Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Farewell and Hello, Commodore

Commodore Amiga Agony screenshot, an early game renowned for its sophisticated graphics and music.

What could have been - and what could be. On 8 April 2012, Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore Computers died. With Tramiel's death, so closely following the death of Steve Jobs, the pioneers of the computing era are leaving us. Commodore, founded in Toronto, Canada in 1954, started as a typewriter company; under Tramiel's leadership, the company introduced the Commodore PET, the world's first all-in-one personal computer in 1977. Tramiel is well known to Boomers and especially Gen Xers for the Commodore 64, the best-selling home computer of all time.  It was hailed at its debut in 1982 for its enormous 64 kilobyte memory and its affordable cost compared to IBM and Apple models. In 1984, Tramiel left Commodore and moved to Atari, and uncomfortably found himself competing with the company he built.

Commodore Amiga Agony screenshots.

Commodore arguably continued with Tramiel's vision, introducing the Commodore Amiga (after some bumps with Atari), which successfully competed with other companies' machines on the music, graphics and games front (see my posts on the Amiga here and here). Because so many 80s kids grew up playing on Commodore machines, there is a special place for them in Gen X hearts. What does it mean to say that Commodore's founder has died? From Gizmodo:
"Jack Tramiel, the antithesis of Steve Jobs, has died. Tramiel was the founder of Commodore. Unlike Jobs, Tramiel believed that computers should be utilitarian and cheap, disregarding elegant design or attention to detail—like the legendary Commodore 64.

While Jobs' sense of aesthetics and obsessive detail permeated everything Apple did, from hardware to software, Tramiel—born Jacek Trzmiel in Lodz, Poland, 1928—didn't give a damn. His only concern was price and making things useful enough to win the battle in the marketplace.

As a result, Commodore's design was the crude club to Apple's elegant sword. And while time and nostalgia have made his computers charming, they are still slabs of ugly plastic. Charming ugly plastic slabs that I still like—I used the C64 all through my middle school years and remember to love every bit of its craptastic no-frills nature."
Apple's glitzy, gleaming, luxury tech won the day. Every major computer company evolved around its own ethos. Jobs made tech intuitively accessible in human terms. Apple also gained a reputation for being sleek and expensive, with a green name and lots of polished, tailor-made apps. It became one of the great Boomer triumphs: the go-to tool for academics, artists, Postmodern élitists. With that culture, Apple built a hierarchy of tech-savvy global citizens, whose sexy gadgets were intimately integrated into their plugged-in lifestyles. Apple's clever ad campaign in 2006-2009, starring Justin Long, retargeted the brand at Gen Y, while John Hodgman made PCs look like the stodgy choice of Xers and Generation Jones.

While Gen X definitely boasts its share of Apple enthusiasts, the brand with which Xers first identified at the dawn of home computing was not the Apple or the PC, but Commodore. For years, PCs have been merely the Apple alternative in Commodore's absence. And for years, Commodore, the brand of common yet sophisticated computing, was a missing piece in the world of tech offerings. Homage videos on Youtube, like this one, point to the ethos which Commodore's founder Tramiel envisioned, "We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes."

In 2010-2011, Commodore returned, after a humiliating 1994 bankruptcy and years of wandering in a wilderness of sale and resale of the Commodore properties, patents and brandnames. Nostalgia for clunky computers with a reputation for doing everything an Apple could do (and more, yet cheaply) brought the beloved Commodore 64 back with new tech. The new model is called the Commodore 64x (see my blog post on it here). The Wall Street Journal commented: "Welcome back, old friend." The new Commodore is presented by its manufacturer, Commodore USA LLC as the return to a 'third way' in computing: "When Commodore met its premature demise in the mid-nineties, we believe something of great value was lost in the tech world. ... 'I’m not a PC. I’m not a Mac. I’m a Commodore!'"

It took Altman's Commodore 64x and Tramiel's death to revive Commodore's ethos in popular memory. Apple's revisionist history gives way to alternate history. These reminders leave us wondering: what would the tech world look like now, if Commodore, rather than Apple, had been the computer company which survived the early 1990s' recession?

