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The Amiga ARM project

This has been quite the turbulent week. Without getting into all the details, a post that I made with thoughts and ideas for an Amiga inspired OS for ARM escaped the safe confines of our group, Amiga Disrupt, and took on a life of its own.
This led to a few critical posts being issued publicly, which all boiled down to a misunderstanding. Thankfully this has been resolved and things are back to normal.

The question on everyone’s lips now seem to be: did Jon mean what he said or was it just venting frustration? I thought I made my points clear in my previous post, but sadly Commodore USA formulated a title open for interpretation (which is understandable considering the mayhem at the time). So let’s go thrugh the ropes and put this to rest.

Am I making an ARM based Amiga inspired OS?

Hopefully I don’t have to. My initial post, the one posted to the Amiga Disrupt comment section (and mistaken for a project release note), had a couple of very clear criteria attached:

If nothing has been done to improve the Amiga situation [with regards to ARM or x86] by the time I finish Amibian.js (*), I will take matters into my own hand and create my own alternative.

(*) As you probably know, Amibian.js is a cloud implementation of Amiga OS, designed to bring Amiga to the browser. It is powered by a node.js application server; a server that can be hosted either locally (on the same machine as the html5 client) or remotely. It runs fine on popular embedded devices such as Tinkerboard and ODroid, and when run in a full-screen browser with no X or Windows desktop behind it – it is practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

We have customers who use our prototype to deliver cloud based learning for educational institutions. Shipping ready to use hardware units with pre-baked Amibian.js installed is perfect for schools, libraries, museums, routers and various kiosk projects.


Amibian.js, here running Quake 3 at 60 fps in your browser

Note: This project started years before FriendOS, so we are not a clone of their work.

Obviously this is a large task for one person, but I have written the whole system in Smart Mobile Studio, which is a product our company started some 7 years ago, and that now has a team of six people behind it. In short it takes object pascal code such as Delphi and Freepascal, and compiles this to JavaScript. Suitable for both the browser and NodeJS. It gives you a full IDE with form designer, drag & drop visual components and a wast and rich RTL (run-time library) which naturally saves me a lot of time. So this gives me an edge over other companies working with similar technology. So while it’s a huge task, it’s leveraged considerably by the toolchain I made for it.

So am I making a native OS for ARM or x86? The short answer: I will if the situation havent dramatically improved by the time Amibian.js is finished.

Instead of wasting years trying to implement everything from scratch, Pascal Papara took the Linux kernel and ran with it. So Aeros boots by virtue of the Linux Kernel, but jumps straight into Aros once the drivers has loaded

If you are thinking “so what, who the hell do you think you are?” then perhaps you should take a closer look at my work and history.

I am an ex Quartex member, which was one of the most infamous hacking cartels in europe. I have 30 years of software development behind me, having worked as a professional developer since the age of 17. I have a history of taking on “impossible” projects and finding ways to deliver them. Smart Mobile Studio itself was deemed impossible by most Delphi developers; It was close to heresy, triggering an avalanche of criticism for even entertaining the idea that object pascal could be compiled to JavaScript. Let alone thrive on JSVM (JavaScript Virtual Machine).


Amibian.js runs javascript, but also bytecodes. Here showing the assembler prototype

You can imagine the uproar when our generated JavaScript code (compiled from object pascal) actually bested native code. I must admit we didn’t expect that at all, but it changed the way Delphi and object pascal developers looked at the world – for the better I might add.

What I am good at, is taking ordinary off the shelves parts and assembling them in new and exciting ways. Often ways the original authors never intended; in order to produce something unique. My faith is not in myself, but in the ability and innate capacity of human beings to find solutions. The biggest obstacle to progress is ultimately pride and fear of losing face. Something my Buddhist training beat our of me ages ago.

So this is not an ego trip, it’s simply a coder that is completely fed-up with the perpetual mismanagement that has held Amiga OS in captivity for two decades.

Amiga OS is a formula, and formulas are bulletproof

People love different aspects of the same thing – and the Amiga is no different. For some the Amiga is the games. Others love it for its excellent sound capabilities, while some love it for the ease of coding (the 68k is the most friendly cpu ever invented in my book). And perhaps all of us love the Amiga for the memories we have. A harmless yet valuable nostalgia of better times.


Amiga OS 3.1 pimped up, running on Amibian [native] Raspberry PI 3b

But for me the love was always the OS itself. The architecture of Amiga OS is so elegant and dare I say, pure, compared to other systems. And I’m comparing against both legacy and contemporary systems here. Microsoft Windows (WinAPI) comes close, but the sheer brilliance of Amiga OS is yet to be rivaled.

