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The Real Inside Story of How Commodore Failed ( 261

dryriver writes: Everybody who was into computers in the 1980s and 1990s remembers Commodore producing amazingly innovative, capable and popular multimedia and gaming computers one moment, and disappearing off the face of the earth the next, leaving only PCs and Macs standing. Much has been written about what went wrong with Commodore over the years, but always by outsiders looking in -- journalists, tech writers, not people who were on the inside. In a 34 minute long Youtube interview that surfaced on October 9th, former Commodore UK Managing Director David John Pleasance and Trevor Dickinson of A-EON Technology talk very frankly about how Commodore really failed, and just how crazy bad and preventable the business and tech decisions that killed Commodore were, from firing all Amiga engineers for no discernible reason, to hiring 40 IBM engineers who didn't understand multimedia computing, to not licensing the then-valuable Commodore Business Machines (CBM) brand to PC makers to generate an extra revenue stream, to one new manager suddenly deciding to manufacture in the Philippines -- a place where the man had a lady mistress apparently. The interview is a truly eye-opening preview of an upcoming book David John Pleasance is writing called Commodore: The Inside Story . The book will, for the first time, chronicle the fall of Commodore from the insider perspective of an actual Commodore Managing Director.
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The Real Inside Story of How Commodore Failed

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  • Oh how quaint! Did he like to hide in her petticoats?

  • Buttholes (Score:4, Funny)

    by sexconker ( 1179573 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @03:16AM (#55360845)

    Did you perhaps mean to type "Hero to Zero"?

    • by fyngyrz ( 762201 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @08:12AM (#55361421) Homepage Journal

      Here to Zero

      Yes, that pretty much sums it up.

      A company of mine used to develop for the Amiga. We did several different types of software and various bits of hardware. We were quite successful in the Amiga context right up until Commodore folded, at which point we switched to Windows and continued our run for many years. During the Amiga years we used to say:

      If Commodore owned the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, they would market it as "Lukewarm dead bird."

      After the Amiga years, we'd just roll our eyes and twitch a bit.

  • tl;dr (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Katatsumuri ( 1137173 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @03:17AM (#55360849)
    usual corporate insanity, with a touch of bad luck
    • Re:tl;dr (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Wizardess ( 888790 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @05:00AM (#55360997)

      I cannot say I was "inside". I was pretty darned close, though, as the chief moderator of the Amiga conferences on the late lamented BIX, "BYTE Information Exchange". If I tried to write down everything I heard as Commododo went extinct I'd probably be sued for slander within seconds. I am pretty sure most of what I think I know is accurate. It's generally multiply sourced from the engineers and software people who were there to the end.

      When the owner of a company decides to milk it for what he can get out of it as it disintegrates the results are ugly. The motivations varied from ugly to pathetic.

      It will be REALLY interesting to see what David has to say about it.

      {^_^} formerly long ago jdow@bix[MUNG].com. (Munged to protect the current holders of

    • by Skuld-Chan ( 302449 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @02:58PM (#55364107)

      I think it has more to do with bad timing than luck though. I have an Amiga 4000 still (I used to use it back in the day to edit tape using Amilink and the VT-4000) it still works :) (at 25 years I've reworked the motherboard to replace various components etc), but even I thought (as a die hard) that the A4000 was a bit late to the scene - it was the first Amiga released to the public in 92 to support 8 bit color - most of the high color modes are almost useless hacks (they look very pretty, but outside of animation you can't do much else real time with them). Still the A4000 was the best tool for the job for at least another 2-5 years - with a lot of addons (like the Flyer).

      From what I understand the AA chipset was slated to be released on the Amiga 3000+ as early as 89/90 - if they could have delivered 8 bit color then, and with the Amiga 4000 delivered the AAA chipset in 92 it would have been a major game changer for people who were into graphics workstations.

