Amiga Successes: The story of the Amiga 2000

How it came to be, why it was designed in Germany and not the US, why it was so successful, and how its all connected to Commodore’s venture into PCs. 

The second entry in the Amiga line is often regarded as a bit of an ugly duckling. Its styling is distinctly different to the other members of the line – more akin to the IBM PCs and clones of the time. Some see it as little more than an overpriced Amiga 500, due to the fact that in its base configuration it is not significantly more powerful, even though in its day it was three times the price. And yet, it outsold all other “big box” Amigas combined and was Commodore’s most successful higher-end computer. The Amiga 2000 holds a place in computer history as the computer that revolutionized budget multimedia and TV production thanks to its video slot, and played a role in space exploration. A fact that might not have been lost on Commodore’s international marketing team had they actually had one at the time.

Commodore management changes

In 1980 Jack Tramiel made a speech to a summit of Commodore general managers in London, in which he made his famous statement that they were now going to make “computers for the masses, not the classes”. Commodore, who had been on the front line of the pre-assembled microcomputer revolution of the 70s together with Apple and Tandy / Radio Shack, were now losing money in the competition against the CP/M compatibles. Tramiel had been watching Japanese companies targeting cheaper, simpler computers at the home market in Japan, and spotted an opportunity to corner this segment in the West if he could beat the Japanese to it. 

The enormous success of the VIC-20 and C64 proved him right, but by 1984 Tramiel was ousted from Commodore by majority shareholder and board chairman Irving Gould. The two men’s fight for control of the company had come to a head in a row over Gould’s use of company assets for personal reasons. Tramiel went off to found Tramel Technologies, and then acquire Atari.

A search for new technology

Gould hired Marshall F. Smith, former CEO of a truck brake company in North Carolina, as his successor. Having no experience in the computer business, Smith hired a bunch of people from Bell Northern Research, including VP of product development Lloyd “Red” Taylor. One of Taylor’s main pursuits at Commodore was to look for promising technology that they could licence or acquire.

Image courtesy of Remi Jacobsen

By 1982, Compaq had reverse engineered IBMs BIOS, MS-DOS PC-compatibles were taking off, and CP/M was rapidly losing market share. Unix, however, looked promising too, so Taylor decided to pursue two separate paths: In-house development of a Unix-based workstation, and acquisition of the means to produce IBM PC-compatible computers.

The former effort resulted in the development of the Commodore 900. The latter resulted in Commodore licencing the Intel 8088 CPU design, the Dynalogic Hyperion luggable PC design, and Microsoft MS-DOS. Incidentally, another one of his acquisitions was Amiga Inc., snatched from the jaws of Tramiel’s Atari. Both the C900 and Hyperion prototypes were exhibited at CeBIT in Hanover in 1984. This show was also noted for IBMs huge exhibit, which clearly showed their intention to enter the European market in force. Commodore’s  German subsidiary was quick to take note.

Commodore Germany

Commodore Germany (CG) was Commodore’s second most commercially successful subsidiary after Commodore UK, and was home of Commodore’s European development and manufacturing facilities. As Commodore gradually lost grip on its home market in the post-Tramiel era, the European market became ever more important to the company’s survival. CG was also unique in that had established such a solid reputation amongst business customers on the back of the PET and CBM-II lines, that even as the company’s focus shifted and sales of the CBM-II line dwindled elsewhere, they still kept a substantial market share.

Commodore PC-20 II
The Commodore PC-20 II. Image courtesy of Digitalt Museum.

However, with CBM-II rapidly being outdated and IBM knocking on the door, things were getting hairy. And then Commodore management was ousted again. Both the C900 and Dynalogic project was cancelled, just as CG were tooling up for C900 production. It all looked bleak, but then they realized that with all the licences they had, and the production lines ready for the C900, they might have what they needed to pip IBM to the post after all – if they acted quickly.

