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The Rise and Fall of Commodore 340

Andrew Leigh writes "On The Edge: The Spectacular Rise And Fall Of Commodore by Brian Bagnall is fodder for anyone interested in the buried history of the personal computer. Whether you owned a Commodore computer or want to hear a new angle on the early stages of computer development, you'll find this book easy to pick up and almost impossible to put down. Bagnall has gone to a massive amount of effort in telling this tale, researching and interviewing the real personalities involved. It takes readers on an important and often emotional ride that will many times leave you shaking your head at how painfully it all went wrong." Read the rest of Andrew's review
On The Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore
author Brian Bagnall
pages 557
publisher Variant Press
rating 9
reviewer Andrew Leigh
ISBN 0973864907
summary Tells the story of Commodore through first-hand accounts by former Commodore engineers and managers

Before Commodore entered the home computer market, they were primarily a calculator manufacturer. The story begins in the mid 70's with the development of Chuck Peddle's famous 6502 chip, through to the release of the first personal computer, the Commodore PET. It then reveals how the VIC-20 became the first home computer to break the elusive one million barrier. Then comes the Commodore 64, and how the company made it the best selling computer of all time. The Commodore 128 is given plenty of coverage, along with the failed Commodore 16 and Plus/4 computers (which are probably better off forgotten). At this point, Commodore seems like it is losing its way, and the story cuts to the struggling company responsible for the original Amiga computer. You'll learn about the various Amiga models that followed, including the successful Amiga 500 and the pre-DVD CDTV and CD32 units. The hirings, firings, disagreements, discontent, resignations and celebrations that occurred during the company's run are given more than their fair share of coverage. It doesn't always show Commodore in the best light, which is what readers should demand from any history.

It's a sad truth, and the book describes this in an often bitter fashion, that the early history of computers seems to focus on Apple, IBM and Microsoft while Commodore's massive contributions to the industry are routinely ignored. The common misconception that Apple started the home computing industry is simply wrong. Commodore was the first to show a personal computer, the first to deliver low-cost computers to the masses, the first to sell a million computers, and the first to arrive with a true multimedia computer. Fortunately this book sets a lot of the record straight.

On The Edge delves deeply into the business strategies behind the company. Students of any business discipline will be well advised to heed the lessons about how not to run a company. One of the book's main characters and the founder of Commodore, Jack Tramiel, was an incredibly ruthless business man. Whether you love him or hate him, he was ultimately behind the incredible success of the VIC-20 and Commodore 64 computers. The book outlines how he managed to be the first to sell his home computers to the mass market through department stores, driving prices down and annihilating most of the competition. It also amusingly tells how he would regularly lose his temper and have what employees referred to as "Jack Attacks" when things went wrong. Many people referred to him as the scariest man alive and he probably was. Jack Tramiel unfortunately does not publicly talk about the Commodore days, so Bagnall was not able to personally interview him, however family members and those close to him give their personal accounts of events.

The book also explains how Irving Gould, the money-man and venture capitalist behind Commodore, constantly interfered when things were seemingly running smoothly. It is widely recognized that Irving Gould and Medhi Ali (the CEO he instated at the time) ultimately caused the sad demise of Commodore through 1993-94, yet the details of how it happened have always been sketchy until now. Thomas Rattigan, former CEO of Commodore, was interviewed by Bagnall and gives his personal thoughts and experiences during his time with the company. He also talks about his untimely dismissal by Gould. The later sections of the book describe how numerous marketing mishaps and poor business sense led to a dwindling stock price and an eventual filing for liquidation. Bagnall accurately describes the heartbreaking end to a great company that deserved much more success and recognition.

This book certainly does not shy away from getting its metaphorical hands dirty with the technical details and manufacturing processes involved in building the Commodore computers. If anything, more detail would be welcome here, as the personalities interviewed obviously drove their designs by an enormous amount of passion. Bagnall has interviewed all the original key players involved on the technical side, including the humble and personable Chuck Peddle. You'll read how he built the MOS 6502 microprocessor, with the talented layout artist Bill Mensch. The chip was used by not only Commodore but rivals Apple, Atari, and Nintendo. Many other notable and significant technical pioneers have also been interviewed and give their experiences and opinions.

