Picture a sleek, snazzy and subtle Porsche that can rip down the highways and corner like a dream and you'll have an inkling of what Commodore's new Amiga is like.
Loaded with 256k RAM (expandable to 512k), two-button mouse, built-in 3.5-inch 880k floppy disc drive, custom graphic chip, custom music chip and a born-to-run high-speed Motorola 68000 micro processor, this PC's built to be a Porsche for the mind.
But wait . . . for those who lust for the open road but are too chicken to sacrifice the safety and security of a comfortable sedan, the Amiga is also IBM compatible-the ne plus ultra of low riskiness. For roughly $500 more, Commodore gives you the software that effectively lets the Amiga function as well or better than any other clone on the market.
Without question, the Amiga is a superb technical achievement for its $1,295 (without monitor) price. People who want the latest and greatest in gee-whiz-bang technology should rush out and buy this machine.
Unfortunately for Commodore -- a company whose fortunes have risen and collapsed along with the sales of its C-64 -- the Amiga also raises the question: Is technology enough?
That's why it's difficult to review this machine. On one hand, it's a grab bag full of exciting technology. For example, the Amiga's "genlock" capability lets you put high-quality computer-generated animated graphics on videotape using your own VCR. The Amiga undeniably lets you do more of what personal computers do than any other personal computer.
On the other hand, so what? Though technically brilliant, the Amiga still does not answer the fundamental question of what to do with the home computer. What is more, Commodore itself seems similarly unsure of how to market its machine -- pointing to the features and the technology of the Amiga rather than any apparent benefits the machine provides.
The bottom line for the Amiga is whether new technology alone is enough to spark renewed interest in personal computers. If it is, we will see the new wave of purchases of hardware and software this fall and Christmas season. If not, Commodore and its nervous shareholders will have learned a painfully expensive lesson.
Let's keep in mind that Commodore has had the chance to learn from the horrendous marketing miscues of IBM and its PCjr and Apple Computer and its Macintosh.
Apple's case is particularly interesting. I like the Mac. It's a nifty, innovative and accessible technology (that Amiga liberally borrows from). However, expectations were too high, the software didn't come out quickly enough and -- most important -- people weren't quite sure whether Mac was a business computer, a home computer, a personal computer, a graphics machine or whatever. The Mac's technology simply wasn't enough to make it the hit product Apple wanted it to be.
An aside: There is a lot of whoop-dee-do about "software support" for personal computers. I used to believe that new computers needed lots of available software to be successful. Now I don't. Why? Look at what sells. There may be thousands of packages available for the IBM PC, but 80 percent of the sales come from a handful of programs: Lotus 1-2-3, Ashton-Tate's DBase II, etc.
It ain't quantity; it's quality. It doesn't matter how much software is available; the big question is, Is the right software available? What software is driving the sale of the Mac? That's my point.
Similarly, I don't care if the Amiga has a thousand packages available right now. My question: Is there a program out there that genuinely takes advantage of the Amiga's technology in a way that spurs sales of the machine? I don't think IBM compatibility is enough. You've got to have a base built from the strength of the machine's new technology.
Indeed, Commodore has discovered that most computer retailers are reluctant to take a gamble on the new machine, even though the company is offering 35 percent margins to them. Part of the reason for this is fear that the machine simply will flop. Just as important is Commodore's unfortunate reputation as a high-volume cookie-cutter computer company that is more concerned with moving iron than helping retailers sell machines. Witness Commodore's mass distribution of the C-64 through Toys 'R' Us. In the words of Sy Merrin of the ComputerWorks, working with Commodore is "like playing Russian roulette except you don't know whether one or all of the chambers are loaded." Computer retailers fear Commodore will abandon them for the mass market if the Amiga is successful.
Whether or not computer retailers can generate the volume sales that Commodore needs to grow at its historically impressive levels is quite unclear.
At this time, however, Commodore is trusting its new technology to create a new marekt for it. In the past, Commodore was successful in creating a new market for home computers by pricing at ridiculously low levels. I'm still not certain that the technology approach will find consumers who still ask the question, "Why do I need a personal computer at this or any price?"