The AMC Demise: An Insider's View
(10/25/02, 04:58:34 PM EDT)
I read "Applied Microsystems Bails" with particular interest because I was a witness to the beginning of the end when left I left AMC 5 years ago after 17+ years of service.

AMC was founded by two Engineers, Jim McElroy and Robin Knoke. I worked with Jim and Robin at a company named Automix Keyboards in the early '70s. They left AKI about 1974 to start a consulting company - AMC. At AMC Robin developed an emulator for the 8008 called the "Programmer's Panel." I was designing hardware at that time for the graphic arts industry. We switched from hardware-based state machines (some of which were pretty clever) to machines that were based on Intel's 8008. It was then that I began using Robin's "programmer's panel" to debug hardware. I quickly began to love the power (i.e. control and visibility) that came from using a programmable microprocessor. I began creating my own development/debug environment based on the product that I was designing at the time (a product then called "The Hawkeye"). This was an exciting time in my career.

I liked firmware development so much that I went to Data I/O and started my career as an embedded systems programmer in 1976. Jim and Robin had consulted with Data I/O to develop the basic hardware that the Data I/O Programmers were based on. These early products (System 9 and System 19) were based on the Motorola 6800.

In the fall of 1979 I visited Jim and Rob in Kirkland. I wanted to work with them again, but they were barely making a living in the consulting business. Fortunately they were about to get their first million in venture capitol with the assistance of Ralph Astengo, the founder of ATL. This money would fund a line of emulator products. At that time they had a product called the EM-184 which supported the Z-80 Microprocessor.

As soon as they had the venture capitol, I went to work for Jim and Robin. Ralph Astengo was the acting CEO at that time. I was the first engineer hired by the founders, and I designed several of the "keyboard" products. Each one was an improvement over the previous. I did the EM-188 (8080 and 8088), then the EM-180 (Z-80 without the limitations of the EM-184) and then the EM-189. In all of these products I had developed all the hardware and the firmware -- based on Robin's original EM-184 design, of course. Jim McElroy designed the power supply, based on a constant voltage transformer, but I did all the rest. Then we started the ES-1800 series. I designed the emulator boards, pods and the firmware for the emulator interface, which supported the Motorola 68000 product line.

The ES-1800 was an exciting product for the early '80s. It had an L-R parser that Jim McElroy had developed and Eric McRae perfected. I did the Lexical Analyzer for that product. The heart of the ES-1800 was Motorola's 6809 Microprocessor. So we used our own Emulator, the EM-189, to debug code.

To keep AMC growing, decisions were made to acquire further venture capitol. The "Sales and Marketing" types of folks (note: the strong bias of US vs. THEM) took over the direction of the company. Jim and Robin were pushed out. I suspect that if they had remained in control of AMC that it would now be the world leader in embedded development products.

Robin recognized the importance of creating a complete development environment. He wanted to develop debugging tools that would utilize the PC. He wasn't able to persuade the company of the need for a complete solution to avoid dependence on 3rd party developers (who would be "eating our lunch" later on).

In the early '90s Robin formed a division that developed the "Tap" products. However, the idea of "low cost" was anathema to the big Cheeses at AMC who only wanted to sell $20k to $30k boxes. His division, which had managed to achieve some autonomy (and was thereby successful), was re-absorbed into AMC. Robin left.

From then on it was downhill for AMC. Or at least the handwriting on the wall was obvious to me.

Tim Nelson