“A complete and utter screw-up”

The Commodore 64, introduced in 1982, had basked in the prestige of its “world’s best selling computer” epithet for nearly 10 years – artificially propped up on life support through the shrewd marketing of appealing software bundles – when its sales figures finally began to dwindle.

It dawned on UK managing director, David Pleasance, that a new entry level system would be required to plug the impending gap in the low-end market, thereby securing a steady influx of fledging consumers who could later be upsold on Commodore’s more advanced technology.

David approached Commodore president, Mehdi Ali, with a pitch to introduce an ‘A300’ system to directly replace the aging C64 at a budget price point of £200, or slightly more.

Amiga console beater coming

Top secret plans for a cut-down A500 to compete against games consoles have been leaked to Amiga Computing from reliable sources in the States.

Commodore talked about the machine behind closed doors at a developer’s conference in Denver, Colorado, in September. Visitors were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement to prevent information being passed on to the press.

The Amiga 300 will keep most of the A500’s specifications but is likely to enable games players to buy an Amiga for less than £200. It will use the current operating system and will continue to be based on the 68000 processor.

The A300 is to be housed in a smaller case and the numerical keyboard and side expansion port will be dropped. Those who will miss the numerical keyboard most are spreadsheet users and programmers. The expansion port is used for adding peripherals such as hard drives and scanners but manufacturers claim they will be able to develop small drives that plug into the trapdoor on the computer’s belly.

It will be ready for shipping during 1992 but the company are likely to wait until the growth of consoles and PCs affects entry-level Amiga sales before releasing it.

When asked about the A300, Commodore’s Andrew Ball simply replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Another employee at the Maidenhead office said: “I can’t talk about the computer until it’s officially announced – I don’t know when that will be.”

Other companies in the home computer market are also making plans for the predicted console boom. Atari, for example, are trying to reposition their machines as home computers capable of more than games.

Optimism? I’ve heard of it. Amiga Computing issue 44, January 1992.

Exploiting the classic ‘foot in the door’ sales technique, its underpowered specification wasn’t, as you might imagine, deemed a potential deterrent given that the built in expansion slot would support upgrades as and when the consumer’s finances allowed. Despite Commodore’s many well-documented misfires, this radical shift towards a future-proofed, modular design, time would tell demonstrated they were on the right track.

“Our idea is that we will try and make the Amiga 600 the C64 of the 90s…”

Kelly Sumner, former Commodore MD

The blueprint stripped the still relatively new ECS A500 Plus of its keypad, reduced the size of the keyboard and switched to a surface mounted technology motherboard, all measures undertaken to cut costs and meet the design brief. The A300 moniker would be critical to its success, spelling out to the layperson that this was a system less powerful than its big brother, the A500+, whilst still representing a significant inductive leap into the beguiling Commodore universe.

Germany was considered one of Commodore’s gubernatorial hubs, so naturally the meeting in which the finer details of the new system’s specs would be hashed out was arranged to take place in Frankfurt. David met with Mehdi and came away believing they were on the same page in terms of the direction and goals of the project. Little did he know that in between finalising the A300 architecture and returning home to the UK, the Germans had been whispering in Medhi’s ear. They insisted that any new computer lacking a hard drive wouldn’t have a hope in hell’s chance of selling, and two months later, shipments of – not the agreed A300 – the A600 arrived!

So what?

Clearly the Amiga can’t stand still in a competitive, technology-led market: but is this new Amiga a step in the right direction? Well, it certainly seems that way.

Given the fact that the A500 was never really the home games machine it pretended to be, it makes sense. An Amiga, still a ‘real’ computer, is going to retain its appeal and the limit of expansion to 2Mb plus an internal hard drive is not going to be an enormous problem. To the average Cartoon Classics buyer, it might as well be the same machine.

The major problem for the consumer is going to be choosing whether or not to go for a CD-compatible machine. If the A600 is to take over as the standard entry-level gamesplayer’s machine, it seems Commodore’s crusade to get CD-ROM accepted is going to suffer. Buying the standard entry-level Amiga and being able to choose later is one thing: deciding at the time whether you are later going to spend £300 on CD hardware and deciding accordingly is a whole different thing.

But above all, the main importance of the new Amiga is to software developers. Software houses are making pots of money out of developing games on cartridge for the games consoles, simply because they know that most people who have a copy of the game will have paid the full price for it, not copied it off a mate. If they got such a whim into their heads, these people could kill off the Amiga at a stroke, simply by ceasing to develop games for it.

The new Amiga 600 is no great step forward for the Amiga. But it could be the move that assures its survival: and that has to be a good thing for all of us.

Amiga Format plays judge, jury and executioner (issue 34, May 1992)

Whilst George Robins’ A600 ‘June Bug’ was a lower specification machine than the A500+, it actually cost $50-60 more to produce due to the inclusion of a PCMCIA slot, and the extra RAM demanded to operate it.

Also floundering in own-goal territory, somewhat deceptively, the inflated model number gave the impression that it would be a considerable upgrade to the A500+.

Consumers appreciate the unambiguous logic of a gradated model numbering system – sadly something we never got from Commodore, whose opening gambit was the A1000, a system outstripped performance-wise by the original A500!

“I think it’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense. The A500 was the machine that made Commodore. Punters can now either buy an A600 for games, or go straight for an A1500 – that’s a big step. The people at KCS think they can make a trapdoor expansion connector, but wonder if they should bother. They don’t think the A600 will succeed.”

Jack Kaufman, Bitcon Devices

This prematurely tolled the deathknell for sales of the A500+ because consumers understandably weren’t ecstatic about investing in retired technology, and Commodore blundered into the second quarter of 1992 turning over an unnecessarily hamstrung profit margin… if any at all!

