AmigaOS 4 developer interview: Why it endures and what the future holds

To the surprise of many, the Amiga operating system endures, with developers continuing to eye new features for the venerable OS. We caught up with AmigaOS 4's lead developer to talk about the system's survival.

Image: Amigaos.net

Image: Amigaos.net

"What we have done is take the original designs and extend them where it makes sense. For example, the original Amiga shared library system is quite functional but also totally incompatible with everything else out there. Platforms like Windows can get away with this because they have a huge army of coders willing to do the necessary work to convert everything over to their systems.

"Instead, AmigaOS introduced a new shared object [.so] system which allows for the direct compilation of shared object libraries which are quite common. Of course, we would prefer developers use Amiga shared libraries but when you are the underdog, you sometimes need to bend the rules a bit to keep developers productive. Life is too short to rewrite libraries again and again just because your OS of choice is too stubborn to adapt."

The original systems for AmigaOS 4.0 were sold by Eyetech, and Solie said used models, such as the AmigaOne-XE and MicroA1-C, are still available. "There is also the Pegasos 2 created by bplan out of Germany which can run AmigaOS 4.1," he says.

Image: Amigaos.net

"New hardware models are currently made by ACube Systems. Their models include the AmigaOne 500 (Sam460ex based), Sam440ep and Sam440ep-flex. I use an AmigaOne 500 as my primary system and it is quite capable.

"A-EON Technology recently starting shipping its flagship model the AmigaOne X1000. The X1000 currently runs a preliminary version of AmigaOS. Demand for the X1000 was so great that A-EON needed it shipped as soon as possible. If all goes well, the X1000 will be the first Amiga system ever to support multiple cores as well."

In October Hyperion Entertainment announced an AmigaOS-based netbook. "Nothing much has been heard since then regarding the netbook but we do know it already runs AmigaOS."

"There are all sorts of rumours of additional hardware platforms and form factors from these companies," Solie says. "Hyperion is always on the lookout to increase its user base of course so any new hardware platforms that come along are seriously considered.

"You can still purchase brand new hardware and software from a small network on dealers. Most dealers deal with both the original Amiga hardware as well as the new stuff.

"It is a pretty tight community of users, dealers and developers."

The process for companies wanting to develop Amiga-friendly hardware normally involves a vendor contacting Hyperion when they have a new idea and negotiating an agreement to have AmigaOS ported. "The hardware providers usually provide the firmware; Hyperion provides the HAL [hardware abstraction layer] and of course the OS itself," Solie says. "Hardware drivers are written by either side of the equation or even third party contractors and volunteers.

"Hyperion's developers have provided input into new hardware developments in the past. Ultimately, it is up to the hardware developers to do what they think is best of course."

The fans

Although the system remains closed source, since Solie took the role of AmigaOS Development Team Lead back in late 2010 he has made an effort to build a sense of community around the project, increasing communication between the AmigaOS team, the system's user base and other developers.

"Up until recently, all communication was rather one way, with community websites picking up the slack," he says. "Now, we have a development blog, informational website, a support forum and a documentation wiki."

These resources are primarily maintained by volunteers, but Hyperion provides servers and bandwidth. "The Amiga community is what keeps AmigaOS alive and kicking," Solie says.

There "have been plans" to move to a semi-open or open source model for development. "However, given the complex history of source code ownership this isn't something you can rush into," Solie says.

"In the meantime, I have been trying hard to increase the number of developers and their involvement any way I can," he adds. "For example, some third party developers are given special access to the development team for questions and support."

Image: Amigaos.net

Solie's first Amiga was the Amiga 1000. It was the first Amiga released by Commodore; it debuted in 1985, running a Motorola 68000 processor. "My last 68k-based Amiga was an A3000 which I used while earning my bachelor’s degree," he says. "For my final project I actually developed an OSI-based protocol stack which ran on two Amiga 3000s and used Ethernet. I remember the Ethernet cards costing a fortune back then."

"My first PowerPC-based Amiga system was an AmigaOne-XE by Eyetech. I was asked to join the beta testing team by Amiga Inc. back in the day. Over time, I took on more responsibility and had the chance to work on the OS source code itself.

"I was then asked by Hyperion to become the 'AmigaOS Development Team Lead' (a title I made up) to herd the cats if you will. I don't get a lot of time to code these days but I am still enjoying the experience."

Solie has heard of "pockets" of people using AmigaOS 4 for commercial work, but these days Amigas are primarily used by hobbyists. "It used to be that production studios used Amiga systems to create cutting edge graphics. Those days are long gone. This is purely for the fun of it now."

"I find primarily long-term fans still invest in AmigaOS and the Amiga hobby in general," he adds. "We also see some new customers returning to try out AmigaOS on the brand new PowerPC hardware platforms which are still available. Since the launch of the AmigaOS website, there have been a lot of people poking around and some go so far as to invest in some hardware.

"Once in a while we also see a brand new customer. Somebody completely new to the AmigaOS, i.e. young, and looking for something different. Since AmigaOS lacks applications, new guys can create a few applications and be treated like a rock star.

"There is a bit of money to be made as well in terms of donations and bounties. I think it is the instant fame and attention new user and developers receive is what convinces them to stay — again, the fans.

"The main draw is simplicity. AmigaOS is simple enough to be understandable and controllable without having to resort to experts all the time."

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