Friday, September 24, 2010

On The Edge

- The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore
by Brian Bagnall

We are all told that it is the winning side that dictates how history is written. Such is the starting point where the author of On The Edge begins when narrating the history of personal computers. Brian Bagnall's thesis is not controversial in itself, but when claiming that it is mostly due to Commodore that computers became part of everyday life, his statement may be. He argues that Commodore's drive of inexpensive computers for the masses broke a new market. Its large counterparts IBM on one side pushed business computers and the other being Apple had a slow start and only rose with their stylish and dearer computers after the market for the consumer microcomputer industry was in place. From being something located in universities and the garages of the très nerdy, personal computers are now a commodity present in most homes. Mr Bagnall has conducted plenty of research, partly through interviewing heaps of Commodore insiders. With his attempt of proving his thesis he is not only telling the story of the ventures behind the PET-, the Commodore- and the Amiga-machines - but he is also describing a completely different age. It is easy to become blind to how much our contemporary society is one occurring in the aftermath a computer revolution.

It was the period in time prior to Tron and WarGames and designing the surface of a microprocessor was literally macroscopic artistry. Transistors were in their thousands and not millions and the semiconductor design and fabrication company MOS Technology had their financier Irving Gould; their A-type personality juggernaut Jack Tramiel and their god of technology Chuck Peddle - the three important ingredients needed for a hi-tech company of that era to succeed. Mr Peddle had earlier worked for Motorola with developing their 68000 processor. He now, together with Bill Mensch, became the father of the renowned 6502 processor. It was developed in 1976 and was used in products like the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Apple I and II, the 8-bit computers from Atari, the Commodore PET, VIC-20 and so on. Even the robot in Futurama, Bender, has the 6502 microprocessor as brain. The 6510 processor which has its home in the most sold computer of all time according to Guinness Book of World Records, the Commodore 64, is a slightly modified form of the 6502. It is easy to belittle the legacy. Brian Bagnall's description of how the craftsmanlike design and production of chips at MOS took place is one of breathtaking engineering creativity, and it is indeed an enjoyable read.

On The Edge tells of how Commodore cheaply acquired an incredible unending license for Basic from a company named Micro-Soft, run by a young Bill Gates. It contains the story of how Commodore negotiated with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak on purchasing Apple and plays with the thought of how different the world would have been today if the transaction had gone through. In 1977 Star Wars appeared in the cinemas and the public was primed for the PET 2001-machines trickling out of the small Commodore factory. In April 1978 the first machines arrived on British soil and became an immediate success. Douglas Adams writes about his first encounter of it in Salmon of Doubt. In 1980 the VIC-20 was announced and it became the first computer to sell one million units. The triumph can partly be explained by the VIC-20 primarily being sold in retail, such as K-Mart, rather than from authorised dealers and thus competed with the game console market. William Shatner of Star Trek became its spokesman in television advertisements asking "Why just buy a video game?". Jack Tramiel gave his engineers one month to create a production model of the VIC-20 and working under such a tight schedule was more of a rule than exception at Commodore. Bill Seiler, Bob Russell, Robert Yannes, Al Charpentier, Charles Winterble, John Feagans and others toiled hard under codename Vixen.

Having had a liaison with the Model T of computers, the Commodore 64, for some twenty years I obviously looked forward to reading about its birth. The VIC-20 had been a gold mine for Commodore and for this reason it served as a stepping stone for the beauty to come. While Al Charpentier worked on the VIC-II graphic video chip, Robert Yannes designed the architecture for a new sound chip. It was a dream he had nurtured for quite some time infatuated by the up and coming sounds of electronic music. Mr Yannes had since high school built analogue synthesizers and initially planned to support an astonishing 32 voices on the SID-chip. The little miniature synthesizer was dubbed one of the top-20 most important chips by Byte magazine in 1995, and the sounds of the C64 are epic for generations of nerds. As with the VIC-20 the creation of the Commodore 64 was rushed and many hasty solutions characterized its final design. The machine had to get out in time. The tale of how Bob Russell's high-speed lines for a new mark of disk drives were mistakenly removed from the schematics is just one out of many. A consequence of the deletion of a few metal circuit traces has caused millions of wasted hours for C64 owners. However, it is when Mr Bagnall writes about the designing of the Commodore 128 which was to be backward compatible with the C64 that it becomes truly apparent. Achieving such compatibility was a mission as all the glitches in the Commodore 64 had to be reproduced in order to make the software and peripherals work. Programs were dependent on bugs and the monumental software library for the Commodore 64 was part of its success story and a reason why so many millions of computers were sold. The C64 designers were not hardware engineers, but chip designers. They did not know some of the fundamental rules, and it is thanks to such mistakes that the old breadbox is what so many have come to appreciate to this day.

Brian Bagnall continues the book by writing about the successful Commodore Amiga computers and the shaky governing of the company which ultimately lead to its demise and death in 1994. On The Edge gives an insight not only of this particular enterprise, but of how such a world works. The saga is written in a language for everyone interested and Mr Bagnall presents necessary evidence for his case, I am however partial and hence unable to play judge. Nevertheless is it sound to say that the rise and decline of Commodore is a story that should be told, and the myth of it will continue to flourish. The C64 scene of today which is continuous since the mid 1980s, as opposed to other contemporary computer scenes, is part of this context.

This article was originally published in the c64 disk magazine VN#53.