Commodore Legends: Dave Haynie – Part II

Today’s article concludes the interview with Dave Haynie, Commodore’s whiz on the C128 and Amiga.  I’ll be discussing the projects Dave did when he was at Metabox and Fortele, and ask him in what sense Commodore has had an impact on his life and career.  So, enjoy today’s Friday Commodore with Commodore Legend: Dave Haynie!

Robby:   How did Jack Tramiel leaving Commodore affect you?

Dave: The company troubles following Jack’s leaving were certainly a concern.  But his leaving didn’t have much direct effect, simply because I really didn’t know him.  I started in October of ’83, Jack left in January of ’84.

Robby: How have your years at Commodore influenced you?

Dave: Pretty much any way imaginable.  I learned to be a real engineer at Commodore — college can only teach you so much.  I learned the immense value of building a community around a computer platform… this is something we engineers started with the C128, in fact.  And I did as much as possible at other companies, particularly Nomadio, back when we did the digital R/C controllers. Commodore by bad example taught me to pay more attention to what the business and marketing people are doing — just because you build a great engineering department, doesn’t necessarily mean other parts of the company are as well run.  I also learned of the importance of having other things in one’s life… like many of us, I was fairly devastated once Commodore was over with.  I also got seriously into video as a result of Commodore.  And both my kids were born during Commodore… my daughter Kira made it just 48 days before the bankruptcy.

Robby: What is, in your opinion, next to the fact that Commodore made the best selling computer of all-time with the C64, the greatest achievement of Commodore?

Dave: Via the Amiga, Commodore dragged the personal computer industry from the 1970s to the 1990s.  It happened all at once, with the Amiga 1000 in 1985.

* Before Amiga, personal computers single-tasked.  Afterwards, they multitasked, leading the way to today’s multiprocessing.

* Before Amiga, personal computers had monochrome or 16 color displays; after the Amiga, they displayed photographs.

* Before Amiga, personal computers had low quality mono sounds, after the Amiga, they did high quality, sample based stereo.

* Before Amiga, the CPU did all the work; after the Amiga, graphics processors and other DMA devices offloaded the work.

* Before Amiga, personal computers needed jumpers and manual setup for expansion; after, they configured devices automatically.

Robby:  Which Commodore machine was more groundbreaking and why: The VIC-20, C64, the Amiga or another?

Dave: Of course the Amiga was more groundbreaking.  I can’t think of another technology product that included so many changes within an industry in a single product introduction. Got anything?

Of course, the C64 was a disruptive force as well.  The tech wasn’t groundbreaking, it was a clear progression from the VIC-20, which was a progression of the PET/CBM line.  The power of the C64 was in the low price…. much like Henry Ford’s Model-T, the C64 was the right mix of power and cost that let anyone get into personal computing.

Robby: What is the funniest moment you had at Commodore?

Dave: There’s no possible way to pick one… Commodore was the best place I have ever worked.  We worked hard, sure, and played just as hard.  That includes pranks, nerf-weapon fights, and lots of social stuff — we typically hung out together.  I recall one party at my old house, during the peak Amiga years, we had over 150 people show up.  And the police… so we had to move the rock band into the garage.

Robby: What is the saddest moment you had at Commodore?

Dave: Probably that big layoff day, as in the Deathbed film.

Day after the “Deathbed vigil”
(Picture courtesy of Dave Haynie)

Robby: How did the idea for this Deathbed vigil come about?

Dave: There were several factors that led to this.

The first was simply that, over the weekend, I had been away on job interviews in Texas.  We all knew that things were not going well with Commodore, and in fact, management had recommended that “if you get a job offer, take it”.  So I interviewed with a small VME-board company, doing really interesting multiprocessing DSP work.  The VP of Engineering was looking for his replacement in technology, as he was having to do increasing amounts of business work.  Best Interview Ever.  He invited me out after work, we drank beers at a very Texas bar, got Sushi (and lots of Sake) for dinner, then went to a strip club.  The only problem: they couldn’t pay very well.  Second interview was at Compaq.  I found they had about 20 people doing the job of one or two Commodore engineers, and immediately lost interest.  But I let them pay for the whole trip… never sent the VME guys my bill.  

