RIP, Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore

Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, the orchestrator of the first line of affordable personal computers, died this weekend at the age of 83.

I don’t know exactly what to think about it, and I’m probably not alone.

On the one hand, I owe exactly how I think about computers to this man. Jack Tramiel’s computers taught me that computing resources are finite but if we’re careful how we use them, we can accomplish a tremendous amount of value for our computing dollars.

On the other hand, by all accounts he didn’t treat people very well. It makes me smile that he spent nearly a decade kicking Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak around, but he treated his suppliers and his employees badly too. He’s not a man I can point to and tell my sons to emulate.

All that said, I hope that now, in death, he can achieve some of the recognition he never received in life. He was an Auschwitz survivor,emigrated to the United States and joined the Army, where he learned to repair typewriters. After leaving the Army, he founded a company in Toronto in 1955 that assembled and repaired typewriters. Later the business expanded into other office supplies like file cabinets, and eventually into calculators. The first handheld calculator my dad ever owned was a Commodore.

Commodore bought its chips from Texas Instruments. Then TI decided to start selling entire calculators for about what it charged other companies for a few chips. Commodore responded by buying a struggling chip supplier, and that company’s ace engineer, Chuck Peddle, convinced Tramiel to let him design a computer.

The result was the Commodore PET of 1977. Jobs and Wozniak weren’t impressed, but Commodore couldn’t keep up with demand so I doubt Peddle and Tramiel lost any sleep over it.

But by Peddle’s account, Tramiel used him up and threw him away, destroying his marriage, personal life, and nearly his career. Tramiel did that to a lot of his engineers. It seems like he was always able to find good engineers to replace them, but Peddle ended up working for other companies. Bill Mensch founded his own company, which ended up designing the CPU that found its way into the Apple IIgs. And Bob Yannes, designer of the VIC-20 and the immortal SID chip that gave the Commodore 64 its spectacular sound capabilities, ended up founding Ensoniq and designing the synthesizer for the Apple IIgs.

It would have been much easier for Commodore to duplicate the 64′s wild success if it had been able to hold on to the engineers who designed the thing in the first place.

But I’ve gotten far ahead of myself. The 64 was Tramiel’s crowning achievement and his last hurrah at Commodore. It was the second in a one-two punch that rocked the industry in the early 1980s.

In 1981, Tramiel ordered the design of a color computer that could connect to a television and sell for less than $300. A fresh-from-college engineer named Bob Yannes, unaware that the task was impossible, designed a crude computer that met the specs. Tramiel saw it, and after a few refinements, it went into production. It was woefully underpowered, but there was nothing else like it.

The VIC-20 was Linus Torvalds’ first computer. He and about three million others.

In 1982, Tramiel ordered his engineers to produce a 64K computer that could sell for less than $600. Yannes and a few others did that, too, and none of Commodore’s competitors could figure out how. The secret turned out to be vertical integration. Aside from the memory chips and a bunch of sub-$3 logic glue chips, Commodore made everything inside that box.

Tramiel aggressively cut the price at every opportunity, driving competitors from the market and making computing affordable for those who couldn’t afford something from Apple or IBM. The machine went on to sell more than 20 million units, and it’s still the longest-running and best-selling computer model of all time.

The 64 was my first computer. My parents probably could have afforded an Apple, but the 64′s price made it hard to justify waiting any longer to get a computer. So at the age of 10, I started learning the ins and outs of that inexpensive computer. By the time I was 12, I could write simple programs in assembly language on it. By the time I was 14, I was regularly writing about the machine, and by the time I was 16, I was writing professionally about it.

By 1984, Commodore was winning the war but at great cost to itself, and Tramiel resigned under fire. A few months later, he and his sons purchased the ailing Atari–a company that suffered greatly at the hand of Tramiel’s aggressive pricing–to attempt a second act.

Tramiel never returned Atari to its spectacular pre-1983 heights, but he kept up the price pressure. Tramiel’s Atari released the Atari XE, a reprise of the venerable Atari 800, and introduced the Atari ST, a 16-bit Motorola 68000-based computer that delivered a Mac-like experience for less than the cost of an Apple IIe. Both achieved minor success. The biggest problem with the ST was that a significant percentage of its users didn’t want to pay for software, so companies weren’t inclined to release new software since they thought most people would just pirate it.

Tellingly, Atari survived several years longer than Commodore did. Commodore ran out of money in 1994; Atari had plenty of money come 1996 but no viable products to sell. Tramiel’s Atari merged with JTS, the worst hard drive maker of all time. At the time it looked like a good match; JTS was an underfunded upstart with a promising product, and Atari was flush with capital but needed a product to sell. Tramiel and his sons retired gracefully. JTS hard drives were plagued with reliability problems, and the company even resorted to hocking the Atari name to raise funds, but ultimately went bankrupt in 1999.

The last I knew, Tramiel was retired, living in California, and owned a Dell PC and a C-64, which he still played from time to time for amusement. He made some appearances in 2007 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the C-64. It was good to see him finally get a little recognition for his achievements.

Part of me hopes Tramiel wrote some memoirs and that someday his family will release them. Tramiel had a tendency to overwork his people and not pay his bills when he thought he could get away with it. On the other hand, he was very proud of the cottage industries that developed around his computers and how thousands of people like me were able to make money with them.

And Tramiel quietly gave back. He helped found the Holocaust Museum, and he never forgot the name of the serviceman who liberated him and many others. In 2003, he paid to have the words “To Vernon W. Tott, My Liberator and Hero,” inscribed on a wall of the museum. Corporal Tott died of cancer two years later, in 2005.

Jack Tramiel wasn’t perfect. He was a human being with some significant flaws. But he changed the world and his achievements have been downplayed far too much for far too long.

Here’s a 2007 interview on Youtube. Jack Tramiel answered questions from about 17 minutes in until about 37 minutes in, before the rest of the panel came up and veered totally off course. He perhaps got to speak for another 20 disjointed minutes over the course of the following hour.

So thank you, Mr. Tramiel. Your product taught me things I’m still using today, in a field that didn’t really even exist when you were running Commodore.

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2 Comments

  1. John Dominik

     /  April 9, 2012

    I’m one of those who had a VIC-20 – and a disk drive. Talk about having a racing transmission and a lawnmower engine… But it was a blast.

    • Dave Farquhar

       /  April 11, 2012

      Better to have a VIC-20 with a disk drive than a 64 without one. I knew a few people who made that mistake.

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