Monday, June 21, 2021

My Dad and the Digital HiNote VP575 tribute build

I am sure you are wondering why I am looking at a PC laptop today, a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) HiNote VP575 laptop to be exact. 

Well, this one is a very personal thing. My father passed away in late January this year, after a six month fight with Motor Neuron Disease. It was really tough for me and my family to watch him deteriorate so rapidly.

My Dad served in the Royal Australian Navy from the age of 15 years old, stationed across South East Asia, Japan, and served in Vietnam during the war. After that, he left the Navy and settled down to raise his new family in Adelaide, and worked for DEC as a network engineer and various other technical and managerial roles for 28 years, before they were taken over by Compaq in 1998, and a few more years working for Compaq too. 

Things sure changed from when he started at DEC in Adelaide in the 1970's! PDP-11's, VAXstation, VT100 terminals and reel to reel tapes - oh, and of course the flared pants thing was all the rage too :-)

Dad's job at Digital inspired me to learn more about computers from a very young age. I was exposed to some very cool systems and hardware looking around his office occasionally, and I knew when I was 5 years old that I wanted to work in IT. 

I did work in IT as soon as I finished my IT course at University, and I am proud to still be working in IT for over 23 years now. But this post is not about me!

My Dad loved working at Digital, and he was proud of the computers, networking equipment and servers made by DEC over the years. 

He kept all sorts of Digital promotional material, training books from courses he did, and even a DEC flag!

He was most upset to see how the company was systematically broken up and sold off in pieces by the new management team that came in the early 1990's. Bad management always destroys good companies. True today as it was then. Some things never change!

Surprisingly enough, I never actually owned a Digital computer growing up. They were just too expensive!

My Dad bought us Intellivision, C64, C128 and Amiga 500/2000 computers as I was growing up, and he bought me a second hand generic 386 PC from a work colleague when I went to University. He bought his own first DECpc for home use in the mid 1990's, after I had already left our home in Alice Springs to go to university!

As a tribute to my father, I decided to finally get a Digital computer of my own - to experience a bit of the company and technology he designed and worked on for all those years.

I would have loved to get a DEC Alphastation, but they just cost too much these days. Instead I went for something more modest, a DEC HiNote VP575 laptop.

This one is a Pentium 166MMX, with 32MB memory, CDROM and floppy drive built in and a 2.1GB hard disk, running Windows 98 Second Edition. 

We are rather spoilt in 2021 and it is easy to forget just how heavy these "lightweight" laptops were back then. This thing is seriously heavy!

This laptop came from Ebay, sent from the USA, and it is in very good condition considering it's age. It also survived the trip unscathed.

Checking the bottom of the laptop I see the model number TS30G and I also came across the Digital Passport, a warranty service offered by Digital. This laptop was even made in the USA!

As you would expect the laptop battery is dead being over 24 years old now! The laptop whirred to life when connect to the power supply, and soon enough Windows 98SE was up and running:

At the time this computer was released, I had almost finished University, so I got to cut my teeth on Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Windows 95/98 and Windows NT4 when I entered the IT industry.

From that experience, I know that it is important to back up this ancient hard disk, as it contains the OEM drivers files which will be almost impossible to find today...The hard disk is easy to remove from the front of the laptop, with a handle to pull it out - it is IDE:

Not sure why the previous owner felt the need to scrawl all over the disk in red marker. Oh well. I removed the drive from the tray.

I used my SATA/IDE to USB converter to connect the laptop hard disk to my Alienware 15 R3 laptop so I could image the disk in full to an image file using win32diskimage.

With that done, I stored the hard disk safely, and I pulled out a small 2GB IDE MicroSD card (with SD Card converter) to use with a IDE to SD card converter:

Actually, I bought this for my Amiga 600, but after it's last failure, I decided to re-use here. It is kinda funny seeing it connected to the Digital IDE HD tray - it is so small!

I elected to do a new install rather than use the old imaged one. But I did copy the all important OEM folder from the original HD to my AlienWare 15 laptop so I could copy it to the MicroSD later on.