From the start, Commodore's computers were like the working man's Penguin or Everyman mass market edition cheap paperbacks, which made the world's classics universally available earlier in the 20th century. In their day, Commodore machines were advertised as practical, no-nonsense tools which channeled creativity through affordable and democratic access to high technology. After the Commodore 64, Commodore's triumph continued with the Amiga 1000 from 1985.The first low-end 16/32 bit multimedia Commodore personal computer was the hugely popular Amiga 500, introduced in 1987. It astonished users with its graphics capabilities at the time. It included a game called Blood Money (1989), the introductory sequence of which was praised for its sophisticated music and animation (see here).

Perhaps Commodore's specialties split in two and that was what caused the demise of the company. Enhanced graphics, music and video on the one hand, and programming on the other, were once integrated within Commodore's machines. But these specialties followed different evolutionary paths. Commodore's sophisticated video, music and artistic elements seminally influenced the world of video game design. Meanwhile, the culture of accessible programming migrated conceptually to Linux: "[It] makes me sick to see that Commodore is comp[le]tely forgotten by people. Its all PC vs Mac, tablet vs phone. Linu[s] Torvalds learned how to program on a [Commodore] Vic 20, the first home computer to sell 1 million units. Look at Linux today, it offers the freedom we once enjoyed during those years with Commodore, Atari, Spectrum."

