Jay Miner Interview Pasadena, September 1992.
Mike Nelson of Amiga User International interviews Jay Miner.
The name badge says it all, Jay Miner, VIP, Father of
the Amiga. During my recent jaunt to the A4000 launch in Los
Angeles, I was lucky enough to meet and talk to Jay as he cast his
fatherly eye over the next generation of the architecture he
created all those years ago. We talked and ate as he reiterated the
fascinating history of the secret project that resulted in the
birth of a remarkable machine, which has survived mainly because of
his foresight and supreme effort. It was all far from plain
sailing, however, and plenty of skullduggery was afoot from a
number of parties, not least the design team themselves!
The story about the Amiga's genesis has been told before, but it
is only relatively recently that Jay and Commodore have been seeing
eye to eye about the machine and its evolution. Also, there
are many little anecdotes untold before now...
"The story starts in the early 1980`s with a company not
originally called Amiga, but Hi Toro, which was started by Dave
Morris, our president, but before all that I used to work with
Atari and I wanted to do a 68000 machine with them. We had
just finished the Atari 800 box and they were not about to spend
another umpteen dollars on research for a 16-bit machine and the
processor chip itself cost $100 apiece. RAM was also real
expensive and you need twice as much. They couldn't see the
writing on the wall and they just said "No", so I quit!".
Jay Miner is not a man to say "No" to, and it's quite clear that
Atari must still be regretting their myopic decision. Anyway,
Jay still held the concept of an all-powerful 16-bit machine but
the bills had to be paid.
"I went to a chip company called Xymos as I knew the guy who
started it. He gave me some stock and it looked like an
interesting startup company (I've worked for a lot of new
companies). Going back to Atari, Larry Caplan was one of the
top programmers on the Atari 2600 video game. Him and the
other programmers wanted a pay rise, or at least a small royalty, a
nickel per cartridge in fact, on the software that was selling like
crazy. Atari was making a fortune and they said "No" so they
all said "Goodbye" and they went off and started a little company
called Activision. Larry rang me up about two years later in
early '82 and said he wasn't happy at Activision and suggested we
start up a company. I had a lot of stock in Xymos and
suggested we get some outside finance from back East. We
hired a little office on Scott Boulevard, Santa Clara and they got
a Texas millionaire to put up some money. He liked the idea
of a new video game company which is what Larry Caplan wanted to
do. He was going to do the software. I had an idea
about designing a games machine that was expandable to a real
computer and he though that was a great idea but didn't tell any of
his investors. I moved to Santa Clara from Xymos. They
were still called Hi Toro but the investors wern't too keen so they
chose "Amiga" and I didn't like it much - I thought using a Spanish
name wasn't such a good move. I was wrong!"
The design team at Hi Toro/Amiga was assembled from a bunch of
people over the next few months. Jay says that they were looking
for people not just interested in a job, but with a passion for the
Amiga (codenamed Lorraine after the president's wife) and the
immense potential it offered.
"We worked out a deal whereby I got a salary and some stock and
I also got to bring my dog Mitchy into work every day. Dave
did reserve the right to go back on that one if anyone else
objected but Mitchy was very popular."
I asked Jay to sum up what it was like to work on the Amiga:
"The great things about working on the Amiga? Number one I
was allowed to take my dog to work and that set the tone for the
whole atmosphere of the place. It was more than just
companionship with Mitchy - the fact that she was there meant that
the other people wouldn't be too critical of some of those we
hired, who were quite frankly weird. There were guys coming
to work in purple tights and pink bunny slippers. Dale Luck
looked like your average off-the-street homeless hippy with long
hair and was pretty laid back. In fact the whole group was
pretty laid back. I wasn't about to say anything - I knew
talent when I saw it and even Parasseau [the "Evangelist] who
spread the word was a bit weird in a lot of ways. The job
gets done and that's all that matters. I didn't care how
solutions came about even if people were working at home.
