Few ‘greats’ from the dawn of personal computing of the late ’70s remain unscathed. One of the unfortunate, Commodore, has revolutionized the way we use computers yet is hardly known outside PC-hobbyist circles. A fate that would have been unimaginable 35 years ago.
Imagine yourself a couple of decades in the future, explaining to a fresh generation of tech users that once there was a company called Facebook Inc. that everyone was crazy about. That’s how anyone who lived through the ’80s might feel once the name ‘Commodore’ enters a conversation.
Founded in 1958, Commodore is best known for delivering such legendary machines as Commodore PET 2001, Commodore 64, and Amiga 1000. The company was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic from the late ’70s to the early ’90s.
Commodore’s achievements can be best illustrated by the fact that even in 2021, Commodore C64 still holds the Guinness World Record as the highest-selling single computer model of all time. With sales in the tens of millions, the company was a highly successful pioneer in the PC world.
Commodore was established by an immigrant from Poland, Jack Tramiel (Idzek Tramielski at birth). Born in 1928 in the Polish city of Lodz, Tramiel lived through one of the darkest pages in human history. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Tramiel ended up in Lodz ghetto and later in Auschwitz, where he brushed with the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
After the war, Tramiel left for the US. There he joined the US Army, where he learned to repair office equipment and typewriters. After serving two tours in the Korean war, Tramiel drove a taxi in the busy streets of New York.
In the mid-’50s, Tramiel partnered with Manfred Kapp. Both men started a typewriter business in Canada that eventually became Commodore. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the first name of the company was Commodore Portable Typewriter.
“People sometimes got a little bit frightened of him because he was moving and talking a little bit too fast,” Kapp described Tramiel in Brian Bagnalls’ book Commodore – a company on the edge. Later in life, Tramiel will be famous for his aggressiveness, sometimes compared to Darth Vader.
For almost two decades, Commodore produced typewriters, consumer electronics, and calculators. It wasn’t until the mid-’70s when the company was mature enough to turn its eye to a relatively obscure world of computing.
The missing link
Facing intense competition from American and Japanese competitors, Commodore stared at the abyss several times before releasing its first computer. Interestingly, trying to secure its supply chains eventually led the company into computers.
After Texas Instruments, a key supplier of calculator parts started selling their machines cheaper than Commodore, Tramiel bought MOS Technology, a flailing semiconductor manufacturer. The acquisition was meant to secure Commodore’s calculator business, but in a way, the move helped to push it aside.
According to Bagnall, the acquisition brought the tech visionary, Chuck Peddle, to the company, a missing piece to a business-wise Tramiel and cash-rich Irving Gould, a key investor at Commodore.
Peddle is best known for heading a team of developers that brought the MOS Technology 65xx series microprocessors, a chip later used by Apple, Commodore, Atari, and many more PC manufacturers. At the time, Peddles’ microprocessors were among the cheapest, selling for a fraction of what Motorola or Intel charged for their respective chips.
Sensing the potential for a cheap and powerful home device, Peddle convinced Tramiel that calculators are a thing of the past, whereas home computers are an area to focus on.
Peddle acquired a mythical ethos over the years with tales describing him lending a hand to a couple of obscure teens working on their computer in a garage. You might have heard of those teens: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.
“These guys were in the Bay area, and their product didn’t work, so we took my development system over and spent an afternoon with them in the garage helping them bring up their system,” Peddle told Bagnall.
Coincidentally only a year later, the same duo almost sold their computer design to Commodore, as the company was looking for ways to enter the market. Wozniak and Peddle could not agree on a design, and Apple avoided being swallowed by Commodore.
Eventually, Peddle rounded up a small team of engineers that developed the first actual personal computer by Commodore. Enter: Commodore PET 2001, a member of the so-called ‘1977 Trinity’, a series of PCs released in 1977, that are credited for popularizing personal computing among the middle classes of the Western countries.
There wasn’t a Star Wars movie yet, and there wasn’t a Star Trek movie. Go back in that time, and you’ll see that 2001 implies a successful future,Chuck Peddle.
The name of the computer was meant to be futuristic. Three letters and four digits somewhat resembled HAL 9000, a computer from Stanley Kubricks’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey. More attentive enthusiasts can’t help but see the similarities between the HAL 9000’s keyboard and what Commodore used on PET 2001.
“If you think about it in 1977, that was the futuristic thing people talked about. […] There wasn’t a Star Wars movie yet, and there wasn’t a Star Trek movie. Go back in that time, and you’ll see that 2001 implies a successful future,” Puddle recalled.
