Why I stick with the Amiga
When I first came across the Amiga computer, around 1986 or 1987, I thought, "This is a machine for life. It's got enough to last me the rest of my life. No more need to keep upgrading." And - so far - that has proved to be true. I've used the Amiga as my main computer since 1987.
I use it for:
- Teaching: Most of my lectures are on Amiga, using Scala. I prepare all my lecture notes with Protext.
- Also I want to give my students a 'different view' of computing, partly because of the Amiga's unique culture.
- Talks: I now give most of my talks and paper presentations using the Amiga. Either I use Scala, and I can immediately demonstrate my software during talks, owing to the Amiga's excellent multi-tasking. Or I prepare OHP slides using PageStream.
- Research into Human-Computer Interaction: Exploring new ideas and paradigms for user interface, including the 'proximal user interface'.
- Research into knowledge based systems. I use our own KBS development package, Istar.
- Programming and I.S. Development: We have a sophisticated software structure for and approach that enables fast development of sophisticated applications integrated with this proximal user interface. For instance we have a powerful knowledge-based system, Istar which acts as a knowledge server.
- All my writing - Protext and PageStream 2.2.
- Publishing: Camera-ready book and paper production - Protext is wonderful. I keep on learning new features I did not know it had - in December 2004 I learned it could do proper footnotes intelligently.
- Building and hosting The Dooyeweerd Pages, an international discussion site on the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd. I use Protext to write the stuff, with HTML macros I have developed, with a little use of PPaint for pix, and then MiamiDX and ncftp to upload it.
- Maintaining my other web sites - MiamiDX, Ncftp.
- Music and pictures - MED, PPaint, DPaint III and DPaint IV.
- Other boring stuff like Web-searching and emailing. (MiamiDX, YAM, AWeb)
In addition, my wife Ruth uses the Amiga for all her writing and emailing in connection with her organisation of Bible Explorer, YFC camps, M.U. Parenting, and the like.
Below I list the software I tend to use most, and why.
Many reasons, but see the list of Amiga's Special qualities, some of which is listed below. However, I think my likes break down into:
- The culture of the Amiga - dynamic, colourful and 'everyday' computing (the epitome of Habermas' meaning-filled lifeworld where all other platforms are meaning-destroying system!)
- Its design - careful, well thought out, open, and elegant.
- The excellent efficient Operating System
- The special hardware
- Its my Machine for Life!
The Amiga Offers What Researchers Seek.
The Amiga culture has always been one of fun, colour, music, dynamism and integration. I don't mean just its historic role in computer gaming, but something deeper.
Philosophers distinguish between theoretical and everyday attitudes of thinking. The theoretical attitude is formal, focused and isolative, and is the attitude that pervades formal business, academic research and technical development. The theoretical attitude is prescriptive: the experts impose theories of how things should be. As a result, many aspects of life are ignored or suppressed. The everyday attitude is found in the home, and is informal, intuitive and integrative. Both can be innovative, but the everyday attitude is more flexible, taking all aspects of human life into account, and also more fun.
Most computer platforms were designed from the theoretical stance: the Apple Mac came from the academic labs, the PC came from formal business, and Unix is the doyen of technical developers. By contrast, the Amiga arose from everyday thinking. Right from the start, its basic design - even its hardware - took into account that the computer would be used for many different things together, many different media - many different aspects of living. It sought, right from the start, to integrate all these - in contrast to the Microsoft way of bolting things on to look good. No wonder the Amiga's design is still the best.
This led to a culture of care among Amiga developers. Care to work out what is appropriate in design, care about not wasting resources like memory or speed, care about maintaining flexibility. That is why the Amiga's hardware and software are still among the best designed in the world.
Someone once likened computer platform design to what is under the bonnet of a car.
- Lift the bonnet of the PC, and you see a mess, a tangle of stuff that nobody can understand and that keeps on going wrong.
- Lift the bonnet of the Mac - you can't! It's welded shut so that you, poor thicko user, won't get confused.
- Lift the bonnet of the Amiga - and everything is laid out neatly, easy to see, easy to understand, easy to service, easy to modify when needed - and easy to see when modifications have been done.
As an example of this, I have long used an ancient piece of software from Transactor for the Amiga called Structure Browser. It lets you see all the structures in the exec and Intuition.
