They're `Amigians' And They're Mad As Hell

It was not an amusing spectacle for the folks lunching at the posh Lyford Cay Club in Nassau, Bahamas, last November. A bunch of angry protestors had invaded the private country club to attend the annual shareholders' meeting of Commodore International Ltd., which is headquartered in West Chester, Pa., but incorporated in the Bahamas. Their demand: that Commodore Chairman Irving Gould--and his executives--wise up and do a better job promoting the computer of their dreams, Commodore's Amiga.

These Commodore shareholders and customers are the most vocal members of a group of Amiga owners who have developed a cultlike devotion to their computers. They point out--rightly--that when the first Amiga appeared in 1985, it embodied many firsts in color graphics, sound, and multitasking (running several programs at once). But since then, they complain, Commodore has done a poor job of marketing the machine they love in the U.S. Now, with Apple Computer Inc., IBM, and others adding Amiga-like capabilities to their machines, fewer and fewer computer buyers take the Amiga seriously.

Except for the cult of Amiga. Calling themselves "Amigians," they have taken it upon themselves to spread the gospel of Amiga. "For Amiga users, the computer almost becomes a religion," says Douglas Barney, editor-in-chief of the monthly AmigaWorld, which has a circulation of 101,000. "The computer is a major force in their lives."

SOFTWARE PINCH. The big fear among Amigians is that, after years of declining sales, the machine may simply disappear from the U.S. market. They place the blame squarely on Commodore, which has had rapid U.S. management turnover and has never positioned Amiga well in either home or business markets. With models priced from $400 to $5,000, Amiga fits both. In Europe, Amiga is a popular game machine, especially in Britain. In Germany, the more powerful Amigas are the favored machines for serious programmers.

The numbers tell the story: Outside the U.S., Commodore earned $48.2 million on sales of $1.05 billion in fiscal 1991, ended June 30. In the U.S.t dropped from 12.7% in 1986 to 2.1% in 1990.

That decline is what scares Amigians. Already, software companies are reluctant to write programs for Amiga, and few computer stores carry the machine. Commodore Marketing Director David J. Archambault says a new U.S. push will begin next month, and the company says there are absolutely no plans to withdraw from the U.S. market.

Amigians are taking no chances. "We will fight in the expos, we will fight in the press, we will fight on the bulletin boards," says Jeff A. Costantino, partner at VideoSign Inc. in Davie, Fla., which uses Amigas in video production. Costantino is a member of one of the hundreds of loosely knit user groups around the country that plot ways to make Amiga more popular. The groups organize letter-writing campaigns to computer and business publications that they believe have slighted Amiga. And they continuously bombard Commodore management with suggestions--which, they say, management ignores.

Subtle, they're not. Amigians flood electronic bulletin boards with pro-Amiga messages and post their rallying cries: "Death to the IBM PC" and "Death to the Mac." One of the most colorful is Leo L. Schwab, a software developer based in Palo Alto, Calif. "He's the guy frequently seen at all the PC shows, wearing a cape and terrorizing IBM reps," says AmigaWorld's Barney. Schwab's tactic is to corner employees of major computer and software companies and harangue them about the superior abilities of Amiga in multimedia--using computers to blend sound, graphics, and video. "We are keepers of the flame," says Schwab.

`A LITTLE EXTREME.' Many Amigians also have a financial interest in keeping the machine alive. The Amiga Developers Assn. is a hotbed of Amiga diehards. "Amiga users are a little extreme in their zealousness," says Al Hospers, chief executive officer of Dr. T's Music Software Inc. in Boston and current president of the group.

Beyond zealots, Amiga has built a solid following in several markets. Over 3 million Amigas have been installed, and they're being used by medical technicians, graphic artists, musicians, and video production companies. Joe Conti, director, digital imaging, Apogee-Magic in Van Nuys, Calif., used one to create animated sequences for the show Unsolved Mysteries. And author Arthur C. Clarke used the Amiga to study the Mandelbrot set, a mathematical formula that can create stunning visual effects, for his latest novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks.

Such high-profile endorsements help. So do fanatical users willing to spend their time proselytizing among the unconverted. "You'll have to pry my Amiga from my cold dead fingers," says Schwab, who disparages all other PCs. Then again, if zealotry sold computers, Amiga would have been a hit long ago.

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