By the end of the decade, together with Apple and Radioshack, Commodore became a dominant player in the US microcomputer market and a leading player in the Common Market countries, a precursor to the European Union.
The next wave of significant success for the company was its 1980 release of a successor to the PET line, an 8-bit home computer VIC-20, the first computer ever to sell a million units. However, VIC-20’s successor turned out to be the true golden goose for Commodore.
In 1982, Commodore 64, or simply C64, dubbed ‘Model T’ of the computing industry, saw the day of light, becoming the most successful computer to date. It was equipped with superior sound and graphics capabilities for its time, made possible by MOS Technology chips. With upgrades, C64 was sold for over a decade until 1994. The success of the device made Commodore a billion-dollar company in the early ’80s.
Leaving the technical specifics behind, VIC-20 and C64 could be considered fruits of the same branch. As Robert Dillon notes in his book Ready: a Commodore 64 perspective, both devices were heavily marketed as ‘people friendly’ computers, avoiding technical jargon.
‘Friendliness’ also meant that Commodore computers were not meant only for work or study. Machines supported dozens of video games, making the device very attractive to teens of the time. Whereas creative software, similar to MS Paint, convinced parents that machines could help their offspring learn.
Another key advantage Commodore had was the price of its machines. After the PET line’s success, Tramiel continued to integrate the supply chain for Commodore, which meant that C64 cost less than $600 at its release. A price tag deemed ‘impossibly low’ by competitors.
“The C64 was soon much cheaper than any other competitor, allowing Commodore not only to drastically increase its user base month after month but also to push many other home computer manufacturers into serious trouble or even force them entirely out of business like in the case of Texas Instruments s and its TI-99/4A computer,” Dillon explained in his book.
‘The future was here’
Even though quarterly sales approached $50 million in 1983, making Commodore one the largest PC manufacturers globally, Tramiel left the company after a feud with Gould and the board. The last genuine bang Commodore made in the PC market was in 1985, when the company released the Amiga 1000 computer.
“The Amiga is the first personal computer that can begin to approach the video quality of the television and the sound quality of hi-fi. But unlike television and hi-fi, the Amiga is an interactive medium,” Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, wrote in the preface of Michael Booms’ The Amiga.
A1000 and subsequent Amiga line models were equipped with Amiga operating system, used powerful CPUs that allowed for advanced graphic and sound systems. In an era of 16-colour EGA palette, Amiga could display 4096 colors, housed a custom chip for accelerated video, and was the only system able to display multiple screens at different resolutions.
As Jimmy Maher put it in his book on the Amiga series The Future Was Here, A1000 was the first true multimedia PC, even though the term ‘multimedia’ entered the computing world only in 1989, almost four years after the A1000 was released.
Designed to house the brain of the computer in a pizza-box design case, A1000 would have looked up to date in terms of design even a decade later after its initial release. Maher goes further, claiming that the computer was ‘the first aesthetically satisfying PC’.
Even with flawed marketing and brewing management problems within Commodore, the Amiga line sold close to 5 million units, making it a vast, albeit the company’s last success.
The Amiga is the first personal computer that can begin to approach the video quality of the television and the sound quality of hi-fi,Trip Hawkins.
End of the road
There’s no single reason why Commodore went bust in 1994. Mismanagement of the Amiga series, overconfidence with the C64, misguided firing and hiring practices, feuds between Gould and the board of the company, misplaced hopes for a new product line, worsening relations with retailers, as well as inability to adapt to a world increasingly dominated by Microsoft Windows and PC clones to name a few.
On their own, none of the reasons would be enough to kill a company. But a cluster of all put together did the trick.
One of the last attempts to bring the company back was the release of the Amiga CD32 console. However, the sales were insufficient to kick start the old giant. On the 19th of April 1994, 26 years ago, Commodore International went into liquidation, thus ending its decades-long history in the personal computer industry. CD32 was not even released in the US.
As David John Pleasance, former head of Commodores’ UK branch, claims in his book Commodore: the inside story,the company never had a clear business plan. Stumbling from crisis to crisis, even in the times of plenty, Commodore managed to survive as long as it could.
To some degree, Commodore still exists. There’s a fiercely dedicated following of the C64, PET computers continue to pop up in various TV shows, the AmigaOS is still kept up to date and used by enthusiasts. It’s even possible to get a smartphone bearing the name ‘Commodore PET.’ However, the heyday of the company is long gone even though the memory of Commodore lives on.