Twenty Five Years Since The End Of Commodore

This week marks the twenty-five year anniversary of the demise of Commodore International. This weekend, pour one out for our lost homies.

Commodore began life as a corporate entity in 1954 headed by Jack Tramiel. Tramiel, a Holocaust survivor, moved to New York after the war where he became a taxi driver. This job led him to create a typewriter repair shop in Bronx. Wanting a ‘military-style’ name for his business, and the names ‘Admiral’ and ‘General’ already taken, and ‘Lieutenant’ simply being a bad name, Tramiel chose the rank of Commodore.

Later, a deal was inked with a Czechoslovakian typewriter manufacture to assemble typewriters for the North American market, and Commodore Business Machines was born. Of course, no one cares about this pre-history of Commodore, for the same reason that very few people care about a company that makes filing cabinets. On the electronics side of the business, Commodore made digital calculators. In 1975, Commodore bought MOS, Inc., manufacturers of those calculator chips. This purchase of MOS brought Chuck Peddle to Commodore as the Head of Engineering. The calculators turned into computers, and the Commodore we know and love was born.

The Commodore We Remember

Commodore, as we know it today, began in 1977 with the release of the PET — the Personal Electronic Transactor which some consider the first publicly available personal computer. This was Peddle’s creation, and Tramiel believed Commodore would be a computer company from here on out. The release of the PET was followed by the release of the VIC-20, which was in turn followed by the release of the Commodore 64. After the release of the C64, Commodore was selling more computers than the rest of the industry combined. For all the respect that Apple gets now — legitimate respect in terms of market cap, market share, and the logistics of vertical integration — Commodore was there first. Commodore should have been the most influential tech company of all time. People are people, though, so here are my thoughts on that.

The resurgence of Commodore, in the C64 Direct-to-TV

By the late 1980s, the sharks were circling, and Commodore’s Amiga, seen today as the most graphically capable computers of the day, was seen by consumers as a toy. The IBM-compatible PC took over the market, and on April 29th, 1994, Commodore ceased to exist. What’s dead may never die, and the Commodore trademarks were sold off (eventually) to Escom, who later went defunct, then sold off to Tulip Computers, who later went defunct.

The definitive documentation of the Last Day of Commodore would be Dave Haynie’s video of the factory floor shot on April 30th, 1994. This video was taken in the Commodore Amiga factory in West Chester, Pennsylvania, right near that airport. Over the years this building would become the studio for QVC, the home shopping network that isn’t the Home Shopping Network.

History is full of odd coincidences, and years later Commodore would see a modern rebirth of sorts in the same building. The C64 Direct-to-TV, the creation of Jeri Ellsworth would become one of the best-selling devices in the current trend of ‘retro emulation’ consoles like the NES Classic, the PS1 Mini, and other consumer devices glomming onto nostalgia of an eager buying public. The C64 Direct-to-TV owes its existence to QVC, who bought the entire first production run and broadcast it to the world from the building that once housed the Amiga assembly line. History is full of odd coincidences.

The chicken lips shed a tear this week, but what’s dead may never die.

80 thoughts on “Twenty Five Years Since The End Of Commodore

        1. Sounds like he enjoys it and isn’t hurting anyone, good luck to him.

          A waste of your life would be to post snarky, judgemental messages that sound like a 13 year old valley girl in a tech forum.

          Like, OMG, a geek reading a geeky news item on a geek website says something geeky. What a geek.

    1. It looks like the trademark may be up for grabs, if you want it. Take a look at this search engine https://www.tmdn.org/tmview/welcome , type Commodore as the mark name, and choose Nice Class 9. A German guy has fairly recently grabbed C64 (with a logo) for Computers etc in Germany. so maybe he’s planning to market something in that area.