You'll learn why your 1541 floppy disk drive was so unbearably slow. You'll learn how millions of dollars worth of Amigas were scrapped because of a cheeky message placed in the ROM by a disgruntled employee. You'll learn how exhausted coders had to take naps at their desks while code compiled on a mainframe. You'll also learn why those tedious "peek" and "poke" functions weren't built in as BASIC commands for easier usage on your C64.

Interestingly, Steve Wozinak, one of the co-founders of Apple Computers, claims in his new book (titled "iWoz") that he invented the personal computer and provided Chuck Peddle with the idea for the first Commodore PET. When you read On The Edge, you'll find that it tells a different story. Chuck Peddle receives a great deal of coverage, and after reading about his efforts you will feel this is deservedly so. His efforts have gone largely unsung and On The Edge may well be the first step towards him earning the title of being the father of the personal computer.

Commodore Business Machines was a company that produced superior computers for the mass market. Their legacy deserves to be told and more importantly heard. Computing history didn't just involve the big players that still exist today. Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and others all shaped the future. On The Edge is an experience that will change the way you view computing history and maybe even entice you to dust off that old Commodore computer that's been sitting in the cupboard. Bagnall tells it like it is and also leaves you thinking "what if?" many times. The great stories are filled with characters that anyone who works in the IT industry will recognize in their own workplace. It truly demonstrates the fragility and ad-hoc nature of not only Commodore itself, but the entire industry back then. It really makes you cringe in disbelief at how some stupid and insignificant decisions shaped the future as we know it now. No one could have known how important these decisions were back then.

At a hefty 557 pages, On The Edge is good value. Bagnall's informative and relaxed writing makes it a breeze to travel through decades at a blistering pace. It sheds some much needed light on a period of history clouded by revisionism.

You can purchase On The Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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The Rise and Fall of Commodore

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  • by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) * <bittercode@gmail> on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:41PM (#16858426) Homepage Journal
    It is 10 bucks cheaper at Amazon [amazon.com]. (That's an associate link - if that bothers you - just go search it at amazon- 'on the edge' returned it as the top hit for me.)
  • by Danathar ( 267989 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:59PM (#16858792) Journal
    And to top it off....

    Commodore's former chip fab facility is on the EPA's superfund site for extreme damage to the environment.

    http://www.epa.gov/reg3hwmd/super/sites/PAD0937301 74/index.htm [epa.gov]

    I hope Medi Ali and Gould burn in hell for what they did. They ruined a perfectly good computer/OS AND dumped toxic waste!
  • by jesup ( 8690 ) * <randellslashdot@@@jesup...org> on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @05:11PM (#16858980) Homepage
    At a recent get-together of a half-dozen or so ex-Commodore/Amiga engineers, we were discussing this book. The overall opinion, including of the one person who was interviewed for it, was that it was pretty good at covering the early Commodore days, the C64 and Tramiel issues, but the coverage of the post-Tramiel Amiga days (especially the later parts) was a bit spottier and had some factual problems. The author's main contacts are with the C64 and Atari ST/Tramiel crowd, so this isn't surprising.

    I personally don't remember any large number of Amigas scrapped for the "they f***ed it up" message; in fact I'd seriously doubt that. And there were easter eggs in every version of the OS, usually far more extensive than that one.

    Also, there were no "mainframes" at Commodore; the biggest iron was a Vax 11/780(if I remember right). And none of the software builds were done on that; all the Amiga SW was built on Sun-2's (early on) or on Amigas directly. By 1989ish, only a few libraries were still built on Suns - I think Workbench.lib was the last holdout, or close to. For AmigaOS 2.0, I ported AmigaDOS and all the remaining BCPL filesystems and commands to C and assembler built on Amigas. The "darkest before the dawn" story is likewise close, but not quite correct. (It is legendary, though.) However, while we weren't waiting for compiles, there were interludes in the 2.0-2.04 days when we did sleep in some offices and storage rooms on cots, and had a freezer full of frozen meals, plus lots of delivered pizza, italian, etc.

    Admittedly, the employees were upset enough about the (mis)management by Mehdi Ali (much more so than Irving Gould) that at the "Deathbed Vigil" party when bankruptcy was declared, we burnt Mehdi Ali in effigy in my backyard.

    The old offices are now QVC Studio Park; you can tour them. A few people at QVC know about this; when selling the C64-in-a-joystik a year or two ago, the host mentioned that the building used to house Commodore. It is truely absolutely huge....

    Note: I haven't read the book yet, though others in the group discussing it had, and one was a major interviewee.

