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Amiga boss charts software-only course

Amiga Inc. pulls out of hardware, steps further away from Amiga community

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Amiga president -- and now CEO too, you'll notice, unlike ex-pres. Jim Collas -- Tom Schmidt yesterday posted his take on the future of his company and the Amiga platform. The much-anticipated statement was short on detail, big on vision, but one thing is very clear: Amiga Inc. is no longer a hardware company. Schmidt's strategy is in contrast to Schmidt's predecessor, Collas' plan, which centred on both hardware and software technology as the basis for an entire line of computer products. So how does the new approach play out? Essentially, Amiga Inc will develop the software created for the company's 'multimedia convergence computer' (MCC) but offer it to OEMs keen to break into the emerging information appliance market. Presumably the hardware hasn't entirely been abandoned -- it will simply be demoted to reference platform status. The point is, Amiga won't manufacture anything -- other people will (hopefully). The trouble is, right now everyone and their dog are devising and building reference designs for Net access-oriented set-top boxes -- this is not an empty arena Amiga is stepping into. That said, Amiga does have some interesting ideas here. Most set-top box designs currently in the works are essentially cut-down PCs running multi-purpose operating systems like Linux, BeOS or even Windows CE. Those OSes support browsers and Net connection utilities, and that's all you need for your appliance, right? Not necessarily. Amiga's appliance software plan seems to be to offer a much wider range of facilities, encompassing everything from Net access to operating as a digital VCR, if its latest patent filings are anything to go by. Amiga sees the information appliance as something more than a box you use to view the Web -- instead, it's a kind of control unit for networks linking all your home entertainment kit to each other and to the Net. It's a clever idea, and one that Sony has on its mind for the upcoming PlayStation 2. And by moving to a business model that's centred on licensing rather than on selling boxes, Amiga Inc. can slim itself down to focus on a single core competency: technology design. Given the extent to which the Amiga brand has faded from the mind of the general public, Schmidt's plan makes a lot of sense. Essentially he's saying that the company needs to change, to adapt to a consumer IT market that's radically different from the one in which the Amiga was originally launched. The trouble is, the Amiga community itself is focused on that old strategy of desktop computers, largely because that's what its members have been using all these years. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's becoming increasingly clear that Amiga's goals and those of the community are widely divergent and that a parting of the ways is going to have to happen. In fact, it probably already has. This week's announcement of the formation of the Phoenix Platform Consortium (PPC), a community-driven body that hopes to take control of the old Amiga platform, suggests that the community no longer believes it can get what it wants from Amiga Inc. And vice versa. Amiga Inc. can't get what it wants -- the level of sales it needs to survive long-term -- from the community. It needs the community's developers -- who else is going to write application and utility software for the new platform, at least in the short term? -- which is why Schmidt's sales pitch stresses getting the Amiga concepts into other platforms rather than getting people to buy Amigas. In Schmidt's mind, Amiga is a concept rather than a platform, so he's effectively saying it's now little more than a brandname that can be attached to any technology. But how realistic is Schmidt's goal? Certainly, owning a stack of information appliance patents will help because it will force other set-top box vendors to cough up royalties to Amiga. But making money from patent licensing is not the same thing as making Amiga software technology ubiquitous. Schmidt's model here is clearly Sun's Java efforts -- ie. a cross-platform technology enabling software -- but Java has been around for years and has yet to gain any ground outside of the corporate IT world. Much of Amiga's software technology appears to be based upon or sit on top of Java and its networking sidekick, Jini. So if they fail in the consumer arena, you can be pretty sure Amiga will too. ®

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