Retro is new again, and everywhere you look you’ll find films, documentaries, and TV shows cashing in on the nostalgia of their target audience. There is one inaccuracy you’ll find with this these shows: Apple computers are everywhere. This isn’t a historical truth – Commodore was everywhere, the C64 was the computer the nerds actually used, and to this day, the Commodore 64 is still the best-selling computer in history.
Commodore is gone, replaced with a superfund site, but the people who made the best computers in history are still around. At the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference, Bil Herd gave a talk on the second act of Commodore’s three-act tragedy. Bil is a frequent contributor around these parts, and as always he illuminates the 1980s far better than Halt and Catch Fire ever could.
It’s frequently said by recovering Commodore employees that the story of Commodore International is a tragedy in three acts. The first act is the ascension to the throne of home computers, beginning with Jack Tramiel founding Commodore, building office file cabinets and calculators, and eventually snapping up silicon manufacturer MOS Technologies.
Right around the time of the Apple II, Commodore turned its attention to the microcomputer revolution. The first computer out of the gate was the PET, later followed by the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64. The Commodore 64 is a masterpiece of engineering, but even more impressive is the business side of the development. The C64 used custom chips to push the boundaries of what a home computer was capable of. The VIC-II graphics chip was extraordinarily capable for the day, the SID sound chip is still highly regarded today, and custom logic tied everything together. The argument could be made that Commodore’s business philosophy of vertical integration was more efficient than Apple’s, the current darling of supply chain management.
Bil comes in at the beginning of the second act for Commodore, after Jack Tramiel left to revive whatever was left of Atari. The first project on Bil’s desk was the TED machines, the cut-down Commodores meant to kill the Timex Sinclair. The least expensive of these machines cost $49, one of them talked thanks to a few engineers from Texas Instrument’s Speak & Spell defecting to Commodore, but marketing didn’t know how to sell these machines.
After the TED machines, Bil was put on another forgotten project, the Commodore LCD. At the time, Commodore owned the only US manufacturer of LCDs, and it was logical for Commodore to produce a pre-laptop computer. Alas, this computer never made it to production thanks to a few very dumb marketing decisions, and after a few more months at Commodore, Bil left for greener fields.
What was the last act of Commodore? The Amiga, was a rousing success, but you can’t run a business with just cool tech. You need someone with business sense at the helm.
Every week, a few posts appear on Medium blogs dissecting why a startup failed, and what could have been done to prevent it. These post-mortums are exceptionally entertaining, but they don’t answer the question: did the startup fail because of business decisions or simply because no one wanted the product they were selling? Commodore, on the other hand was the leading manufacturer of home computers and died a premature death. Study the death of Commodore and you’ll get a much better appreciation of how the mighty can fail.
More than that, Bil’s talk is a war story of how hardware engineers actually function. For him, building wire-wrapped MMUs for the Commodore 128 is apparently second nature, and designing computers from scratch is his job. We’re glad to have had Bil speak at the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference, and show everyone how things used to be.
[Image source: MOS chip for sale on eBay]