"There were a lot of various arguments and the way most were
sorted out was by hitting each other with the foam baseball
bats. The stung a bit if you got hit hard. There was a
conflict in the fundamental design philosophy with some like RJ
Mical wanting the low cost video game (the investors side, you
might say). Others like Dale Luck and Carl Sassenrath wanted
the best computer expansion capability for the future. This
battle of cost was never ending, being internal; among us as well
as with the investors and Commodore.
"You go through stages in any large project like the Amiga of
thinking "This looks great and it's going to sell really well", and
then things go wrong and you just want to quit!"
The unique spirit at Amiga was such that people worked
tirelessly on their various projects, remembering that the software
was well on the way to completion before any silicon had been
pounded into the graphics chips. Carl Sassenrath was brought
in to do the operating system and was asked at the interview "What
would you like to design?". He just replied that he
to do a multi-tasking operating system, and thus was born the Exec
which lies at the very heart of the Amiga. Carl has
maintained his close links with Commodore and was instrumental in
designing CDTV. Incredible really that they opted for such a
sophisticated backdrop for a games machine. Already, strange
things were afoot....
"I started thinking about what we wanted to design. Right
from the beginning I wanted to do a computer like the A2000 with
lots of expansion slots for drives, a keyboard etc. I'd also
read a bit about blitters and so I talked with a friend called Ron
Nicholson who was also interested in them and he came to join
us. We came up with all sorts of functions for the
Line drawing was added much later at the request of Dale Luck, one
of our software guys. This was about two weeks before the CES
show where the Amiga was unveiled. I told him we can't put
that in there as the chips were nearly done and there wasn't enough
room. He fiddled about and showed me what registers were
needed, so in it went".
The chips took three designers including Jay (who did the Agnus)
almost two years to design (1982-94) and throughout this time the
ever-expanding software team were working on what became the
Amiga's operating system libraries and such like. They had a
pretty tough job writing for the most advanced, radical hardware
ever conceived for a home machine, and which didn't really exist,
except for a zillion and one ideas and a white board of obscure
"Once you've got the design concept for the chips, all you need
to do then is pick names for the registers and tell the software
people something like "I'm going to have a register here that's
going to hold the colours for this part and it's called whatever."
They can then simulate it in their software. We then built
hardware simulators called bread boards and that was a chore. We
originally did the chips using the NMOS process which has much
higher current consumption than the state of the art CMOS.
I'm surprised that Commodore haven't re-designed the chips in CMOS
which is the big stumbling block to bringing out a portable.
We did that because at the time, CMOS was much slower than NMOS and
not as reliable. It's now much faster, so why are Commodore
still using NMOS for some of their chips?"
"Hold and Modify came from a trip to see flight simulators in
action and I had a kind of idea about a primitive type of virtual
reality. NTSC on the chip meant you could hold the Hue and
change the luminance by only altering four bits. When we
changed to RGB I said that wasn't needed any more as it wasn't
useful and I asked the chip layout guy to take it off. He
came back and said that this would either leave a big hole in the
middle of the chip or take a three-month redesign and we couldn't
do that. I didn't think anyone would use it. I was
wrong again as that has really given the Amiga its edge in terms of
the colour palette."
It was Commodore who wanted to leave things as NTSC/PAL
output. We wanted to make them RGB but monitors were so
expensive in those days - IBM's and Mac's were monochrome.
I'd put the converter on the chip and this was a very low cost way
of doing things as it saved a lot of parts, but by the time
Commodore bought us, the bottom had fallen out of the video game
market and we were moving more towards a computer so Commodore
agreed to finance RGB as well.
Seeing pictures of the early Amiga, it's almost impossible to
imagine that the piles of wires and boards could eventually be
reduced to something the size of an A500. The first Agnus was
three lots of eight bread boards, each with 250 chips, and this was
repeated for the other two custom chips which were nicknamed Daphne
and Portia in those days and metamorphosed into Denise and
"Those were a nightmare to keep running with all the connections
keeping breaking down. They're still around somewhere.