“I’ll miss the A500 because it was such a good machine. I think Commodore is making a massive mistake, unless the next range of machines is very good. This will cause the loss of a lot of third party hardware support.”

Steve Jones, Checkmate Digital

Ironically the first batch of A600 motherboards to roll off the production line were stamped with the A300 insignia, and the £399 systems were sold with a 20mb hard drive as an optional extra for a premium of £100.

In August the following year, the A600’s recommended retail price was sliced to £199.99 for the basic, standalone model, £229.99 for the ‘Wild, Weird and Wicked’ bundle, and £349.99 for the ‘Epic’ HD pack. This effectively recoiled their rank in the Amiga hierarchy to meet David’s original projection, making the entry level system affordable, and the A1200 something to aspire to.

[Zero issue 36, October 1992]

One positive point to note amidst this debacle is that as a result of the enhanced reliability of the SMT motherboard, Commodore were sufficiently confident to offer with the A600 the world’s first computer in-home 12 month warranty scheme.

“I think it’s an excellent idea. The A500 is a dated machine, a dinosaur nearing the end of its useful life…”

Toby Simpson, games developer, Millennium Interactive

The power of hindsight helpfully informs us that the A600 wasn’t the end of the road for the home (or affordable) Amiga range. It was succeeded by the far superior, AGA-equipped A1200 later in the very same year, and marketed at an identical price point! You wouldn’t have had to be a Harvard-trained economist to forecast the effect this had on the sales of its diminutive, misguided brother, or the erosion of consumers’ goodwill.

“Seems like CBM isn’t doing anything but bringing out new products based on old technology. I wish they’d come out with a new Amiga model, not a repackaged Amiga.”

A newsgroup post made at the height of the ‘console’s’ rumour mill activity spells out the sentiments of many Commodore fans. Simon Lee, Microscopy and Imaging Resources (5th February 1992)

That said, the A600 wasn’t a terrible option for everyone. I was in the market for a new Amiga at the time – the first I could call my own – and jumped at the chance to relieve Comet of one of their freshly delivered ‘Wild, Weird, and Wicked’ bundles.

Most of the classic games were compatible (and Relokick took care of the remainder), it had a built in TV modulator, a tiny footprint and looked space-agey enough to have been plucked straight from the Star Trek set. It did everything the A500 could, and most crucially of all, it was mine, all mine. I wasn’t looking for the ‘Next Big Thing’ because the games themselves were still pushing any boundaries imposed by the hardware.

Also, let’s not forget that Commodore aren’t the only manufacturer to have re-released old technology following a superficially slick face-lift. Sony unveiled the cutesy PlayStation One five years after the release of the original PlayStation, and it went on to become the world’s best selling console in that year. When it was discontinued in 2005, the PSOne had shifted a whopping total of 28.15 million units. Sony pulled off the same conjuring trick with the PS2 Slimline model four years on from the release of its big brother.

Nintendo followed suit in 2012, rehashing the Wii with a Mini variant six years after we first tittered over the ludicrous name. It allowed them to artificially extend the product’s lifespan for minimal outlay, whilst developing their next generation console. Nevertheless, perhaps not the best example to cite given that the Wii Mini was so severely handicapped, the ageing technology found in the inaugural iteration far surpassed it. Consequently the Mini received some of the most scathing reviews spattered at any Nintendo console to date.

News in brief

The considerable interest in Acorn from the crucial high-street multiples that has been rejuvenated by the launch of the new A3010 ‘games’ machine, has not apparently gone unnoticed at Commodore.

Just a few weeks prior to the A3010 launch, Commodore announced it was reducing the price of its latest entry-level computer, the Amiga 600, by £100 to just £299. The Amiga is considerably underpowered compared to the A3010 – it only has a 7.4MHz 16-bit 68000 processor compared to the A3010’s 12MHz 32-bit Rise Arm250.

However, the Amiga’s considerable games base and sheer affordability at its new price may place a question mark over Acorn’s pricing of the A3010. Acorn points out, however, that the A3010 represents remarkable value as the only Rise-based computer for under £500. Nobody was available at Acorn to comment on Commodore’s move.

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes, He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes. Acorn User issue 123 (October 1992)

Apple were really the black sheep on planet tech in that, thanks largely to Steve Jobs, their policy was to plough forwards regardless of backwards compatibility or sentimentality. You either got on board or Apple cut you loose. It’s safe to say that this approach worked for them equally as well as the alternative did, say for Microsoft.

Commodore’s engineers weren’t the curmudgeonly Luddites history sometimes paints them to be. Far from it, the CBM pipelines were bursting with revolutionary future concepts, and had they been permitted to bring them to fruition, we may all have been Tweeting and Liking with Amiga 40000s today. Of course, true to form, they would have been assigned a hair-brained moniker such as the ‘A250’, but then it would have been a small price to pay.

Today the beleaguered A600 ‘runt of the litter’ is ironically much sought after due to the availability of ‘impossible dream’ accelerators such as the Vampire, which are capable of hiking the original clock speed by a factor of up to 155! It’s just a shame this resurgence in popularity has come a tad too late for Commodore to reap the rewards.

2 thoughts on ““A complete and utter screw-up”

  • July 8, 2016 at 8:43 am
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    I never really understood the A600. You lost the numeric keypad (didnt it have some sort of emulation to allow software that needed it to still run )but gained the PCMCIA. I would advise people to still go for the A500+ (until the A1200 turned up).

  • July 8, 2016 at 10:17 am
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    That's right, there were a few public domain numpad emulators you could buy, or you had the option to re-assign the keys you *did* have to the missing ones in some games/productivity software.

    I have to admit I was easily pleased in that I didn't get into expansion so never felt restricted by the drawbacks of the A600. I didn't own an A1200 until years later when I got into retro-gaming.

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