  • by ehrichweiss ( 706417 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @05:24PM (#16859272)
    Jealous much? The fact that to this day it is still impossible for a PC, Mac or otherwise to display two screens with different resolutions *on the same display* is only the beginning of why your ignorance and snobbishness shows. Pre-emptive mutitasking, the Video Toaster/Flyer, Lightwave, and the genlocking abilities are other prime examples of why most of us are glad your opinion is just that. Heaven forbid we mention how it could boot a full multitasking OS with GUI in under 880k. Nah, not innovative at all...freakin' REVOLUTIONARY is more like it.
  • by cmpalmer ( 234347 ) * on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @05:30PM (#16859386) Homepage
    As you say, when the Amiga came out (I had one of the first Amiga 1000s) it was far and away the most impressive personal computer on the market - processing power, graphics, sound, multi-tasking OS, etc. Five years later (or maybe less) Apple and the PC market had caught up and passed it and the Amigas that were being sold were only marginally better (woo-hoo, now it has a hard drive and more memory). Putting everything into the custom chipsets was a fantastic way of squeezing out that performance when it premiered, but it locked the hardware (and the tightly coupled software) into a time warp outside of Moore's Law.

    I do have many fond memories on my C-64 (and my Amiga). I've still got a mostly working SX-64 in my closet, but I'm not sure the disk drive is in good shape - the last time I tried, I couldn't read most of the floppies I have.

    I did learn to program in BASIC and 6502 assembly language on my C-64 and we wore out many joysticks playing Summer Games and M.U.L.E. on it.

    My personal personal computer experience went like this:

    TRS-80 Model 1, 4K RAM, Level 1 Basic (eventually upgraded to 16K RAM, Level 2 Basic, but I never had a disk drive for it)
    C-64 (I skipped the Vic-20) with several 1541 disk drives
    SX-64 (bought used from a friend who bought a C-128)
    Amiga 1000
    (started using Macs at my college job and a few PCs in school, but most schoolwork was done on a Vax and an IBM mainframe)
    Packard Bell 486 (my first PC)
    I've lost track of how many different PCs I've owned since then.
  • by WidescreenFreak ( 830043 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @05:39PM (#16859554) Homepage Journal
    I'l never forget that little beast. I remember saving up for months on my paper route until I was able to go into Service Merchandise, plunk down some $700 in cash, and walk out with a brand new Commodore 64, 1701 monitor, and 1541 hard drive. Hell, I still remember the days of the ol' VicModem running at a screaming 300 baud. When my friend got 1,200 baud, the speed difference was incredible.

    I will definitely be getting this book. What wonderful nostalgia! "poke 53280,0" anyone?

    One of the T-Shirts at ThinkGeek is of the exact setup that I mentioned above with the phrase "I Adore My 64". My shirt finally came in on Monday after being back-orderd for about a week.

    I Adore My 64 [thinkgeek.com] (My apologies if someone already posted this, but I didn't see it.)
  • by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @05:56PM (#16859856) Homepage Journal

    Well, Peddle was only there for a short time. Jack Tramiel built Commodore up in the beginning, being Commdore's founder and everything.

    He did do something in the early eighties which nearly killed Commodore. Tramiel went to war with TI in the so-called video game wars, furious that TI had undermined its calculator business in the eighties. The Commodore 64, which was selling well at $600 (supposedly close to 10x what it actually cost to build, even then) was repeatedly subjected to price cuts and a massive marketing campaign, which ultimately came close to destroying Commodore's cash flow.

    At the end of the period, Irving Gould, Commodore's effective owner, fired Tramiel, who left and then went to Atari, which he basically saved from oblivion.

    Commodore went bankrupt for the first time shortly afterwards. It recovered. And then went bust again.

    Commodore's main problem at the end were a bunch of technical managers with agendas, and some lousy decisions made as a result of it. A case in point, the AGA chipset.

    The AGA chipset was supposed to debut in an enhanced A3000 (the 3000 was a very respected, if expensive, 32-bit Amiga system), called the A3000+. Shortly before the A3000+ was supposed to be finished and shown to Commodore's international affiliates, there was a change of management, and the project cancelled. Instead, AGA was to be put first into a lower cost machine, called (IIRC) the A2200. Low cost consumer machines were suddenly considered Commodore's future direction, and they also designed an "A300", a replacement for the Commodore 64 based on old Amiga (ECS) technology, and an "A600", an AGA and standards compliant replacement to the A500.