      And bad management forcing stupid priorities (like CDTV, the Amiga 600 - on and on an on) on their research and development teams and engineering teams it really screwed up their timing and they were constantly releasing products that would have been revolutionary if they came along a year or two earlier.

  • by hoover ( 3292 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @04:46AM (#55360969)

    Thanks for the heads-up. I re-read Brian Bagnall's "On the Edge" about once a year which is also a fascinating read.

    I pre-ordered with regular shipping to Germany (about 7 quid)

  • by jools33 ( 252092 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @04:51AM (#55360975)

    Still got my old C64 from the early 80s and it still works, solid reliable hardware. Those days are long gone.

    • by The Cynical Critic ( 1294574 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @05:30AM (#55361037)
      The C64? Reliable? Maybe some of the last ones, but according many of the other engineers who worked there when the C64 was in production, including C128 hardware designer Bill Herd, it really was about getting as much hardware out the door quality be damned. In his talk at VCFMW 11 "Bil Herd: Tales from Inside Commodore" (an interesting talk you can find on youtube) he mentions a time when Commodore literally started shipping their own quality control rejects to stores for the Christmas season. The apparent idea behind this was that they were going to mostly be Christmas presents so people wouldn't even notice they were faulty until after Christmas by which time they'd come back to the store to replace them for working machines they'd have been able to produce by then.
      • In his talk at VCFMW 11 "Bil Herd: Tales from Inside Commodore" (an interesting talk you can find on youtube) he mentions a time when Commodore literally started shipping their own quality control rejects to stores for the Christmas season.

        I think that was actually "Tales from the Crypt"

      • That would certainly explain my Commodore 16's amazingly short lifespan.

      • My 1981 Atari still works fine
      • The C64? Reliable?

        Mine certainly was!

      • by Toad-san ( 64810 )

        I developed a CW (Morse Code) send-and-receive training system for the US Army Special Forces Radio School in '84 using networked (!) C-64's and standard issue CW keys, a networked hard drive, and amber monitors. Worked wonderfully well, the Army got a hell of a deal (it was my first work as an independent programmer, a "proof of me" sort of thing). Commodore BASIC, 6502 assembly language, great stuff! The little C-64's held up just fine ... except for the sound chip :-( The constant barrage of CW tones

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      To be fair a lot of machines from that era are dying now. Batteries became more and more common in the 80s, and of course they leak. ROMs are starting to die too, especially EPROMs. I had to replace a few when restoring an Amiga 4000 recently.

      Capacitors commonly go, even good ones of that age. Storage media are a problem too - tapes are generally fairly reliable but the tape decks die, usually the drive belt. C64 floppy drives were unreliable even back in the day, so actually these days they are probably mo

      • The caps are really the biggest problem, ROMs are cheap enough and were usually socketed back then to enable upgrades (as Amiga ROMs are) but that was the era when smt caps became ubiquitous so you realistically need a hot air rework station to replace them. I need to recap my a1200 eventually. In theory I could just do it with my iron, I did a test on a router with a similar cap and it is doable...

        Power supplies are mostly dead now too, but those are also mostly caps. I still put a picopsu in my 1200

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          Hakko make some U shaped tips that are ideal for removing SMT components. Some caps are too large but I think the Amiga ones are fine. Then again, hot air rework stations are so cheap now...

      • by Shinobi ( 19308 )

        Yeah, I've had to replace caps and EPROMs on my 4k. Not looking forward to when the Cyberstorm PPC will need replacing....

  • Seriously, is proofreading the title already too much?

  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Friday October 13, 2017 @05:49AM (#55361075) Homepage Journal

    Anyone want to buy an a1200 with an aca1233n, quick before the fires eat my county?

  • by teg ( 97890 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @06:06AM (#55361121) Homepage

    Ars Technica published a story on the fall of Commodore [] as part of their History of Amiga [] series.

