Discover more from Abort Retry Fail
The History of Commodore, Part 2
This is part two of a series on Commodore. If you haven’t already, you may be interested in reading part 1, which covers the creation of the 6502, the founding of MOS and Commodore, and the circumstances that led to the creation of the first Commodore computers.
In 1979, the Apple ][ was selling quite well due to VisiCalc, and the TRS-80 was taking the largest share of the new market. Having just avoided disaster with the collapse of the electronic calculator market by pivoting to microcomputers, Commodore needed to compete. For this, Commodore had been working on a color capable PET dubbed the Colour PET. One prototype of this machine was shown at National Computer Conference in Chicago in 1980. This machine reportedly had a graphics mode that could display one hundred sixty by one hundred pixels with eight colors and a text mode of eighty characters by twenty five characters. It also had a square wave generator.
Another project was underway by Chuck Peddle. This was “The Other Intellect,” or TOI. Neither the Colour PET nor the TOI would see release despite having been announced. In the case of the TOI, there was one major issue. The prototype used the MOS 6564 to generate its eighty column display. The 6564 required static RAM, and static RAM was quite expensive. The home micro market was getting into a price war in late 1979 and early 1980. Tramiel saw this and felt that an expensive eighty column machine wasn’t the correct path forward. This was exactly where Tandy was succeeding with TRS-80, and the Japanese market was producing low cost home microcomputers as well.
Michael Tomczyk started at Commodore on the 1st of April in 1979. Tomczyk was hired as Tramiel’s assistant, with the title “Assistant to the President.” Tomczyk felt that Commodore should be competing directly in the home microcomputer market. He was quite passionate and argued for this vociferously on his first day at the company. What he saw was something upon which later companies would capitalize quite nicely. He advocated a three product strategy where one computer would be sold to the home, another to the school, and yet another to the business market. Children would grow up fully immersed in Commodore products and then choose to use them in their business careers later in life. He dubbed this the “full life cycle strategy.” So, the day after his first meeting where he made these arguments, Tramiel stood up at the end of a second meeting on the topic, banged on the table and declared: “Gentlemen, the Japanese are coming – so WE will become the Japanese!”
Unfortunately, this is precisely what Chuck Peddle didn’t want to do. He and Tramiel has several rather heated exchanges, and ultimately, Peddle left the company just three years after the PET had launched, and he founded Sirius Systems Technology.
Commodore was going to need more production capability, so Tramiel and Tomczyk flew to Germany. They were negotiating with the German government to attempt to take over an electronics factory. At one point, Tramiel stated that the Germans should make some concessions, and the Germans replied: “Why should we give you concessions?” I am certain they weren’t prepared for Tramiel’s reply: “You owe it to me, I’m an Auschwitz survivor. Besides, it will be great PR for you.” Apparently, the German government was sufficiently moved, because Commodore got the factory.
Returning to California, Tramiel asked Tomczyk to check in on the marketing department. He’d criticized them on his first day, and Tramiel wanted to Tomczyk to make an assessment of their current thoughts and work. Tomczyk wasn’t impressed at all and told Tramiel as much. The next day after lunch Tomczyk went to the marketing department and found the offices empty. He asked the secretary where everyone had gone, and she said that everyone had been fired before lunch. Tomczyk asked Tramiel, “Jack, what did you do?” Tramiel replied, “You said you hated our Marketing Department, so I fired them.” At that point, Tramiel had Tomczyk fill in as the head of marketing for the USA. While Tramiel was looking for the new marketing director, Tomczyk staffed the department. This was Tomczyk’s third week at Commodore.
As the new computer was getting underway, Tomczyk typed up a thirty page memo with a bearded and mustachioed happy face on it, and tossed it onto Tramiel’s desk stating that it was the feature set needed to make the new computer successful. A week later, Tramiel put the memo before Tomczyk and said that it was everything that needed to be done. He further stated that everyone was made aware that Tomczyk was in charge of the project, but also that no one involved reported to him and therefore Tomczyk would need to use persuasion to get it all done. Tomczyk stated the following occurred over the following weeks:
I wound up giving the VIC-20 it’s name, set the price at $299.95, forced engineering to use full size typewriter style keys instead of a flat membrane and after a visit to Japan where I saw a prototype (from NEC) with programmable function keys, I added function keys to the VIC-20. I also asked Jack if I could be VIC Product Manager and he said, “I don’t believe in product managers.” “So what can I be?” I asked. At this time we had a gas shortage and the President had appointed an Energy Czar. Jack smiled and said, “You can be VIC Czar.” “Can I put that on my business card?” I asked. He nodded.