They rapidly started production of 8088 CPUs, designed a PC motherboard based on the Dynalogic designs, adapted the C900s chassis, designed a new keyboard, and in a matter of months the Commodore PC-10 and PC-20 were launched. They were an instant in mainland Europe as they provided similar features to IBMs offerings at a lower price. The PC-20 would go on to be revised several times, and eventually introduced to the USA in 1987. Many models would follow, and Commodore would go on to become the largest manufacturer of PCs in Europe.

Enter the Amiga

In 1985, Commodore International launched the Amiga. At CG, heads were scratched: Where would it fit in their line-up? At a similar price point to the PC-10, but with no MS-DOS compatibility and  little in the way of internal expansion, it would be a hard sell to businesses. Market leading graphics and sound would not save the day in that segment. But at five times the price of the C64 and twice that of the recently introduced Atari ST, the home segment was out of the question. Then they hit upon the idea of the A1060 sidecar expansion.

Original “A-series” Amiga 2000 (with added SD card reader). Image by the author.

The A1060 was, essentially, a 8088-based system that when connected to the Amiga made it possible to run PC and Amiga software in parallel at full speed. Sellers could now assure their customers that they could enjoy the advantages of the new platform without throwing their existing MS-DOS software away. Unfortunately the whole rig was quite clunky, and the three ISA slots in the A1060 only went so far. So while it did help, they knew it could never be more than a stopgap solution. They would have to create a better Amiga.

The Amiga 2000

Firstly, they redesigned the PC-10 case to be even roomier, and to accommodate two 3.5” drives and one 5.25” floppy drive (instead of just two 5.25” drives). The sidecar expansion slot of the original Amiga was removed and developed into four internal slots (later named Zorro II slots). To this they added no less than five ISA slots, two of which were in line with Zorro slots so as to accommodate the planned internal version of the A1060. This way the card would bridge the Amiga and PC parts of the system, which gave it its nickname “The Bridgeboard”. The memory expansion slot of the A1000 was developed into a CPU slot, and a video slot was added just in case someone might find it useful. The new motherboard got 512 k of RAM as default (as much as the fully expanded A1000), and they installed the now completed Amiga ROM chips (that never made it into the original Amiga). Unhappy with the quality of the Amiga keyboard compared to their PC offerings, they designed a new, full-size board with Cherry switches.  By late 1986 the new computer was ready, and started shipping in early 1987. The original Amiga was then retroactively renamed the Amiga 1000.

The B2000-CR

While the A2000 sold better than the A1000 in Europe, it soon became apparent that the production costs of the new machine were too high for the profit margins to be satisfactory. Meanwhile, in the USA, Commodore International had been busy reworking the Amiga into a cheaper, home-oriented package – An Atari ST killer. To this end they redesigned the motherboard to fit in a computer-in-keyboard case similar to the Commodore 128, redesigned the chipset into fewer and more compact chips, and equipped it with 512 k RAM as standard.

A few months after the release of the A2000 in Europe, the A500 was launched in the USA. Shortly thereafter young engineers Dave Hayne and Terry Fisher were armed with the new chipset design and dispatched to Germany to help redesign the A2000 to be more cost-effective. To this end they did away with the memory expansion board by putting all 1 mb on the motherboard, and implemented a new Agnus chip version that could use all of it as “chip RAM” –  accessible by both CPU, sound and graphics chips. The video slot was improved, and they implemented the logic from the A500 that automatically disables the motherboard CPU if another CPU is detected in the system, making plug-and-play CPU upgrades possible.

The keyboard was redesigned to use cheaper Mitsumi switches as well as the larger function keys of the Amiga 1000 and 500. The A1000-style red-lettered Amiga key was also eschewed in favour of all black print A500-style. This would be the shape of every Amiga keyboard to come (once again with the exception of the A600). The new version of the motherboard was named the “B2000-CR” for “B-series 2000 Cost Reduced”. The revised model started shipping in Europe a few months after the European A500 launch. Haynie and Fisher then bought the design back to the USA where it was modified for NTSC and launched shortly thereafter. The A1000 was then discontinued.