    Reading this was a nice trip down memory lane, my first computer was a Commodore 64 and the second one a Commodore Amiga 500.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 13, 2017 @06:33AM (#55361183)
    Commodore would never have survived the comodisation and explosion of standard computing and office cimputing. At best it would have stayed a niche at worst it would have imploded as a game machine. See for example the Atari ST plateform, which separated from the tramiel/commodore fiasco, and yet what hapenned in 1993 ? They went the jaguar way and dropped personal machine - only hobbyist continued. That is why I think that while the video shows one side of the problem, this would not have been the end in a normal case, but due to the comodisation of coimnputing to office PC AND the console gamification so that personal computing game plateform could only go the first way (console) or the later (office general machine with games). This is the TRUE reason amiga and comodore failed : they missed the change in early in1990, kept doing those personal gaming machine (yes they were NOT used massively for office stuff) and even if they had done a good machine, they were on the way out anyway.
    • What about AMIX? SUN wanted to create cheap, Amiga-based workstations running UNIX. This could have borne a new line of architecture directly competing with PC in the office and standard computing, while bearing familiarity to home and multimedia computing of classic Amiga line. And to be completely honest, the PC architecture was horribly clunky at the time. Nobody really *liked* the PC - it was a work machine, and the only available work machine that was reasonably priced.

      It was the sheer untamed greed of

    • I tend to agree with this in general. The computer market certainly did split in the 90s into the console market and the serious computer market. It wasn't really until near 2000 that PCs became gaming machines in the way they are now.

      The Amiga sort of tried to be both at the same time - in Britain, where I am familiar with the Amiga, it utterly failed as a serious computer, and only really existed as games machine. It struggled against the Sega Megadrive/Genesis (Sonic was killing it in every way) and would have utterly failed had it had to compete against the PS1.

      The fundamental trouble for the Amiga, in my opinion (I used one as my primary computer up to 2001, I did most of my first year university coursework on it), was the lack of modularity. Even in the early 90s you could swap out hardware in PCs to take advantage of new releases (e.g. the release of Soundblaster did not require you to by a whole new computer), and manufacturers/retailers could mix and match hardware to meet different needs.

      But with the Amiga you were stuck with maybe 5 or 6 different computers (in the 90s - 600, 1200, 3000, 4000, CDTV, CD32) with a fixed and unchanging hardware. Had they been more modular, and had it therefore been possible to swap out the bitplane graphics system for a pixel based graphics by simply swapping out one card for another then things might have been different.

      I know you could install a Piccaso card and other such graphics cards, but due to built in nature of the AGA and related hardware no mass consumer software would dare support anything else, and there was no real hardware abstraction layer to overcome this. Since none of it was abstracted through anything like OpenGL or DX or anything even remotely similar, no one would write software for any plugin card, preferring instead to target the bigger market for the built in hardware*.

      * After Commodore's death there were some games that started to target plugin gfx cards (Doom and Quake clones, etc. such a Alien Breed 3d) but by then it was clearly too late, and the problem of a lack of a standardised abstraction for hardware was still present anyway.

      So the Amiga was stuck with what was, by the early 90s, crappy bitplane based graphics and crappy 8 bit, 4-channel sound, and no way to move away from this. Without any standardised abstraction system to allow modular hardware (and without virtual, or at least protected, memory) it was just stuck with inadequate hardware.

      Everyone says how Commodore failed because they didn't develop the hardware enough, and didn't release AAA or Hombré hardware like they should have, but it wouldn't have made a difference - they would have released some fantastic hardware which would have been top of the line for a year or two but which would have quickly been overtaken by the competitive market for modular hardware which PCs could take advantage of.

      (First thing I did when I finally ditched my A1200 and got a PC was to go and buy a better graphics board so I could play Giants: Citizen Kabuto)

      • by Bert64 ( 520050 )

        There was an abstraction layer, that's why the OS and well behaved apps can run just fine once you've installed a picasso or similar card.
        The problem is that abstraction layers are slow, so games usually wrote directly to the hardware to get better performance.