So… anyway, I was back on Tuesday, and on the way to work, I noticed I had left my camcorder and a couple of charged batteries in the car.  No tapes, but K-Mart had 8mm tapes in stock.  I didn’t really know how much longer Commodore was going to be around, so I just started shooting video that day.  And if you’ve seen the film, you know the results.  That Tuesday, big rumor was that huge layoffs were coming… and there really weren’t many of us left, anyway.  And that’s just what happened — more than half of the remaining in West Chester we’re layed off that Wednesday.  So that’s the second part of the film, shot at Margarita’s, our local hangout.  Everyone just left at lunch and went there, whether you had been layed off or not (I wasn’t).  I think I got back to Commodore around 9PM…

The third part is where the name comes from.  That Friday (the day of the actual bankruptcy announcement, April 29, 1994), Mike Sinz was getting married.  So lots of Commodore people were coming into town from wherever they had scattered, to attend the wedding.  In fact, we were pretty much all at Mike’s wedding when the announcement was issued, so most of us didn’t even know about it until the next day.  Because of this crowd, Randell Jesup had planned a party for Saturday, dubbed the “Deathbed Vigil” … the idea being, we knew Commodore was ill and fading, but it wasn’t supposed to be time for a wake or anything yet.  Of course, given the previous two days of filming, I kept right on shooting video of this event.

I originally thought this would be a cool thing for the Commodore people to look at in years to come. But I also really wanted to tell the story of why Commodore failed.  My friend Dale Larson was at the time working on his own publishing company, doing books, software, whatever, and he was pretty sure we could turn this into a real product.  I tried some of the early cuts on my Dad, and he actually gave me the idea of cutting the slides with text in-between segments, to help tell the story better.  

It was all shot on a Sony Video8 camcorder — not even Hi-8.  While today I’m kind of a video nut, I really didn’t do much video back then.  I shot most of the video, Fred Bowen did a bit of filming while I was driving my son Sean home… about a two-hour round trip.  Some of the other folks also passed the camera around, found a tripod, and got the idea of the story telling on Randell’s porch.

The original video was edited in analog, of course, but it used my Amiga 3000+, along with Scala MM300 and EE100… the latter was a LANC and IR controller for doing deck to deck video control.  I borrowed a SuperGen 2000 and a GVP TBCPlus.  The TBCPlus could be controlled via AREXX, so I could do things like the special effects in the front of the film, color and luma corrections for different shooting conditions, etc. on-the-fly.  Actually pretty sophisticated for 1994.  The music was actually loaded on a cassette tape, which ran through a very basic mixer into the recording deck.  The other channel on the mixer of course had my original camcorder audio, and I had a bunch of tape marks for the levels of different things.  The music was all done my Mike Rivers.  I wrote the lyrics and sang lead on the closing song… Mike did the Mehdi Ali impression at the very end :-)

Mike Rivers, Ed MacKenty (not a C= guy) and Andy Finkel
(Picture courtesy of Dave Haynie)

Robby:  If you could go back in time, what would be the one thing above all others, that you would like to have changed in the course of Commodore’s history?

Dave: Not that I’d have the means to change it.  But in 1991, before Irving Gould brought Mehdi Ali in to run things, he approached Jean Louis Gassee (the guy from Apple), to run things… maybe Engineering in West Chester, maybe the whole company — stories vary.  Apparently, the Apple hardware guys had been pretty impressed by the Amiga.  Gassee didn’t say “no”… he knew the history of Gould giving new managers way too little time to affect a real change, and said he’d need three years with no interference.  Anyway, we got Ali in charge instead.  If there’s one single inflection point that could have altered Commodore’s fortune, that’s the one I’d pick.  I mean, if you just filtered out all of the really, really, really stupid things Ali, and Ali’s hires like Bill Syndes, did at the company, you’d have seen a far healthier Commodore moving into the 1990s.  If Gassee was the same guy who lead things at Be, Inc., particularly in the early days, he might have turned Commodore around.  The talent needed was already at the company.

Robby: You’re still an avid fan and still quite vocal in the Amiga community.  Do you still actively follow the broader Commodore scene, with its fans still making software and hardware for the old machines?

Dave: I’ve followed both as time permits. I went to an Amiga show in Vegas summer of 2009, and a Commodore show in Chicago a few years earlier.  I actually think the folks in the C64/C128 community have fared a bit better.  For one, since there’s a C64 in EVERY closet in the US (verified fact), it’s easy to get replacement hardware.  I have a C64 emulator on my phone… works good.  And of course, there was fun in recent times with Jeri Ellsworth re-creating the entire C64 from scratch. It’s pretty easy to build accessories for the C64 — I noticed that most current users have a cart with flash memory that stores pretty much every program ever made for the C64, or something like that.