Robert Yannes made a cost reduced version of the TOI, initially called the MicroPET, in response to price concerns with Al Charpentier and Charles Winterble helping finish the prototype. Robert Russell ported the PET’s operating system and BASIC, added an Atari compatible joystick interface, and a cartridge connector. This machine was shown to Tramiel in late 1979, and it was approved. Following an announcement at CES in 1980, the machine went into production. This machine was the Commodore VIC-20. It was first released in 1980 in Japan as the Commodore VIC-1001 with global release following in 1981. In Germany, the machine was labeled as the VC-20 and marketed as the VolksComputer. The name change for Germany was necessitated by Vs typically being pronounced as Fs, and the German VIC would be more like fick, which is the equivalent of English’s own four letter word spelled very similarly. The US price at launch was the $299.95 (roughly $1120 in 2023) that Tomczyk wanted.
The VIC-20 uses a MOS 6502 CPU clocked at 1.02 MHz for NTSC regions and clocked at 1.10 MHz for PAL regions. It features 5K static RAM with 3.5K available to the user. The VIC-20 ROM layout is similar to the PET with 8K for BASIC, 8K for the KERNAL, and 4K for the character set. For graphics, the VIC-20 uses the VIC (Video Interface Chip). This allows for a text mode with twenty two columns and twenty three rows, a graphics mode with one hundred seventy six pixels by one hundred eighty four pixels, and a total of sixteen colors. Eight of the sixteen colors are only background colors, so the VIC-20 really had 8 colors. The VIC also handled audio with one hundred twenty eight notes, three square waves, one noise channel, and globally set volume. The keyboard for the machine was much improved over that of the PET. It had the full height keys that Tomczyk had demanded, and there were sixty six of them in a qwerty layout. Like the PET, however, the keys did feature the PETSCII characters in addition to standard lettering. As physical ports go, the VIC-20 was rather well outfitted for the time. It had a forty four pin expansion port for cartridges (and memory expansions), a five pin audio/video port either for a Commodore monitor or for an RF modulator to a television, an IEEE-488 connector, a cassette connector, a nine pin controller port, and an RS-232 port. It weighed in at eighteen hundred grams and used just twenty five watts of power. As a note to modern hobbyists or industrial concerns, the VIC-20 was doing GPIO long before it was made cool by the Raspberry Pi. Both the serial port and the cartridge port exposed memory and internal circuits to the user. By using PEEK and POKE commands in Commodore’s BASIC a user could get data from sensors, control robotic stepper motors, or whatever else through either of those two ports.
In the May 1981 issue of BYTE, Gregg Williams says:
Looking at a picture of the version selling in Japan might cause you to think $600 would be a fair price. It is, compared to the cost of other units. But it does not cost $600—the VIC 20 retails for $299.95.
The article makes note of the compatibility with the PET’s BASIC as well as PET data cassettes and floppies, the ease of programming, the excellence of the keyboard, the light weight, good documentation, and wealth of physical ports. While the BASIC dialect is compatible, I should note that PEEKs and POKEs are not compatible between the two machines. Williams also noted, however, the oddness of some of the layout of the keyboard, the limitations of the screen width, lack of good RF shielding, and the need for forethought as regards the tape drive.
The BYTE article summary was as follows:
The final verdict on the Commodore VIC 20 is not in yet because of the large amount of hardware and software not yet commercially released. But if the rest of the product line is as good as the VIC 20 microcomputer is, the VIC computer system will be one of the strongest on the market. The VIC 20 computer unit is unexcelled as a low-cost, consumer-oriented computer. Even with some of its limitations (eg : screen size of 23 rows by 22 columns, maximum programmable memory of 32 K bytes), it makes an impressive showing against more expensive microcomputers like the Apple II , the Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Atari 800. The low cost of the VIC ($299.95) is made possible by a custom computer-to-video interface circuit that replaces several other integrated circuits and by Commodore's manufacturing most of the VIC at in-house factories in Japan. The VIC is well designed and easy for the novice to use. A large part of its suitability for first-time users is due to its excellent documentation and attention to human-engineering factors. The unit has some small design flaws, but they are minor.
