What links the following? #1: a best-selling home computer, #2: one of the most beloved non-console gaming machines of the 80s and 90s, and #3: the first personal computer to sell over 1 million units.
A lot of people over 30 will probably name a Commodore machine as the first computer they ever used, be it a Commodore PET in the late seventies, a VIC-20 or Commodore 64 from the 1980s, or even one of the Amiga line in the early nineties. Some will have played their first game on one or wrote their first program in BASIC, perhaps leading them to a life-long career in the tech industry—I'm one of many who owe a debt of gratitude to the company.
The Commodore PET
The story begins in 1954 when Commodore was founded by Jack Tramiel, a Polish American who had survived Auschwitz and examination by infamous nazi Josef Mengele. The company originally made adding machines and electronic calculators, but everything changed in 1977 when it released the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Translator), its first mass-market personal computer.
Out of the box, the PET featured a keyboard with a numeric pad—something almost unheard of then—along with a 1MHz MOS Technology 6502 processor, 4KB of memory, and an operating system burned onto a ROM chip that loaded when the machine booted.
It also featured a 9-inch 40 x 25 monitor and cassette deck integrated into the white chassis and included Microsoft's Basic in ROM. It cost $495, which is equivalent to ~$2,116 in today's dollars. Later versions were even more expensive, making their modern-day prices over $6,000! Despite the expense, the machine, along with the Radio Shack TRS-80 and Apple II, helped paved the way for the personal computer revolution.
Commodore released many successors to the original PET. In the 1980s, 4000-series PETs with their improved Basic 4.0 became the latest iteration of the machine and proved very popular in schools, partly thanks to their sturdiness and ability to share printers and disk drivers on simple LANs.
While the PET series was a success for Commodore, the eighties saw a real boom for the company.
It began at the start of the decade, three years after the launch of the original PET. Wanting a home computer that was more affordable, Commodore came up with the VIC-20, which used the same MOS 6502 CPU and upped the RAM by a whole kilobyte to 5KB -- though this was expandable using a Super Expander Cartridge. There was no integrated monitor or tape cassette, but the price was just under $300 at launch, making it around $940 in today's money.
The VIC-20's 22-column text display made it less than ideal for most business use. Still, the color graphics, sound capabilities, and ability to connect to an Atari joystick, combined with the low price, made it a hit -- the machine became the first home computer to sell one million units, and 2.5 million were shipped across its lifetime. Commodore even had William Shatner appear in its commercials.
While the VIC-20 sold well, what came next was something exceptional. In 1982, Commodore introduced the Commodore 64, a name derived from the computer's 64K of RAM. The machine cost $595, around $1,600 today, and as Commodore had bought MOS Technology's semiconductor fabs, it was able to produce many parts in-house; a C64 was estimated to cost around $135 to make.
The Commodore 64 had to compete with the Atari 8-bit 400, Atari 800, the Apple II, and IBM machines, but by 1983 it was selling around the same number of units as Apple and IBM combined. In addition to its great sound, graphics, and around 10,000 software titles, the majority of which were games, the C64 was available in regular retail outlets rather than just specialist computer and electronic stores. This all helped it enter the Guinness Book of world records as the best-selling single computer model of all time, with an estimated 10 million to 17 million units sold.
Another version of C64 followed: the SX-64, which came with an integrated color 'monitor' and disk drive. It was supposed to be a portable incarnation of the computer, but the 23-pound weight and massive size meant it wasn't exactly easy to carry around. It didn't sell very well and was discontinued in 1986.
Commodore released more computers in 1984, including the entry-level VIC-20 replacement, the Commodore 16, which died in the US market, and the higher-end Plus/4, whose name referred to the four built-in office apps. With IBM dominating the business end of the computer market, it also flopped in America.
1985 saw the launch of the Commodore 128. It offered a few technical improvements over the 64, including double the RAM and an 80-column display, but it was still an 8-bit computer at a time when the 16/32-bit machines were on their way.
The Amiga Years
1984 marked the year that founder Tramiel quit Commodore over clashes with board chairman Irvine Gould. He later used his new company, Tramel (no "i") Technology, to buy Atari's Consumer Division.
In February, Commodore bought a small startup called Amiga for $25 million ($67 million today). The acquisition turned out to be a shrewd move.
On July 23, 1985, Commodore introduced the Amiga 1000, the first in a series of Amiga computers that were adored by many gamers of the late 80s and early nineties, especially in Europe. Boasting 256KB of RAM and a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000 CPU, it cost $1,295, or $1,595 if you wanted the 13-inch analog monitor. That works out at a pretty hefty $3,840 in today's money.
Commodore's Amiga was going against a machine that would be the series' main competitor for years to come: the Atari ST. Theirs would be a rivalry to match Apple and Samsung, Sony and Microsoft, and AMD and Nvidia.
A number of Amigas followed the first model, including the Amiga 500, which, unlike the 1000, was sold in retail outlets and not just computer stores; a return to the VIC-20 strategy. The 500 was the best-selling Amiga, moving between 4 and 6 million units.
New and more advanced models arrived -- this writer owned an Amiga 500, 500+, 600, and finally a 1200. They were brilliant game machines that never found the same level of popularity in the US as in Europe, sadly. Titles such as Sensible Soccer, The Chaos Engine, Speedball 2, Cannon Fodder, Syndicate, and Monkey Island 2, which came on 11 disks, helped boost sales and led to several magazines dedicated to the home computers.
End of an Era
Despite success at the start of the 1990s, things were not looking good for Commodore. PC compatibles were becoming the preferred choice for enterprise and productivity users, especially as many programs for this segment were being written with MS-DOS in mind. Sega and Nintendo, meanwhile, were dominating the gaming industry thanks to their consoles, and with 3D graphics arriving on PCs, the Amiga's days were numbered; it seem few preferred Gloom over Doom.
There was a last throw of the dice with the Amiga CD32, a CD-ROM-based console that had some notoriously bad games. Commodore famously positioned the machine to take on Sega in the UK with ads that read: "To get this good will take Sega ages," the kind of hubris it soon regretted.
The CD32 quickly ran into supply problems and money issues, meaning the console was never officially sold in the US because of legal reasons. It actually moved 100,000 units in Europe and Canada, but it wasn't enough to save Commodore and the money wasn't there to make more.
On April 29, 1994, Commodore announced that it was bankrupt. The company's failure to move with the times played a large part in its downfall. The demise spelled the end of the CD32, just eight months after launch.
Both the Commodore and Amiga names lived on for many years after the former went bust, but they passed between companies and faded into obscurity. For those who owned a machine from the Commodore stable, however, the memories will live on forever. And if you weren't alive back then, check out one of the modern reimaginings of the C64 consoles.
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