And they’re happy.  The Amiga people, I think, are a little exhausted.  It’s been one broken promise after another.  I tried to get something going, didn’t actually make any promises until we had Amiga Technologies going, backed by the second largest PC company in Germany at the time (ESCOM), and then that big company manages to kill themselves.  Then more of the random promises.  Then Gateway promises something, but drops the project.  And that was the last serious effort. They’ve also made some bad decisions, like PowerPC, that seemed to have become a kind of religion in the Amiga community.  Nothing bothers me more than religion triumphing over reason.  Anywhere.  And yet, yup, I do still live in the USA ;-)

Robby: After Commodore, you were involved with several start-ups, with Metabox perhaps being the best known.  How do you think things would have evolved if Metabox did aquire the AmigaOS license and focused on expanding that market, instead of being in the Macintosh clone business?

Dave: It might have worked out.  We did want to put the AmigaOS out on new computers.  That didn’t happen, but we did launch the Mac “clones”.  We put out the fastest shipping Macs, in fact, at 300MHz, and were moving toward even better stuff with the PIOS One (our modular CHRP machine). So clearly, PIOS (then, later Metabox) had the money and the know-how to do this stuff.  Along with me, we had Andy Finkel, former head of software engineering at Commodore.  And lots of Amiga industry people.  I think we would have done the same kinds of things we had planned to do with Amiga at Amiga Technologies, had we won the license.

And we might well have still done Mac clones, I don’t know.   But a revised AmigaOS back then could have been a real challenge to MacOS or even the PC.  It wasn’t too late to see it all go big.  Metabox hit a wall with the end of Mac licensing, lots money big-time.  We did bounce back with the STB stuff, but we lost big on the whole PPC/Mac debacle.  Things would absolutely have been better for us if AmigaOS had been in the picture.

PIOS One CPU and main board, on Dave’s Amiga jeans-jacket (1997)
(Picture courtesy of Dave Haynie)

Robby: Metabox’ set-top boxes were ahead of their time, with the Metabox 1000 as the cherry on the pie.  Why did it never really pick up?

Dave: The earlier STBs were just so-so.  The Metabox 100 was just a web terminal, and it had some issues.  The Metabox 500 did much better internet (it ran Netscape) and some of the innovation we wanted, like music and video on demand.  The Metabox 1000 was really the start of what we wanted to do: DVB, DVD, Web, Email, PVR, IPTV, and probably, apps like you have now on smartphones.  In Java or something like it, even… we ran MHP (Multimedia Home Platform), and I was looking at a few things, including Amiga Inc. Intent-based stuff, as a better way to address gaming and other things, without tying the apps to any one CPU type.  The 1000 ran a ColdFire 5307, at 90MHz or 144MHz, but this wasn’t going to be the CPU of choice for the next model.  I really wanted to put a personal computer in your living room, under the guise of an entertainment device.  We even had good ideas, patents in some cases, for different media distribution models (like a free DVD every month, encoded in MPEG-4, including both free and PPV content — we did micropayments billed via the German Telekom.. we had datacasting over analog TV, up to 4Mb/s if we took over a channel).

The big problem was that management (my partners, in fact… Andy and I were two of the four founders of PIOS/Metabox) started getting the same kind of madness that sunk so many US startups in the heady days of the first internet explosion.  Our stock split two ways one year, then three the next, etc.  They were buying crazy stuff, and not keeping any kind of cash reserve.  We had contracts for 500,000 Metabox 1000 in Israel and 1,500,000 in Norway and Sweden… once they passed trials. These contracts were announced, which is one reason the stock went so high.  That was premature, though, because the companies involved were under NDA until an official announcement, which wouldn’t happen until a successful field trial.

When things started going bad, the internet bubble burst in the USA, and soon every tech company was making investors nervous.  They called Metabox out on these contracts, and got worried it all faked or no longer true… all kinds of bad.  And due to the way we had things structured, quite a few developers were foreign contractors (including Andy and I), so we were the first to stop being paid when the money got tight.  So the one thing we needed to fix the company, finishing the product, was increasingly less possible.

Dave’s home lab, just after the Metabox days. That’s a Metabox 1000.
(Picture courtesy of Dave Haynie)

Robby: You then moved on to form a new start-up with 3 other “Commodorians”,  Andy Finkel, Robert Russell and Neil Harris.  The company, Fortele, had a great concept: all audio/video appliances act together and adapt themselves to the user.  It seems SciFi, but you guys actually had the technology proven.  It sounds like a fantastic concept but where did it go wrong?

