Monday, July 25, 2011

Too Many Commodores!

It sounds like some ol' Navy phrase - "Too many Commodores, not enough ships." No, I'm referring to the computer brand made famous by the Commodore 64 and Amiga in the 80's and early 90's.

I wrote a previous post titled "Too Many Amigas!" about the brand dilution that is occurring by having too many companies producing completely different products under the Amiga name. Commodore itself has a similar problem because it too became fragmented after the company went bankrupt.

The one you've probably heard about is Commodore USA, LLC. It's a Florida startup that is mostly using off-the-shelf components and systems and rebranding them. The only "original" thing they've got so far is a computer case that looks a lot like the original Commodore 64 filled with PC gear at a steep markup. They can do this because they have licensed the brand from Commodore International Licensing, BV which is in turn owned by a company named Asiarim (Asia Rim - get it?) who have actually changed their name to "Commodore Holdings Corporation" as of March 2011. But Commodore USA, LLC apparently does not have an exclusive license to the name. Consider what it says at the bottom of their website:

Commodore® trademark used under exclusive worldwide license by Commodore USA, LLC for its line of AIO (All-In-One) keyboard computers, and is the trademark of Commodore Licensing, BV, registered in the United States and other countries.

Notice the exclusivity is conditional "for it's line of AIO (All-In-One) keyboard computers." Now why would that be in there? Oh, maybe because Commodore Consumer Electronics in the Netherlands and Commodore Consumer Electronics USA are respectively the European and American sales offices for Asiarim/Commodore Holdings Corporation (though the web addresses for the individual sales office sites seem to have disappeared).

And what sort of things do they sell? Apparently several Commodore branded mobile devices, one of which I blogged about back in April of 2009. In addition to what I knew about they also have listed "Ultra Mobile" and "Mobile Internet" devices (the latter are kind of like smartphones without the phone part). As for where you could actually BUY these things? Probably nowhere. Those devices have apparently been listed for years and no products have actually ever shipped.

And last but not least (well maybe least, I don't know how you'd measure these things) is Commodore Gaming located in the Netherlands (a subsidiary of the The Content Factory, BV). They offer the official Commodore 64 game emulator app for the iPhone and Wii. They originally sold customized gaming PCs, but are no longer in the hardware business as I'm sure the app business is a lot more profitable. People seem a little confused as to what the deal is with this company.

I've read that they were involved in a joint venture with Commodore International Corporation in 2005-2006 (which predates Asiarim/Commodore Holdings Corporation and their subsidiary Commodore International Licensing, BV) which has led some to believe Commodore Gaming has joint rights to the brand name. Even Commodore USA, LLC thought so and initially approached them about licensing the name for hardware in the North American market. However Commodore Gaming informed them that they'd need to talk to Asiarim's subsidiary Commodore International Licensing, BV for that. Why? Well, according to the terms of the $22.7 million joint venture with Commodore International Corporation it was for a period of five years with an option to extend it another five years and it was CIC that would get a 49% stake in Commodore Gaming, not the other way around. However, during the term of this venture CIC ended up getting sold to Asiarim and one would assume the contract was simply transferred, meaning Commodore Gaming is, itself, nothing more than a licensee with only a few more years on the contract before they have to dissolve or negotiate a new license.

What does this all boil down to? Well, Asiarim/Commodore Holdings Corporation is the closest thing to a reunited Commodore International since the bankruptcy, but they've never shipped a product. Commodore USA, LLC is shipping hardware and is the first company to bring the Commodore and Amiga brand names back under one roof, but is only a licensee of both and doesn't actually own the intellectual property rights to either.

Of course this all could have probably been avoided if Irving Gould hadn't ousted Thomas Rattigan back in 1987. Rattigan turned the company around, not only steering it away from presumed inevitable bankruptcy but into the black $46 million in only a couple years at the helm. But suddenly Rattigan was replaced by Chairman Irving Gould. Rattigan later claimed he was ousted due to personality conflicts and Gould being upset that Rattigan got all the credit for saving the company. Gould, a venture-capitalist who'd been involved with the company for 20 odd years, believed that North American branch should be little more than a sales and marketing extension of the stronger European core of the company, rather than a semi-independent entity. His drastic downsizing and plant closings over his seven year reign ran the company into the ground, bankruptcy, and liquidation.