We hired lots of other people to design peripherals which kept the
notorious silicon valley spies away from the office. All they
could see were joysticks and they weren't too much of a
"In 1983 we made a motherboard for the breads to be plugged in,
took this to the CES show and we showed some little demos to
selected people away from the main floor. At the show itself, they
wrote the bouncing ball demo and this blew people away. They
couldn't believe that all this wiring was going to be three
chips. The booming noise of the ball was Bob Parasseau
hitting a foam baseball bat against our garage door. It was
sampled on an Apple ][ and the data massaged into Amiga samples.CES
was really important to us as we were getting short of money and
the response from that show really lifted the team. We were
still short of money and several re-mortgages later we managed to
keep up with the payroll. It's amazing how much it costs to
pay 15 or 20 people!"
With things running desperately close, Amiga were forced to look
for more finance to keep the ball bouncing. They turned
eventually to Jay's old employer, Atari:
"Atari gave us $500,000 with the stipulation that we had one
month to come to a deal with them about the future of the Amiga
chipset or pay them back, or they got the rights. This was a
dumb thing to agree to but there was no choice."
They offered $1 per share but Amiga were hoping for much more
than that. The offer was refused and as Atari knew about the
troubles of Amiga, they then cut the offer to 85 cents a
share. Commodore stepped in at the last minute to scoop the
prize from under the noses of their arch rivals and take the Amiga
for themselves, shelling out a mere $4.25 per share and installing
the team in the Los Gatos office. Jay continued the
"Tramiel [the president of Atari] was livid when he found out he
couldn't get his hands on the chips, as the whole idea of financing
us was just to get the chips, not the people designing them, unlike
Commodore who needed to keep the team intact. The Atari 400
and 800 [which Jay designed also] series were great computers in
their day, but you know things move on. When he didn't get
the chipset his only alternative was to design a new computer
without the custom chips so he came up with the ST. This
wasn't a bad little computer but lacked the power of the Amiga's
Tell us something we don't know, Jay!! What about MIDI,
why wasn't that included?
"Actually MIDI isn't so far away from the standard serial port
on the Amiga, and soon after the machine was released, someone came
up with a tiny plug-in box that gave you all the MIDI inputs and
outputs, but Commodore refused to manufacture and push it which was
one of my big disagreements with them. If you've got a little
company doing great third party products which makes your machine
so much more competitive, you've got to support them.
Commodore in the past have been too greedy, wanting everything for
themselves without paying for it, but I think they're
changing. I hope they're changing, anyway."
The Amiga 1000 really didn't take shape until long after
Commodore bought it. The president had the idea of sliding the
keyboard underneath the machine and it took nearly a year to
redesign the motherboard to fit in. Everything was set and
then Commodore decided that 512K of RAM was too much:
"They wanted a 256K machine as the 512 was too expensive.
Back in those days RAM was very pricey, but I could see it had to
come down. I told them it couldn't be done as we were too
close to being finished, it would spoil the architecture, etc,
etc. Dave Needle came up with the idea of putting the
cartridge on the front which worked. I was in favour of
putting sockets on the motherboard so the user could just drop in
As events turned out, Jay's opinion was vindicated when, on
release, it became patently obvious that the machine needed the
512K to do anything meaningful and this was the shipping form in
the UK. Commodore's short sightednes cost the world another 6
months without the Amiga, during which time RAM prices fell
"I spent this time polishing up the software/hardware
documentation, renaming registers to be more meaningful. This
was actually time well spent in the end."
Regular readers will know that I'm always going on about how
wonderful Intuition is to work with so I asked Jay to tell me a bit
about its development.
"RJ Mical pretty much did it all himself. He was holed up
for three weeks (!) and came out once to ask Carl Sassenrath about
message ports. That's it, really! He wrote Intuition
and went on to do the graphics package, Graphicraft, as no one else
could do it right. Remember the Jarvik 7 heart animation -
they actually talked to the guy and got permission to draw it, and
the animation was cycling the colour registers. A lot of
quite beautiful pseudo-animations were done that way. That's
how we did the rotating pattern of the bouncing ball. Other
machines couldn't use that system".