Dave: In fact, our mission was simple: we wanted “Star Trek”… at least that’s how we termed it.  The basic idea was this: you have a central media server in house somewhere, even a closet, doesn’t matter.  Any existing device can be hooked into the media network via an interface box… new devices would have an Ethernet jack (and, certainly at some point, wireless).   All device functions are controlled by the server via network to serial or IR controls, and hooked into the system via a construct like a device driver.  Thus, no matter what device I’m using, I would run the Fortele interface, not worry about the individual device.  The network could also multicast, so if I run in “The Three Stooges” on channel 2089 down on my office TV, and my kids tune in the same channel elsewhere, it’s only using one TV tuner.

The remote control is another big piece, that’s the part I wrote.  I actually used a PDA with ethernet, but the real remote would have used Bluetooth.  The remote was simple: numbers, some navigation buttons, speaker and mic.  You’d also be able to run our remote software on a PDA with sufficient resources — today, most any Android or iOS device would do the job, and get you extras, like on-remote previews.  The remote is yours… this is how the system IDs you.  So let’s say I’m in my media room watching a show, and I get to up make coffee.  The TV in my kitchen could be set to automatically come on when I enter the room, and it would know that it’s me… so the show I’m watching in my media room automatically shows up on that TV.  If it was one of the kids getting a snack, their show would automatically turn on.  If just had a “radio” (one of our audio-only nodes) in the kitchen, you’d still hear the sound from your TV room.

One other mandate: our wives had to be able to use the system.  Well, Andy’s girlfriend was/is Carolyn Scheppner… she probably doesn’t have trouble with a modern TV.  But it’s absolutely true that media systems have become more complex over the year, with each new feature.  Our goal was to replace all that with the network, then make the network easy.  And yeah, it would learn.  Mainly just by following your actions.  So if you turn on the TV any time you enter the kitchen, at some point the system would ask if you want this to be automated (it can “hear” you coming, because your remote is your identity).  If you run in HBO regularly, the system would soon ask if you’d like to make that a macro… a voice macro.  So you’d speak something like “tune HBO”, and HBO would just come up. In any room, no matter what actually had to happen to get a TV tuner going on HBO and playing out your speakers for that particular room.

And that was 2002.  You can imagine what things might be like now, 10 years later.  The problem was simply that we built this great demo, but while Andy, Bob, and I were doing the tech, Neil did not bring in any Angels or other investors.  So we basically had a demo of the concept and no money. After Metabox and other adventures, low pay to get Fortele going, and all that, I didn’t have a week’s cash in the bank.  So I had to jump to Nomadio at that point.  They had been trying to get me for about six month by then.

Robby: How do you see innovation and computing in today’s world?

Dave: Innovation still happens, but it’s not in desktop or laptop computers.   Even fairly predictable stuff, well executed, generates excitement in the mobile market.  Like Apple’s iPhone and iPad.  The “all screen” device was sort of this thing that everyone, all at once, realized needed to be the future of small devices.  There were rumors of Apple doing this for well over a year before the iPhone showed up.  And yet, they did it well, made it interesting, and got the internet useable enough on that small screen that, only a short time later, a very large percentage of web surfing is not done on PCs.   I have an Android phone, I’m playing around with an Android tablet, and that seems a very exciting place to be looking around these days — another cool device every week or two.   Meanwhile, PCs get another 100MHz and a cool new case design. Yawn!

Robby: What does the future hold in store for you?

Dave: If you know a good fortune teller…. maybe I should go back to Madame Marie’s and get an answer for you.   But I hear she died :-(

I have been designing digital radios for Nomadio lately.  I went there to design toy robots, wound up designing the world’s best digital R/C car controller, which wound up controlling cheap bomb hunting robots in Iraq, presumably saving some lives.  I’m doing even more complex radios there, and it was interesting teaching myself yet another kind of electronics.  But my heart is always in consumer products, specifically “computers”, whether on the desktop or in your pocket.

Robby: Aha, so maybe we’ll see some more computer stuff in the near future then with the Dave Haynie signature!  Many thanks for taking the time for the interview and I wish you good luck in your personal and professional life!

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5 Responses to Commodore Legends: Dave Haynie – Part II

  1. Thank you very much for that very detailed interview.. it was good to read about the good times .. :D

  2. Christian Gallagher

    What a pleasure to read! Thanks for this fine interview :-)

  3. What a rarity to find someone with Dave’s incredible ability in so many areas – and yet be totally down to earth. This man is a Commodore Legend of the highest order. He basically is an engineering colossus – his zorro III beat PC manufacturers with huge resources to the equivalent PCI technology – and all this pretty much under his own steam! Simply amazing stuff.

  4. Pingback: Commodore Legends: Petro Tyschtschenko | MOS 6502

  5. Pingback: Confessions and rememberances of an Amigaholic - The Silicon Underground

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