Los Angeles Times Article on FCUG & Commodore


Commodore Computer Devotees Tinker With the Past

The company ruled the PC world in the ‘80s.
It’s gone now, but devotees of its machines are still coaxing life out of their kilobytes.

By Terril Yue Jones, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer June 27, 2006


FRESNO — Robert Bernardo spent a week this spring traveling the Pacific Northwest, trying to save part of yesterday’s future.  

The middle 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.

With any 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.

Once the largest personal computer maker in America, the company behind the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64 introduced millions of people like Bernardo to the digital age. The company went out of business in 1994, but its legacy survives in dozens of Commodore clubs around the country.

Bernardo presides over the Fresno chapter.

Never mind 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.

“I’ve 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.”  

Like 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 hot rod.

The tinker 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.  

Commodore 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.

“It 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.”

And that, in turn, made people passionate about the quirky machines.  

Bernardo, 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.

If Bernardo 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 United States with devices that act as digital entertainment centers.

“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.

“It’s 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.”

And Commodore used to be in computing in the biggest way.

Few 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.

Commodore 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.

The 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, IBM Corp.’s PC clones gained supremacy.

Tramiel was known for aggressive advertising. But he also took manufacturing shortcuts that sometimes put dud computers on the market.

“Jack 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.”

Tramiel was ousted from Commodore in 1984.

Commodore 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.

Reached at 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.”

Commodore 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.

“History’s passed them by,” said Tim Bajarin, who runs Silicon Valley consultancy Creative Strategies and has monitored the PC market for more than 20 years. “It’s a blast from the past with no future. You’ve got HP and Dell, and Apple’s picking up tremendous steam. It’s basically pushing a boulder uphill.”

Commodore 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.”

At Pizza Pit in Fresno, club members say they enjoy trading stories about keeping their machines running.

“Fifty 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.

Hobbyist 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 home-built.

At the 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 Commodore-centric folk.

Keith Sohm, a Fresno appliance repairman, got interested in Commodores because he took computer programming to satisfy a foreign language requirement at Fresno State. Sohm, 52, left the club for awhile but rejoined a couple of years ago because of the buddies. “I came back because I knew these guys,” Sohm said. “I’m all done with file-trading here. That used to be a motivation; now it’s just the socialization.”

Sohm’s 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 you.”

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.”

“It was the first device that I knew that you could not only play games on but also use as a typewriter,” recalled Altadena resident Craig Snodgrass. “Along with an Okidata dot-matrix printer it got both my wife and me through graduate school,” said Snodgrass, who works in IT compliance at Warner Bros. in Burbank. “Back in college the fanciest piece of equipment we had was an IBM Selectric. But the ability to change the words before they hit the paper was really cool. And to keep your head together you’d pop in a game, so it served all purposes.”

Bernardo bought his first computer after taking a computer class in 1982 for the Corcoran School District where he teaches. “Computers were so new that 99% of us teachers didn’t know what to do with them,” he said. The Commodore 64 was introduced in 1982 for $599, but the next year the price was dropped to $195. “That’s what I could afford,” Bernardo recalled. The Apple II and Tandy machines were more $1,000 and the Atari 400 was $800. “But Commodore, look at this,” said Bernardo, his eyes brightening. “You can have a computer with more memory and more capabilities for $195. I thought, wow, a real computer with so much more for a lower price.”

Dick Estel, 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.

“I was 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.”

Ultimately, 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.

Jeri 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.”

It’s a 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.”


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Updated February 10, 2012