The Colorful Charm of Amiga Utility Disks
Exploring the customized toolboxes of yore.
Don't worry. This will all be explained below.
Working from floppy
Commodore produced a great many Amiga models, but for several years the gold standard was an Amiga 500 expanded with half a meg of RAM (bringing the total to a full megabyte) and an external floppy drive (bringing the total number to two). For the demo scene, this was the only Amiga configuration that mattered during the late 1980:s and early 1990:s.
Feed me a stray disk!
It was both cheaper and more cheerful than IBM's PC machines, but it was also a machine intended very much for home use and playing games. Hard drives, for example, were prohibitively expensive, costing nearly as much as the computer itself even in very modest sizes.
Hence, people worked from floppy disks. This wasn't quite as terrible as it sounds today, for several reasons. The major one was of course that scarcely any home user knew just how smooth things were with a hard drive: everyone was used to the speed of the floppy drive and its soothing churn when reading or writing to disk. Programs were typically much smaller than they are today and, with a bit of axle grease and a shoehorn, you could fit quite a few of them on a single disk. If you were running a big, resource hungry program, you usually didn't have enough memory left for doing any meaningful multitasking anyway - especially not when working with music or graphics.
Many users constructed a boot disk, onto which they put essential parts of the operating system, support files and the programs they used most often. This wasn't as impossible as it might sound, because a sizeable portion of the Amiga operating system resided in ROM and would happily boot to a CLI prompt off a blank floppy. It was simply a matter of being discerning and pick the stuff you really, really needed.
All the programs displayed in the screenshot above have been carefully squeezed onto a boot disk for AmigaOS 2.0 ROMs. It contains a workable system, everything you need to start making pixel graphics, and some music to listen to while doing so!
This was made even easier by the many various programs constructed to eliminate the need of what was, during the days of AmigaOS 1.x, a fairly clunky desktop experience. Size saving CLI commands, tiny dual pane file managers, various replacement programs for floppy disk copying, and so on. Such programs were usually called tools, utilities or utils for short. Some of these programs were commercial, others were PD - short for Public Domain, more used as an umbrella term for freely distributable software than as an actual license.
What, like electricity?
But where could you get such programs during a time when even 2400 bps modems were an expensive luxury? On floppies, of course - perhaps from Fred Fish's AmigaLibDisks, available via mail order. Fish's collection of freely distributable software became wildly popular, but few of the programs catered directly to the needs of the cracking (piracy) and demo scenes. Naturally, sceners soon started making their own tools - and collecting those that others had made, not overly bothered by the legality of said collecting. In order to share the fun, these collections were put on various utility disks and sent out via mail and copied to friends.
The makings of a utility disk
But what signifies a bona fide util disk from the scene, as opposed to a mere collection of programs - public domain or not?
Firstly, they were usually so cramped for space that executable files were almost always crunched, meaning they were compressed in size on disk and then seamlessly decompressed when loaded for execution.
Secondly, they were all bootable - because anything else would be a waste of time.
Thirdly, they announced their relation to the scene by referencing demo group names and scene handles - either the authors', or greeting others, or both.
Fourthly, after booting, the user was presented with a menu from which to select a utility to launch.
These menus came in two flavors: CLI menus, so called because they used the standard OS command line to launch the programs, or custom made menu programs, usually called "pack menus". The latter differed little from the glitzy crack intros of the time, sometimes even boasting music. I've always preferred the CLI menu, though, because compared to the "anything goes" of custom made executables, it presented the pack curator with an opportunity for creativity within fixed limits. ASCII art was almost a given here, along with some careful tweaking of the Amiga's default UI palette, drawing a custom mouse pointer and including various small utilities to change the CLI experience somewhat, for example changing the background to a colorful gradient, increasing the screen size or otherwise goofing around with the traditional look of the default boot CLI.
Let's check out some utility disk menus, then!
A rather bland CLI menu, sporting nothing more than a custom color scheme and some light customization of the mouse pointer. Being from 1986, before the release of the Amiga 500, it's still historically interesting. This is one of the many Copy Disks that circulated, so called because it only contained various programs for copying floppy disks.
