You can hear the sound of the idling engine. Through the glass in front of you is a runway. Below is the instrument panel. The engine's gurgle accelerates to a roar as the runway rushes under you, and you're off. The altimeter spins as you climb and the scenery changes as buildings loom larger, then vanish as you pass them.
As you may have guessed, this is not a description of flight in a small plane, but an extraordinarily popular computer program called Flight Simulator.
It is based on the performance characteristics of a Cessna 182, whose instrument panel is depicted on your screen. Real pilots say it is a fair test of the skills needed to fly a small plane. Flight Simulator is available for nearly every computer currently made, but the version developed for the Commodore Amiga is something special. The Amiga's extraordinary graphics make the scenery lifelike and the sound of the engines was achieved by recording the engine noise of an actual Cessna 182, digitizing it and putting it in the software. If you run the program with the Amiga hooked up to good speakers, you can practically smell the fuel. And that's not all.
If you have a modem, and a friend with an Amiga and a modem, you can run the program in tandem on both machines. You exchange some data by modem before takeoff and, afterward, with the modems still frantically sending and receiving, each plane is visible on both screens. The only thing you can't do is have a realistic collision. The planes just sort of fly through each other. Still, it is a dazzling display of computer simulation -- all done by a $50 program on a home computer.
This sort of technical virtuosity has made the Amiga a hit with "techies," computer enthusiasts who appreciate spectacular graphics and realistic sound for their own sake. But it has been a slow seller in the lucrative business market, and Amiga has brought out its own line of IBM compatibles to get a share of it. But if the long-awaited boom in home computers is finally beginning, the Amiga could be a big winner. Here's why:
Many people want a home computer for fun, and the Amiga is unsurpassed as a games machine. Many now also want a machine that will allow them to bring work home. IBM and its compatibles dominate the business world -- the Amiga doesn't even use the same microprocessor as the IBM. But there is already a program for current versions of the Amiga called The Transformer, which brings to the computer's screen the familiar A prompt, the hallmark of the IBM PC and its clones. With this software, the Amiga becomes largely compatible with the IBM, although it runs a bit slower and cannot do graphics.
There is a $995 hardware package that virtually attaches an IBM-compatible computer to the Amiga, complete with a 5 1/4-inch disk drive (the Amiga uses 3 1/2-inch disk drives) and three IBM-compatible expansion slots. It's expensive but provides a fuller measure of compatibility. And now Amiga is about to carry its compatibility quest further in the new Amiga 2000. It will accommodate an internal board called the Bridge Card that is supposed to contain all the hardware needed to make software for the IBM family run on the Amiga.
What's more, since the Amiga is a true "multitasking" computer, these hardware solutions should allow even a combination of IBM and Amiga software to run simultaneously. So theoretically, while an Amiga user's Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet is performing an extensive recalculation in the background, he can land his Cessna 182 in San Francisco in the foreground.
I am planning to test a new Amiga 2000 soon to see if these promises of IBM compatibility are true. Even if they are, there is one problem: It won't be cheap. A fully equipped Amiga 2000 is likely to list at $2,000, more if the Bridge Card is included.
Still, even the low-end new Amiga 500, expected to retail for about $650, will run The Transformer, giving some IBM compatibility to a genuine low-end home machine. And the software selection written for the Amiga itself is now much more extensive, including a version of WordPerfect, the current favorite in the IBM world.Brit Hume is a contributor to the Washington Post Writers Group. Hume is an ABC News Capitol Hill correspondent and the founding editor of a computer newsletter