Interview: PC pioneer Chowaniec looks back at the Amiga

Adam Chowaniec talks about the rise of the personal computer

Long before geeks were cool - and rich - a group of engineers and computer scientists had to build the first machines that would ignite the personal computer revolution and ultimately change the way people communicate, play and do business.

Adam Chowaniec, who now is chairman of supercomputer maker, Liquid Computing, was one of those computer industry pioneers. Chowaniec joined Commodore just a year after the popular Commodore 64 was launched 25 years ago in December. His task was to build the successor to the C64, then the most popular machine on the market with more than 20 million units sold. Chowaniec, as vice-president of technology at Commodore, was responsible for creating the Amiga personal computer.

The Amiga, which hit the market in 1985, turned into a family of personal computers. The first machine was built with a custom chipset, offered highly advanced graphics for the time, and ran the AmigaOS. The 16-bit processor offered users a big step up from the 8-bit Commodore 64.

In the trenches for 18 months to push out the Amiga, Chowaniec is one of the founding fathers of the PC. He recently joined fellow founding fathers, like Commodore founder, Jack Tramiel, and Apple's Steve Wozniak, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the PC at the Computer History Museum.

In this interview, Chowaniec talked about the excitement of those early days, what he calls the innovation rut in the industry today and what has become his biggest tech pet peeve.

Q: What was it like joining Commodore so soon after the C64 was released?

Adam Chowaniec (AC): It was a bigger challenge than it sounds. The Commodore 64 was the end of an era. The 64, just like the Apple IIe, was based on the 6500 processor, and it was the end of the line for that technology. With the Amiga, we were starting fresh. It was a pretty amazing [time]. The personal computer was just being created. There was the Apple II and the Commodore PET. They were hobbyist machines, but not really for the public. With the Commodore 64, you finally had a machine that was priced for the general market. Personal computing was really created in those years.

Q: Did you realise at the time that you were in the middle of something big?

AC: No. We were in the middle of it, so it was really impossible to get a perspective. Nobody knew, really, how many of these things would get shipped. When it took off in the volume that it did, I think everybody was surprised.

Q: Was there a challenge that really stands out for you now?

AC: I think the biggest challenge for the Amiga was to get the application developers to develop the software. We never got the mainstream application players to do that. The Amiga became more of a niche machine than a central business machine. That was something we didn't foresee.

Q: Some of my colleagues talked about the Amiga having a real personality, and they miss that in new computers. What made the Amiga so memorable?

AC: It was the way the graphics and the sound devices were put together. There was a huge amount of experimentation and new ideas being invented. That's what gave it the flavor that it had. I used one up until the late '80s. The technology, especially the graphics tech, wasn't surpassed until the mid-90s. The capabilities the machine had... it was way ahead of its time.

Q: Do you think there's the same kind of excitement in the computer industry today?

AC: No, I don't think so. In many ways, the computers we have today have remained unchanged for the past decade except for a faster processor and more memory. Essentially, the architecture hasn't changed. There's been less innovation than we saw back in the 1980s. The industry consolidated, and it's basically dominated by a small group of very large companies. As companies get bigger, innovation gets slower. It's just the way it is... I guess the biggest [disappointment] is the way innovation slowed down.

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