    All of which made some kind of sense, I suppose, but there was no replacement for the A3000.

    After that, Commodore's managers decided to rename and reprice everything before announcing these wonderful machines to the public. The A2200 became the A4000. The replacement to the A3000. (This would be like Ford replacing the Lincoln Town Car with a design based upon the Escort.) It, and the A600, were delayed.

    Meanwhile, the A300 was renamed (at the last moment) to the A600, and sold at the same price as the Amiga 500, which was abruptly dropped. The A600, as released, had some of the keyboard missing (so it couldn't play some Amiga games), and was no more powerful anywhere else. The machine did have a PCMCIA slot and a laptop hard drive interface, but these didn't really pacify anyone.

    A few months afterwards, the AGA machines were released. Despite AGA, the A4000 was considerably less desirable than its "predecessor", and far more expensive than the A2000 it was supposed to replace. The A1200 was a good replacement for the A500, but was sold at a much higher price.

    So in 1993 or so, you have Commodore:

    1. Seriously short of money, partially thanks to "Business is War" champion Tramiel.
    2. Seriously short of money, mainly (at this point) thanks to an ill-fated entry into the PC market (dumb managers)
    3. Releasing two lemons and a bitter orange as replacements for long-in-the-tooth but popular machines, and having no money to back it up (dumb managers)

    If they hadn't had cashflow problems, it's tempting to speculate that all four machines would have been launched, and done so as replacements for the machines they were supposed to replace. As it was, they needed the money. That said, the A3000+ appears to have been killed by a manager of the type who wants to make an impression, rather than out of any technical or marketing awareness.

    Tramiel can't really be blamed for all of this. He made one error, and he'd probably argue it wasn't an error to begin with, by the end of the "war" Commodore pretty much owned the home computer market, or was one of a top two (depending on country: ie Sinclair and Commodore in the UK owned the home computer market.) Irving Gould, who appointed a series of replacements for Tramiel and kept firing them until Medhi Ali, who was reponsible for the period where most of Commmodore's death was sealed. The PC fiasco. The numerous incompetent PHB-style heads of engineering. The mismanagement of the AGA transition.

  • by funfail ( 970288 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @05:59PM (#16859904) Homepage
    no harddrive, no mouse , no GUI
    Not quite true. C64 had hard drive, mouse and GUI (Geos). You only had to pay extra to buy them (but again, you had to purchase the floppy drive separately, too).
  • Re:6502 also in (Score:3, Informative)

    by cant_get_a_good_nick ( 172131 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @06:16PM (#16860214)
    The 650x chip was a good chip, was in a lot of the 8 bit home computers that so many of us cut our teeth on, including the Apple II series, and the Atari 8 bit computers (also a Tramiel story).

    For true pedants, the C64 had a MOS 6510, not a 6502. Same ABI, i think it jsut had interconnects for all the extra chips (video, SID audio chip)
  • by Spit ( 23158 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @06:32PM (#16860492)
    The misrepresentations are this article's only, the book is accurate about the Vax and the Workbench easter eggs.
  • by Larch ( 229337 ) <larch@@@gmx...co...uk> on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @06:55PM (#16860922)
    The Amiga 500 did have an RCA composite out built in but only in black and white. The box he's referring to is the A520 RF modulator, this included both RF and colour composite plugs. I can't remember if the A500+ needed a modulator, but the 600 and 1200 both had colour composite built in.

    The 23pin RGB port carries all the right signals to happily drive a VGA monitor, but at ~15KHz, 50/60Hz.
  • by DougReed ( 102865 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @09:23PM (#16862880)
    This is one of the most clueless posts I have ever read in Slashdot. A complete troll.

    The Amiga was light years ahead of everything else:

    4096 colors ... closest competitor 32... Atari
    True Multitasking ... no competition at all.
    A proper channel processor (i.e. channel commands were handled by one of the three chips Gary, Agnes, or Denise ... not the CPU)
    A Proper Graphics Processor with built in real time animation in the hardware.
    A Proper Sound Processor.
    Quadraphonic Sound. Closest competitor. Mono. Atari and Apple.
    True Multimedia... fully compatible with NTSC (in US) or PAL (Europe) ... no competition at all.

    Many PCs today actually have inferior graphics and sound to an original Amiga!

