ESCOM is to sell its Amiga computer division to a Chicago based interactive TV developer. Visual Information Services Corp (VIS corp) plans to use the Amiga's chips for its set top boxes, which will turn ordinary television sets into Internet friendly devices.
The agreement is subject to the approval of both boards of directors. Industry observers reckon the deal is worth around $40 million, and it follows recent losses at the German manufacturer of DM125 million (IR£53 million).
Founded in 1990, VIScorp develops products that connect ordinary TV sets and telephones "so that networked interactivity and especially the Internet can become a truly mass market phenomenon.
Its chief executive, William Buck, said last week. "Our intention is to rapidly develop and begin manufacturing TV set top interactive boxes products that give home users capabilities such as telephone reception and dial up capabilities, facsimile, video games, pay per view options, electronic mail, and access to online services, including the Internet."
The first set top boxes should be on the market next autumn, with seven more products by the end of 1997.
Escom bought the Amiga's patents from Commodore last year, after the latter went into liquidation in 1994. While Escom had talks with Motorola (about building a variant of the PowerPC 604 processor) and Apple (about using its 68k emulation technology), Amiga users were understandably frustrated at the slow developments in the two years since Commodore went bust.
Although stereotyped as "just" a games machine, the Amiga 4000 is actually a high quality 24 bit graphics workstation. Its sophisticated chip set and intuitive, multi tasking operating system make it an obvious contender for set top devices. VISCorp believes the Amiga chips "can import and adapt software to the set top box with minimal changes". The Amiga's operating system will also allow users to access online services at much faster speeds than conventional telephone modems.
"We believe the Amiga television interface technology is clearly superior to anything that now exists for ITV [interactive television] boxes," Buck said. "Earlier this year, we licensed this technology for our second generation prototype box. The proposed acquisition of Amiga would enable us to fully apply the proprietary technologies, patents and copyrights that are vital to the appearance, user appeal and functionality of our product."
While the industry is split between an interactive TV strategy, (promoted by telecom and cable VIS companies) and an online strategy (pushed by computer and software firms), VIScorp sees itself as a third force. Its set top appliance would integrate the TV set, phone line and network service providers.
"This ability has not yet been offered or available through existing systems," said VIS corps chairman, Jerome Greenberg. It would allow users to access the Internet "through a standard TV set with pricing that makes sense for the average TV viewer".
While VIS corp's primary objective is to use the Amiga chips in its set top boxes, what about the Amiga's future as a desktop computer?
"VIScorp anticipates the support of ongoing European sales of popular models such as the Amiga 4000T and the Amiga 1200," Escom's chief executive, Helmut Jost, said last week.
Escom unveiled the next generation of Amigas at last month's CeBIT exhibition. Codenamed "Project Walker", its wacky design is a cross between an art deco wireless and Darth Vader's helmet. Its specifications include a 68EC030 40MHz CPU, 6MB RAM and quad speed CD Rom drive. The AGA graphics chip set is unchanged from the Amiga 1200 and 4000.
Amiga Technologies sees the Walker as the final stepping stone to a Power Amiga, with the Amiga's operating system running on a Power PC platform. Escom originally planned to put it in the shops by next autumn, pricing it in the £600 £800 range.
Petro Tyschtschenko, president of Amiga Technologies, said's last week that he was looking forward to taking advantage of the R&D support potential that "an Amiga related company like VIScorp can provide".
"What I have been telling people is not to worry," said Carl Sassenrath of VIScorp. "We are all Amiga lovers here. Unlike Escom or even Commodore, VIScorp does not have a single IBM PC person in the development group. We are all solid Amigans from the very beginning."
Sassenrath's own track record bears this out he was an engineer at the original Amiga Corporation which invented the Amigain the early 1980s, then worked at Commodore and created the Exec, the basis for the Amigas' multi tasking system.
. ESCOM STORE Escom is also the second largest computer retailer in Europe, with 800 stores. Last week estate agent Lisneys said Escom would open its first outlet here, in the former Brownes Medical premises in Dublin's Dawson Street, "in the very near future".