RD Interview: David Pleasance

The Commodore Amiga was heralded by many as a machine before its time. A multimedia, multi-tasking powerhouse that had few rivals in the 16 bit era, the platform was responsible for an entire generation of gamers, programmers and productivity users. Some of the hallmark software developers and publishers in today’s market cut their teeth on the mighty Amiga.  There were many players who had a hand in the successes and failures of the Amiga brand, and James Matson was fortunate enough to catch up with one of those people, ex General Manager of Commodore International, David Pleasance. Read on as David discusses – with obvious passion – his part in the history of the Amiga, and his generous insight into just what “might” have been….

RD: First up David, thanks for taking the time out to speak with us, it’s an exciting prospect to chat with someone who was a truly connected part of the history of Commodore and the Amiga computer line. For those that aren’t aware, you fulfilled a number of professional roles within Commodore Business Machines through the 80s and 90s.  Most notably you were the joint Managing Director of Commodore UK, where you’d be heavily involved with the direction of the Amiga during the early nineties. Apart from chatting with us today, do you still find yourself – some 20 years later – approached to talk about Amiga history?

David: Actually I am amazed at how many times I get approached, either online or in person, about my involvement with Commodore and in particular the Amiga. Even today on occasions I get asked for my autograph. Quite bizarre really. I recently found a cache of my Everybody’s Girlfriend CD, (produced using an Amiga 4000, in Celebration of 10 years of the Amiga) I did not know I had, so I offered them online at £5.00 each plus postage, and I was asked in all cases but 1 for me to sign the CD Insert. I still have a few copies left by the way – cheeky plug ha ha!!  

RD: Speaking from personal experience I remember seeing your photo in Amiga magazines I read as a teenager, where you chatted with the likes of CU Amiga, Amiga Format and other magazines on the direction of Commodore and where the Amiga line was headed next. What were your personal impressions of the machine when you first became involved with it in comparison with the competition of the time?

David: I have to be honest, I was never really much of a computer user (ashamed to say) which in a way helped me keep a clear head when it came to marketing the Amiga, because I focused on the practical fun that could be had by the user, rather than all the technical features (which of course in 1985 the Amiga was a world leader in, when it was launched) It was my approach to how we positioned the product, that frankly changed the industry forever. I came up with the concept “We don’t sell computers we sell dreams” which is where the idea for all the  “bundles” I developed came from.

It is a fact that we at CBM UK kept the C64 alive 2 full years beyond it’s true sell by date, with the bundles we put together. It is not commonly known for example, that I had the first ever “mouse” driven product included in a computer with the inclusion of a Japanese product “Mouse & Cheese” which was an art program.  Since those days Sega, Nintendo and Sony all followed us with bundles of their own. Having said that, I (like everybody else) was blown away by the advanced technology that the Amiga incorporated. I clearly remember at a Computer Show in London, we had an A500 on show, which was running 32 different applications simultaneously, each in it’s own (very small) window.

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RD: Our dutiful research on the web tells us you were the main man responsible for the Amiga 500 ‘Batman’ pack, arguably the most popular gaming bundles ever released for the Amiga and responsible for bringing 2 million new users into the Amiga family. How did the idea come about, and do you still look on that as a career achievement?

David: Part of the answer is covered above. However the difference here was that my idea was to feature what I believed would be a mega hit game, and by working closely with the software publisher, (in this case Ocean Software) both Companies would promote (for the 1st time ever) Hardware and Software jointly, maximizing the power (and Marketing budgets) of both.The Directors of Ocean Software had just been to Hollywood and had negotiated the worldwide rights to develop a game based on the forthcoming “Batman the movie” for which it is now (I believe) common knowledge, they paid a staggering $1 million for. They themselves estimated it would cost them an additional $1 million to produce the game. All I will say is that those guys had incredible foresight (and huge balls) to go along with my idea, which in truth I thought they would send for the men in white coats to take me away.

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Producing the Batman  Pack totally changed the face of home computing, and massively increased the volume of  Amiga computers in homes in the UK (We did sell a large number into other Countries too) Most definitely a highlight in my Sales & Marketing career. In relation to “bundles” I was the first person to introduce that concept into the PC market.  

