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Gateway's Amiga prepares for return

Direct PC maker Gateway appears to be revving up a strategy for decidedly un-PC like "information appliances" through its independent subsidiary, Amiga.

Direct PC maker Gateway appears to be revving up a strategy for decidedly un-PC like "information appliances" through its independent subsidiary, Amiga.

Gateway's purchase of Amiga in 1997 mystified many in the computer industry. Amiga's time in the spotlight had long since passed, although it still had many devotees using it for its advanced multimedia capabilities.

Two years later, however, the plan is beginning to take shape. Software for inexpensive TV set-top boxes and Internet appliances, including projects based around the Linux OS, will soon start to emerge from Amiga, which will license its intellectual property to hardware makers. Prototypes and reference designs are coming too.

Amiga has also been quietly building its executive ranks, recruiting both high-level Gateway employees and former Apple technology experts. The company is looking to add still more hardware and software engineers to architect what it calls a next-generation computing platform that it hopes will revive its fortunes.

But more importantly, a revived Amiga will dovetail with Gateway's overall strategy to embed itself into every aspect of the Web. With Amiga's designs, Gateway gets an entr?e into the nascent market for information appliances, ranging from wireless tablets to kitchen countertop gadgets with Net connections to digital set-top boxes and televisions.

"Our main focus is to come up with a new operating environment focused on the emerging information appliance market," said Jim Collas, president of Amiga and the former senior vice president of Product Development and Management for Gateway.

The revival process began earlier this year. Collas came over from Gateway proper in January. Since then, the company hired a new COO from Allied Signal, and a new chief technology officer, Rick LeFaivre, who once was a vice president for Apple Computer's R&D group. Another hire just this month includes Jim Miller, another former Apple employee, who will oversee development of a new user interface for devices using Amiga technology.

All of these new employees are eventually going to move into a new headquarters just down the road from the Gateway headquarters in San Diego, where they are currently housed.

All of the hubbub around Amiga comes at a time when revenues from PCs is decreasing on a near continuous basis. Forrester Research is predicting that consumer PC spending will peak at around $19.9 billion this year and then wane as alternatives such as intelligent TV set-top boxes and other electronic goods such as MP3 players become more prevalent.

Gateway has already been working to transform itself from a PC provider to a service provider. Gateway now offers Internet service to its customers and sells third party peripherals and software through its own shopping service to further bolster margins.

With Amiga, the company can get into the potentially huge device market, which may come to eclipse PCs in terms of sales and ubiquity.

"Gateway is in a great position to have continued success in the PC market because of its direct relationship with customers. But, information appliances will challenge PC market growth," said Collas.

Gateway sees Amiga as a strategic, but separate, venture. "Disruptive technologies are best handled by independent subsidiaries that have the autonomy to make aggressive decisions. The speed that we are moving can't be duplicated by large companies, even though Gateway is the least bureaucratic company I know of."

Where Amiga is headed
Collas is only willing to give a vague outline of Amiga's direction. And mostly, the trickle of information is being opened to appease Amiga's loyal adherents, who likely will form the first group of people willing to buy and write programs for its next generation products, Collas said.

One project is a technology called AmigaObjects, which is similar in concept to "device language" technologies being developed by a host of companies such as Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and Sony.

With it, any device on a network can offer up its abilities to another device and share the task of processing commands. AmigaObjects will first run on Linux, which is gaining traction as an alternative operating system for embedded devices, said Collas.

"There are lots of companies that have technology targeted at this vision, but few are pulling all of it into a single comprehensive environment," he offered.

Amiga is not trying to reinvent the wheel, he said. The company will use Java and work with Sun's Jini, Sony and Philip's Havi, and Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play. However, its homegrown technology will get everything to work together in an easy-to-use fashion. See related story.

"The future is integrating technology, not making building blocks," Collas said.

Concept drawings of potential information appliances that could be powered by Amiga technology are already posted on the company's site. Actual functioning models will be publicly shown later this month, although they will largely be concept designs to help hardware licensees and software developers.

A major effort to show off this technology will come around November, about the same time the company has said it will offer up a "multimedia convergence computer" for die-hard Amiga fans.

Eventually, the technology will show up in digital televisions, set-top boxes, and other devices, Collas hopes. And that's where Amiga might be able to showoff its true colors, analysts say.

Despite its age, the Amiga platform offers some inherent advantages for a television environment, analysts say. Because it can handle several tasks at once, unlike Microsoft's Windows 98 or Windows CE operating systems, Amiga is well suited to multimedia environments with simultaneous audio and video. In addition, Amiga works well with high-resolution monitors and television screens, according to Richard Doherty, president of Envisioneering Group.

"Ten years ago, Amiga was way ahead of its time," Doherty said. Maybe now the industry is catching up with Amiga, but only time will tell how the new strategy will play out.

Gateway's vision
Amiga's plans for the info appliance market, it should be noted, are being executed independently of Gateway.

So what is Gateway's take on non-PC devices?

"Our view of world is that we think the PC is very much alive and will be for some time. We do see an opportunity for Internet appliances; we are absolutely interested in being in that market." Jeff Weitzen, president of Gateway, said in an interview with CNET News.com in May.

In Gateway's vision of the networked home, a home server connects to the Internet and sends information out to other devices. These servers could be based on PC technology--Intel processors and Microsoft's Windows operating system--but could send around voice, video and other data to a variety of devices that use other kinds of chips and operating systems, including Linux.

Weitzen hinted that Gateway might offer its first information appliances in 2000, although the company may also be merely acting as a distributor for products developed by others--a category which, technically, could be filled by Amiga. Initially, though, Gateway is expected to emphasize sales of home networking technology, and not every whiz-bang device that could possibly be made.

"We would hope to have Gateway build information appliances based on Amiga technology, but they are not obligated to do so," said Collas. In fact, Amiga's very success depends on signing up as many companies as possible, so Gateway would only be one of many, if Collas has his way.

News.com's Stephanie Miles contributed to this report.