Andre's Blog

Personal blog of Andre Perusse

On The Edge (and falling off a cliff)

UPDATE (Feb. 19, 2008): If you're too busy to read the book, take a look at this 8 minute video - it gives a pretty decent summary! 

Ars Technica recently began running a series on the history of the Amiga, my favourite computer of all time. From the comments posted to this series I discovered that in 2005 a book was published on the entire history of Commodore. Well, the entire history starting from 1974, anyway. Through hours of interviews with various engineers and executives of Commodore, the book titled On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore by Brian Bagnall tells the story of Commodore's pioneering role in the microcomputer industry, its rise to glory in the early to mid 1980's, and ending with its bankruptcy on April 29, 1994.

Commodore was actually founded in Toronto in 1958 by Jack Tramiel and Manfred Kapp as a typewriter manufacturer. After a stock scandal in the '60s, Commodore was bought by Canadian financier Irving Gould in 1966 who kept Jack Tramiel on as CEO to move Commodore into the then lucrative calculator sector. In the mid 70s, the calculator market was getting overcrowded, so Jack started looking for cheaper calculator parts. This lead to Commodore's purchase of MOS Technology, a semiconductor manufacturer. At the time, MOS had recently hired Chuck Peddle, who soon developed the legendary 6502 microprocessor. (Interesting side node: Chuck Peddle's parents hailed from the Canadian Maritime provinces, though the book does not detail from where specifically. A quick look at Canada411 shows a high concentration of Peddle's in Cape Breton, however.) The 6502 was extremely important to the nascent microcomputer industry because while the comparable 6800 from Motorola cost $300 (which Chuck Peddle was also involved with), the 6502 cost only $25. The 6502 became the processor in Commodore's first microcomputer, the PET 2001. It was also used in the Apple I and Apple II computers, and Atari's home computer models (the famous Atari 2600 game console used a variant of the 6502). The 6510 used in the world's top-selling computer model of all time, the Commodore 64, was a direct descendant of the 6502.

While I found this book to be a long read (it is 557 pages), I was thoroughly enthralled with it. While it did not focus too much on the personal lives of those involved (an aspect I enjoyed in another computer history book I recently read, Showstopper by G. Pascal Zachary), it did cover a lot of detail, including technical detail, which naturally I loved. It also detailed a lot of business transactions and, for me, illuminated much of how the business world works, or at least the dysfunctional business world of Commodore. Did you know that Steve Jobs offered to sell Apple to Commodore in the late 1970s? Jack turned them down because he thought $200,000 was an outlandish price. Oops. Of course, if Commodore had bought Apple, they'd be dead now, too. And did you know that the most successful microcomputer in 1977 was not from either Apple nor Commodore, but was in fact Tandy's TRS-80? Perhaps the most satisfying fact in the book is that Bill Gates learned his lesson on software licensing when Jack Tramiel negotiated a deal to use Microsoft's BASIC in Commodore computers. Jack sold tens of MILLIONS of computers with the same Microsoft BASIC in them and he only paid Microsoft a one-time fee of $10,000. Microsoft received absolutely no royalties on any Commodore computer sold in the late 70s to mid 80s. Ha!

Much of the book pays special attention to Commodore's founder and CEO until 1984, Jack Tramiel. Jack had a couple of battle cries that were interesting: "Business is War", and "Computers for the masses, not the classes." The first quote refers to Jack's belief that you didn't succeed by competing with competitors, you succeeded by destroying them completely. The second was Jack's continual insistence on driving down the cost of computers. There are many stories in the book that illustrate this. For instance, the original case design for the PET was to be made as a futuristic-looking molded plastic design. However, Commodore at the time owned an office supply company in Toronto, so they instead used an angular sheet-metal case because it cost less. The case for the C-64 is the exact same one as the VIC-20, because Jack didn't want to spend money designing a new case, which actually ended up causing the engineers to lose weeks worth of time trying to cram the C-64 guts into the VIC-20 case. Jack had some interesting characteristics, many of which I've noticed in other "successful" businessmen. However, what makes a successful businessman doesn't appear to be totally compatible with what makes a successful human being, in my humble opinion. One case in point is the fact that when Chuck Peddle left Commodore in the 1980s to begin his own start-up, out of spite Jack filed a lawsuit that completely destroyed Chuck needlessly (Jack and Chuck had once been very good friends). A hero of the microcomputer era struck down by a mean-spirited, greedy CEO.

Still, I have to wonder if Commodore would ever have succeeded as much without a guy like Jack at the helm. Another very interesting, but oddly secretive character in the Commodore saga was its owner, Irving Gould. The book paints this man as a mostly absent father-figure, who, when his CEOs would become successful with his company, he would fire them out of fear they were gaining too much power. After Jack took Commodore to a billion-dollar company with the C-64, Irving fired him in 1984. After Commodore lost hundreds of millions over the next several quarters, ex-Pepsi executive Tom Rattigan was put in place as the company's CEO and he turned it around in a matter of months! Once Commodore was successful again, Rattigan was let go by Gould, too. Commodore never recovered after this, and eventually failed at the inept hands of CEO Mehdi Ali (nicknamed the "speed bump" by Commodore engineers, who burned an effigy of him in Dave Haynie's Deathbed Vigil video) in 1994.

Commodore was the first company to put a microcomputer on the market, they were the first to sell over one millions units, and they were the first with a multimedia computer (the Amiga, R.I.P.) before the word "multimedia" existed. Despite all this, they self-destructed and have become pretty much just a footnote in the annals of the birth of the microcomputer industry. If you love computers as much as I do, and want to learn what it was like to be a computer engineer back in the heyday, you HAVE to read this book. If you're tired of the "revisionist history" that paints Apple as the founder of the microcomputer, you HAVE to read this book. If you ever look back nostalgically on that old Commodore computer you owned in the 1980s (and wonder why the 1541 disk drive was so slow), you HAVE to read this book. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and it will make you pound your fists in anger. What more can you ask from a book, especially a non-fiction one such as this?

Comments (3) -

  • Murman

    1/18/2008 8:59:40 PM |

    Ahh, I loved my C64

  • Darth Mac

    5/19/2009 11:52:55 PM |

    Ahh, the old Amiga days. You can still find us as a dealer listed if you google us... almost 15 years later. Smile