The majority of VIC-20s were sold in retail outlets, both computer stores and toy stores. In the case of the former, the VIC-20 was competing against the Atari 400 and 800, the Apple II Plus, and the TRS-80. In the case of the latter, it was directly competing against video game consoles. Yet, Commodore wasn’t content with these avenues alone. VIC-20s were sold everywhere… even hardware stores (at least one in Canada), and this was the first model of computer ever sold in a Kmart. Being roughly a quarter of the cost of the Apple II Plus and $100 less than the Atari 400, this was a competition for which the machine was particularly well suited. Beyond cost, the VIC-20 was typically demonstrated using a Commodore monitor giving the machine extremely sharp (for the time) visuals that the other computers couldn’t quite match. Most users, however, would use the free RF modulator packaged with the machine.
In the USA, the Commodore VIC-20 was advertised by William Shatner.
Tomczyk says this of his experiences with Shatner:
I was at the first Shatner TV ad shoot in New York and Shatner was friendly, cordial, warm, professional and cool. We sat next to each other during lunch and he told me he should have been a technology spokesperson after Star Trek, instead of becoming a spokesperson for margarine! Actually the VIC20 wasn’t connected to the monitor in the photos of us together because to get a clean screen image we had to do a different type of video feed to the monitor to avoid scan lines. I hold the distinction of being the first person to actually show Bill Shatner a real computer because the Star Trek TV series computers were fake. Also, Bill was so impressed by how we described home computing that he wanted a system so we gave him a CBM computer system and I believe that’s what he used to write his first scripts and novels. We had a CBM delivered to his home with someone to show him how to use the software.
Commodore made efforts to make software available on day one. In particular five games by Scott Adams were ported to the VIC-20 and made available on cartridges. Cartridges were convenient as they allowed software makers to circumvent the low RAM of the VIC-20 before memory expansions were made available. This was used by some productivity software in addition to many games. Yet, Commodore made memory expansion cartridges available not long after release. These ranged from 3k to 64K. Disk drives and printers were also quick to follow.
Perhaps, the most forward thinking of the VIC-20’s peripherals was the VICMODEM. This was a modem on a cartridge that Tomczyk contracted be built for Commodore in 1981. This was the first modem priced under $100 with the retail price initially being $99 (about $370 in 2023). It was packaged with some limited-time free service from The Source, CompuServe, and Dow Jones (think of the “free hours” of AOL). Along with the modem, Commodore also started the Commodore Information Network which was similar in some respects to a BBS. Beyond being a user community, it allowed users to exchange information relevant to Commodore’s products which alleviated the customer support pressure on the company. In 1982, Commodore VIC-20 users were the largest cohort of CompuServe users and the CIN was the largest community. The VICMODEM was the first modem to sell more than one million units.
From the VICMODEM manual:
When Commodore introduced VIC 20™ — the Friendly Computer, the first color computer priced under $300, we wanted to include a telephone modem to go with it, but we wanted our modem to be in the $100 range, so everyone could afford telecomputing.
Unfortunately none of the major modem manufacturers we contacted would, or could, make a modem we could sell at this price. Finally we located a small creative design group and presented them with our concept and design specifications. The group started working with us and a few months later delivered the modem we asked for. It took a total of 6 months from concept to production and in March 1982 the first VICMODEMs were delivered for sale.
The VIC-20 was the best selling computer of 1982 with eight hundred thousand machines sold. One million total had been sold by the end of that year, a feat which no other computer had yet matched. Commodore was producing around nine thousand VIC-20s each day at the peak of the machine’s sales which totaled more than two and a half million over the product’s lifetime. Sales declined in 1983 following the introduction of Commodore’s next computer, and the VIC-20 was discontinued in 1985.
I now have readers from many of the companies whose history I cover, and many of you were present for time periods I cover. A few of you are mentioned by name in my articles. All corrections to the record are welcome; feel free to leave a comment.