Commodore Computer Devotees Tinker With the Past
The company ruled the PC world in the ‘80s.
The company ruled the PC world in the ‘80s.
By Terril Yue Jones,
school English teacher swung through Portland
and Astoria, Oregon, and then on to Ethel, Washington, to drop off a collection of antiquated computers — a PET8032, three
VIC-20s, an SX-64 portable and a Commodore 128D.
Then on his
way home to the Central Valley town of Visalia, Bernardo packed his
white Crown Victoria with three more SX-64s, boxes of software and a
couple of printers.
luck, this agglomeration of decades-old circuit boards and dusty disk
drives will allow Bernardo to reboot a handful of computers made by the
long-defunct Commodore Business Machines.
In an era
when a home computer’s power is measured in gigabytes, Bernardo still
counts kilobytes as a devoted Commodore user 12 years after the last
machine was assembled.
largest personal computer maker in
presides over the Fresno
that the VIC-20 has so little usable memory — just 3.5 kilobytes —
that it can store only a couple of pages of text in its buffers. Or that
Commodore hardware was notoriously clunky and buggy. Bernardo still
manages all his e-mail on a 1980s-vintage Commodore 64.
never considered the Commodore obsolete,” Bernardo said. “I can
still do many things with it — e-mail, browse the Web, word
processing, desktop publishing and newsletters. I still do games on it:
new games that are copyright 2006, ordered from Germany.”
classic car fans, Bernardo and other Central Valley Commodore devotees
lug their gear every month to the Pizza Pit restaurant and put the hoods
up, so to speak. For many, a Commodore machine was their first computer.
They cherish their machines the way some guys pamper their high school
mentality pervades American culture, from guys who fix their lawn mowers
to computer geeks who build the next big thing in their garages.
Commodore clubs are “about preserving a particular era in computing
— just showing that you can make it serviceable takes ingenuity,”
said Robert Cole, a professor emeritus of technology management at UC
Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
computers are rudimentary enough that enthusiasts with a little
technical know-how can repair them themselves. They also can be
programmed with relative ease using the BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose
Symbolic Instruction Code) computer language. Linus Torvalds, the
creator of the popular Linux computer language, cut his teeth writing
code on a VIC-20 in the 1980s.
wasn’t just an appliance. I liked it because it was open and it
invited you to play with it,” said Mike McDermott, a Commodore fan who
co-founded a website that ranks building contractors. “You didn’t
just do what it told you. It invited you to tinker with it. They really
did encourage you to go write programs for it.”
in turn, made people passionate about the quirky machines.
who sometimes sports a button that reads “I Adore My 64,” says that
every room but one in his three-bedroom house contains Commodore
equipment. In the other is his “Star Trek” collection. But there is
crossover between his dual passions. His prized possessions include six
pieces of Commodore hardware and software signed by “Star Trek” star
and former Commodore pitchman William Shatner.
and his ilk keep the memory of Commodore alive, they also may hold the
key to its future. The Dutch company that owns the Commodore name is
planning to resurrect the brand in the
Commodore 64 was the biggest-selling computer in the world,” said
Patrick Olenczak, vice president of global sales for the company now
called Commodore International.
But that fan base can have drawbacks.
going to be difficult to fulfill their expectations of being a computer
company because we’re not,” Olenczak said. “What we’re doing is
bringing new forms of computing into the living room….we are not into
computing the way we used to be.”
Commodore used to be in computing in the biggest way.
companies illustrate the ruthless evolutionary efficiency of the
high-tech economy better than Commodore. Founded in 1959 as a typewriter
company by Polish immigrant Jack Tramiel, it later moved into adding
machines and then calculators.
purchased a small chip foundry and built computers around the processors
it manufactured itself, the first being the PET, Commodore’s first
desktop, introduced in 1977. In 1981 came the VIC-20 that could do color
graphics and generate simple music.
company’s biggest hit was the Commodore 64, introduced in 1982 with 64
kilobytes of memory, high-resolution graphics and an impressive sound
synthesizer. It was followed in 1985 by the Commodore 128 upgrade and
the Commodore Amiga, a desktop with phenomenal graphics at the time.
But in the
late 1980s and early 1990s,
known for aggressive advertising. But he also took manufacturing
shortcuts that sometimes put dud computers on the market.
encouraged the environment where shortcuts were overlooked and
rewarded,” said Bil Herd, the chief engineer of the Commodore 128.
“The attitude was get it under the Christmas tree — there is always
time for them to return it for service in January.”
ousted from Commodore in 1984.
found itself expanding in too many unprofitable directions without
Tramiel’s ironfisted stewardship, and although the company had a few
subsequent hits, such as the graphics whiz Amiga, it also had a number
of costly flops that forced cuts in the workforce and closure of plants.
his home in Monte Sereno, near San Jose, Tramiel, now 78, would not
comment on the business while he was running it or afterward, but
allowed in a brief conversation that he was “very happy” that
enthusiasts kept the Commodore name and machines alive.