Now here is some real nostalgia - I hunted through my old CD's and stuff from my IT career and I still have an OEM version of Windows 98 SE in original OEM packaging with boot disk. Seems a perfect time to use it!

Power on and SD Card is detected fine.

I used the boot disk and CDROM to boot into the setup to get things going:

I formatted the C Drive to prep for Windows 98, but I didn't complete the installation:

I removed the SD card, connected back to the Alienware laptop and copied the OEM Windows 98 setup folder to the SD Card. This contains all the essential drivers for the DEC HiNote (I have no recovery CD or driver CD so this is very important!). 

I then booted using the Windows 98 boot disk to command prompt, then started the Windows 98 setup from the OEM setup folder:

I haven't done a Windows 98 install in, well, a VERY long time. It's all coming back to me though...

Name my computer:

And wait for the setup to do it's thing...

The first reboot from SD card following the install went ok:

Eventually I get the Windows 98 desktop on the DEC HiNote! All working well:

I set to work putting on Office XP and other stuff:

When I copied the OEM setup files I also copied my MOD collection and Open Cubic Player too - always need to have music right? 

I set to work getting wireless LAN networking setup on the HiNote, using the Orinoco WIFI card I use on the Amiga 1200/600. I picked this because I have the original CD for it with the Windows 98 drivers...

That done, to complete my tribute to my Dad, I found this 40 Years Celebration CD released by DEC for internal employees when Digital turned 40, not long before the company was sold off to Compaq. Dad had a pristine never opened one I have kept, and this one which was already opened.

It has software to install to enjoy a tribute to DEC, which works very well on this computer as it was around the same time as this computer was made. There was even a screensaver and Windows background to use, which I definitely set after installing!

The tributes are video history and employee presentations, and textual history from many different employees across the world. It was nice to see this for the first time.

There is even a Trivia game to play!

Anyway, this completed my build and it was quite an emotional one for me to do. I hope this was interesting for you to see! 

I am very glad to have this machine and the memories it gives me of Dad make it worth it. Thanks Dad, for everything.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Some thoughts on the current state of Amiga

The Amiga scene is one of the most interesting Retro computer scenes right now. 

Why would I say that, you ask? 

Because, unlike most other Retro computer platforms, on Amiga there is active development of the original official AmigaOS operating system to support new and modern features, both on Classic Amigas with the recently released AmigaOS 3.2 and Next Generation PowerPC AmigaOne systems running AmigaOS 4.1 Final Edition Update 2.

In addition, we have a number of other ongoing operating system development efforts, like MorphOS 3.15 on AmigaOne PowerPC and Apple PowerPC computers. We have AROS available on classic Amiga, Modern PC x86 and x64 platforms.

On Classic Amiga we have CoffinOS (based on AROS for Classic Amiga using it's own roms), and ongoing Linux open source development for classic Amiga and Next Generation AmigaOne systems.

We have new hardware accelerators to speed up our Classic Amiga machines to take advantage of new software, like the Vampire, PiStorm and many more. We have Mp3 decoder hardware upgrades for Classic Amigas. We have RTG cards that can output 720p and 1080p HDMI RTG Workbench screen modes!

We have new SATA support, USB, PCI-e cards, 3D OpenGL ES support and device drivers for the recent ATI Radeon RX and SI Graphics cards under AmigaOS 4.1 systems with Enhancer. This has opened up the system to more recent games and applications using this new functionality on AmigaOne systems.

How many other Retro computers do you know with such a vibrant ongoing operating system and hardware development?

Most other Retro computer platforms I follow are focused on emulation and preservation of software, with development mainly focused on making the real life original systems easier to connect to modern hardware, and conveniences such as floppy drive emulators, CD emulators, and proprietary Audio/Video out to modern HDMI, VGA or RCA AV output. There are new games and demos too, but using existing hardware functionality in most cases. That said, I love my C64 :-)

I recognise that there is some small development on these platforms, mainly to ease the migration to emulation and FPGA re-implementations. This is happening on Classic Amiga too of course, with MiniMig, MIST, MWinUAE (Windows), FS-UAE (Mac/Linux), AmiBerry (Raspberry Pi), and excellent work like AMiKit XE to make these emulations sing.

