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1992 AMIGA UK DEVCON
by Eddy Carroll, October 1992

Every year for the past three years, Commodore UK have organised a developers conference to give Amiga developers in the UK a chance to see new technology, get briefed on a variety of programming issues, show off their latest tricks and generally mingle with like-minded people.
   This year was no exception, and myself, Geoff Reeves and Rocco Matassa decided that we would treat ourselves to a weekend in the UK and increase our Amiga knowledge at the same time. As is normal at such events, the three of us signed non-disclosure agreements to prevent us discussing any secrets Commodore tell us about. As it turned out, most of what was covered was already public knowledge.
   The venue this year was Buxton (where?) which is situated about 60 miles from Chester. After a quick call to the travel agent and discovering that a return flight to Manchester Airport would set us back around 150 each, not to mention a long train journey afterwards, we decided to drive over on the car ferry
   This worked out around 35 each and gave us the opportunity to see a bit of English countryside at a leisurely pace (though Geoff and Rocco might disagree with that last adjective).

So Who Has the Map?
The DevCon was kicking off on the evening of Friday, 16 October, and so we reckoned catching the morning ferry from Dublin Port would leave us plenty of time to drive the 130 miles.
   After an uneventful crossing, a brief stop at Chester for a meal, and an unexpected 20 mile diversion, we arrived safely in Buxton at about 7 pm and checked in. Although the DevCon itself was taking place in the luxurious Palace Hotel, we were checked into a different hotel a few minutes walk away (this worked out a bit cheaper).
   Once we had dumped our bags, we headed to the Palace hotel and hunted down Commodore's Sharon McGuffie. Geoff and Rocco had met Sharon at shows in the past, but I had only spoken to her on the phone, so it was nice to finally be able to put a face to the name. We received name badges, and a pack containing a Commodore address book for taking notes, along with a set of Workbench 2.1 and 3.0 disks. After that, it was time for the opening dinner, which featured some excellent food.
   The nearby computer room had a variety of Amiga 1500's, 4000's and CDTV's set up for developers to play with, so after the meal we made a beeline for it. It was here that we met up with some of our contacts from ICPUG, most notably the charming John and Janet Bickerstaff, and Pete Miles, the Amiga Librarian. Other developers of note we spoke to or noticed included Jolyon Ralph (a name familiar to JAM readers), a guy from DMA Design who was wearing a snazzy Lemmings World Tour 1992 Road Crew tee-shirt, and the developer of WordWorth.
   There were miscellaneous Commodore people there as well, including David Pocock from CATS UK, Carolyn Scheppner from CATS US, John Cambell (Vice President of CATS, I think) and Carl Sassenrath (the author of exec.library, and now working as an independent contractor for Commodore). I also spotted Steve Beats and Andy Finkel, two other names long associated with Commodore. After chatting with developers for a few hours, Geoff, Rocco and myself decided a good night's rest was in order and so we headed back to the hotel.

Early to Bed
Saturday had a fairly packed agenda, kicking off at 9:45 am with the introductory session. After the usual "Thank you for coming, we hope you have a great weekend" remarks, it was over to John Campbell for details about Commodore's new machines, plans and future.
   Before the talk, he didn't look very approachable (he was even dressed in a suit) but his talk was interesting and well-delivered. Much of what he said has already been covered elsewhere. He re-affirmed Commodore's commitment to CDTV, and announced that CATS US will start monitoring the developer conferences on CIX to allow much more direct communication between Commodore US and UK developers. He also mentioned his confidence in the new leadership of Louis Eggebrecht, and said that Commodore now have a new philosophy of openness.
   After a short coffee break, we returned to the main hall for the first third-party talk on 24 bit Graphics; despite some interesting hardware to demonstrate, it wasn't terribly exciting. Also taking place next door was a talk on Optonicia's new InterPlay system for the CDTV, and in fact, for most of the remainder of the weekend, two talks took place simultaneously. Though the three of us had originally decided to try and cover every talk if possible, in the end, we only split up for one of them.
   Before lunch, Carl Sassenrath brought us up to date on new CDTV developments. He was pretty enthusiastic about the possibilities with CDTV, and mentioned how he had originally approached Commodore with such an idea in 1986, shortly after Commodore bought Amiga. CBM didn't think much of the idea back then, and Carl went to work for Apple for a few years, before he started working on CDTV development.
   He had some fairly interesting hardware and software to demonstrate, such as a PAL version of the CDTV Video card (aka DCTV in its Amiga guise) which is expected to be on the market here very shortly. This allows up to 2 million colours to be displayed while using only the bandwidth of a 3 or 4 bitplane highres display. He also demonstrated a nice frame-grabber which could grab video from a live source and record it onto disk at frame rates suitable for playing back on CDTV using quarter-screen CD-XL video.
   The most interesting item was the software Carl has developed which allows an entire audio/video sequence to be developed and then played back. Demonstrations of this in action included a CDTV version of a Federal Express ad and an industrial training disc. The ad was impressive, because it managed to hide the fact that the video was only quarter-screen very well, by shifting it around the screen, switching from one still to another, etc, all with full audio. Carl stressed the importance of small program size on CDTV, due to the limited memory available.