“Today’s computers are definitely more advanced than Commodores,” Tramiel said. “But at the time it was the best computer for the money, because I was building a computer for the people at a price everybody could afford.”
dissolved in 1994, and its name went through a succession of owners. In
its place rose Apple Computer Inc., Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co.,
and industry experts don’t think the resurrected Commodore has a
future in the U.S. PC market.
passed them by,” said Tim Bajarin, who runs
enthusiasts don’t deny the Sisyphean nature of their hobby. It’s not
clear how many Commodore clubs there are, but they are scattered around
the country, with devotees collecting and restoring the computers for
old time’s sake.
“User groups are there for the camaraderie and friendship,” said Herd, who now runs a handful of small companies including an Internet service provider in New Jersey. “They remember the times of this really cool computer, but it’s more about the people.”
Pit in Fresno, club members say they enjoy trading stories about keeping their
percent of the time when we set things up, the hardware fails,” said Bill
Terry, a former math teacher in Tulare. Interrupted by a group of children singing “Happy Birthday” at the
next table, Terry said the school district paid for him to take computer
lessons to upgrade his teaching credentials.
developers continue to build applications for Commodore machines. Most
write games, but enthusiasts also have developed ways to read Windows
spreadsheets on Commodore or access modern CD-ROM drives. The efforts
recall the earliest days of computing, when most applications were
Pizza Pit in Fresno, whose walls are decorated with posters and signs for beer and NASCAR
racing, friendship is the common denominator. Club members say they
enjoy talking for instance about how to spend their limited club funds
expanding their experiences with Commodores, and meeting more
appliance repairman, got interested in Commodores because he took
computer programming to satisfy a foreign language requirement at Fresno
first computer, a color machine from Radio Shack, was stolen after two
months. He did without for awhile, and then Commodore put the C64 on
sale, lowering it to $199 from around $499. He bought one, mostly to
learn more about the computer language BASIC. He eventually bought a
disk drive, which came with an almost indecipherable user manual. “I
read that book five times,” says Sohm, 52. “By the fifth time it
finally soaked in and I got it to work. So I learned that if don’t
understand, read it again and do it again, and eventually it comes to
What was it
that made Commodores so special? “It was the fact that it was the real
wonder box, the best combination of sound and graphics of its class,”
said Cameron Kaiser, a Riverside doctor who owns about 15 Commodores.
“Sixteen colors with 320x200 resolution and 64 kilobytes of memory was
unheard of at that price.”
was the first device that I knew that you could not only play games on
but also use as a typewriter,” recalled
bought his first computer after taking a computer class in 1982 for the Corcoran
66, is a retired Fresno Welfare Department administrator and long-time Fresno
club member. He remembers buying his first Commodore 64 computer in
1987, and a disk drive at about the same time. Estel was interested in
computers since they first started to appear. He remembers Sears
advertising a $200 Commodore 64, and went with his three-year-old
grandson, who was intrigued that there were games you could play on the
machine. Estel bought a C64 in 1987 and used it with his television set
as a monitor.
interested in word processing, also interested in database work,” he
said. “My dream was to enter a musician’s name and see all the songs
he’d done. That was a job for the mainframes back then.” He has more
modern computers at home, but resisted the switch as long as he could.
“I learned how to use it, it was simple to use, and it did what I
wanted it to do at the time,” he said of his 64. “I didn’t start
thinking about something else until the late 90s, when I wanted to so
something with digital photos.”
Estel knows, the ranks of Commodore enthusiasts will thin out. “Those
who are, say, 75 years old still use Commodores and say, ‘Why spend
money on a new computer’?” he says. Then he reflects a moment and
adds, “They tend to die,” he said. “We’ve lost five in the last
three years.” Estel also does a small side business in Commodore data
recovery. “We get panic emails from people who say ‘I have a lot of
journals, letters, a novel on Commodore storage, can you help?’.”
Estel uses a program called Big Blue Reader to convert the files that
can be read in Windows, and e-mails them back to his customers.
Ellsworth, a self-taught computer engineer in Portland, developed a joystick that sells for $30 and contains about 30 old
Commodore games. The joystick’s popularity lies with “all the 30-,
40-year-olds like myself who are trying to relive a little bit of their
past,” Ellsworth said. “The toy is priced low enough that people
don’t hesitate purchasing it just to play a few games they remember
from their childhood.”
natural instinct: holding on to the past at a time of great change, said
Cole, the Berkeley
professor. If not with Commodores, something else.
“I suspect the iPod at some point will perform that role,” he said. “Thirty years from now, old people still using old iPods — it’s absolutely plausible. People are so in love with their iPods that a lot of them will resist change.”
Updated February 10, 2012