Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Renaissance on the silicon world has happened looong ago. It's just that very few noticed it.

The renaissance of the silicon...nooo I'm not talking about Lola Ferrari nor Pamela Anderson and not even Ana Nicolle Smith. I am talking about the computer renaissance.
A lot of people think that this day and age are the days of the renaissance. They are wrong. Computer renaissance happened long ago. It's just that very few noticed it. Those are lucky ones that were blessed with a true Silicon based Leonardo da Vinci Workshop. And out of those, the ones that were able to get the full picture, bloomed into a daVinci type brain.

Why do I state this in the MultiCoreCPU and ZillionCoreGPU world where your refrigerator chip is more powerfull than the early IBM mainframes? Well, bare with me for a couple of minutes and continue reading.

Renaissance was not about vulgar display of power, but rather an era of intellectual growth and multiplicity of knowledge. The renaissance created some of the worlds best ever polymaths (people that master several areas of knowledge and have open-to-knowledge minds)...such as Leonardo da Vinci.

So back to this day and age. The corei7 has multi cores of processing power able to process around 100 GigaFlops, a Nvidea card can have 512 GPU cores and kick out around 130 GigaFlops of parallel processing power.Today we play 3d games rendered at 50frames per second in resolutions exceeding the 1900X1200 mark, while back in the early 90's, the best desktop computer would take 48hours to render one 640x480 frame.

Still, when did we leap from the "electronic typewriter" linked to a amber display and the rudimentary graphics to the computer that can render graphics in visual quality, produce video, produce sound, play games on...and still is able of word processing and spreadsheets? Because that was the turning point. That was the computer renaissance.

Still following me? It's difficult to pin point in time when exactly did this all start and witch brand kicked it.

Some say that it was Steve Jobs and the early 84 Macintosh... and thought not entirely wrong, are far from actually being right. The first "Mac" had an operating system copied from the XEROX project (that same project that Microsoft later brought from XEROX and spawned into MSWindows 1)...and that first Mac design was actually fathered by Jef Raskin (that left the LISA project) while only after the first prototype, had Steve Jobs gain interest in the Mac project and also he left the LISA project...kicking Jef our of the Mac project (some character this Jobs boy).

The next logical contestant is the Commodore VIC20. It was aimed strait to the Mac market and with some success. But still not exactly able to kick the renaissance era, much like the first Mac.


So.. was it Commodore C64/128 family? ahhh now we are talking more on the kind of flexibility needed to kick that so much needed renaissance, still short in ambition. They were brilliant gaming machines with some flexibility but not enough gut to take it through.

Most would now be shouting "ATARI... the ATARI-ST" and would be... wrong. It's a good machine with a too-conventional-to-bloom architecture. Good? Yes! Brilliant? No!

It's clear by now that the computer renaissance podium is taken by the Commodore Amiga. I'm not talking about the late 90's 4000... nor the 1200... or the 600...or even the world renown 500. I'm referring to the Amiga architecture. And that's something that will date back to the very first A1000 (yes the A1000 has a lower spec than the A500 and it's the father of them all).

The Amiga (unlike most will think) is not:
  - ATARI technology stolen by engineers leaving the company
  - Commodore own technology

The Amiga Corporation project started life in 1982 as Hi-Toro, and the Amiga its self as Lorraine game machine. It was a startup company with a group of people gathered by Larry Kaplan who "fished" Jay Miner and some other colleagues (some from Atari) that were tired of ATARI's management and were disappointed with the "way things headed". Jay (called the father of the Amiga, but actually not the father of the Amiga, but rather it's brilliant architecture) was able to choose passionate people that were trying to do their absolute best.
They were not worried about the chip power as that was something that Moore law would take care (in time), but rather the flexibility of chip design and the flexibility of architecture design.
They were not worried with software features (another thing that the community would pick up in time) but rather on building a flexible and growable base.
And above all I think, they were totally committed to giving the ability to code for the Lorraine console out of the box with the Lorraine console (unlike the standards back then, when everything was done in specific coding workstations... and if you think about that, much like any non computer device today)...that bloomed the latter called Amiga Computer.

The TEAM
Jay chose an original team of very dedicated and commited to excel people
 1985
2007

Some pictures (courtesy of http://uber-leet.com/HistoryOfTheAmiga/) taken from the "History of the Amiga documentary" available on youtube:
 

The team has changed over the years and the full Amiga evolution history has a huge list of people (source: http://www.amigahistory.co.uk/people.html):

Mehdi Ali- A former boss at Commodore who made a number of bad decisions, including cancelling the A3000+ project and the release of the A600. He has been largely blamed for the fall of Commodore during 1994 and is universally disliked by most Amiga users.

Greg Berlin- Responsible for high-end systems at Commodore. He is recognised as the father of the A3000.

David Braben- Single-handedly programmed Frontier: Elite II and all round good egg.

Andy Braybrook- Converted all his brilliant C64 games to Amiga, and got our eternal thanks.

Martyn Brown- Founder of Team 17. Not related to Charlie.