Legacy

Playing around with the new computer’s unique video slot inspired broadcast effects company NewTek’s founder Tim Jenison and engineer Brad Carvey (incidentally brother of actor Dana Carvey) to come up with the idea for the Video Toaster 2000. The development version was announced shortly after the launch of the NTSC version of the A2000 and was launched in 1990. This was the first affordable broadcast graphics solution, and it immediately became a hit with video and TV companies.  NASA too were impressed with the computer’s open architecture, ample expansion capabilities and relatively affordable price. This enabled them to easily create custom expansion boards to handle processing of spacecraft data transmissions.

Endless options

The A2000 got an enormous variety of other expansion cards from Commodore and third parties. Along with ever more powerful PC bridgeboards you could get solutions for Macintosh (imagine running Mac, PC and Amiga software and peripherals on the same computer!), flickerfixers (to use VGA monitors), genlocks (for video editing), professional sound cards, samplers, MIDI cards, digitizers (for video frame capturing and editing), high-resolution graphics cards, modems, network cards – pretty much anything you or your employer could possibly wish for.

Varieties

Fully kitted out A2000 with 68030 accelerator, graphics card, flicker fixer, 80286 bridgeboard, VGA card, Sound Blaster, ISA hard drive controller and hard drives and disk drives for both platforms. Image courtesy of Remi Jacobsen.

The A2000 would go on to have numerous revisions and derivatives. The A2000HD came as standard with an A2090 or 2091 SCSI interface card and a Quantum hard drive. The A2500 had the hard drive as well as a A2620 or 2630 accelerator card. The A2500UX was a version of the A2500 for the Unix workstation market, which shipped with the Commodore Unix operating system instead of Workbench. The A2000 then came full circle, as this was the intended market for the cancelled C900 whose chassis it was based on. The A1500 was an A2000 rebadged by Commodore UK and sold with two 3,5” floppy drives as standard, in order to squeeze the Checkmate A1500 (a third party expansion that turned your A500 into an almost fully featured A2000 for a lower price) out of the market.

The successor that wasn’t

In 1989 a project was launched to start work on a version of the A2000 that would include the hard drive controller from the A2091 and the 68030 CPU from the A2630 on the motherboard – in essence a cost-reduced version of the A2500. However, in the meantime Haynie had developed the Zorro III – a new, improved version of the Zorro expansion bus, vastly superior to the Zorro II and ISA buses. So it was decided that this warranted creating an entirely new Amiga. The following year the A3000 was launched.

Like the A1000, it was initially launched with the Kickstart ROMs on a floppy disk, since the new operating system was not ready for release. However, as soon as version 2 of the operating system was ready, new ROMs were implemented in subsequent production runs. Although much more expandable than the Amiga 1000, the US-designed A3000 marked a return to a sleeker case design compared to the A2000. This resulted in some shortcomings. The Video Toaster 2000 would not fit, and while the bridgeboards did fit, only one ISA slot was then left for use.

Fearing loss of customers and because the A2000 was still selling well, eventually Commodore decided to keep the A2000 after all. It was then upgraded to the new graphics chipset and operating system version from the A3000. Subsequently it was decided to do the same thing to the A500, and this which resulted in the short-lived A500 Plus. 

A2000 running Windows 3.11 (left screen) and Workbench 3.1 (right screen) simultaneously. The A600 bottom left is not running. Image courtesy of Remi Jacobsen.

Eventually Commodore decided to rework the A3000 into a huge, workstation-style tower cabinet. The A3000T was launched in 1991. The A2000 was then discontinued  – only the year before the A3000 itself was replaced by the A4000.

Sources: 

Bagnall, Brian (2019) Commodore: The Amiga Years. Book.

Pleasance, David (2017) Commodore: The Inside Story. Book.

Fletcher, Steven (2018). The Commodore Story. Documentary film.

Reimer, Jeremy (2017) A History of the Amiga. Ars Technica. Online article series.

Various computer magazine and newspaper clippings.

Thanks to Remi Jacobsen (rclassiccomputers.com), Leif Kielland (Retropodden podcast) and Dave Haynie (Twitter @DaveHaynie) for input.

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