At one point, CBM UK had 3 models of PC, PC10, PC20 & PC30. We produced a pack which was colour coded (according to the model) and all Peripherals were similarly colour coded so the consumer always knew which peripheral was compatible with the computer they owned. Remembering that PC’s were a complete unknown to the general public, and were seemingly very complicated, we commissioned a video, featuring ex Goodie Tim Brooke Taylor, which showed everybody how to put it all together and get started. This video was included in each pack. Interestingly, we were advised by one of our dealers (who also sold IBM) that IBM actually bought one of each of our PC Starter Packs, for them to evaluate what we were doing. Clearly we were ahead of our time, as the PC market as we all know now, took off big time a few years later.

RD: The Amiga 600 – while originally designed to be a low cost alternative to the Amiga 500 – ended up being released at a higher cost, with little improvement on the technical specifications and a number of features removed. You were rather famously quoted as describing the 600 as a “complete and utter screw-up”. That was a fair call at the time, but it’s interesting to note that the A600 seems to have enjoyed a popularity surge in the retro enthusiast market. Its’ one of the more desirable models thanks to it’s portability and PCMCIA slot. How much did the release of the 600 contributed to Commodore’s woes? And is it good to see the 600 gaining some respect in the retro/vintage computing community these days?

David: The whole concept of the A600 came about as a replacement for the entry level home computer the C64. We had (as previously mentioned) kept the C64 alive way after it should have been  discontinued, and the consumer market at that time had not embraced the concept of having to spend £399 to enter into the home computer arena. At a General Managers meeting held in the Frankfurt office, we suggested the development of a “cut down – low cost” Amiga, which was to provide the basic entry level features, yet be expandable with the purchase of “add ons” ultimately to match the specifications of the A500. Our thoughts were an “A400” clearly illustrating that it was a lesser spec machine than A500, and we had agreed to a footprint reduction and the removal of the Numeric Keypad. Also the new model would only have minimal ram onboard (but expandable) all these measures being decided, purely to cost reduce the machine, with a view to launching it at perhaps £249. 

What actually happened is, the German subsidiary, (who had never had any conception of mass market sales of Amiga) somehow subsequently (behind our backs) convinced the President to include a hard drive and a PCMCIA slot as standard, which in turn meant more ram was needed in the initial specification, thus increasing manufacturing cost, (to a level higher than the A500 cost, thus defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. As I said previously, a complete screw up, and a decision that hurt Commodore financially very badly.  Launching a product with a model number which insinuated it was an “upgrade” to the A500 affected sales of the A500 (which the company was making a profit on) and turned people on to the A600 (which we did not make much – if any, profit on), and the purchasers of A600 were largely disappointed with their purchase. I have no conception as to what it is that enthusiasts of retro gaming see in the Amiga 600. For me, it was one example (of many) irresponsible decisions which led to the companies demise. 

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RD: Apparently the first ever Amiga 600 built (with a serial number of ‘1’) was displayed in your office. Is that true? If so, whatever happened to it? Or do you still have it somewhere?

David: I am sorry to disappoint but I have never seen the 1st A600 or have any knowledge of it’s existence or whereabouts. I did at one time have the 1 millionth A500 (which was coloured gold) but I used it a prize in a consumer competition in one of the Amiga dedicated magazines. To be honest I can not remember which magazine it was run in. You may not know that in it’s heyday Amiga had 13 independently published magazines in the UK, with an audited monthly circulation of 630,000. It is calculated that each magazine is read by 2.2 readers, which would mean a monthly readership equating to almost 1.4 million! Even today Sony and Sega would kill for that kind of loyal following.

RD: 1994 was largely cited as the year Commodore (and the Amiga) died.  History records that you got close to a buyout agreement/deal that would have seen you have a continued direct influence over the future of the Amiga as it still had a strong UK user base. That didn’t come to pass, but if it had, what would have been the next step? What would have been the next evolution of the Amiga machine to stay current in an increasingly competitive home computer market?