The Bad, the Good and the Ugly
After a tasty lunch, we regrettably chose to attend the C / Pascal / Assembler talk (which could have been subtitled "Look at all the language products you can buy from HiSoft").
   Carolyn Scheppner's session on development tools which followed proved a lot more interesting; as well as new development tools, such as the 68040 version of Enforcer, and ToolMaker the applications builder, she also discussed the new features in Kickstart 3.0, and had plenty of example images and animations to show them off.
   Particularly nice are the double-buffering support (making it easy to run animations on a slidable screen with Intuition menus), palette sharing (allowing several 256 colour pictures to be displayed on your Workbench screen with intelligent allocation of colours to each picture), and attached screens (where a small screen can be attached to a larger one, with the two treated as a single unit; look at the tool screen in DigiPaint 3 or the palette screen in DPaint IV for examples of where this might be useful).
   Carolyn also gave a quick overview of Commodore Engineering; I was quite surprised to learn that there are 175 people in the group in total, divided between Chipset Design, Hardware Architecture, Systems Group, Software OS, CATS, Documentation and QA (plus one or two others I've forgotten.)
   After another break (at this stage, it was after 6:00 pm), there was an open session for developer's questions. There were quite a few developers present who were not afraid to speak their minds.
   CDTV came under heavy criticism for Commodore's lack of marketing, and concern was expressed about the new AGA machines, and Commodore's new policy of not releasing hardware information to allow them to be programmed by bypassing the operating system. Our esteemed CUGI chairman had a few words to say about Commodore's lack of credit card facilities for orders (requiring payment up front instead) but didn't get much joy.
   After yet another tasty meal, there was supposed to be a Late Night Diversion with Perry Huber, but unfortunately, he couldn't make it. A last minute attempt to borrow a VCR to show a demo of ASDG's MorphPlus morphing package also failed (isn't it nice to know that CUGI isn't the only organisation that has these sorts of problems?)
   With nothing else to do, we spent the evening playing with computers and chatting to other developers (or rather, I did; Geoff and Rocco borrowed my umbrella and went out to see the sights of Buxton in the rain.)

Saturday Night's Alright
In the computer room, there were some interesting sights to see. Jolyon Ralph made us a little envious with a tiny 800 Mb portable SCSI drive he had brought with him containing his entire CDTV development system. The Amiga Centre Scotland had brought along a Harlequin board and VideoBlender which were doing all kinds of neat video effects in one corner.
   There were also two prototype A1200s which were basically Amiga 4000s with a black front and an '020 card installed instead of an '040. Commercial developers like Psygnosis had had similar machines for the preceding months, to help ensure games compatibility. All in all, it was well after midnight when I finally made it back to the hotel.

No Rest...
On Sunday, the final day, we started off with a session on AppShell, a tool Commodore are developing to make it easier to write Amiga applications with a standard look and feel. Unlike ToolMaker which is currently available, AppShell is still some way off. However, it offers significant advantages, including font-independence, built-in ARexx support, standardised tool types and a host of other goodies. It comes in the form of a runtime library so application code size is kept to a minimum, and it has a companion program AppBuilder which allows the donkey work of creating an interface to be done using the mouse.
   After that, Rocco and Geoff decided to go and find out all about DTP and Fonts in Mike Todd's Workshop session, while I headed for Dave Parkinson's talk on high-speed CDTV animation and sound. As well as showing us his spooly.device which allows animation and sound to be spooled directly from a hard disk or CD, Dave spent a bit of time discussing the kind of setup he uses for CDTV development, and demoed a handy little utility he's written called MouseTrap, which lets you use a single keyboard and mouse to control two computers at once.
   After lunch (up to the usual standard) it was into the large hall for a session with Jim Mackonochie, one of the early UK CDTV developers and currently the head of CDTV marketing at Commodore. He gave a rousing talk about the future of CDTV and Commodore's plans for promotion, and generally suceeded in lifting people's spirits a bit.
   One of the things Commodore has set up is a UK hotline that people can call for information on CDTV suppliers and titles. They have also just completed some important deals with major UK distributors for CDTV promotion, with shops committing to stocking at least 30 titles each. They now have a team of 36 girls doing the rounds of CDTV dealers and demoing the units to customers.

