CHAPTER 20 – The Amiga Dream
The Digital Revolution arrived by 1978. Digital watches and digital calculators populated the school, especially space invaders calculators. Bernie Hay introduced the first Apple IIe computers to the school and I was totally opposed to such inhuman innovations. But within a year I had bought my first PC – Commodore 32k Pet with tape recorder storage. One had to write a program in Basic in order to achieve anything and save all information on the impatient tapedeck. I soon learnt to amuse myself by making text-character graphical games. By 1983 I upgraded to the Commodore 64, impressed with the huge range of educational software made available by schools in Toronto, Canada. My aim then became to create educational software, teaching basic arithmetical and word skills. Soon the C64 became so popular among the general public that some kind of support was needed by so-called “experienced” programmers like myself who founded the first C64 club in Hawkes Bay. Over the next four years, the club suddenly grew too big for me to continue as president, and besides a new computer had taken my interest and became a passion for the next 15 years: The Amiga.
I saw the first Amiga 1000 demonstrated at a Commodore club meeting in 1986 – an American version with 110-220 volt transformer. The sight of this computer swept me off my feet. It made the Apple IIs and the new Macs and the IBM PCs look pedestrian.
Immediately, I started progamming in True Basic for the Amiga, conversions of my C64 educational progams, and set up a company, Lascelles Productions, to market these programs overseas. Back to Basics and Fractions were reviewed favourably in British Amiga magazines and soon distributed in small numbers in England by 1990-91. By this time I started to dream that I could make a living from programming and finally retire from teaching
Because the Amiga could take video output direct to the memory, one could hitch up a cheap black and white video camera to the Amiga and take colour pictures through red, green and blue filters, the computer displaying the colour picture in 4096 colours – unheard of in a home computer. By that time I had been for 10 years a History of Art teacher of Early to Late Renaissance paintings to senior students. So I decided to make a new computer software project – The Connoisseur Fine Art Collection. Paintings were scanned using the video camera. The database would be delivered on a large number of floppy disks in a series of art periods. I used a new Amiga multimedia database program to show both the full screen image of a painting and text box of notes to accompany each painting. Clarissa helped provide the notes for the Classical Greek and Roman periods as she was familiar with classical works in secondary school. An art historian from Canada whole lived in Napier helped provide the notes for the later periods. The sets of disks were sent for review to the Amiga magazines in England, and again received very welcoming reviews.
And then came a bolt from the blue!
The head of marketing of Commodore UK phoned me at 3am one morning in early 1992 and requested that Lascelles Productions create a CD version of The Connoisseur Fine Art Collection. He had seen the reviews. A new Amiga-based platform was being released throughout UK and Europe – the Amiga CDTV. This “black-box” was going to be the future of computer home entertainment media: it would play video CDs, music CDs, CDi, Amiga games, and provide the household with an array of informational and educational CDs. A CDTV version of the Connoisseur Fine Art Collection would be part of the European-wide marketing strategy of Commodore UK. They would market our product through major chains of department stores in the UK and Europe – all I had to do was to provide a professional CDTV version of the Connoisseur.
Such promise! Such excitement among family and friends! Too good to be true?
Immediately, Bruce Abbott, a real expert in Amiga machine code and general electronics joined me in this venture: I would provide the data, the graphics, the design of the interface, he would write the software. All the images of the paintings had to be rescanned by the video camera, and more added to make it a complete history of art. All the text would have to be rewritten professionally. Commodore USA had to be approached for licensing the CDTV specs and covers. And let us keep in mind here that CD-ROM technology was still in its infancy. Most computers did not have CD drives. The only use for computer CD-ROMs was data file storage and only expensive business IBM machines used them. There was no-one in NZ who had even an inkling of where the world of multimedia computing was going to go. There was no graphical interface internet as we know it today – just text-based.
To create a CD gold master cost 300 pounds sterling $NZ1000 and there was no facility in NZ or Australia to make gold disk masters. Make a mistake in the programming cost another $1000 and another mailing to the UK. Individual copies cost $5 each. We made a run of 1000 and waited for Commodore UK to respond. We received a cheque for $20,000 for the first run. Lascelles Productions then was the first to produce a multimedia product in the Southern Hemisphere.
We received excellent reviews, a rave in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Connoisseur was received particularly well in Germany and Italy where the educational promise of the CDTV was higher than in the dominant games community of the UK. We were now encouraged to produce more educational software for the international market. Our profits were now invested in producing Word Construction Set for the Amiga – a complete phonics tutor for teaching reading.
Meanwhile, the Amiga CD32 was released in 1993. This new platform was compatible with the CDTV software, but would have an even greater market promising to be the world’s greatest games machine, its features outstripping all rivals. And indeed the future looked bright. I was invited to attend the Amiga conference in Sydney in 1993 and to my surprise bad tidings were hinted at: Commodore International was in trouble. We released Word Construction Set late 1993, and again received great reviews, but by 1994 Commodore was bankrupt! That was the end of all our dreams, of the Amiga, of software development, of a life beyond teaching. We lost not only our profits but also the extra development costs of Word Construction Set. Lascelles Productions struggled along in the hope that one day the Amiga would find a home among the competing companies fighting for its survival. None came. It died.
And so even to this day, one may find copies of our software in the nostalgic Amiga software free download sites for those with Amiga emulators on their PCs.
I stubbornly continued software development by creating Word Construction Set for the Windows platform. I just did not want to see a good idea go to waste. By the late 1990s this marketable, packaged product was ready for distribution. But, I did not have the financial resources to market it to the big USA and UK retailers. And so it lingered on a web site, while I explored internet marketing unsuccessfully. By the time I had made a PC Windows version of the Connoisseur Fine Art Collection, most of the major museums and libraries had made images of fine art freely available online, complete with expert commentary.
And so, the programming dream ended.