It is the Amiga's careful and elegant design that has allowed things like ARexx to be built, and so efficiently. The decision to go for a 'micro kernel' operating system, in which the basic kernel occupies less than a megabyte and all else is found and loaded when required, was a master-stroke. It makes it easy to add devices and facilities (libraries) as needed - and treat them, not a something special, but as part of the overall operating system - take PC0, the device to read PC disks as an example. It means that facilities and devices that were unforeseen can be added in at any time, without disrupting the rest. Different file systems, new boot facilities, true pipes, virtual memory, and many more have all been added in, in a 'clean' and elegant manner so they work well as part of the overall system.
But there is something even deeper. Allen Newell came up with the notion of computer systems levels, and distinguished:
- the component level - at which level we think about the hardware and electronics
- the bit level - at which we think about the bits and signals: bytes, pixels, shapes on screen, mouse movements, etc.
- the symbol level - at which we think about the symbols and symbol structures, such as items, relationships, numbers, truth values, names, headings, emphasis, lists, selections, and the like.
- the knowledge level - at which we think about knowledge: what the symbols refer to or mean to the user, the application task
- the tacit level (actually added to Newell's suite) - at which we think about the connotations, expectations, culture of users.
For a good computer system, all levels must function well and in harmony. And in design, all levels must be clearly distinct, but also well integrated. To me, though it does not do so perfectly, the Amiga's design matches the levels better than any other platform I know. We will see a striking example of this below, with the mouse pointer and other hardware features.
Keeping the levels distinct in its design has allowed the Amiga to incorporate such things as ARexx.
I have used the Amiga since 1987. One thing that attracted me to the Amiga originally was that its operating system was based on Tripos, the well-designed, elegant multi-tasking single-user OS that came from the world-famous Cambridge Computing Lab. I had used Tripos in industry and grown to love it. Much of what I like about the design of the Amiga, above, comes from this heritage. It was ported across to the Amiga in a mere three months.
One thing I particularly like about the operating system is its clean and simple multi-tasking. It might not be as high-performance as some others, but it is simple, it works and there is less to go wrong. It has never let me down, in 15 years of use - and I can trust it. But, then, I knew I could right from the start.
Another thing I value enormously (though it would seem trivial if you take the attitude of theoretical computer science) is that you can switch the machine off whenever you wish (almost), and it starts up again very quickly. (That, incidentally, is why I don't want built-in compulsory virtual memory systems in the Amiga.)
Another thing I have long valued is the real and relatively smooth integration of command line interface with windows interface. Real computing requires both - just as real communication requires both words and pictures. Yet on the Mac you had windows but were banned from using a CLI. Unix and the PC were built around a CLI, and windows were bolted on. On the Amiga, they integrate well. For example, alter the size of the CLI window, and it reformats your text to fit - a facility that was available right from the start in 1986.
ARexx: I should value this wonderful feature, as others do - but I don't actually use it much yet.
The Amiga's special hardware has made it what it is. It's not just that it exists, but that it reflects what we need in real computing, it is well thought out, and most things were there right from the start, setting a standard (in contrast to the PC, where many third party suppliers vied with different and confusing standards). Let me explain some of these.
In several ways, the Amiga reflects what is needed in real computing - largely because its hardware (component level) reflects the higher levels (bit level, symbol level). Take the hardware mouse cursor, for example. In most uses of computing, at the symbol level, we focus on one portion of the whole picture we see. At the bit level, this means we usually need a pointer or cursor visible on the screen. At both levels the pointer is (or should be) distinct from the picture; that is the nature of pointers. Now, unlike most other platforms, on the Amiga the pointer is also distinct at the component level too: the mouse pointer is a hardware pointer, superimposed on the picture by the hardware at the time of sending the display to the monitor. Other platforms, by contrast, do not keep them distinct in the hardware but must keep on deleting and re-drawing it at the bit level.
This might seem a trivial issue, but it is symptomatic of the Amiga's good design: the hardware to some extent reflects, and thus serves, the higher levels. We can see other examples:
- The very notion of Screens, each with a different resolution, number of colours, etc. reflects the idea that different applications (knowledge level) have different requirements. Linux now has a similar facility: four different screens - but the Amiga allows any number, and each of a different size and resolution and palette.
- It was the Amiga that pioneered the use of full-screen modes of operating, in which the whole screen was devoted to the work, instead of some of it being taken up with menus, window frames, etc. (This is why in Intuition the menus only appear on pressing the RMB.)
- It was also the Amiga that pioneered the feature of multiple screens that could be swapped at a keystroke.
