050 – Jack Tramiel and Commodore – 1977

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There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users. Edward Tufte

Jack Tramiel survived the ghettos in Poland, transited through Auschwitz to a work camp near Hannover and was liberated in April 1945.  On emigration to the USA he joined the US Army where he gained business equipment repair skills.  On founding his first company he used the military name Commodore.

1953 Commodore Portable Typewriter Company was a repair operation that worked with Czech manufacturers and also acquired a typewriter business in Berlin to manufacture its own products.  USA restrictions on imports led to the foundation of Commodore Business Machines based in Toronto, Canada, but low-cost Japanese models eventually flooded this market.

Successfully switching to mechanical adding machines and calculators, in 1962 Commodore debuted on the NYSE.  But by the late ‘60s this market too was assailed by the Japanese.

Commodore then moved into electronic calculators, including its first pocket versions.  This time the competition came from nearer home as chip prices tumbled and TI launched a low-cost range.  Commodore was caught with large stocks of calculators sourced at an earlier, higher price point.

Mid 1970s Tramiel purchased operations to secure his supply lines – Frontier, a chip maker; MDSA, a display supplier; MOS Technology, an MPU maker.

Chuck Peddle came as part of the MOS deal and soon proposed the PET 2001 computer (see previously.  It enjoyed its success due to Commodore’s professional approach to distribution and marketing, but was not able to be expanded beyond its hobbyist role.

1979 Apple II was taking off and Tramiel wanted something competitive and the MicroPET was ready by the summer CES. It was something of a hybrid, using 1K RAM chips simply because Tramiel had an overstock position.  Its video interface chip, or VIC, had been designed for another purpose too.

Planned as ‘Vixen’, the product took on the chip name and became the VIC 20.  Despite its compromises by January 1983 the Commodore VIC-20 had become the first computer to sell one million units.  It went on to sell 2.5million units in total!  Linus Torvalds learned his trade on a VIC-20 and went on to develop Linux.

Tramiel wanted something for the winter CES in January 1982.  The project VIC-40 was based on a 6510 MPU and a VIC-II graphics chip providing 16 colours and a 3-channel 8-octave sound device.

As the Commodore 64 it was launched for $595.  This price was only achieved by the vertical integration of Commodore and MOS Technology; the Apple IIe cost $1,200 and the Atari 800 $899.  A family of 64s emerged. 

An Educator 64 was created using the 64 in a PET case with a black and white monitor.  This package was well received versus the Apple II in schools and colleges.   The SX-64 was the first Commodore colour portable with built-in 5” screen.  A C64GS games console was launched in Europe, though proved unsuccessful.  In its life the Commodore 64 became the top selling PC; more than 30million were sold units before it was discontinued in 1995.

Tramiel pressed the Commodore board of directors to agree a new 32-bit machine and fell out with the main shareholder.  He was fired on Friday 13th January 1984.  Subsequently founding Tramiel Technology with his sons, he bought the ailing Atari console and home computer business from Warner in July 1984.

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