  • They developed a killer product and then sat on their asses doing little to progress it until the competition surpassed them. Not enough investment in R&D, not enough marketing, not enough product refinement.
    • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @11:55AM (#55362683) Journal

      There was an big internal battle about whether to split the lines into business computers and consumer computers. Tramiel felt more comfortable competing in the consumer realm, but many top engineers and board members felt the business market had better margins. Tramiel wanted to be a low-cost volume producer instead of the deal with complex higher-end systems. He wanted to crank out mass widgets, not be IBM. After all, that's why the C64 was successful. If low-price-high-volume got you where you are, why change your spots? This battle drained the company's focus.

      Another problem is that they didn't initially give much thought to forward compatibility. A lot of software producers relied on undocumented features and glitches to get special effects, tease out speed, or work around design bugs. C64's architecture was designed with price in mind, such as getting a deal on components at the time of first release. Creating a future-friendly architecture was ranked behind such. If the next model didn't recreate these glitches and oddities, the old software wouldn't be compatible. Thus, they had problems engineering a next generation model compatible with C64 software.

      They even released a computer with the C64 chip set and a newer chip-set, but it was pretty much 2 different computers in one box, making it more expensive yet not having software for the "new half". It failed. Without compatibility and the software it brings, people would have no reason to get the new model(s). Their price-first past caught up with them.

      And third, Commodore was flaky about paying their bills. They built up a bad reputation such that suppliers became pickier about payment schedules and conditions, robbing Commodore of supply flexibility. It's yet another case of short-term thinking catching up. Tramiel's bill-flake reputation followed him to Atari.

  • I had worked with so many company that work this way, from bank to media they all have a mistress that want them to buy a firm to just lay out all the staff to turn the building in a autoignition desaster.

  • The Deathbed Vigil (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jody Bruchon ( 3404363 ) on Friday October 13, 2017 @09:10AM (#55361627)
    This one is hard to end up finding even if you're a Commodore guy. The Deathbed Vigil [] by Dave Haynie is basically a documentary about the last day the Commodore doors were open. It's almost entirely footage shot on-the-spot by Haynie of the staff and what they talked about and had to say during the last day.

    If you watch it, you'll find that one of the employees was probably one of the nicest people ever, and even he was on the verge of saying that the head of the company was a piece of shit that was entirely to blame. It was pretty depressing, really. Everything went to hell after Tramiel left and management is entirely to blame. The engineers were the most dedicated people you could get.
  • I was young at the time, but I remember seeing the fall of Commodore coming a couple of years out. When the Amiga initially came out I did not pay that much attention to it because by that time Commodore had burnt its bridges with too many people in the industry. By the time I learned how good the Amiga was it was obvious that Commodore had either failed to understand why it had such an atrocious reputation in the computing industry or did not know how to change. Commodore as a company was already on life
  • If you are interested in the history of Commodore, and the tour de force that was Jack Tramiel, I'd suggest checking out Brian Bagnall's excellent book, Commodore: A Company on the Edge (

    I got it because I had a C-128 growing up, and thought it'd be interesting to read about the history of the company, but it was more than just nostalgia that kept me engaged in the book. It provides a fascinating history of not only Commodore, but t

  • Not that long ago another company came along that bought out the name and was promising slick little PC setups to be available "soon". Then they evaporated into thin air. Anyone know what happened to them? The Wikipedia entry for Commodore 2.0 [] is not particularly telling.
  • The first commercial computer I owned was a Vic-20. The second one was a C64.

    I still consider the C64 to be perhaps the best hobbyist computer ever produced.

  • A while ago I read and enjoyed "On The Edge: The Spectacular Rise And Fall Of Commodore" by Brian Bagnall. He interviewed folks there, etc., to write a history of what went wrong. If I recall, it could be summed up as poor management and an eventual disinterest in running a technical company by the higher manager(s) (i.e., greed only).

Neutrinos have bad breadth.