In a list of words with the potential to strike unmitigated dread into the heart of any Commodore fan, these three would rank pretty highly.
New Star Electronics were the Chinese investors who were to inject $25m into the Commodore acquisition deal spearheaded in 1995 by the then managing director and chief financial officer, David Pleasance and Colin Proudfoot. The sizeable wad represented 50% of the capital deemed critical to get the company back on its feet and once again in production sans any forthcoming credit provision from the component suppliers who by that stage wouldn’t have given Commodore the time of day otherwise.
The tried and tested partnership appeared to be dead certs to take home the bacon. Nonetheless, European director of logistics, Petro Tyschtschenko, can’t have fancied his chances of maintaining his position in the company under their reign; post-haste he made it his one man crusade to source an alternative saviour. This should come as no real surprise to anyone familiar with David’s assessment of Mehdi Ali’s “bag carrier”.
He states in his own book, ‘Meine Erinnerungen an Commodore und Amiga’ that his decision to approach Escom founder, Manfred Schmitt, to seek help was based on the strong alliance they forged during the Commodore 64’s heyday.
As the story goes, Manfred desperately needed 5000 units to keep his ailing business afloat in the run up to the typically manic Christmas period one year, but because Petro was out of the country at the time he was forced to disappoint him. Manfred kept pushing and Petro in the end conceded, pulling out the stops to make the delivery happen. In Petro’s own words, he “saved his life”. Perhaps an overly dramatic way to describe making a phone call to the guy who packed the systems and loaded them onto a truck, but there you have it.
Manfred, like the proverbial elephant, never forgot this favour, so when he had the opportunity to return it by not only buying Commodore, but also championing his pal, Petro, as president of the company, he didn’t hesitate in grabbing it with both hands. It was Petro or bust.
Merely 48 hours before the auction was due to commence, New Star pulled out of the deal having been convinced that if they joined forces with Escom they would automatically be granted the manufacturing rights without investing a cent. David and Colin felt honour bound to withdraw their offer, knowing they didn’t have the financial muscle to resuscitate Commodore without New Star’s majority stake, and Escom’s $14m bid was accepted, despite Dell offering $1m more. What swung it for Escom was that they had spent the previous six months undertaking the necessary due diligence procedures, whereas Dell came late to the party and hadn’t even got off the starting blocks. The judge refused to wait for them to play catch up and the trademark bandits snatched the spoils. By all accounts, Escom – the second largest computer manufacturer in Germany at the time with sales amassing $1.1b the previous year – had played a blinder, what with Commodore’s assets being valued at $20m.
Prior to sidling up to the table with their suitcases stuffed with bank notes, New Star (aka Tianjin Family-used Multimedia Co.) were in the shady business of churning out knock-off Nintendo and Mega Drive console clones. In fact they were at the forefront of 16-bit gaming at the time having corralled 80% of the Chinese market and sold a million units in 1994. They were perfectly comfortable with their commercial standing, and only became embroiled in the buy-out fray when the Chinese government insisted they clean up their act, under enormous pressure from the Japanese console giants who were keen to protect their intellectual property, one would imagine.
Through their greed and pliability they entered into an arrangement with Escom on the proviso that they would be awarded the contract to revive the production of the original Amiga line for distribution to western markets. What actually happened when push came to shove veered somewhat off-base. The manufacturing contract was instead bestowed upon the Tietsin Trust & Investment Co. who had established a factory near Beijing to get the ball rolling. Even so, this wasn’t the end of the story for New Star.
The former console forgers’ parent company, the New Jersey based Rightiming Electronics Corporation, were offered the option to purchase a license to produce officially endorsed Amiga clones to be sold in the Far East under the ‘New Star’ trade-name. So much for their ‘free lunch’. Regardless, New Star acceded and their first offering was to be christened the seemingly typo-tastic Amiga 5A00. According to their vice president/chairman, Jing Jian Li, the internet-enabled machine was to sport a 68000 processor and run on version 3.1 of the Amiga OS. The gutsy upstarts even intended to provide a ‘walled garden’ ISP solution to maintain complete control over the product, which technically would be in defiance of the Chinese government who already had that particular avenue sewn up!
It’s not clear if such a system ever materialised, though what we do know is that the license to use the Amiga brand name for similar projects was transferred to another New Jersey based company for $5m plus 8m shares of common stock in the postliminary organisation. Lotus Pacific by way of their subsidiary, Regent Electronics Corporation, did go on to release a tangible product, the Amiga-powered Wonder TV A6000 set top box. It was designed by a number of ex-Commodore engineers in conjunction with the German Amiga peripheral company, DCE. Designated an all-in-one, jack of all trades, the device was projected to sell for roughly the equivalent of the Amiga 1200 with a release date penciled in for the end of 1997. It would operate as a fax machine, play audio and karaoke discs, and MPEG movies, in addition to running existing 32-bit Amiga games and utilities.
In essence it was the CDTV, albeit released at a juncture when the market was more aptly attuned to its potential. At the heart of the sleek looky-likey is an AGA architecture and 020 or 030 processor. Media storage options are catered for by the integrated 4x CD drive, floppy drive and an IDE interface to permit the installation of hard drives, while the unit is controlled using a wireless joypad-TV remote hybrid device very similar to the one supplied with Commodore’s archetypal ‘A500 in a CD player’.
Escom tried to run before they could walk and subsequently declared bankruptcy in July 1996. The Commodore business changed hands once again in the year following their demise, this time being swallowed up by the PC clone manufacturers, Gateway 2000 and Tulip Computers. Tulip won the rights to the Commodore trade-name, while Gateway walked away with everything that remained.
In 1997 a legal squabble ensued between Gateway and Regent Electronics Corporation concerning their seemingly dubious license to produce Chinese Amiga impersonators. Gateway argued that Regent Electronics’ contract wasn’t valid because New Star’s original deal was clinched with Escom who had since gone bankrupt. Nevertheless, Amiga International were keen to resolve the dispute without becoming entangled in a lengthy court battle, and the two companies settled their differences amicably.
With such contractual obstacles eliminated, Regent Electronics Corporation in cooperation with China’s largest TV manufacturer, Sichuan Changhong Electronics Group Corporation of China, forecast production of 200,000 units by the end of 1998. In conjunction with the release of the A6000, Regent Electronics Corporation issued a variant of their set top box known as the A6060. The crucial difference was the provision for access to the in-house TeleWeb broadcast information system and cable TV channels. The prospect of an A5800 desktop model was also outlined, but is thought to have been blocked by Gateway.
Once Gateway acquired a taste for licensed Amiga clones, a number of other groups were given the go-ahead to develop them as well as distribute their own versions of the Amiga OS, in some cases aimed towards untapped markets such as Malaysia and South Africa.
Shortly afterwards, Gateway dropped the once envisioned to be futuristic, ‘2000’, from their moniker in an effort to appear current, yet sadly their forward planning didn’t extend to actually developing any new technology. That said, I did appreciate the colloquial charm of their Holstein Friesian cow branding. Like Escom before them, the trademark squatters did nothing to nurture the Amiga’s remarkable legacy, and offloaded the business to Amino Development in 1999 for close to $5m, whilst retaining the rights to all Amiga patents.
As the weary, mooing chorus ebbed away, further interludes of trademark musical chairs ensued, and if I had enough Prozac to hand I’d relay the remainder of the tawdry pantomime.
Petro retired in 2001 and his re-badged red and white globe continued to grind on its rusty axis.
The Amiga got the cancer and died on a Tuesday. I bought her a new hat with little flowers on it. And that’s all I have to say about that.