- Dual playfield mode. The Amiga hardware offers us two screens, a transparent one in front of the main one. Not only is it useful in some games, but it takes the mouse pointer idea further. It allows us to annotate the main picture, by drawing symbols on it. If you need convincing that this is useful, then think about the ToolGlass interfaces, CAD layers, etc. I discuss this in more detail in Dual Playfield Page. I have used this facility in Annotator (which can be downloaded) which allows you to annotate digitized photographs to highlight interesting objects or portions of them.
- Built-in sound. Human beings have ears as well as eyes. Right from the start, Amiga hardware recognised this.
- Animation. Much meaning is mediated through movement (just think of the gestures you make while talking, or of scribbling on the back of an envelope to show somebody how something works). Movement is Meaning. Right from the start, the Amiga gave hardware support for animation, via its blitter and copper hardware processors. (The sad thing was that Intuition and Workbench did not use if; they could have done so much more!)
- Colour Cycling. While general animation is useful in e.g. games, some animation is for symbolic purposes (symbol level). The Amiga's palette management hardware enables colour-cycling cycling animation that is very useful for this. For example, it can show fluid flow through pipes, mechanical movement, etc. to show how things work. It can also attract attention in several ways.
I said above that the hardware was well thought out. One example of this is the automatic detection of expansion boards on start-up - rare when the Amiga started. Another is the separation of chip memory from main memory so that the processor is not slowed down by heavy graphics data flows. Yet another was the choice of the 68000 processor. It was perhaps this that made me opt for Amiga in 1987: I was involved in knowledge based systems and knew that knowledge bases would become large in size, so I needed something with a wide addressing range. The PC had only 64k range; the Amiga had umpteen megabytes range. Also, I am told that the Amiga's bus allows multi-something better than any other bus, and that Silicon Graphics is adopting it.
But one thing that I find useful every day is the number of ports and outputs available at the back of my 1200. When I go to give a talk, I do not know what display hardware they will have. But, since my 1200 offers RGB-Sync, Composite Video and Television signals, I can usually connect to something.
Finally, because these hardware facilities have been in the Amiga right from the start, they are standard. The problem of incompatible hardwares that plagued the PC users is much less for Amiga users.
When I first saw the Amiga, I thought
"This is a machine for life.
I will never need anything else."
It could do almost anything I needed it to, and with its flexibility, elegance and openness of design, I was confident that it could be expanded in almost any direction I needed, for almost any application that I would use it for, foreseen or unforeseen. By and large, it has kept its promise, and I do not foresee any need to change to a different platform for most of my computing needs.
Almost any software I need is found on the Amiga, especially on the world's largest public domain archive, Aminet. Here is what I mainly use:
- Protext 6.6 for all my word processing. An excellent powerful processor with which I have published whole books, as well as papers, lecture notes, letters and websites. I particularly like the auto-correct and macro facilities which let me enter words like 'Dooyeweerd' using only two keys, and the html codes using keystrokes.
- PageStream 2.2 for all my diagramming and DTP work. That it allows me to output IFF-ILBM and Postscript is very useful. Also GraphicsConvertor to convert ILBM to GIF, Jpeg etc.
- SAS/C 6.5 for all my programming - both in C and assembler. This includes Istar, Annotator and IRKit.
- Istar for my teaching of knowledge based systems, and also for the Knowledge Server which is running continuously on the Web.
- Scala MM300 for all my talks. Like PowerPoint, but more usable and in some ways more flexible. More suited to animations and video than PP. Nowadays I plug an external flicker-fixer from Analogic in to link to PC projectors.
- Personal Paint and Deluxe Paint III and IV - which are superbly easy for creating the graphics I need for my talks.
- AWeb 3.4 for all my web work. I like it's feel better than the MUI-based ones. It is robust and friendly. But I wish it offered Java and Flash.
- Thor 2.6a for all my email - but I don't like it much. In 2003 I changed to YAM.
- Games - my favourite ones being Settlers, Worms, Moria, ZAngband, Circe, Poing and Chaos.
The only things I find lacking are decent convertors for MSWord (I have tried WordConvertor, VWWare, and they'll do, but they're not wonderful) and Excel (I've found nothing that works yet).
Click here for snippets of what is happening on the Amiga front: continuously updated 'honourable mentions' of the Amiga in non-Amiga places.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2002 - Certain copying permitted.
This is part of Andrew Basden's Amiga> pages. Comments and queries are very welcome.
Page Created: 1996? Last updated: 3 January 2002 major rewrite. 16 January 2005 a bit more Intro and software. 19 April 2005 found the AmigaRulez! stuff and made it local.