      1. Growing up using the archimedes in school would never have dreamed they would come up with something that dominates the embedded market
        All we ever wanted was a PC or two, and all of us either had Amigas or ST’s at home
        But no one ever had an archimedes – except the unfortunate kid who was the son of a teacher

        1. I had an Archimedes A3000 an incredible machine for its day. The x86 emulator they threw in for free ran just about everything as well as an XT. This was 1988 when direct software emulation was almost unheard of on home machines. When writing in native ARM2 assembly, it was an extraordinary computer. Had a few bits of software published but the market wasn’t big enough so had to migrate to Windows in the early 90s but I still love playing with RISC OS on the RPi.

  1. That’s nonsense. The Amiga architecture was vastly superior to the x86 architecture. Still is. What the PC market had was 1) Business Software and 2) Clones and 3) Better management. All of which matters as much or more than the quality of the architecture. The outcome was pretty much inevitable.

    1. That’s just a bit convoluted. There was an Amiga architecture and a PC architecture. As a separate thing, there was the x86 chip architecture versus the 68K chip architecture.

      And yes, back in the day, the Amiga and the 68K were vastly superior to the PC architecture. No big surprises — the PC was tossed together in six months by people who didn’t completely understand what they were doing. They didn’t really get personal computing, they were basically just trying to build an IBM clone of the Apple ][.

      But certainly, time has gone by. The current x86 chips — and ARM chips as well — are better than 68K ever got. Money and success will do that for you. Sure, they’re insane to program, but given the variety of RISC engines that live under the hood of different x86 machines, you ought to be using a compiler anyway. Or a VM with a JIT.

      And the PC architecture got better, too. The original PCI bus was quite good. I was, at the time, working on a new system architecture that was going to solve the same basic problems, and when PCI came along, I scrapped that idea (dubbed the AMI bus, there’s probably something about it in the various archives). Independently, Dr. Ed Hepler, working out the Hombre architecture, decided PCI was the way to go there, too.

      And in modern times, PCI express is actually quite good.

      Windows, after all these years, still does autoconfiguration wrong. They got it right in AmigaOS. But that’s the software, not the various bus systems underneath.

    2. 4) form factor

      The A1000 was the right direction
      The A500 was a cost saver
      The A1200 should have been towered from the start. The jump to A4000 was a big jump

      Problem was nothing much other than zorro begin shared between the models. It was a mismatch which in PC terms was like have a range from the same manufacturer having ISA, PCI and MCA. but no model having more than one type !!

      An accelerator board for an A600 wouldn’t fit an A1200, wouldn’t fit an A4000
      Sure the 68000 DIP chip versions from A500 days could go into an A1500/A(B)2000 but they still didn’t fit the A3000
      Least the A4000 shared the CPU port with that.

      The failure to embrace cheap ISA hardware despite all the big box units having them. Only using them as a bridge board.
      This meant that things like graphics cards were an order of magnitude more expensive than the PC equivilent even with the same chipset.
      And ethernet / networking options

  2. Started out on a VIC-20 (VC-20 fuer die Deutscheleuten) with C2N Datasette. Progressed to a C64C (flat) with a 1541. Then an A2000 with 52MB SCSI drive and 4MB RAM, A2088 Bridgeboard, Supra 4MB board, and a Genlock. A few CDTV’s later, and then I became a collector. I still have my very first computer (as it should be). You can’t let a good machine go down…heck, my daughter learned to play with 8 directions and one fire button too before she made me look bad on a console controller. ;)

  3. I was a Commodore dealer starting a bit before the Vic 20. I lay fault on Tramiel for focusing on big box sales and ignoring the dealer network. Their next generation business models had the option of three microprocessors so that you could run CPM, DOS and Commodore software. IBM was out then but didn’t have a big market share yet. The dealer network was in poor shape when they bought out the Amiga. So without the dealer network promotion it died

  4. Commodore 64 was a great machine for its time. Was so far ahead of others and had a great sound chip that made games sound real. Commodore was so far ahead of its time with C64 and then Amiga, and even today people are doing great stuff with them. Only if Commodore didn’t mess up I wonder where we would be today with them. Good days for computers back then, you learn so much with programming them and playing games.