Once all the software was done, it was time for the big release
of the A1000. Jay's reaction:
"There were a lot of compromises which I didn't like, but it was
better than it might have been if we hadn't gotten our way on a lot
of things. We didn't get our way on everything, though.
The 256K RAM was a real problem. The software people knew it
was inadequate but nobody could stand up to Commodore about
it. We had to really argue to put the expansion connector on
the side and this was before the deal was finalised so we were
close to sinking everything. The lowest cost way of doing it
was the edge connector and I'm glad it got through".
"Once the A1000 was out we were kind of at a loss. There
was so much dealer and developer support necessary that a large
proportion of our company went into that. We had 11 or 12
people in that and we wanted to expand, but Commodore wouldn't let
us, and in fact they made us lay off some people. We tried to talk
Commodore into building a machine with vertical slots and they
eventually came out with the A2000, but they weren't keen at
Once the Amiga was released, work at Los Gatos continued, but
the days for this fine, but maverick, design team were
"I was really pleased to see Commodore moving in the direction
of the A2000 - it was the first Amiga you could really tailor to
your own needs and this was one of the reasons for the success of
the early Apples. We then wanted to go onto horizontal slots,
like the A3000 as that would be easier to cool and shield - there
was a design to do it but at that time the A2000 came from Germany
so that's the way we went. We wanted to do the
Autoconfiguration for the slots but Commodore weren't keen because
it added 50c to the cost, so we had a big battle with them and did
it anyway. Our divisional manager from Commodore was a guy
called Rick Geiger. He was pretty good at keeping Commodore
off our backs. However, there were others who were good at
figuring out what we were up to and saying "No" all the time.
Sometimes Rick would protect us and he was trying hard to give
Commodore something they wanted badly, MS-DOS compatability.
Some company promised they could deliver a software solution but it
never really worked knew he was Jewish because he wore one of those
funny little hats to work. That's no problem for me - I
didn't mind if people wore pink bunny slippers as long as the job
got done. Anyway, he promised MS-DOS on a small card to make an IBM
interface. He worked alone, and weeks went by with nothing
appearing despite all the promises which worried me a lot, and this
really led to Rick's downfall. He promised he could do it and
nobody kept close enough tags on him, always a few more weeks.
Commodore started advertising and the board didn't work so both men
were canned. This was the start of the downfall for the Los
Gatos division. I've never really told this before as it was
too personal but I can't remember the designer now so it doesn't
matter so much. It shows that you need your peers looking
over your work to get things right".
How important did you think PC compatability was going to
"Eventually Sidecar came out from Germany but there were a lot
of bugs in the software and the Los Gatos team helped with solving
those. They did that before the 2000. It's funny but I
never really saw MS-DOS compatability as being that important for
the Amiga. I said at the time to Commodore "Hey, we're
different. Try to take advantage of that, not imitate or
simulate other people". We could make our commands more
similar to theirs. There's a tendancy when you're writing new
software to try and be different with names and functions, but it
isn't really necessary. We could do a better job than MS-DOS,
which would have been enough with the Amiga's superior operating
system and colour resolution capabilities to take a really big bite
out of IBM. Instead they kept promising compatability and not
delivering which is worse."
After that, Commodore wanted the design team to move back East,
and not surprisingly they declined, so gradually the Los Gatos
facility was closed down and Jay left. We carried on talking
about the interim period and also about the staff recently at
"The VP of engineering [Bill Sydnes] got canned. He
designed the PC Junior which really crashed, one of IBM's big
mistakes, and gave the Amiga a window of opportunity which
Commodore failed to exploit - a little competitive advertising
would have gone a long way."
What about the overall handling of the Amiga over the
years? Does it annoy you that there are 10 times as many PCs
"Yeah, that really does annoy me. I don't have any
financial connections with Commodore any more so I don't get
anything out of Amiga sales. Things should have been a lot
different. I still feel fatherly towards the Amiga, more so
than any of the Ataris. What frustrates me the most is that
people are missing out on something very special in the
Amiga. They tell me about their IBMs and wonderful Macs but
they're still missing out".
