A look at an innovative computer industry pioneer, whose achievements
have been largely forgotten
Tom R. Halfhill
Obituaries customarily focus on the deceased's accomplishments, not
the unpleasant details of the demise. That's especially true when the demise
hints strongly of self-neglect tantamount to suicide, and nobody can find
a note that offers some final explanation.
There will be no such note from Commodore, and it would take a book
to explain why this once-great computer company lies cold on its deathbed.
But Commodore deserves a eulogy, because its role as an industry pioneer
has been largely forgotten or ignored by revisionist historians who claim
that everything started with Apple or IBM. Commodore's passing also recalls
an era when conformity to standards wasn't the yardstick by which all innovation
In the 1970s and early 1980s, when Commodore peaked as a billion-dollar
company, the young computer industry wasn't dominated by standards that
dictated design parameters. Engineers had much more latitude to explore
new directions. Users tended to be hobbyists who prized the latest technology
over backward compatibility. As a result, the market tolerated a wild proliferation
of computers based on many different processors, architectures, and operating
Commodore was at the forefront of this revolution. In 1977, the first
three consumer-ready personal computers appeared: the Apple II, the Tandy
TRS-80, and the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor). Chuck Peddle,
who designed the PET, isn't as famous as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs,
the founders of Apple. But his distinctive computer with a built-in monitor,
tape drive, and trapezoidal case was a bargain at $795. It established
Commodore as a major player.
The soul of Commodore was Jack Tramiel, an Auschwitz survivor who founded
the company as a typewriter-repair service in 1954. Tramiel was an aggressive
businessman who did not shy away from price wars with unwary competitors.
His slogan was ``computers for the masses, not the classes.''
In what may be Commodore's most lasting legacy, Tramiel drove his engineers
to make computers that anyone could afford. This was years before PC clones
arrived. More than anyone else, Tramiel is responsible for our expectation
that computer technology should keep getting cheaper and better. While
shortsighted critics kept asking what these machines were good for, Commodore
introduced millions of people to personal computing. Today, I keep running
into those earliest adopters at leading technology companies.
Commodore's VIC-20, introduced in 1981, was the first color computer
that cost under $300. VIC-20 production hit 9000 units per day--a run rate
that's enviable now, and was phenomenal back then. Next came the Commodore
64 (1982), almost certainly the best-selling computer model of all time.
Ex-Commodorian Andy Finkel estimates that sales totaled between 17 and
22 million units. That's more than all the Macs put together, and it dwarfs
IBM's top-selling systems, the PC and the AT.
Commodore made significant technological contributions as well. The
64 was the first computer with a synthesizer chip (the Sound Interface
Device, designed by Bob Yannes). The SX-64 (1983) was the first color portable,
and the Plus/4 (1984) had integrated software in ROM.
But Commodore's high point was the Amiga 1000 (1985). The Amiga was
so far ahead of its time that almost nobody--including Commodore's marketing
department--could fully articulate what it was all about. Today, it's obvious
the Amiga was the first multimedia computer, but in those days it was derided
as a game machine because few people grasped the importance of advanced
graphics, sound, and video. Nine years later, vendors are still struggling
to make systems that work like 1985 Amig as.
At a time when PC users thought 16-color EGA was hot stuff, the Amiga
could display 4096 colors and had custom chips for accelerated video. It
had built-in video outputs for TVs and VCRs, still a pricey option on most
of today's systems. It had four-voice, sampled stereo sound and was the
first computer with built-in speech synthesis and text-to-speech conversion.
And it's still the only system that can display multiple screens at different
resolutions on a single monitor.
Even more amazing was the Amiga's operating system, which was designed
by Carl Sassenrath. From the outset, it had preemptive multitasking, messaging,
scripting, a GUI, and multitasking command-line consoles. Today's Windows
and Mac users are still waiting for some of those features. On top of that,
it ran on a $1200 machine with only 256 KB of RAM.
We may never see another breakthrough computer like the Amiga. I value
my software investment as much as anyone, but I realize it comes at a price.
Technology that break s clean with the past is increasingly rare, and rogue
companies like Commodore that thrived in the frontier days just don't seem
to fit anymore.
Photograph: Commodore 64
Photograph: Amiga 1000
Photograph: Commodore VIC-20
Photograph: Commodore PET
Photograph: Commodore 64C
Photograph: Amiga 2000
Tom R. Halfhill is a BYTE senior news editor based in San Mateo,
California. You can reach him on the Internet or BIX at [email protected]