We are talking about a design that delivers a multimedia driven, window based desktop 10 years before the competition. A desktop that would thrive in as little as 512 kb of ram, with fast and reliable pre-emptive multitasking.

I don’t think people realize or understand the true value of Amiga OS. It’s not in the games (although games is definitively a huge part of the experience), the hardware or the programs. The reason people have been fighting bitterly over Amiga OS for a lifetime, is because the operating system architecture or “formula” is unmatched to this very day.

Can you imagine what a system that thrives under 512 KB would do to the desktop market? Or even better, what it could bring to the table for embedded and server technology?

And this is where my frustration soars up. Even though we have OS 4.1, we have been forced to idly stand by and watch, as mistake after mistake is being made. opportunities that are ripe for the taking (some of them literally placed on the doorstep of Hyperion), have been thrown by the wayside time and time again.

And they are not alone. Aros and Morphos has likewise missed a lot of opportunities. Both opportunities to generate income and secure development as well as embracing new technology. Although I must stress that I sympatize with Aros since they lack any official funding. Morphos is doing much better using a normal, commerical license.

Frustration, the mother of invention

When the Raspberry PI was first released I jumped of joy. Finally a SBC (single board computer) with enough power to run a light version of Amiga OS 4.1, with a price tag that everyone can live with. I rushed over to Hyperion to see if they had issued a statement about the PI, but nothing could be found. The AEON site was likewise empty.

The PI version 2 came and went, still no sign that Hyperion would capitalize on the situation. I expected them to issue a “Amiga OS 4.1 light” edition for ARM, which would put them on the map and help them establish a user base. Without a user base and fresh blood there is no chance in hell of selling next generation machines in large enough quantities to justify future development. But once again, opportunity after oppertunity came and went.

Sexy, fast and modern: Amiga OS 4.1

Sexy, fast and modern: Amiga OS 4.1 would do wonders on ARM

Faster and better suited SBC’s started to turn up in droves: The ODroid, Beaglebone black, The Tinkerboard, The Banana PI – and many, many others. When the SnapDragon IV CPU’s shipped on a $120 SBC, which is the same processor used by Samsung Galaxy 6S, I was sure Hyperion would wake up and bring Amiga OS to the masses. But not a word.

Instead we were told to wait for the Amiga x5000 which is based on PPC. I have no problem with PPC, it’s a great platform and packs a serious punch. But since PPC no longer sell to mainstream computer companies like it used to, the price penalty would be nothing short of astronomical. There is also the question of longevity and being able to maintain a PPC based system for the forseeable future. Where exactly is PPC in 15 years?

Note: One of the reasons PPC was selected has to do with coding infrastructure. PPC has an established standard, something ARM lacked at the time (this was first established for ARM in 2014). PPC also has an established set of development platforms that you can build on, with libraries and pre-fab modules (pre fabricated modules, think components that you can use to quickly build what you need) that have been polished for two decades now. A developer who knows PPC from the Amiga days will naturally feel more at home with PPC. But sadly PPC is the past and modern development takes place almost exclusively on ARM and x86. Even x86 is said to have an expiration date now.

The only group that genuinely tried to bring Amiga OS to ARM has been the Aros team. They got their system compiled, implemented some rudimentary drivers (information on this has been thin to say the least) and had it booting natively on the Raspberry PI 3b. Sadly they lacked a USB stack (remember I mentioned pre-fab modules above? Well, this is a typical example. PPC devtools ship with modules like this out of the box) so things like mouse, keyboard and external peripherals wouldn’t work.


Aeros, the fastest Amiga you will ever play with. Running on the Raspberry PI 3b

And like always, which is the curse of Amiga, “something came up”, and the whole Raspberry PI / ARM initiative was left for dead. The details around this is sketchy, but the lead developer had a personal issue that forced him to set a new direction in life. And for some reason the other Aros developers have just continued with x86, even though a polished ARM version could have made them some money, and helped finance future development. It’s the same story, again and again.

But then something amazing happened! Out of the blue came Pascal Papara with a new take on Aros, namely AEROS. This is a distro after my own heart. Instead of wasting years trying to implement everything from scratch, Pascal took the Linux kernel and ran with it. So Aeros boots by virtue of the Linux Kernel, but jumps straight into Aros once the drivers has loaded. And the result? It is the fastest desktop you will ever experience on ARM. Seriously, it runs so fast and smooth on the Raspberry PI that you could easily mistake it for a $450 Intel i3.