Ok, you may be wondering why I even give a damn. It was like a lifetime ago, right? Well my first computer was a Commodore 64 and if I hadn't been exposed to coding back then I might have been too intimidated to tackle HTML back in the mid-90's which led to a career in the Internet industry. A Commodore 64C saw me through many a late-night writing college papers while my classmates were jockeying for time in the school computer lab. I lusted after an "Video Toaster" Amiga for video production but could never afford one. I've got the same nostalgic soft spot in my heart for the brand that a lot of people do, and but for the bad decisions of Mr. Gould I might be typing this from my shiny new iAmiga running AmigaOS 6.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Too Many Amigas!

No, I'm not talking about my Facebook friends list. I'm talking about the brand name "Amiga" as in those fantastic computers Commodore used to make in the early 1990's.

Commodore may have gone bust, but Amiga never really went away. The properties have been bought and sold and passed around so much I'll just say if you want a lesson in how the vultures rip apart the carcass of a bankrupt tech company read the Wikipedia page.

If you didn't bother reading that just know ownership of Amiga passed through a number of companies (including Gateway) until ultimately culminating in Amiga Inc. But here's where things get tricky! The current version of Amiga OS (yes they kept developing it!) belongs to a Belgian company called Hyperion Entertainment. Rights to update the previous versions belongs to a German company called Haage & Partner. A new Amiga-compatible computer called the x1000 is being made by a Belgian company called A-Eon in partnership with Hyperion Entertainment and a British company called Varisys as the hardware partner actually delivering the goods.

So where, you may ask, is Amiga, Inc. in all of this? Well, in 2001 they had entered into an agreement with the AmigaOne Partners (collectively Hyperion Entertainment and Eyetech Group Ltd), but that license agreement was terminated in 2006. Today Amiga Inc. only sells rebranded Linux and Android tablets directly and through some kind of fundraising program for other organizations and has an embedded device software called "Amiga Anywhere" - thought exactly what it is and does is sort of vague. It apparently isn't vaporware as it was available on products from several "distributors, resellers, and marketing partners" - most of which no longer appear to be in business as their web sites are gone. Also, I think that 2007 support for Linux and Symbian devices isn't going to get anyone too excited (what with Symbian going the way of the dodo too).

Ah! But that's not all folks, we have yet another company in the mix: Commodore USA, LLC The Florida startup with the resurrected brand name says they have also secured the rights to sell Amiga branded computers from - wait for it - Amiga, Inc.! For some reason the new Commodore has chosen to give these new computers the same model numbers as original Amigas. Furthermore these computers are no more Amigas than a Mac or a Dell. The cases look pretty cool but are nothing new or unique either and have been available since 2005 from Karma Digital's distributors! You can buy the cases yourself for between $110 - $300, put in your own PC components, buy an Amiga sticker online and build your own better faux-Amiga and likely for less money. Commodore also says these will have "Commodore OS" on them, which I gather is just a Linux distro, and some mention of being AROS compatible (most likely the "Icaros Desktop" distro of that). But that's not hard to do since AROS has been ported to the Intel-compatible architecture. Heck, I can boot up Icaros Dekstop on most of my computers, and some of them are pretty old.

Side note: For the uninitiated AROS is a free open source operating system that is mostly compatible with AmigaOS 3.1. There are distributions of it (much like there are different distros of Linux) with the most popular being "Icaros Desktop." There is also "AROS Broadway" and "AROS Aspire." There is also "MorphOS" (which is gorgeous btw) that isn't a distro but uses parts of AROS (MorphOS is only for the PowerPC architecture).

If anyone from Commodore happens upon this blog post, well, I seriously want you guys to succeed because I loved my old C64 and lusted after an Amiga and want to see the company truly come back from the dead. But slapping some Commodore and Amiga stickers on off-the-shelf parts and rebranded systems and selling them for a huge markup to cash in on nostalgia isn't a sustainable business plan. Commodore was a true innovator who sold hardware that gave customers actual value. Maybe if they did that they'd have the revenue to BUY the name rather than just license it from Commodore Licensing, BV.

So, anyway to sum up we have:
Haage & Partner with the rights to update AmigaOS 3.x.
Hyperion Entertainment with the rights to AmigaOS 4.x.
A-Eon partnered with them and Varisys to make truly new Amiga computers.
Amiga Inc., selling rebranded tablets and licensing Commodore USA to pretty much do the same.

It would be so nice if it was all under one roof again (or had never been sent to the four corners of the Earth in the first place). This brand dilution is only going to lead to confusion over what's what and what is a "real" Amiga reborn.