I've always considered the late seventies and early eighties as the “golden age of computing.” To me, this was the time of innovation in the computing industry. Back then, everything that had to do with computers was ground breaking, new, and exciting. No one did what we did with computers back then. It was when the real trail-blazing took place.
It was a real pleasure to read On The Edge: The Spectacular Rise And Fall Of Commodore, to be reminded about what all we did back then and to set the record straight as to who the real innovators and industry motivators were.
Brian Bagnall, the author of the book, really has done a wonderful job at putting this story together. I found the pace of the story made it very difficult for me to put it down.
As Bagnall writes about the history of the development of the technology, he takes time out to tell you about the people who actually created the stuff. For example, I had no idea that Chuck Peddle (the father of the MOS CPU and today's micro-computer) was of Canadian blood.
Bagnall gives the reader some insight as to where these talented and dedicated inventors came from and what really motivated them to bring this technological industry into existence.
The book also has some very amusing anecdotes peppered through out the story, which really paints a colourful picture of the environment the Commodore developers had to work in.
Bill Herd comments on office security locking office doors on the weekend:
A few weeks before CES , Herd began running into unforeseen obstacles. “They security guards started locking the door,” recalls Herd. “They got a rule that said all lockable doors should be locked on Friday nights. So Saturday I walk in, and I can't get in my office. There is no key for this door because it's new construction, and the contractors hadn't dropped the keys off yet.”
With the deadline near, Herd decided to go around the problem. “I had to get back to work,” says Herd. “You can't keep me from working. So, I climbed over the ceiling” …… “but I opened the door and got back to work.”
To prevent the incident from reoccurring, Herd posted a notice… “Please do not lock this door. There is no key for it”, he recalls. “Well, they locked it again. We went three layers of notes. The first one was real polite, the second on said, 'Look, you locked it again. We can't get in to do our jobs. Don't lock this door, there is no key.'”
…“Well, it got locked again,” says an exasperated Herd. Herd stormed towards the locked door in a rage. The previous times, he had gone around the problem. Now he decided to go through the problem. “I punched a hole through the wall to where you could reach in and unlock the door,” recalls Herd.
Herd thought the faceless battles of wills had come to a climax, but it continued. “They locked the door again!” says Herd. …. Finally I wrote a note that said, 'Look, assholes. There's a fucking hole in the wall next to the door. You can stop locking it now.'”
On top of the witty sub-plots, there are also some very interesting stories regarding Commodore crossing paths with today's more prominent computer companies (Microsoft and Apple, to be more precise). The book sheds light on how Commodore influenced them and gave them direction, even though these companies would like you to believe that they did everything themselves.
After reading this book I came away with these conclusions about the Commodore corporation:
Conclusion One: if it weren't for the uninspired top level of management for the company, I'm positive that there would be three major personal computer operating systems today; Linux, Microsoft, and Commodore Amiga. Apple Macintosh would have disappeared from the market or at least less main-stream, like BSD, from who they adopted their latest OS from in the first place.
Unfortunately, Commodore had people at the helm that just didn't understand the world of personal computing all that well. They were in it for the short term, taking the easy money with little thought of the future.
Conclusion Two: I saw four critical mistakes made by Commodore that crippled it to the point of bankruptcy in 1994:
1. The alienation of the electronic retailers that Jack Tramiel seemed so happy to do in the early years of Commodore. If Tramiel would have taken the time to look beyond the short term profits he was attempting to make and gave more consideration to the small electronic dealers, Commodore could have gotten more support from them when it really needed it to survive.
2. The instability of the Commodore management. Irving Gould hired and fired CEOs, presidents and department heads at the drop of a hat. A manager would be doing all he could to bring the company from the brink. When he accomplished this and started to make the business as success once again, Gould would fire him. I can only guess that Gould was a relatively insecure individual who didn't want anyone in the company to prove themselves a better manager than himself.
After Tramiel was ejected from the company, there was no one engineers, developers, and marketers could turn to that had a clear vision for the company's direction.
If Gould would have just shown some commitment in the managers he himself hired, then perhaps people in the industry would have had more confidence in Commodore products.
3. Not developing (and completing) a next generation version of the C64. Of all of the products that came from Commodore, the C64 was the most popular and biggest money maker. It was released to the public in 1982 and continued to sell until it was finally discontinued in 1992 (even after several attempts by the company to remove it from store shelves). In those ten years, Commodore sold and estimated 17 million units with a library of an estimated 10,000 games and applications.
If management would have had better focus for their engineers, they could have taken the successful C64 and began development on a next generation version of it earlier. Instead, time, money and effort was squandered on lack-luster projects (like the 264, the 364, the Plus/4 and C16).
Although there was a C65 in development, this didn't begin until the early 90's and was ultimately shut down when the company went bankrupt soon after.
4. Commodore's attempt to make their new acquisition, the Amiga, compatible with IBM PC software. The Amiga, in every way, was far superior to anything on the market at the time (IBM PC, Atari, and Apple). But the IBM emulator that was shipped with the Amiga was slow and did not fulfill users aspirations.
In my opinion, Commodore would have been better off to avoid the whole IBM emulator thing and focus on Amiga's own strengths, with a strong software development team to back it up. And if Tramiel didn't make electronics dealers so wary of doing business with Commodore in the early '80s, they would have been able to sell the Amiga to the masses and probably would still be doing so today.
I also think that GNU/Linux would have had a strong corporate sponsor if Commodore was still around.
Well, after all is said and done, if you have any interest in computers and today's technology, I highly recommend that you get a copy of this book and read it for yourself. You'd be surprised at how much of this industry is due to Commodore and the people who made this company what it was.