But it is not LIMITED to that on Amiga. There is so much more happening.

This is not even considering ongoing game and application development for all of these Amiga platforms.

But despite this, we see so much negativity towards the remaining companies trying to push the Amiga platform forward. We see copyright holders fighting the few remaining developers over AmigaOS rights, draining the remaining financial resources to fund ongoing development, and scaring away the few remaining developers who are now expected to contribute for little or no financial reward for their efforts. These efforts being done outside of their day job, as Amiga development income is definitely not able to pay most of the bills!

This is not a sustainable situation. 

Many developers and users I know have left Next Generation AmigaOne systems in droves, due to a lack of recent development, caused by all the legal actions underway for the past few years.

For the avoidance of doubt, the target market for Amiga systems in 2021 is current (and former) Amiga owners. There are a few new people who have never used one, that are interested in Amiga as a Retro platform, but little more than a curiosity for most of them. It is kinda like those YouTube videos where they show old Retro computers and devices to young kids who have never seen them before and try to use them. That kind of interest. It is fleeting, and not ongoing.

The Amiga as we know it will die when we, the fans, do. There is no magical next generation of Amiga fans that will keep the platform going. Those next generation kids today are too busy on their smartphones watching TikTok, SnapChat, Signal, Instagram, Discord, Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. They don't care much about programming or computing, and use modern systems simply to achieve their personal goals rather than to learn about them. Their community and friends are mostly online, and they generally don't care about Retro computers except as a curiosity scrolling past in their feeds. Sad, but true. 

YMMV, I know. I assume those Amiga fans out there with kids are gently exposing them to the world of Amiga in one way or another - most likely via games and demos...that is great of course. :-)

The remaining passionate Amiga users today, remember when computing was fun. This was an awesome era, cut short by management incompetence at Commodore. I felt like we missed out on what Amiga could have been, as it didn't get the chance to fully develop before Commodore ruined it for us all. 

Since 1994, despite a number of bungled takeovers and lawsuits, I have seen a very large number of separate developments by passionate people that have tried to push the Amiga platform forward, and kept us all engaged and interested in the platform. I knew in our heart of hearts that Amiga would never again be a significant player in the industry, but supporting these ongoing developments allowed us to fill in a gap that we wanted to see how the Amigas could have been had development kept going.

With the AmigaOne X1000 brought to market in 2011-2014, I believe we reached the peak of that development, and the zenith of what was achievable with AmigaOS without breaking backwards compatibility with originally software. 

Deciding how to proceed with Multi-core, 64 bit support and more has been difficult, with breaking backward compatibility an inevitable consequence and a line that is difficult to cross. Is it really an Amiga if it can't run Amiga software except by emulation? Why would I use it then? Can we let go of this in reality without losing what makes the Amiga what it is? Have we hit a dead end on pushing the platform forward?

Development since then has been slow, very slow. The focus shifted to producing cheaper hardware like AmigaOne X5000 and AmigaOne A1222 (not released yet) to make the system more attainable to Amiga fans, to hopefully try to push the development along a bit more.

In my view, the focus on developing cheaper next gen Amiga systems has back fired in that it took away resources from ongoing development in favour of porting the existing functionality to new hardware instead, an activity that is still ongoing in 2021. 

Plenty of Amiga people gave up waiting it seems, and with the 30th anniversary of the Amiga in 2015 potentially further pushing their nostalgia buttons went back to the Classic Amiga platforms instead, which have seen a  resurgence in new hardware and operating system development activity since 2014. Seriously. Go to any Retro computer group meeting. They are buzzing with activity. It's great.

These developments, while great, are tiny in comparison to the big strides made with AmigaOS 4.1 and MorphOS on the NextGen systems, which can do so much more, and so much faster, and much more reliably, than any Vampire or PiStorm enabled Classic Amiga could ever do.