  5. Said by someone who never had to program an 8088 in assembler. It was a dreadful chip. It’s a triumph of engineering over design that it still survives and is competitive today, and the only reasons it sold then are that it was cheap and had the IBM brand behind it (even they considered the 68000 when in the early design stages of the original PC, and rejected it only because they had no 16 bit IO chips and they weren’t sure about supply).
    The 68000 (and its later variants) of the Amiga was, for a long time, the workstation designers choice of champions. Motorola’s lack of pace when it came to improving the design, and the feeling that RISC chips were the future, are what killed it (and even now it is still possible to buy microcontrollers based on it).

  6. Love the art of Bil Herd and the “Animals” above the article. Read “On The Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore” by Brian Bagnall. Hilarious Bil Herd anecdotes are within.

  7. I was always under the impression that the only reason the Commodore 128 wasn’t able to capitalize on the success of the C64 was because the business side ran CP/M rather than DOS. The idea was supposed to be that people who loved their C64 computers could keep their C64 software but also work at home on the business side of the computer. Unfortunately, MS-DOS took off and many businesses quickly adopted it leaving the C128 to seem more like a C64 on steroids. I started on the VIC20 and went straight to the C128 when I outgrew the VIC20. I still have much of the software and hardware for both as well as the C64. My children grew up on them and now my grandchildren can learn firsthand what their peers will have to learn from books, websites online and maybe a museum.

  8. X86 architecture? Since the Pentium Pro (P6) in 1995, Intel PC CPUs have been RISC internally.

    They use microcode to convert X86 instructions into a RISC architecture. Like a hardware cross compiler.

  9. I’ve not found any silicon that could match the sound quality of the 64’s Paula with exception of today’s synths. Just playing Turrican, or Shadow of the Beast, etc. still entertains. Taking to the grave baby!

  10. The glorious coding days of the CBM80A. The endless joys of head chatter deciphering error 23’s on sectors. Micromon and DiSector to the rescue. And Jim Drew (JEDI) making the process possible. Beach Head, Night Mission, MULE, Escape MCP, and Jumpman still engulfing my cerebral desires. Another visitor, stay a while, stay forever. Compute Gazette & Info 64 live on. Now all I dream of are more PLA’s & SID’s. Looks like it’s time for some creative Doodle & Paintpic demo load screens. Who’s game?

  11. This company and its products will never be truly forgotten. The C64 DTV, the C-One, Turbo Chameleon, C64 Mini, I have one of the German-made “C64 Reloaded” mainboards where all the glue logic, the PLA and characer/color ROM are in an FPGA, and there is active development on a C65 successor-of-sorts, the C256 Foenix (check that out)

      1. That’s really nice, sans the AC 9V … the Reloaded has an onboard DC-AC converter for that.
        I kind of fancy the HDMI output, that must’ve taken some head scratching to develop.

  12. Why is the the Commodore 16 forgotten about? That was my first computer of any kind, and I loved it. It’s difficult to find any article that will even mention this dinosaur, cos everyone apparently loved the C64!

  13. Please do not forget my recemtly released hardback book “Commodore – The Inside Story” Documenting 12 1/2 years of working in Commodore – and relating the real stories as to many events that led to Commodore’s demise. Includes chapters from Dave Haynie – RJ Mical – Beth Richard and several other former employees of C= at locations around the globe. Can be sourced directly from my website downtimepublishing.com

  14. I had a lot of computers (Vic-20 was my first) but my favorite of all time was my C-128. It was on that machine I learned serious programming and the built in monitor mode let me code in assembly. Later I had an Amiga 1000 which was a great game machine, but I never did any serious coding or productivity with it like my C-128

  15. Commodore’s big mistake was not to release a 16-bit computer compatible with the C64 in time. A compatible CPU by WDC had been around since 1983.

    Such a machine could have marginalized even the IBM PC and clones, and it’s successors would probably be our current PCs – with command screen interface like the C64 instead of a mere CLI as in Unix/Linux/DOS/Windows and graphical characters on the keyboard, so PETSCII would be part of Unicode and all over the place in mails and forum posts.

    Apple used that WDC CPU to make the IIGS which was compatible with the II. They had to nerf it, otherwise it would have marginalized the Macs.

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