking. Who knows where this company will go in future, but for now it’s nice to have the Commodore brand back, even if it could only be just for a short while.

If your curious about Commodore USA’s latest hardware, the official website can be found here.

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