    The guys who developed Amiga were geniuses. Commodore (their sugar daddy) was, I'll admit completely incompetent in every way.

    I knew Commodore and Amiga was going to go down at an Amiga User's group meeting when the 500 was announced... The Commodore marketing guy comes in and states flatly that the 500 will have no hard drive because "our customers have no interest in hard drives". We all jumped him, but he was simply too stupid to get it. The 500's form factor was really clever with the works in the keyboard... Had they put a 20 meg hard drive in that machine, and allowed Toys "R" Us to sell them... Commodore would be Microsoft today. .. but no...

    While Apple was giving Computers to schools (so kids knew and liked them) Commodore their demo machines at full price to their own dealers... Almost all simply had pictures of them! They shouldn't have bothered to even play... they brought no chips to the table. .. And Jack Trammel (sp?) had the dubious honor of making Forbes higest paid executive the year before they went backrupt. He was just another Kenneth Lay.
  • Big deal.... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Foerstner ( 931398 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @09:42PM (#16863058)
    (Cue jokes about Microsoft dumping toxic waste with every new Windows release.)

    Virtually every manufacturing plant operating prior to 1980 or so is on the Superfund list. Dumping (or "storing") toxic waste was just part of doing business until then. Practically every company making anything at or before that time has at least one Superfund-listed plant somewhere. IBM has at least three. HP has four or so. Sun and Unisys each have one. Intel has two.

    These days, companies have wised up. They've learned that China has no such legislation.
  • by DougReed ( 102865 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @09:48PM (#16863114)
    Actually the problem was that Commodore decide. They decided that it was a "Serious" computer and not a "Toy" ... They had the largest dealer network in the planet... The 64 and 128 were sold in every toy store in the world that was big enough to matter, but Commodore decided that would make them look like a "toy" so they refused to let their own dealer network sell the Amiga, and then they insisted on their demo units to the PC shops. The shops have a picture of an Amiga and take orders if you insisted, but they would steer you away if they could. The net result was that was then seeling the Amiga.

    If Commodore had just let Toys "R" Us sell the damn things, people would have never bought PCs because they would have said ... no I don't need one... My "Game Machine" does everything I need. We're just going to buy the next generation "Amiga Game Machine" with the CD32 CD Drive and that new Office software.

    Commodore got stuck in sementics and blew their golden opportunity.
  • by flnca ( 1022891 ) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @06:34AM (#16866896) Journal
    Lisa and Macintosh didn't have preemptive multitasking. MacOS didn't have preemptive multitasking until OS X. AmigaOS was the first personal computer operating system to have preemptive multitasking. As for GUI systems, before Lisa, there were a number of projects developed at the Xerox research center at Palo Alto. The first (largely text-based) GUI system with mouse was developed in the early 1960ies (!!) (Google for it, there are some interesting videos; however, I can't recall the name of the project right now.) The Atari ST was the first GUI system that was available to the masses, followed by the Amiga 1000. Macintoshs were more than twice as expensive, and unaffordable to average households! Later it was claimed that the Amiga GUI was a Mac rip-off, but that's not true: The Amiga team started out in 1979, which was the year when the XC68000 processor came to market. And the Atari ST was a project started by Jack Tramiel to quickly bring an Amiga-like computer to the market before Commodore did. I recall that in 1983 and 1984, there were already rumors about a super-PC coming to market, made by Commodore, although the rumors were highly exaggerated. A friend in school told me about this, and said it would have 8-channel sound, millions of colors, etc. ;-) -- so the Amiga wasn't a surprise to me when it finally came.
  • by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @09:44AM (#16868476) Homepage Journal

    Yeah, but that was slightly after the events involving Tramiel were finished, and was partially because Amstrad took over a flailing Sinclair which, while immune from Tramiel's price cuts (the Spectrum was the cheapest home computer in town and achieved a network-effect very quickly), had made some bad business decisions of its own after the Spectrum, the C5 being the one that pushed it over the edge.

    Certainly, in 1984, people either owned Spectrums or Commodore 64s in Britain. Technically good rivals such as the 6809-based Dragon (a system based upon the same Motorola reference design as the Radio Shack CoCo) barely made a dent. TI flailed from 1981 to 1984 and ended up withdrawing from the market - I've only ever seen two TI99/4a's in my entire life, one of which was in a store, and that's two more than most people I know.

Fear is the greatest salesman. -- Robert Klein