Q&A: PC pioneer Chowaniec looks back at the Amiga

Adam Chowaniec talks about the innovative early PC, the rut the industry is in and his biggest pet peeve

Long before geeks were cool -- and rich -- a group of engineers and computer scientists had to build the first machines that would ignite the PC revolution and ultimately change the way people communicate, play and do business.

Adam Chowaniec, who is now chairman of supercomputer maker Liquid Computing Corp., was one of those computer industry pioneers. Chowaniec joined Commodore Computer just a year after the popular Commodore 64 was launched 25 years ago this week. His task was to build the successor to the C64, then the most popular machine on the market with more than 20 million units sold. Chowaniec, as vice president of technology at Commodore, was responsible for creating the Amiga PC.

The Amiga, which hit the market in 1985, turned into a family of PCs. The first machine was built with a custom chip set, offered highly advanced graphics for the time and ran the Amiga operating system. The 16-bit processor offered users a big step up from the 8-bit Commodore 64.

In the trenches for 18 months to push out the Amiga, Chowaniec is one of the founding fathers of the PC. He joined fellow founding fathers, like Commodore founder Jack Tramiel and Apple's Steve Wozniak, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the PC at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday night.

In an interview with Computerworld yesterday, Chowaniec talked about the excitement of those early days, what he calls the innovation rut in the industry today and what has become his biggest tech pet peeve.

Adam Chowaniec
Adam Chowaniec, former vice president of technology at Commodore and developer of the Amiga.

What was it like joining Commodore so soon after the C64 was released? It was a bigger challenge than it sounds. The Commodore 64 was the end of an era. The 64, just like the Apple IIe, was based on the 6500 processor, and it was the end of the line for that technology. With the Amiga, we were starting fresh. It was a pretty amazing [time]. The personal computer was just being created. There was the Apple II and the Commodore PET. They were hobbyist machines, but not really for the public. With the Commodore 64, you finally had a machine that was priced for the general market. Personal computing was really created in those years.

Did you realize at the time that you were in the middle of something big? No. We were in the middle of it, so it was really impossible to get a perspective. Nobody knew, really, how many of these things would get shipped. When it took off in the volume that it did, I think everybody was surprised.

Was there a challenge that really stands out for you now? I think the biggest challenge for the Amiga was to get the application developers to develop the software. We never got the mainstream application players to do that. The Amiga became more of a niche machine than a central business machine. That was something we didn't foresee.

Some of my colleagues talked about the Amiga having a real personality, and they miss that in new computers. What made the Amiga so memorable? It was the way the graphics and the sound devices were put together. There was a huge amount of experimentation and new ideas being invented. That's what gave it the flavor that it had. I used one up until the late '80s. The technology, especially the graphics tech, wasn't surpassed until the mid-'90s. The capabilities the machine had … it was way ahead of its time.

Do you think there's the same kind of excitement in the computer industry today? No, I don't think so. In many ways, the computers we have today have remained unchanged for the past decade except for a faster processor and more memory. Essentially, the architecture hasn't changed. There's been less innovation than we saw back in the '80s. The industry consolidated, and it's basically dominated by a small group of very large companies. As companies get bigger, innovation gets slower. It's just the way it is … I guess the biggest [disappointment] is the way innovation slowed down.

Do you foresee the industry coming out of this rut soon? In the early '80s when the PC was created, no one predicted that it would sell tens of millions of units. It's a cyclical nature. You go through periods of huge change. Then you get periods of stability and then it happens all over again. I think [another change] is imminent. I think it's been stable since at least 2000 when the tech bubble fell apart. Now, we have this convergence of wireless computing and communications … I think we're ready for another burst of innovation. Technology never stands still. In five year or 10 years, I think there will be new approaches to computing.

So what will be the next big thing? My own view is that it's going to be merging two paradigms -- computing and communications. The two tracks have never really merged. I can see over the next few years bringing the technologies together on a single platform and creating products of a very different nature … In a sense, a computer is a stand-alone box today that you plug into a communication system. And those two things are separate. When you put those two things together, all kinds of innovation can happen.

What computer do you use today? I have a Dell laptop. I work purely off the laptop today … I have a BlackBerry. I'm not really a gadget kind of guy. I just like to get things done. The simpler the better.

What applications do you have on your computer? Windows Vista? "Nothing out of the ordinary. No, I don't [use Vista]. I don't use anything more than the standard stuff. Windows XP.

What's your biggest technology pet peeve? It's the lack of user friendliness of most of the software that we use and the amount of effort it takes to maintain your machine and upgrade the software. We should be able to do that a lot easier.

So it sounds like you were frustrated with software development 20 years ago, and you still are today. True? I think I am, yes. Some things don't change.

What is your biggest security fear? I don't think we do security very well. The whole issue of memorizing lots of different passwords and changing them -- it's an area where we can do a lot better. These things need to be more secure and a whole lot more simple.

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