Other Youtube and forum comments reveal the dislike many Commodore supporters share today of Apple, its culture, and its products; their criticisms also reveal Commodore's lost third way:
  • "All Jobs did is take other people[']s ideas and market them better, yet he gets all the praise and the new media likes to claim that cellphones wouldn't even exist without the iPhone (yes I have seen the CBC and CNN claim this on numerous occasions). Yet no one even mentions Commodore on the news, it's like they didn't exist. Apple has got people so many people stuck in their cult that they are changing the facts and that is sad. ... What bothers me about the whole thing is that you almost never hear of ... [Tramiel's] death anywhere except a little blurb online. Yet [w]hen Steve Jobs died, it was and still is everywhere. Jack did more for computers than Jobs did, Commodore 64 is the model T of computers, it created the huge home computer market. It kept the gaming industry afloat til ... Nintendo."
  • "Who wants to prevent Amiga to fly again and tries always to destroy its market???  Who is [the] only company who makes proprietary all-in-one computers today?  In 2007, when Amigans were looking at PA Semi's PWRficitent processors for next-gen Amiga, Apple come out of nowhere, bought PA Semi and killed the chip.  Then Intrinsity was working on another PowerPC design, and surprise surprise ... Apple bought them too.  Apple really wants PowerPC dead. Or they want Amiga dead..."
  • "Had it not been for the inexpensive yet powerful C-64, my family would likely would never have gotten a computer, and I may never have become a programmer. I owe my career to Commodore. R.I.P."
  • "The man was [a] pioneer in the computing industry and brought home computing to the masses with his low priced computer systems at a time when computing was mainly for the rich few who could afford an IBM or Apple machine that at twice the price had only half the memory & computing power... R.I.P. Jack Tramiel 13/12/1928 - 08/04/2012 The Man Who Made Home Computing For The Masses A Reality..."
  • "Too bad the world only makes Apple/Steve Jobs documentaries/ballsucking vids, another movie about that hack and his life was announced earlier this week."
  • "I think Jack Tramiel had a much more interesting (videographically speaking) life than Steve Jobs. Unfortunately the amount of Apple Acolytes working in the media excludes everything that isn't shiny and overpriced from getting a look in."
  • "RIP Jack! Thank you for giving us one of the most inspiring computers of all time, The Commodore 64. People are still as crazy about it today, and software is still being released for it regularly. He gave us all the power of the Apple II, but with far superior sound capabilities for only HALF the price! It was certainly a computer for the masses, unlike Apple."
  • "The Apple II was a computer of little significance. Only with the Macintosh did Apple start to become an interesting company, and even then the Amiga packed a much bigger bang for the buck. Apple were always superb at advertising and marketing, though. And Commodore were generally poor, except when Kit Spencer was involved."
  • "Compare the Apple II or IIe to the Atari or Commodore 8 bit machines. The Apple does very poorly. Even the Vic-20 compares favorably in almost every way to the Apple II."
  • "Jack ruined Atari. In 1985 Nintendo came to Atari to release their game machine (which became the NES) through them. Jack turned them down saying there was no market in game consoles anymore. Big mistake. The NES was the most best selling games machine ever and by the time Atari woke up and released the 7800 and the XEGS it was too late. Atari limped through out the late 80s and never really recovered."
  • "Without an analogue to the Commodore 64 there always seems to be something lacking from the computer hardware market. I suppose the nearest thing would be if Sony supplied every PS3 with a Keyboard, mouse and DevSys at no additional cost on the base hardware."
  • "Nobody I knew who had Commodore 64s, really wanted an APPLE II ... The C-64 really was a superior system."
  • "Best computer I have ever owned. Still love it. Screw this mac. I would rather have a Vic-20 or a 64 any day."
  • "It constantly bugs me how gaming sites and magazines these days seem to thing that gaming begins and ends with the NES. Frankly, that machine was a pile of crap, and in no way had the innovation and influence of the Commodore 64. Virtually every type of game being played today was invented, developed and often perfected on the C-64."
  • "I was brought up using a C64 and I've experienced, and watch computers evolve up to today. But the C64 is where it all started, it familiarized people with computers that are programmable, utilizing its full potential in sound and graphics. The Amiga was a natural successor. Both were equally good and impressive in their time. Atari was comparable to amiga in some ways (amiga being more popular/superior except for MIDI)."
  • "The C64 does not get the respect it deserves among 8 bit systems. Apple users always made fun of it and for good reason IBM users did at least those who used them for business. Nonetheless, short of the NES, show me any other 8 bit system that came close to its abilities when programmers learned how to push its capabilities."
  • "I just love how these Apple fanboys gush on about how Apple invented the GUI [graphical user interface]. GEOS=1983, that's BEFORE MACINTOSH by the way [the commenter's date is disputed - but confirmed here: the first GUI was designed by Xerox in 1974; for a history of Commodore's first GUI operating system, GEOS, go here - GEOS was initially used on the Commodore 64 and some Apple IIs]. We all know how much better the Amiga was as well-you know, color, a real screen, multitasking, better sound, sexy custom hardware, 4096 colors. I read an article-on a Sta[r] Trek forum no less-that claimed that the first color Macintosh was the first computer to have stereo sound! You know, two years after they'd been using the Amiga's stereo sound and full color capabilities to generate the displays aboard the Enterprise. Arrgh. And as a side note, I worked for Amiga, Incorporated in Snoqualmie Washington 11 years ago. We were making what amounts to the iPhone of today, but of course the tech wasn't quite ready, and neither were the public or other tech companies. In the year 2001, I had in my hands a flat LCD touch screen device, with a 8" screen, no keyboard, about an inch thick (this was 2001, recall) that could wirelessly surf the net and view your pictures. Sound familiar? Suck it, iPad fanbois! Amiga did it TEN YEARS AGO. I'm just sayin'."
  • "The problem with Apple are their policies. Part of the criteria for App Store acceptance is that a program must be entertaining. Usefulness plays second fiddle. They also want to avoid apps that look like 'amateur hour' (actual words used in their criteria). Of course, it's them who define what that means. The Commodore 64 reminds me of that transitional era when computers were still something that you programmed but were also becoming consumer devices, ie. for distributing those programs. Apple devices have become almost completely consumer-centric. Indeed you have to pay a yearly fee if you want to program some of their devices. It's like buying a car but you have to lease the steering wheel. Apple have become something akin to a fa[s]cist cult. I think they always have been that way."
Would the survival of Commodore have made today's tech environment better? Sour grapes aside, without Commodore around, something is missing. Commodore offered powerful, consumer-oriented computers, which consumers could program themselves, if they chose to do so. In other words, on top of Commodore's affordability and multimedia offerings, it gave its users a say in the technological capabilities and content of its tools. It allowed its users to act as programmers and computer designers, which is a very (very!) different thing from the pimped-up vanity app culture of today. Since the 1994 bankruptcy, Commodore's absence has been keenly felt by those who recall its initial impact. Computer modders such as Ben Heck have cobbled together their own Commodore models, like this 2009 Commodore laptopEngadget said it was "like 1982 without the feathered hair."