DreamPack #1 from the group Tenebres featured this space themed custom menu and some fairly standard utilities. X-Copy (a disk copier), Asm-One (an assembler) and the various other programs listed were recurring fare on many utility disks.
This CLI menu from Triflex uses not only a custom color scheme and mouse pointer: it has also replaced the default system font with a nicer one, and removed the borders from the CLI window. Notable among the included programs is the text editor CygnusEd, a favorite among many Amiga users. CygnusEd and Deluxe Paint were probably the two most widely pirated professional software titles on the Amiga - you could usually find at least one of them lurking about in pretty much any disk box, even those that were otherwise just filled with cracked games.
A blue CLI menu from The Firm. As the "Bootbench III" name suggests, this disk contains utils for working with custom floppy disk boot blocks. Such custom boot blocks could contain anything from scroll texts, menus (used for util disks!), tools to disable hardware peripherals before booting, or even rudimentary virus checkers.
A spectacularly colorful menu program from System Z. The many various color gradients are produced by one of the Amiga's custom hardware features called the copper (short for co-processor), capable of altering the color value of any given palette index several times per scanline.
The copper wasn't just used in custom menus, however. This rather bland CLI menu is spiced up by a program that shows the operating system who's boss by simply inserting a copper gradient in the default background color. Many Amiga users came from the Commodore 64 and other 8-bit home computers where POKE:ing in BASIC was to be expected. This notion of total control over the computer carried over to the Amiga and gave birth to some funny and wonderful programs that just didn't care about the intricacies of multitasking on a system without memory protection. Many of these programs crashed. A lot.
A forest themed CLI menu from France. Mellow!
A heavily customized CLI menu from Triangle. This one features a copper hack that specifically inserts a logo in the background. This isn't strictly a utility disk, since it also contains a demo and a game, but I'll allow it because it's so proudly pres(s)ented.
This Curt is indeed Cool. Just check out that delicious custom CLI font! The space ship mouse pointer is something extra, too.
A custom pack menu from 1992, with rather cutting edge design for the time. By 1993, everyone and his uncle were doing intros, packmenus and demos with these delicious pastels and cutesy fonts.
Who said the eighties were garish and over the top? This CLI menu from 1988 looks very stylish to me. The pink on gray works very well and the minimalist mouse pointer is delightfully classy.
Then again, the eighties also sometimes looked like this. Another copper bonanza, this time from Digitech.
A joke from The Firm, with a small message mimicking the dreaded Guru Meditation screen that appeared when an Amiga program had crashed beyond repair.
An interesting menu utilizing AmigaOS' standard GUI library to create pull down menus over a nifty drawing of an Amiga 500 motherboard, complete with a half meg memory expansion (it's the board in the lower right).
This logo and typography might as well have been used in a crack intro.
An interesting disk by Free Flight. Its contents are mostly related to phreaking, and it lists various White Boxes. These were Amiga programs serving as tone generators for manipulating Australia's phone system. It also seems to contain some programs for calculating fake credit card numbers, a common way for phreakers and pirates to avoid paying for expensive phone calls.
Chuck Norris doesn't use a cruncher when making utility disks. He just stares at the programs until they shrink to fit the available space, no matter how small.
This rather uninspired CLI menu is from 1994. The disk itself is interesting, however: The programs included are typical tools for demo sceners, in a time when such disks were increasingly rare. Despite its bland looks, it could well be one of the last real Amiga utility disks.
By the latter half ot the 1990s, utility disks were all but gone. Most tools were spread via BBS:es or the Internet and most sceners had hard drives to put them on. PD software libraries - companies that pretended they didn't profit from selling free software for money - were now ubiquitous and many users got their utilities from those. A few long running utility disk series, such as Devious Tools and LSD's Legal Tools, were still around. Alas, they were by now more reminiscent of Fred Fish's offerings and contained generic PD programs, rather than the scene-related fare of their ancestors.
Tools of the trade
The attentive reader might have noticed that a lot of these disks contained pretty much the same stuff. The obvious reason for this is that a finite number of utilities existed. But this begs the question: why so many different disks? My theory is that curating and spreading a utility disk was a fairly low effort way of making your handle and your group's name seen. And, considering that most people couldn't get their hands on this software except on various utility disks, even one with the most common and predictable software selection did provide some kind of service to many users.