Write On!
Finally, it was on to the most spectacular session of the weekend. Entitled "0 to CD in 60 minutes", we were almost ready to give it a miss. It sounded like a fairly boring talk about the hassles involved in dealing with CD manufacturers, and the other session dealing with Workbench 2.0 and beyond sounded much more interesting. However, since the previous session had overrun a bit, we found ourselves still in the main hall when it began, so we decided to stay.
   What it actually turned out to be was a demonstration of one of the new writeable CD units. Jim Hawkins, the presenter (and author of the Asterix CDTV titles) sat down in front of an Amiga 3000, wrote a small program in Modula 2, converted it into C, compiled it, and ran it to check that it worked okay.
   He then booted up a special bit of software for mastering ISO 9660 CDs and used a DirMaster style interface to choose which directories were to be included on the CD. The software went away to think for a few moments, and then generated a single huge image file containing all the directories and files in a format suitable for output to CD.
   The next step was to load the special CD writing software. Writeable CD, unlike a hard disk or WORM drive, is a one-shot affair: the disc is spun up to speed, the laser turns on, a constant stream of data is sent to the drive for a while, the laser turns off, and you're done. The data stream must be continuous with no interruptions or you'll end up with an expensive coffee mat.
   On the PC version of this system, a special dedicated SCSI card is needed to ensure the system can keep up with the writeable drive. On the Amiga 3000 however, the standard onboard SCSI is fast enough to allow writing directly from the internal 105 Mb drive with no interruptions (though in practice you'd have a much bigger drive if you were doing CD development).
   Anyway, Jim set this software running, and very shortly afterwards, he had in his possession a gold CD containing his program (along with various boot files etc. he had copied over as well). He inserted it into a nearby CDTV, and... it worked first time! (He admitted that he had intended to have one he made earlier on standby just in case, but he ran out of time!)
   Overall, the whole thing took about 45 minutes, interspersed with lots of chat from Jim. Cost per disc is about 22, and you can write to each disk several times (until it has been filled), though only the most recent write is visible to the CDTV.
   To put this into perspective, prior to this, making a test CD involved a trip down to your local CD presser with a hard drive or computer tape under your arm and 400, followed by a several day wait until you got back your test disc and could try it out. If you made any mistakes, you had to go through the whole process again, until you were happy with it. At this point, you then went back and had a master pressed (1,000 or so) from which the production discs could be pressed.
   While this new system still requires you to have a final master pressed, it makes it much easier and cheaper to get to that stage. At a cost of 4,750 for the unit and software, it would pay for itself after only a few discs.
   In the other 15 minutes (which he rather optimistically took at the start rather than the end of the session!) Jim demonstrated the new Sunrize Industries 16 bit four channel sampler. This comes with some very nice software and allows direct recording to disk, along with several other nice features. In theory at least, it would be possible to use this to digitally record a record, edit it on the Amiga, and then create the CD master using the writeable CD system -- I spotted an audio option on the mastering software.

Winding Down
By now, it was after 4 pm and it was time for the conference to finish. After a "Thank you all for coming, see you again next year" speech, we headed outside for coffee and biscuits. Since we had a few hours to kill before heading back to the ferry, we passed the time chatting with Commodore people.
   We also chatted with an interesting guy from Micro Anvika in London who is currently designing a Zorro III transputer board for raytracing. He reckons it will offer up to 40 times the performance of a 68040 when fully loaded with transputers! His own personal A3000 system is loaded with 64 megs of RAM to allow him to play long VistaPro animations directly from memory. And we thought we were power users! Eventually, we headed back to Holyhead port and after a calm (if sleepless) night, we arrived back in Dublin at 7:30 am.
   So, looking back, what did we learn? The most obvious thing was that Commodore are very serious about CDTV and are ploughing a lot of resources into it. They have accepted that they need to sell it to existing Amiga owners and so are now actively promoting it as the Multimedia Computer. Another interesting observation was that almost all the developers we saw there seemed to be from small companies -- there was a distinct absence of big names, such as Electronic Arts, Ocean, Psygnosis, etc. This was disappointing.
   For myself, it was a very enjoyable weekend. Overall, it was excellent value for money (total cost was around 110 each, including travel, hotel, and conference fees). I think Rocco and Geoff enjoyed themselves too. The next developers conference is in Orlando, Florida, next January and with any luck, I'll be able to get to that as well.

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Last updated 26 November 2000. Comments to ecarroll@iol.ie.