Arthur C. Clarke- Author of the famous 2001AD book and well known A3000 fan.

Jason Compton- Amiga journo, responsible for the brilliant Amiga Report online mag.

Wolf Dietrich- head of Phase 5 who are responsible for the PowerUP PowerPC boards.

Jim Drew- Controversial Emplant headman who has done a great job of bringing other systems closer to the Amiga.

Lew Eggebrecht- Former hardware design chief.

Andy Finkel- Known as the Amiga Wizard Extraordinaire. He was head of Workbench 2.0 development, as well as an advisor to Amiga Technologies on the PowerAmiga, PPC-based Amiga system. He currently works for PIOS.

Fred Fish- Responsible for the range of Fish disks and CDs.

Steve Franklin- Former head of Commodore UK.

Keith Gabryelski- head of development for Amiga UNIX who made sure the product was finished before faxing the entire Amiga Unix teams resignation to Mehdi Ali.

Irving Gould- The investor that allowed Jack Tramiel to develop calculator and, eventually desktop computers. He did not care about the Amiga as a computer but saw the opportunity for computer commodification with the failed CDTV.

Simon Goodwin- Expert on nearly every computer known to man. Formerly of Crash magazine.

Rolf Harris- Tie me kangaroo down sport etc. Australian geezer who used the Amiga in his cartoon club.

Allen Hastings- Author of VideoScape in 1986, who was hired by NewTek to update the program for the 90's creating a little known application called Lightwave, the rendering software that for a long time was tied to the Video Toaster. This has made a huge number of shows possible, including Star Trek and Babylon 5.

Dave Haynie- One of the original team that designed the Amiga. Also responsible for the life saving DiskSalv. He has been very public in the Amiga community and has revealed a great deal about the proposed devices coming from Commodore in their heyday. His design proposal on the AAA and Hombre chipsets show what the Amiga could have been if they had survived. He also played an important part in the development of the Escom PowerAmiga, PIOS, and the open source operating system, KOSH.

Larry Hickmott- So dedicated to the serious side of the Amiga that he set up his own company, LH publishing.

John Kennedy- Amiga journalist. Told the Amiga user how to get the most of their machine

Dr. Peter Kittel- He worked for Commodore Germany in the engineering department. He was hired by Escom in 1995 for Amiga Technologies as their documentation writer and web services manager. When Amiga Technologies was shut down he worked for a brief time at went to work for the German branch of PIOS.

Dale Luck- A member of the original Amiga team and, along with R.J. Mical wrote the famous "Boing" demo.

R. J. Mical- member of the original Amiga, Corp. at Los Gatos and author of Intuition. He left Commodore in disgust when Commodore choose the German A2000 design over the Los Gatos one, commenting "If it doesn't have a keyboard garage, it's not an Amiga."

Jeff Minter- Llama lover who produced some of the best Amiga games of all time and has a surname that begins with mint.

Jay Miner(R.I.P.)- The father of the Amiga. Died in 1994. Before his time at Amiga Corp. he was an Atari engineer and created the Atari 800). He was a founding member of Hi-Toro in 1982 and all three Amiga patents list him as the inventor. He left Amiga Corp after it was bought by Commodore and later created the Atari Lynx handheld, and during the early 1990's continued to create revolutionary designs such as adjustable pacemakers.

Mitchy- Jay Miner's dog. He is alleged to have played an important part in the decision making at Amiga Corp. and made his mark with the pawprint inside the A1000 case.

Urban Mueller- Mr. Internet himself. Solely responsible for Aminet, the biggest Amiga, and some say computer archive in existance. Responsible for bringing together Amiga software in one place he deserves to be worshipped, from afar.

Peter Molyneux- Responsible for reinventing the games world with Syndicate and Populous. He is also famed for being interviewed in nearly every single computer mag imaginable IN THE SAME MONTH.

Bryce Nesbitt- The former Commodore joker and author of Workbench 2.0 and the original Enforcer program.

Paul Overaa- Amiga journalist. Helped to expand the readers knowledge of the Amiga.

David Pleasance- the final MD of Commodore UK and one-time competitor for the Amiga crown. Owes me 1 PENCE from World of Amiga '96.

Colin Proudfoot- Former Amiga buyout hopeful.

George Robbins- He developed low-end Amiga systems such as the unreleased A300, which was turned into A600, the A1200 and CD32. He was also responsible for Amiga motherboards including B52's lyrics. After losing his driver's license, Robbins literally lived at the Commodore West Chester site for more than a year, showering in sinks and sleeping in his offices.

Eric Schwartz- Producer of hundreds of Amiga artwork and animations.

Carl Sassenrath- helped to create the CDTV, CDXL and has recently developed the Rebol scripting language.

Kelly Sumner- Former head of Commodore UK. Now head of Gametek UK.
 

Bill Sydnes- A former manager at IBM who was responsible for the stripped down PCjr. He was hired by Commodore in 1991 to repeat that success with the A600. However, at the time the Amiga was already at the low-end of the market and a smaller version of the A500 was not needed.