The Toaster is a killer product over here, what do you
"It's a fantastic product. Commodore made a really big
mistake in not embracing the Toaster in its early days, and getting
a real piece of it. I never even envisaged it back in the
design stages. TV image manipulation just wasn't around then
- I put genlock circuitry and sync signalling into the first
designs so that side of things we appreciated. I had no idea
that things like the Toaster were coming."
What would you like to see in the future?
"I'd like to see Commodore grab hold of one of these 24-bit
cards like the GVP or DMI boards and put it in as standard.
The Amiga badly needs a standardisation of high resolution 24-bit
colour modes. The JPEG board from DMI is another wonderful
product which needs to be standard in high end Amigas.
They'll wait like they always do until someone else has made the
standard and try and add something in while others are going to
make a bundle of money - look at GVP. Gerard Bucas was VP of
Engineering and he wasn't doing things the way Commodore liked, so
he left. He saw a chance to make some money and look at the
size of GVP - they're competing with Commodore. The next generation
Amiga needs a real time JPEG converter and 24-bit graphics to stay
"I did get together with Lou Eggibrecht [the new VP Engineering]
for about 10 minutes and I was very pleased. He promised he'd
fly out to have dinner with me and talk about the Amiga. I
asked him some questions about the future direction of the chips
and got the kind of answers I was looking for - the kind of things
we've been talking about. High resolution, new architecture,
more competitive. His understanding of the present
architecture was very encouraging. I'd love to work as a
consultant for them, but I don't know how much I could
What's your opinion of the A4000?
"You know, Commodore actually gave me one today at the show -
the first time I ever got anything out of them!
Putting the IDE drive onto the A4000 motherboard was a terrible
mistake - every previous Amiga has benefitted from SCSI. I'm
really tickled with the A4000 though. I was looking at it
over the last few days and thinking how could I get to buy one of
these without the wife getting to know. I have two A2000s
which are fine for the BBS stuff I do at the moment.
They've improved the chipset in the 4000, taking the colours to
256 from 8 bitplanes. The higher resolution and more colours
are really fast. The MS-DOS interface [CrossDOS] is quite
nice but I'm unhappy about the SCSI and they didn't go to full
16-bit audio, but according to Eggibrecht that's coming soon.
I'm also a little disappointed they didn't use the 040's memory
management facilities. The 3.0 operating system looks very
good with datatypes and a number of other great features. Who
needs MS-DOS and Windows?".
What about CDTV?
"CDTV is quite a nice idea, but the software has to be
right. Can you think of anything more horrible than trying to
read an encyclopaedia or the Bible on a TV, rather than a nice
crisp RGB monitor? As a low cost entertainment system it's a
good viable long term project. I hope Commodore won't drop
the ball if things aren't as good initially; they can take on
What's your favourite products?
"I love the bulletin board software as that's what I'm into at
the moment. ADPro is also a fantastic program. I picked up a
program called Scala and I'd like to get into that - it's user
interface is very impressive. I have a GVP '030 accelerator
and that's incredible. The hard drive on the 32-bit card is
very fast indeed - it's like a new machine".
Talking with Jay Miner is one of the best experiences an Amiga
owner can have. He really is the Father of the Amiga and his
passion for the machine is so apparent. It's easy to
understand the frustrations he must have at not seeing things go
exactly as he wanted, with the full potential of the machine yet to
be realised, some eight years after its release. One has to
that it is still around and selling well given its superior
competition and the natural tendancy for serious users to turn to
the IBM/Mac platforms. It's also clear that the Amiga Corporation
contained one of the most innovative design teams ever assembled,
and it is so tempting to speculate where the Amiga would be today
if they had stuck together, and the efforts of
Commodore had been more constructive. Their marketing people
have yet to understand what the Amiga is truly about, and why it is
so special. Trying to sell it as a PC is wrong as it is far
more than a spreadsheet, word processing machine. Unlocking
doors is what the Amiga is remarkable hardware justice. Only
time will tell if the Amiga can make the impact it is capable of
and maybe Commodore should take on board the views of the