Picking battles. (survival of Commodore Business Machines Inc. in the U.S.)
by Sheldon Leemon
We've heard a lot of doom-and-gloom speculation lately about Commodore abandoning the U.S. market. We've even indulged in some of it here. A lot of it stems from our frustration that more people don't get it where the Amiga is concerned. Since the computer hasn't done as well here as it has in Europe, our natural reaction is to point fingers at Commodore's U.S. branch. When we hear that Commodore's introducing new machines in Europe and not in the U.S., we assume that Commodore doesn't care about the U.S. market. Some even wonder if the company is planning to get out of the U.S. market.
While such reactions may be natural, they aren't necessarily realistic. Many Amiga owners should try taking a more objective view of the situation. For example, I often hear Amigans complain that Commodore never advertises, assuming implicitly that the main reason so few people consider buying an Amiga is a lack of TV ads. I almost never hear Amiga owners ask, however, whether a big ad campaign would be a wise use of Commodore's resources. Money has been pretty tight at Commodore since the decline of the 64, so it's not bloody likely that the company could find the $50 million or so in loose change that it would take to launch a major TV campaign. Even if Commodore could, however, the idea of trying to win over computer users with catchy jingles and celebrity endorsements seems as outdated a concept as solving the problems of the inner cities by dropping money on them out of an airplane.
The fact is, over the past few years the personal computer market has become dominated to a greater and greater extent by IBM-compatible computers. To the average consumer, a walk on the wild side means looking at a Macintosh. Most consumers equate "best" with "what most people have," and trying to sell them on the Amiga's technical superiority is like touting the picture quality of Beta over VHS. Now that Microsoft Windows threatens to make IBM computers somewhat easier to operate, even the Macintosh is feeling the heat. If even Apple felt sufficient market pressure to enter a joint venture with IBM, what can we realistically expect from Commodore?
If you're expecting the Amiga to ever become the people's choice for all-around family computing, you might as well forget it. Barring a global dose of mass hypnosis by space aliens, that battle has already been lost. The only way this computer will gain in popularity is if developers and users create new categories of applications in which the Amiga is the leading computer and not a distant third. Although this may seem like a daunting task, it is actually what the Amiga was designed for--doing cool stuff that had not been done on personal computers before. Applications like 3-D animation and desktop video were pioneered on the Amiga.
In the broader sense, Commodore's most pressing challenge in the U.S. today isn't increasing market share but survival. The U.S. sales company has been losing money for years, while the company as a whole has turned a profit. The only way to ensure that Commodore International doesn't write off the U.S. operation is to have it make some money for a change. If there is no way to dramatically increase sales overnight (and I can't think of any offhand), then the only alternative is to cut costs to the point where sales at current levels will generate a profit. Amiga users should view these as positive moves, because they will indicate that Commodore is serious about long-term survival in the U.S. market.
In order to expand the business, the U.S. company must pick its battles carefully, concentrating on selling the Amiga in markets where it has a chance of being accepted. Much to its credit, the company has sharpened its focus on areas like video, presentation graphics, and interactive kiosks. You may not be seeing any Amiga ads on MTV, but there is plenty of advertising in trade journals like Videography, Presentation Products, and even InfoWorld. Breaking new ground may mean starting small at first, but starting small can definitely lead to bigger things. Remember desktop publishing?
If Amiga owners really want to see the Amiga machine gain support here in the U.S., maybe they should stop waiting for Commodore to act and start supporting the machine themselves. At the recent World of Amiga show, I heard many manufacturers complaining that Amiga owners want only the best software but aren't willing to pay for it. As a result, the top word processors in the field were battling for sales at $59 a copy. While Gold Disk was selling its Professional Draw program for $99 at the show, an article in InfoWorld was touting the features of the Windows version of Pro Draw, making special mention of the fact that its $499 price tag was $200 less than competitors CoreIDRAW! and Micrografx Designer. Maybe what the Amiga really needs isn't a Pepsi-style ad campaign but rather for its owners to spread the word and to buy a little software now and again.