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

The Cult of Apple is well known. People are not shocked to see massive lines outside Apple stores in the lead-up to the latest iDevice launch. But before that there was the Cult of Apple, back when the company was still Apple Computer Inc. there was the Cult of Mac, whose members, in the face of overwhelming Wintel dominance, doggedly refused to let go of what was then considered a doomed platform.

The Cult of Mac's birth can be traced to the release of the first Macintosh in 1984. With its fancy GUI, it was a revolutionary computer. But it wasn't the only historically significant personal computer released during the '80s. Nor was it the only one to evoke fierce loyalty among its fans. The 1980s also witnessed the birth of the Cult of Amiga, with the first Amiga system — the Amiga 1000 — released in 1985. Like the Macintosh, it was a revolutionary personal computer.

And amazingly, like the Macintosh, the Amiga endures — at least in a form. The Amiga operating system continues to be developed by Belgian software company Hyperion Entertainment, and an ecosystem of vendors are still creating hardware for the system.

The Amiga was originally produced by Commodore, which went bankrupt in the mid-1990s. A series of legal twists and turns culminated in 2009, when a settlement was reached between Amiga Inc. and Hyperion Entertainment. "I am not a lawyer but my understanding is that Amiga inc. retains ownership of AmigaOS 3.1 and earlier while Hyperion owns the changes it has made since," says AmigaOS 4 lead developer Steven Solie.

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"Some may notice that AmigaOS 3.5 and 3.9 are left out. Those releases were done by a contractor named Haage and Partner which is still in business today. The sources to those releases remain with H&P… Hyperion had to rewrite any of the components it wanted from those releases for the 4.x series."

The reason Amiga has managed to endure is simple: It's "purely because of the fans", says Solie. "Without them, the commercial investment would have already dried up. There are commercial companies still investing in AmigaOS such as ACube Systems, A-EON Technology and Hyperion Entertainment itself."

Image: Amigaos.net

Hyperion Entertainment has two full time developers dedicated to the OS, with other developers being either contractors or volunteers. "The Open Amiga organisation has many examples of projects being developed outside the core team for possible inclusion in the OS itself."

"It is a true the vast majority of companies have long left the platform. But the core group of fans is what still keeps things going," says Solie.

The hardware

Although Hyperion has been using serial numbers for copies of AmigaOS since 4.0, it won't reveal sales numbers. Solie's "personal guess" is that the system has 2000-5000 users.

"If you include all the various Amiga clones and emulators we would probably be talking about around 10,000 users [in] total," he adds. "It is really difficult to judge because a majority of the users are rather quiet.

"That said, I think there are still tens of thousands that still remember the Amiga in general. The brand itself is still quite strong to this day. So if you are talking about potential users, we are still looking at quite a large pool."

AmigaOS 4.0, which was released in October 2004 (AmigaOS 4.1 Update 4 was released in December 2011), is based off the 3.1 source code. Unlike the original version of the OS it runs on the PowerPC architecture; Amigas originally used Motorola 68k CPUs.

"The good news [with building off the 3.1 source] is you don't have to waste time cloning and reverse engineering everything — that’s just a vast waste of time," Solie says. "The bad news is some of that code is 68k assembly and is in no shape to run on a modern PowerPC hardware platform.

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