The Amiga now exists as a separate machine, and has been produced by different companies, such as Hyperion, ACube, and A-Eon Technology; there is a Youtube video here on Amiga software and models up to 2011. In 2012, Leaman Computing was shipping the most recent model (the Amiga One X 1000), which pays homage to the Amiga 1000. But it is a limited edition, ultra-niche-market computer.

Then, in 2010-2011, Commodore apparently rose, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of legal oblivion. Their American Website presents Commodore as the Apple that could-have, should-have, would-have been and may yet be:
Commodore was a major player in the micro-computer era of the eighties and early nineties. If not for a series of unfortunate management decisions that led to Commodore's premature demise many believe they could have continued their dominance to this day. Their computers ushered in a generation of technology enthusiasts, who grew up with and loved the brand and models. These models and their features inspired many hardware tinkerers, programmers and technologists. There continues to be a huge cult following for the various generations of Commodore computers produced, with countless websites devoted to them, and thousands of enthusiasts who regularly meet at annual events all around the world.

Commodore USA, LLC, recently secured licensing rights to both the Commodore and AMIGA brands and will be releasing a series of all-in-one computers, desktops, notebooks and tablets in the coming years and months. We believe these much loved icons of the golden age of computing continue to have value and we will endeavor to produce competitive and innovative products in a manner befitting their heritage. We are excited to bring back the Commodore 64 (the greatest selling computer model of all time) as a modern keyboard computer suitable for every day usage. It also gives us great pleasure to reboot the famous AMIGA line of computers with the cutting edge technology you would expect in today's personal computers.

Commodore USA, LLC was founded by Barry Altman in April of 2010, with the express purpose of reviving and re-establishing the famous Commodore computer brand. We are Commodore and AMIGA fanatics, just like many of you. We ask ourselves what could have been, and we are appalled by Apple revisionism. Commodore is back, and we're determined to bring the much loved brand back to the mainstream and restore its prominence in the tech industry to that which it richly deserves. It ain't over 'till we say so.
Big words - and Commodore USA still has embarrassing problems with the Amiga brand (for example, see here and here). There are many sharp sceptics who expect that Altman's Commodore company is merely milking nostalgia. Altman (or anyone else who tries to revive the Commodore name) must produce Millennial products which will dazzle the Amigans and the world at large. All the same, if this, or another, incarnation of Commodore can legally get Amiga back under its roof and start producing novel devices, then maybe Tramiel's ideas could be revived.

The fact remains that Altman - even though he is in a tight spot as he tries to carry forward Commodore's label - has a point: there should be new, sophisticated ways to design, build, sell and buy creative computers and computing tools which will make them both very affordable and accessible. Robinson Mason believes Apple revised the history of home computing to erase Commodore's different path:
Several articles that flooded the news recently have only served to reinforce the (post-Commodore and other home computer maker collapse) myths that:

A. Apple has only ever made swanky and sexy products
B. Steve Jobs never had a product failure
C. Apple has always been a market-leading, trendy company that captured the hearts and minds of the American public

So many times the victors write history, but in this case I could not stand by and read articles, blogs, and forum posts joining the chorus to claim that "everyone was always playing catch-up to Apple or copying them during the home computer revolution" without a response of my own.

Notice how this article ties home computers of the 80s copying Apple to iPhones of today. "It turns out that my beloved Atari 800, like so many products of that era, was really just another me-too response to the Apple II. Atari originally designed the 800 to be the successor to its Atari 2600 game console. But after seeing Apple's early success, Atari switched gears and began adding computer-like features to the design, such as support for peripherals, BASIC programming, and text modes. I think about this today whenever I'm reviewing a smartphone that's particularly iPhone-like."

As great as the iPhone is, it shouldn't be capable of reaching back in time and changing the real reasons that prompted Commodore to make the VIC-20, for example, or its chief targets (the Timex/Sinclair ZX-80/81, etc.). Maybe there's an app for that (the History Altering app).

William Shatner (around 1980-1982) in an ad for the Commodore Vic 20. He promoted the early video game Gorf (see it here). Video Source: Youtube.

"There are two kinds of teenagers today." Commodore Vic 20 advertisement (1982). Video Source: Youtube.

1982 Commodore 64 advertisement (64 K memory for under $600). Video Source: Youtube.

1984 Commodore 64 advertisement. Video Source: Youtube.

Commodore commercial (Australia; 1980s). Video Source: Youtube.