Sadly Pascal has been more or less alone about this development. And truth be told he has molded it to suit his own needs rather than the consumer. Since his work includes a game machine and some Linux services, the whole Linux system is exposed to the Aros desktop. This is a huge mistake.

Using the Linux kernel to capitalize on the thousands of man hours invested in that, not to mention the linux driver database which is massive, is a great idea. It’s also the first thing that came into my mind when contemplating the issue.

But when running Aros on top of this, the Linux aspect of the system should be abstracted away. Much like what Apple did with Unix. You should hardly notice that Linux is there unless you open a shell and start to investigate. The Amiga filesystem should be the only filesystem you see when accessing things from the desktop, and a nice preferences option for showing / hiding mounted Linux drives.

My plans for an ARM based Amiga inspired OS

Building an OS is not a task for the faint of heart. Yes there is a lot of embedded / pre-fab based systems to pick from out there, but you also have to be sensible. You are not going to code a better kernel than Linus Torvalds, so instead of wasting years trying to catch up with something you cannot possibly catch up with – just grab the kernel and make it work for us.

The Linux kernel solves things such as process contexts, “userland” vs “kernel space” (giving the kernel the power to kill a task and reclaim resources), multitasking / threading, thread priorities, critical sections, mutexes and global event objects; it gives us IPC (inter process communication), disk IO, established and rock solid sound and graphics frameworks; and last but perhaps most important: free access to the millions of drivers in the Linux repository.


Early Amibian.js login dialog

You would have to be certified insane to ignore the Linux Kernel, thinking you will somehow be the guy (or group) that can teach Linus Torvalds a lesson. This is a man who has been writing kernel’s for 20+ years, and he does nothing else. He is surrounded by a proverbial army of developers that code, test, refactor and strive to deliver optimal performance, safety and quality assurance. So sorry if I push your buttons here, but you would be a moron to take him on. Instead, absorb the kernel and gain access to the benefits it has given Linux (technically the kernel is “Linux”, the rest is GNU – but you get what I mean).

With the Linux kernel as a foundation, as much as 50% of the work involved in writing our OS is finished already. You don’t have to invent a driver API. You dont have to invent a new executable format (or write your own ELF parser if you stick with the Linux executable). You can use established compilers like GCC / Clang and Freepascal. And you can even cherry pick some low-level packages for your own native API (like SDL, OpenGL and things that would take years to finish).

But while we want to build our house on rock, we don’t want it to be yet another Linux distro. So with the kernel in place and a significant part of our work done for us, that is also where the similarities end.

The end product is Amiga OS, which means that we need compatibility with the original Amiga rom libraries (read: api). Had we started from scratch that would have been a tremendous effort, which is also why Aros is so important. Because Aros gives us a blueprint of how they have implemented these API’s.

But our main source of inspiration is not Aros, but Amithlon. What we want to do is naturally to pipe as much as we can from the Amiga API’s back to the Linux kernel. Things like device detection, memory allocation, file IO, pipes, networking — our library files will be more thin wrappers that expose Amiga compatible calls; methods that calls the Linux Kernel to do the job. So our Amiga library files will be proxy objects whenever possible.


Amithlon, decades ahead of it’s time

The hard work is when we get to the window manager, or Intuition. Here we can’t cheat by pushing things back to Linux. We don’t want to install X either (although we can render our system into the X framebuffer if we like), so we have to code a window manager. This is not as simple as it sounds, because our system must operate with multiple cores, be multi threaded by design and tap into the grand scheme of things. Things like messages (which is used by applications to respond to input) must be established, and all the event codes from the original Amiga OS must be replicated.

So this work wont be easy, but with the Linux kernel as a foundation – the hardest task of all is taken care of. The magic of a kernel is that of process management and task switching. This is about as hard-core as you can get. Without that you can almost forget the rest. But since we base our system on the Linux kernel, we can focus 100% on the real task – namely to deliver a modern Amiga experience, one that is platform independent (read: conforms to standard Linux and can thus be recompiled and run anywhere Linux can run), preserves as much of the initial formula as possible – and can be successfully maintained far into the future.