Petro Tyschtschenko- Head of Amiga International, formerly Amiga Technologies. Responsible for keeping the Amiga on track since 1995.


So why was this such a brilliant machine?
It starts with the hardware.
The Amiga was based on the most flexible CPU of it's time. The Motorola MC68000 family. Motorola had the MC680x0 CISC CPU and MC68881/MC68882 FPU combination for workstations, and the MC880x0 RISK CPU family for the Unix workstations. That DNA fused into the PowerPC platform together with IBM RS6000 series RISK. Now some of you may say "yeah the PowerPC was such a flop that not even Apple and IBM stayed to it" and be ultimately wrong about it. The PowerPC problem was it's huge power consumption and dissipation when the CPU production couldn't go beyond the 90nm miniaturization. So a complex design with a lot of big transistors eat-up power and ultimately generate heat. That's why it got stuck. Ever tried to think why today's CPU's go Multi-core and rarely above 3ghz? yup .. better split the design and not let things get too hot...and today CPU are built on 22nm dye size miniaturization.
The PowerPC is very much alive. Inside your XBox 360, and you Nintendo Wii, and your Playstation3 lives a 65nm PowerPC configuring from single to triple core applications. There is even a 2Ghz Dual core PowerPC from Palo Alto Semiconductors..and IBM..just check their servers for not Microsoft software and drool all over the PowerPC cpu specs.
OK the CPU was important but was it all? NO!
The heart of the Amiga is called the AGNUS (later called Fat AGNUS, and Fatter AGNUS) processor. That's Jay Miner's most valuable DNA..and ultimately gave him the title of "father of the Amiga".
Consider the Agnus as a blazing fast and competent switchboard operator.
On one side you have the bus for the CPU, on the other side the memory bus and even a chipset bus. All conveying down to the Agnus. What's the catch? Well, picture you want to play a tune while working your graphics on the Amiga. The CPU loads the tune to memory, and then instructs the Agnus to stream this memory bank to the audio processing DAC chip. By doing that the CPU is then free to do all the processing needs. This is just one example. The graphics was actually the mostly used example o the Agnus chip, but it could do just about anything. That's why you have Amiga machines with addon CPU cards running at different speeds and all in sync. The Agnus is the maestro.
The Agnus, shown here in it's dye miniaturized form, started life as a very complex set of boards to imprint Jay's brilliance. Just take a good look at the complexity:
This was the true heart of the Amiga and it's brilliant architecture capable of true multitasking (instead of time-shared multitasking).

There were other chips for I/O, sound and graphics, but they all had a huge highway like, directly linked to memory at the hands of the Agnus.
These are pictures of the early prototypes and design sketches:

Then we get to the software.
The Amiga OS was built to take advantage of this brilliant design. Most Kernels exist around 3 base kernel models (Monolithic, Microkernel & Hybrid Kernels)
In Short, Monolithic kernel is big and has all the software packages needed to control hardware and provide software function (some call the Linux kernel monolithic...it is...ish... the linux kernel is compiled to the hardware and requested modules so it actually is a hybrid made monolithic kernel). The Microkernel is ofter seen on routers and simple devices that run a very fast yet little featured kernel design. The Hybrid is the kernel type that has a big chunk for the basic CPU and chipset functionality and then loads small microkernels as needed depending on the hardware available.
The Amiga kernel on the other hand it a beast on it's own league (followed by BeOS, AROS, MorphOS and Atheos/Syllabl).
It is a Microkernel design but threads each and every module. So from the kernel to software running, each and every one of them is a separate execution thread on the cpu, with it's own switches to memory from the Agnus and it's own address spaces. It's hugelly fast and stable, being the only draw back, the need for the coders to respect their given memory space (if not, the code could write memory from the loaded kernel space and crash the system...giving the Amiga known "Guru meditation error").

So this is the superior architecture that spawned the computer renaissance and allowed for the bloom that created the computers we have today.

Today, kids at school have a lot on knowledge that Leonardo da Vinci had. Back in the renaissance era he was one of the few having that knowledge...today every one has at least a good part of that knowledge.
Take this thought into the computer world and its progress timeline on steroids and you'll be comparing the 80's Commodore Amiga polymath-ability to today computer and even mobile phone. The Amiga was 10 to 15 year ahead of everything else out there... and in terms of hardware architecture, still is ahead of everything out there.
I was one of the lucky ones that migrated from the C64 to the Amiga500... and only 4 years later i was given an IBM PC. Had the Amiga been replaced by a PC computer (the Olivetti PC1 and the Schneider EURO-PC were big back then), my brain would be closed to the "electronic typewriter" sad reality. I am a polymath today because of the Amiga. It was the tool that (together with my parents investment in excellent and varied education) formed my brain in an open and exploratory way. Thank you Amiga.

References used for pictures and team list:
http://uber-leet.com/HistoryOfTheAmiga/
http://www.amigahistory.co.uk/people.html/