David: Colin Proudfoot is a financial genius, and he and I were not only joint Managing Directors of CBM UK Ltd but were also good friends. I have the absolute utmost respect for him, in every commercial and personal sense. When CIL declared bankruptcy very quickly each of the subsidiary companies followed suit. CBM UK was a very solid and financially viable business, proven by the fact that it took 18 months from our parent company folding before we eventually had to declare bankruptcy ourselves. Colin and I decided to investigate what it would take, to not only buy the assets but to be able to run the business on a “cash payment basis” for as long as it would take to be self sufficient and eventually gain “credit terms” (remember when CIL declared bankruptcy they owed lots of money to the suppliers, and it was obvious to us that nobody would give us credit terms initially) Colin and I prepared a very comprehensive and detailed business plan, which even if I say so myself, was absolutely accurate, realistic and more importantly achievable.

We calculated that we needed US $ 50 Million in funds, based on an estimate that we could buy the assets from the Liquidator for the region of US $8 Million, and the balance of the funds would allow us to manufacture our selected (at first limited) range of products, paying suppliers up front for the components. Being ordinary mortals and not having $50 million in our pockets, we approached the well known Venture Capital division of Coopers & Lybrand, and after several meetings, pouring over our business plan (which they could not fault by the way) they agreed to act on our behalf, and set about sourcing Venture Capitalist investors with whom we formed a consortium. There were a few private high wealth individuals and coming in with $25 million of the needed $50 million was a Chinese electronics manufacturing company called New Star Electronics (who up until then had been ripping off SEGA and Nintendo games consoles) The advantage to us, apart from the obvious financial investment, was having our own manufacturing facility, made excellent commercial sense.

To cut a long story short, 2 days before the Auction of CIL assets, (which was held in New York) New Star Electronics pulled out of our consortium, having been “got at” by Escom (who eventually bought the CIL assets) We knew, that not having sufficient funds to run the business without credit terms, would fail, and the investors would all lose all their money. We very painfully made the decision to not bid. We were there in New York of course, because we were Managing Directors of CBM UK which was not part of the CIL assets, and we tried to find a buyer, in order to protect the UK company. The people at Escom, were in my opinion complete morons, and from the very start they showed utter ignorance in decision making. One example is they chose not to buy CBM UK Ltd, even though it was a profitable business, and more importantly we had several million £ of Tax Credits (which meant that Escom could trade the CIL assets through CBM UK Ltd and not have to pay any Tax for a serious amount of time)

They let all the Amiga engineers go, and did nothing to preserve the amazing new technology under development within that department. Clearly Escom had not done their research properly and of course, as predicted they ran out of funds and themselves went bankrupt. Now in relation to what we have done (and of course nobody can predict what would have happened) but we did have a solid business plan to move forward. Firstly we would separate the two “faces” of the Company, to give them each a clear identity.  We would have CBM (probably Inc.) which would be all PC related products, but none of those products would be manufactured by us, but OEM sourced to our specific (mostly cosmetic) specifications. (Why reinvent the wheel?) Those products could be marketed and distributed by any suitable existing channel, who would pay us a Royalty. The Amiga range we had decided it was time to change the bad legacy we had left behind us, where every time we introduced a new product, we usually alienated the existing users, by not having an “upgrade-able” path for their machines.

We would initially have to manufacture A1200 and A4000 products, simply to fill the void that was out there already. However there was (albeit not fully developed) new technology which was based around a RISC Core, with built in 3D rendering, built in chunky pixel mode, and built in 5.1 surround sound (which was in 1995 the state of the art) I am not capable technically to explain how all this worked together, but what I had demonstrated to me was truly mind blowing. It would have taken quite a lot of effort to finish the development of this “super chip” but we were intent on doing so. In the shorter term we had devised a program which would encourage all Amiga owners to buy any model, with the confidence that they would be able to upgrade, as and when they could afford to. Our plan was to introduce the “Infinity” program, where every Amiga in the range was pre designed to have upward compatibility.