From the outside of the current situation looking in, it seems that Cloanto (Amiga Corporation or whatever they call themselves these days) wants to ensure their copyright over Amiga trademarks is strictly enforced, and for whatever reason to prevent Hyperion Entertainment from making money from releasing new versions of AmigaOS 3.x for Classic Amiga systems or AmigaOS 4.1. Or perhaps this is just to make the terms much more in their favour financially/control-wise to allow such development to continue.

To this situation, I don't know who is right or wrong, and who really has the rights to develop what and who doesn't, and in what situation or products are such developments allowed. I am definitely not a lawyer and I will not be drawn into that debate. I am not taking any sides here. I think we are all losers in this situation sadly.

But what I will say is that if Hyperion Entertainment had not developed and released AmigaOS 3.1.4 and AmigaOS 3.2 as new AmigaOS versions for Classic Amigas over the past few years, Classic Amigas would still be stuck on AmigaOS 3.1 from 1994 (or the later no longer developed AmigaOS 3.9 from 1999). There would also be no AmigaOS 4.1 for newly developed PowerPC AmigaOne systems, which has seen multiple versions since 2006 until today.

I am guessing the MorphOS fans out there would be quick to point out that MorphOS would have become AmigaOS in that case and probably a lot of the recent litigation would never have happened. Maybe, or maybe not...hard to know. I like MorphOS too for the record, and run it on X5000 and PowerPC Macs.

But in any case, what development has Cloanto actually done to push forward the AmigaOS with new functionality since they took control of the trademarks for Commodore and Amiga? I have seen very little, if any development. Have you? Did I miss something?

It seems to me that their focus is about preserving the existing Classic Amiga as it was back in 1994 by selling the old kickstart roms, selling Amiga Forever (a front end for WinUAE) and licensing the Commodore/Amiga roms and trademarks to get maximum licensing revenue from other parties who want to sell FPGA re-implementations of those systems (eg. like the C64 Max). 

These FPGA systems are great systems by the way....I bought the C64 Max. They just don't offer any really new functionality to the hardware platform itself. They are cool though.

I don't know if what I said above is Cloanto's actual plan, only that it looks like that from the outside in my opinion.

And maybe that is not a bad thing. Perhaps by Retro Games Ltd releasing for sale a proper Amiga 500 cased system (like their C64 Max), it would help raise the profile of Amiga in the Retro computing community again. (Please don't release a mini A500 version with no working keyboard!)

Many Amiga users only used an Amiga 500. With 1MB memory and Workbench 1.3. And mostly played games on them. And moved onto PC or Mac platforms and never looked back. This combination is the most well known platform for the Amiga, even though AmigaOS 3.x and big box Amiga systems offered so much more (as we know).

In that case, maybe we shouldn't be wasting our time trying to develop AmigaOS and MorphOS and AROS anymore and focus on Amiga preservation through emulation and FPGA, playing old (and new) games and demos like most other Retro computer platforms do. Retro Computing is supposed to be fun right? And we aren't getting any younger after all!

It takes real effort and dedication by a few awesome developers to keep the hardware and operating system development going for Amiga in 2021. I applaud and truly appreciate the efforts that have gone into those developments. Personally I don't want to see this stop.

Over the past ten years I have done my best to highlight those efforts through this blog, organising and attending Retro computer events, and to encourage more people to support them by buying the products they make, and the systems still available to buy today.

If the current and any future lawsuits result in us seeing no further operating system development for the Amiga, that will be a very sad day indeed. I hope it doesn't happen.

At the end of the day, it is us, the current Amiga fans, who suffer the effects of these lawsuits and squabbling. And it is us that will decide the remaining future of the platform by supporting the developments we want to happen, and enjoying those developments for what they are, without being overly critical of what doesn't yet work or what functionality hasn't yet been made. 

But all things come to an end eventually. I guess after being actively involved in the Amiga and supporting many of the developments from 1988 to 2021, I think I have probably seen the Amiga pushed in all the ways (and more) than I ever thought possible in my dreams. Maybe that is enough? I don't know.

Whatever happens, I am really glad I was around to see all these really cool things for the Amiga. I hope we get to see a few more years yet. If we don't, I have no regrets - it has been a great ride.