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Gareth Knight
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The Amigas secret love affair with the Alpha

The Amiga has a long history with the DEC Alpha chip that could be set to return again with the latest plans by Amiga and Tao. Over the years the Amiga has courted many new systems- PowerPC, MMC, x86, and possibly Crusoe. They have all been willing suitors, but over the years the Amiga has returned to the Alpha for a brief fling and then to walk away as if nothing happened. Join Amiga History Guide in exploring the Amigas secret love affair with the Alpha chip.

1991: Alpha and Omega: the beginning and the end
It all began during 1991, Dec were rumoured to be looking for a pre-emptive multitasking operating system to run on their recently created Alpha CPU. As the only mainstream operating system to support pre-emptive multitasking at the time, the  AmigaOS was the natural choice. Here it becomes rather hazy, rumour has it that they approached Commodore with the offer to port the OS but were refused a license. Commodore seemed unwilling to allow others to develop the technology into areas they had no interest (similar to the Apple decision to end Mac-cloning). However, rumour has it that Dec managed to reverse engineer the AmigaOS and port part of Exec to the Alpha. It is highly questionable if this happened in reality or if it is the delusions on an Amiga user who took the idea too seriously.

1996: Quikpak Come to Call
Developments surrounding the Amiga and the Alpha chip went quiet again, Commodore decided to go for the HP-RISC processor for their next generation systems, and then went into liquidation. Escom bought Commodore and the Amiga, decided to go for the PowerPC processor for their next generation systems, and followed in the path of the Big C. The Amiga world was at its lowest ebb; users were abandoning it in their droves. After three 'careful' owners it seemed the Amiga was on its last legs. From the day of Escoms' liquidation two companies made their intentions to buy the Amiga clear. The first, Viscorp was a former licensee promised to allow anyone to make Amiga clones. This was followed by a bid by Quikpak, a US manufacturer that had produced the A4000T for Escom. To win favour with the Amiga community they promised to move the AmigaOS away from the slow 68k processor, beyond PowerPC, and onto the ultra-fast (and ultra-expensive) Alpha processor. For a time it even seemed that they would succeed in the purchase, VISCorp dropped out of the race and it seemed a clear victory. Unfortunate for them, Gateway swooped down and outbid Quikpak at the last hurdle. While Gateway openly invited the operating system to be licensed, the lawyer in charge of the Escom liquidation took them to court over their sale of A4000T equipment, soaking up any finances that would have aided with the port of the OS.

1997: Project Alpha
The revitalized Amiga, under the control of Gateway choose a dual processor approach of 68k and PowerPC. Using the PowerUP boards from Phase 5, this was a short term measure to bolster the existing Amiga market while a decision was made over a next generation system. During this period the third party developer, HiQ announced their plans to port the existing AmigaOS to the Alpha processor. This process was divided into five time frames:
 

Timeframe Action
1997 Ship Siamese RTG hardware, allowing users to retarget their Amiga display to the alien PC hardware.
1st and 2nd quarter, 1998 Build a market presence through the sale of Alpha-based workstations and Siamese v3 solution. Amiga software is retargeted over to the Alpha display. An Alpha-specific version of the UAE software emulator is also included to gain support from Alpha users.
Late 1998 Purchase a source license and begin portation of the AmigaOS to the Alpha. The Amiga Inc. decision to abandon the AmigaOS in favour of the QNX kernel indicated the "Classic" AmigaOS was at the end of the road. At the time it seemed much easier to license the Amiga OE once it was finished. 
1999 Develop and sell the Siamese PCI. For a time it seemed that Amiga Inc. would support its development and use it with the AmigaOE Developer System. When the company switched to Linux they lost all interest in its development. At the time of writing (early 2000), Siamese require additional funding to finalize the card.
2000 The final stage of the project saw the AmigaOS running entirely on the Alpha processor, only using the Siamese PCI card for legacy software that directly accessed the custom chips.

The events of the World of Amiga 1998 show split the market even further resulting in the death of Project Alpha. In retrospect it is doubtful Project Alpha would have been released for the Y2000 deadline that had been set even if the MMC announcement had not been made. The delays relating to the BoXeR have made it clear that new development in the Amiga market is a risky business, requiring a great deal of funding and total support from the Amiga market. Rather than fragmenting the market into even smaller pieces, it was wise that Siamese choose to quietly cancel the project when they did.

This seems to be the end of the Classic Amigas relationship with the Alpha. Despite the performance boost it would have bought the AmigaOS, tying it to another expensive system would have been the end of the Amiga and it most likely would have lost all support from its enthusiast user base who simply would not be able to afford such an expensive machine. However all is not lost, the Amiga may finally make it onto the Alpha thanks to the portable Taos. Tao have suggested it only 12 man weeks to port the OS to a new platform. Although the Alpha is rather power hungry for Amiga Corp's Convergence market, it would be a simple task to host it on top of Windows NT or Linux. Perhaps this story will have a happy ending after all!

Related Links

Project Alpha
Siamese PCI

 

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Last Update: 1/11/2001
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