Imagine the basic model of Amiga, coming in a “Tower” type case, which you could take into your Amiga dealer, and he would remove the mother board, and replace it with a higher spec model, at a price of course, and the dealer would then recycle the basic board he had just taken in part exchange, to someone coming in at the entry level. This concept would be pre designed to allow upgrades of peripherals etc. etc. Hence the name Infinity. Also we had a plan for the Commodore name, which of course was then extremely well known and sold throughout the Consumer Electronic distribution channels. We would license the brand name, to 3rd party manufacturers of more or less any product with a 3 pin plug on it. Items such as Kettles, Toasters, Radio’s Televisions, Hi fi etc. etc. We would have a quality control department to ensure any product manufactured with our logo on it, met our strict criteria. This licensing activity would also be extended to the Amiga name for such things as “designer clothing” (which I am certain would have been very well received by the loyal Amiga fraternity) The incredible benefit of licensing deals is, that revenue from Royalty payments continue to flow, without any expenditure for manufacturing. There would also be no reason why our organisation (Whatever name we called the holding Company could not also use all it’s distribution channels to sell products manufactured by 3rd parties, and licensed by us, therefore earning additional revenues by way of sales commission. I could go on and on, but I believe I have given you plenty of the ideas we had, which we genuinely believed would have turned around the fortunes of this once majestic brand.  

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RD: The Amiga brand has seen quite a few owners come and go in the years since Commodore went under but none have ever returned the machine or the brand to the height of its former glory (in much the same fashion as former competitor Atari).  Despite this, there remains a loyal, vocal and active community of Amiga users out there, still gaming on, developing for and discussing the same Motorola 680XX family of Amiga computers that you helped market to the world. I myself own more Amiga’s than I think is healthy, and I’m so attached to them I think I’ll be buried with them. Our community here at Retro Domination is suitably peppered with Amiga loving users. How do you feel knowing that despite the professional death of the Commodore business, people are still actively using the Amiga today and seem to have such an emotional attachment to the machine?

David: My opinion regarding the almost “fanatical” loyalty of Amiga (and other retro machines) is that in the 1980’s it was a unique moment in history, when the development of revolutionary technology was being introduced to a generation with not much to look forward to. As these products were launched, as usual the “early adopters” (those usually wealthy few, who simply “must have” the latest gadgets, started a trend, and, as these products were “cost reduced” again and again, suddenly this generation of young people could themselves afford to buy, and more importantly, gaming machines established an opportunity for this bored generation to compete against the machine, with other players, and also gave them common ground with their peers. The low cost of real computers (as opposed to games consoles) also spurred on a generation of code makers, simple programmers and eventually (quite quickly actually) games designers. It would seem to me, that the versatility of the Amiga (and I have to admit with a certain amount of embarrassment) the fact that the people who ended up in charge of the Amiga – Commodore – knew so little about the capabilities of such a great product, left it to clued up and eager users to bring out the best in the machine. Why wouldn’t there be a mass of enthusiasts still applauding the merits of this awesome product?

RD: Thanks for taking time out to speak with us David, last question we promise! (And this is a sidestep from the Amiga) a few recent photos of you show you sporting a guitar or sitting against a backdrop of studio mixing equipment. Have you given yourself over to the musicians life? What’s the story there?

David: Well this is a bit different. I do not know how many people are aware that for many years I was a semi professional musician, playing Flamenco guitar. During the mid 70’s whilst living in Australia, I did lots of Television appearances, concerts, cabaret and other gigs. I had a Flamenco group “Jaleo Flamenco” with 2 dancers, a singer and another guitarist. My eldest son Marcel is a hugely talented Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist, who played many solo gigs in Australia and the UK. About 3 years ago my youngest son Emile, took up Bass guitar and he plays (speaking as a musician, not as a dad) brilliantly. They formed a band, “The Deltaphonics” with Chris Gill on Drums and percussion, plus backing vocals, and Matt Griffith on Keyboards and backing vocals.  I manage the band. Also being retired now, and with (seemingly) lots of time on my hands, I work with lots of (mostly acoustic) acts, helping them to get places to play original songs, and getting them exposure by finding them Charity events and Festivals to perform at. I run a once a month (on a Sunday afternoon) showcase event called The Glasshouse Acoustic Sessions, at a prestigious venue here called The Key Theatre.  I supply musicians for 2 pubs locally, and I have arranged 18 acts to perform at a 2 day music festival on September 20/21 which is raising money for Help for Heroes.

And there you have it folks. One small slice of the tale of a brilliant home computer taken to dizzying heights and despairing lows, a story of ultimate potential and eventual tragedy. The story of the Amiga.   We thank David kindly for his willingness to reveal all and answer our questions with such candor. You’re a champ, David!