"I adore Commodore." Commodore advertisement (Italy; 1980s). Video Source: Youtube.

ZDF Commodore review, with the game Marble Madness (W. Germany; 1980s). Video Source: Youtube.

Commodore Amiga commercial (not 1983: likely mid-late 1980s). Video Source: Youtube.

While Commodore was known for offering a graphical user interface and a command line interface, it was equally admired for its word processing, graphics, and music applications, its games became legendary. Other computer brands offered the same games, but the graphics and music were not as good. Commodore ushered games out of the 1970s' arcades and into the home, transforming the lives of 1980s' teenagers. One of Commodore's most renowned cooperative efforts was with Cinemaware games, a developer which produced early 3D game environments with old cinematic styles, such as film noir, or 1950s' monster flicks. Wiki: "Their games generally debuted on the most graphically powerful home computer of the era, the Amiga, and then ported to others."

Commodore Amiga 500 advertisement with celebrities (1989?). Video Source: Youtube.

140+ Amiga games, 1982-1992. Video Source: Youtube.

Commodore Amiga games music: SWIV (1991). Video Source: Youtube.

Commodore Amiga games music: Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 (1991). Video Source: Youtube.

Game play and music, level 6: Agony (1992). Video Source: Youtube.

See other collections of Commodore Amiga games music: here, herehere and here.

Commodore Amiga 600 commercial (1992). Video Source: Youtube.

By the mid-1990s, partly due to problems with its Amiga 600 model, Commmodore had trouble competing with IBM PCs and Apple Macintoshes. It lost its market dominance of affordable multimedia computing which it had enjoyed just a few years before. Its 1200 Amiga model (1992-1996) had chips which offered expanded graphics capability. Commodore also produced products far ahead of their time. Wiki: "The company ... concentrated on consumer products that would not see a demand for another few years—including a digital TV system called CDTV." But the company abandoned its 1980s' mass marketing strategies and became less accessible. New management catered more and more to a niche market. On 29 April 1994, Commodore International folded and declared bankruptcy; its Amiga models were continued for another couple of years by Escom, which also went bankrupt in July 1996.

Wiki notes that because of Commodore's early graphics and multimedia capabilities, these models are surrounded by nostalgia: "The company's computer systems, especially the C64 and Amiga series, retain a cult-following among their users years after its demise." One Youtuber says: "Amiga was the best gaming hardware ever. There is no another computer or gaming console with that rich library of amazing games." As another commenter on Youtube put it, "The wrong company went bankrupt."

25th anniversary of the Commodore 64 (2007), © Computer History Museum. Starting at the 1:01 point, there is a discussion about the Commodore culture versus the Apple culture. Video Source: Youtube.

Caption for the above video: "The Commodore 64 was an 8-bit home computer released by Commodore International in August, 1982, and during [its] lifetime (between 1982 and 1994), sales totaled close to 17 million units, making it the best-selling single personal computer model of all time. Approximately 10,000 commercial software titles were developed for the Commodore 64 including development tools, office applications, and games.

The C64 made an impressive debut at the 1982 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, as recalled by Production Engineer David A. Ziembicki: All we saw at our booth were Atari people with their mouths dropping open, saying, 'How can you do that for $595?'

The term personal computer was a common term in the early 80's and was used as early as 1972 to characterize Xerox PARC's Alto. During this era of microcomputer innovation, the market was dominated by the IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC), the Commodore 64, the Atari 8-bit family, the Apple II, Tandy Corporation's TRS-80s, and various CP/M machines.

Although the history of the Commodore is rich, the histories of the people and the companies that developed these early personal computers are also critical to the personal productivity tools and business solutions we often take for granted in our daily lives.

This panel discussion is a celebration of the Commodore 64 computer and how it spawned a tremendous market for home, small business, distributed and networked technology."

Here is a closing comment on the above 25th anniversary video from a Youtuber: "[Apple co-founder] Steve Wozniak is an absolute disgrace. Note the way he turns the whole occasion of the Commodore 64's 25th anniversary into the history of Apple and a nude star-jumping 'look at me!' event, then proceeds to piss on Jack's parade and his achievements. Yep, the Apple revisionism continues to this day. I guess the old saying, 'he who wins the war writes the history' still holds true."

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