By pushing as much of our work as possible into user-space (the process space where ordinary programs run, the kernel runs outside this space and is thus unaffected when a program crashes) and adhering to the Linux kernel beneath the bonnet, we have created a system that can be re-compiled anywhere Linux is. And it can be done so without any change to our codebase. Linux takes care of things like drivers, OpenGL, Sound — and presents to us a clean API that is identical on every platform. It doesn’t matter if it’s ARM, PPC, 68k, x86 or MIPS. As long as we follow the standards we are home free.

Last words

I hope all of this clears up the confusion that has surrounded the subject this week. Again, the misunderstanding that led to some unfortunate posts has been resolved. So there is no negativity, no drama and we are all on the same page.


Early Amibian.js prototype, running 68k in the browser via uae.js optimized

Just remember that I have set some restrictions for my involvement here. I sincerely hope Hyperion and the Aros development group can focus on ARM, because the community needs this. While the Raspberry PI might seem too small a form-factor to run Aros, projects like Aeros have proven just how effective the Amiga formula is. I’m sure Hyperion could find a powerful ARM SOC in the price range of $120 and sell a complete package with profit for around $200.

What the Amiga community needs now, is not expensive hardware. The userbase has to be expanded horizontally across platforms. Amiga OS / Aros has much to offer the embedded market which today is dominated by overly complex Linux libraries. The Amiga can grow laterally as a more user-friendly alternative, much like Android did for the mobile market. Once the platform is growing and established – then custom hardware could be introduced. But right now that is not what we need.

I also hope that the Aros team drops whatever they are working on, fork Pascal Paparas codebase, and spend a few weeks polishing the system. Abstract away the Linux foundation like Apple have done, get those sexy 32 bit OS4 icons (Note: The icons used by Amiga OS 4 is available for free download from the designer’s website) and a nice theme that looks similar to OS 4 (but not too similar). Get Lazarus (the freepascal IDE) going and ship the system with a ready to use Pascal, C/C++ and Basic development environments. Bring back the fun in computing! The code is already there, use it!


Aeros interfaces directly with linux, I would propose a less direct approach

Just take something simple, like a compatible browser. It’s actually not that simple, both for reasons of complexity and how memory is handled by PPC. With a Linux foundation things like Chromium Embedded could be inked into the Amiga side of things and we would have a native, fast, established and up-to-date browser.

At the same time, since we have API level compatability, people can recompile their Aros and Morphos applications and they would run more or less unchanged.

I really hope that my little protest here, if nothing else, helps people realize that there are viable options readily at hand. Commodore is not coming back, and the only future this platform has – is the one we make. So people have to ask themselves how much they want a future.

If the OS gains momentum then there will be grounds for investors to look at custom hardware. They can then choose off the shelves parts that are inexpensive to cover the normal functionality you expect in a modern computer – which more resources can go into custom hardware that sets the system apart. But we cant start there. It has to be built up brick by brich, standing on the shoulders of giants.

OK, rant over 🙂

  1. July 26, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    Not sure you noticed but your post is actually discussed in the OS4Welt forums. Maybe you’d like to join the discussion? https://os4welt.de/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2144

  2. August 6, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    Where is the Patreon? I’d soooo fund this. For a long while I’ve thought ARM to be the Amiga’s next home. Amiga OS would make a killer mobile OS, free from the spying and snooping of Android etc. Plus, ARM is commodity hardware – its everywhere… its cheap… (and I’ve got a pal who works for Raspberry pi – who also loves Amiga’s)

    • August 8, 2018 at 1:05 am

      Yeah I have been asked quite a few times now, sort of pondering if I should go for it

  3. August 19, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    Cool 🙂 So, what would convince you to go for it? A Kickstarter followed by a patreon? (stuff needs money to get done)

  4. October 2, 2018 at 3:10 am

    Love the article – this is exactly how I feel about the Amiga OS. I would be extremely keen to help out (have been coding both professional and hobby since late 80s – C64 was my first). I would also like to help out money wise if that were an option.
    Imho business wise: Im looking at the Amiga OS as a _new_ secure OS that is small, fast, and built specifically around an ARM and GPU styled architecture.

    Consider: A tiny ARM AmigaOS running on a modern phone. Release that phone with its own Application suite, and a key tennet – Completely Secure Data and Profile. I think youd have a market right there alone.

    Bring it to desktop, and I can think of a number of specialist industries that would want a new and secure OS. Why I keep saying secure. I think the AmigaOS being as small and effective as it was, is most likely to provide a new form of security. Id also like to see this OS potentially be brought to CUDA or OpenCL and a GPU OS built with it – I think it would be possible.

    Anyway. Love the work. Will be keeping an eye on whats happening.

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