(One of my own first efforts as an aspiring scener was putting such a disk together. Thankfully, my twelve year old self - Pantheon of Hot Shots, a group that never really had its big break - lacked the prerequisite scene contacts needed for actually spreading it. I'm sure this simple fact has saved me a lot of embarrassment.)
But what types of programs were in fact included on these disks and what did they look like? During the heydays of the utility disk, the AmigaOS version was 1.3 or earlier. It was good for its time, but hardly very interesting-looking. More importantly, unlike its later successors, it didn't come with a complete set of UI widgets. The OS provided calls for opening screens, windows and drawing pull down menus, but other than that, you were left to your own devices.
This meant that a lot of programs, even commercial ones, had quite spectacular user interfaces. Since you had to draw your own buttons and controls, why not do it with a bit of panache?
I stated earlier that the most pirated programs (apart from games) on the Amiga probably were Deluxe Paint and CygnusEd. X-Copy might actually rival them both. When it came to making floppy disk copies, this was the tool of choice for seasoned pirates and casual gamers alike. Ironically, it was also a commercial title. Not that anyone on the scene ever cared about that.
Apart from its name being a nifty pun, this dual pane file manager was popular on utility disks because of its relatively small file size and modest memory consumption. Disk Master was one popular alternative among others. Directory Opus, however, was too big and complex to fit the bill for the typical utility disk.
This just makes me smile. Here, CLI-mate is displaying the startup-sequence (the Amiga equivalent of an init script or autoexec.bat) from a utility disk on which it was supplied. Despite being a bunch of pirates - or perhaps precisely because of this - sceners sure were bothered about having their work pilfered by the competition!
As mentioned earlier, CygnusEd - or just CEd for short - was the preferred text editor among many Amiga users. Here it's displaying an ASCII art logo used to present a cracked game. There's a very high probability this ASCII art was originally made in CEd. And yes, thank you, I think I will be staying cool at any time.
IFF Converter by Metallion of Kefrens is a scene production through and through. Coded by a scener for other coders on the scene, it facilitates cropping and conversion of IFF images to formats more usable when programming a demo or intro (such as raw bitplane data and palette data as copper instructions). The UI is rather snazzy but probably a bit cumbersome to use for today's discerning public.
Floppy space is limited and as described above, both programs, intros, demos and games were crunched in order to fit as many as possible onto one disk. A popular cruncher was this one from Titanics, so ingrained in the scene that its default decrunch message, "Titanics-cruncher decrunches while loading", has become a catchphrase. It actually still sees some use, even though it's fallen out of favor to newer, better crunchers like Shrinkler and Cranker.
This is Stripes, a program used to replace the normal, boring OS background with a colorful copper gradient. It was, for obvious reasons, very popular among utility disk curators. Plenty of these programs served similar purposes not just on utility disks but also on disks with demos, intros and pirated games.
Many utility disks had an "anything goes" approach to software selection, but much of it was related to the demo scene in some way. Apart from editors, crunchers and graphics tools they also frequently contained trackers for composing music, tools for ripping (stealing or borrowing, depending on whom you ask) content such as sounds and graphics from memory or files, antivirus software, and various tools to view or replay text, graphics and music files. If you wanted to make a demo, you'd be all set with just a handful of these disks.
I'm not sure why, but browsing through utility disks has a calming effect on me.
The content selection and menus are interesting in themselves, and sometimes I even find a little hack I might include on one of the disks I release my own scene productions on. Browsing through the config files and examining the startup scripts feels like peeking at the past life of someone. It's a glimpse into the mind of a young boy, who sat down in front of his Amiga one rainy autumn day in 1989. His heart was filled with purpose and his head with hopes of making his handle known and spreading some software - possibly written by himself or someone in the very group of which he was a member.
Perhaps what's so calming is the contrast this provides to fast paced SaaS apps and terabyte SSD drives. I don't know. But I do know it still gives these disks a purpose today. And I'm very happy about that.