Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET

There’s a nasty rumor floating around that in Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography, Steve Jobs, Jobs alleges that Commodore copied the Apple II when making its first computer, 1977’s PET. Here’s the story of Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET.

The book doesn’t come right out and say it, but it insinuates it. I know how the PET came to be, and the PET would have happened whether the Apple II ever existed or not.

Both the PET and the Apple II used the same CPU, the MOS 6502. What seems not to be so well known is who made the MOS 6502. That’s a shame, because the 6502 is a good story unto itself.

The 6502 CPU

The MOS 6502 was designed by an ex-Motorola engineer named Chuck Peddle. Peddle, one of the designers of the Motorola 6800 CPU, believed CPUs were too expensive. He thought a cheaper CPU would progress technology, so he set out to design an 8-bit CPU that would be less expensive than the Motorola 6800 and Intel 8080. Motorola was interested in making chips that were more powerful and expensive than the 6800, not less, so Peddle left and founded his own company, MOS Technology. In 1976, MOS introduced the 6502 at a price of $25. The Motorola 6800 and Intel 8080 sold for $179 at the time.

The 6502 immediately proved a technical and commercial success, but MOS ran out of money. Along came a struggling calculator company named Commodore Business Machines, who hoped to duplicate Texas Instruments’ vertical integration. Commodore bought MOS, under the condition that Chuck Peddle would stay on.

From the 6502 to a computer

Along with the 6502, Peddle designed a simple single-board computer called the KIM-1 to show what the chip could do. The KIM-1 was introduced in April 1976 and cost $245. It was extremely crude but served its purpose. It convinced hobbyists that it was possible to build a computer around the 6502. Undoubtedly, Steve Jobs and his engineer, Steve Wozniak, were aware of the KIM-1 and had seen it.

While Jobs and Wozniak were messing around in their garage, Peddle was working on trying to convince Commodore that calculators were a dead end and computers were the future. To that end, he added video output, a monitor, tape drive, and a real keyboard to the KIM-1. That computer became the Commodore PET 2001. Commodore demonstrated the PET in January 1977, though the first units didn’t actually start shipping until October. According to the book, Peddle visited Apple in September, which would have been about a month before the PET came out. But the PET wasn’t the rush job that Jobs implies it was.

The purchase that wasn’t

It’s no secret that Peddle visited Jobs and Wozniak in their garage. It’s also no secret that Commodore considered some sort of partnership with Apple, whether that meant re-selling Apple computers or buying the company outright. But that story varies. According to Jobs, they couldn’t agree on a purchase price. According to Leonard Tramiel, the son of Commodore’s Jack Tramiel, Commodore wasn’t nearly as interested in a deal as Jobs was. Commodore was happy to be selling him chips.

The book also calls Commodore’s management “sleazy.” Those are the most accurate words on page 72, whatever else is on them.

Apple II vs PET

So how close was the PET to the Apple II?

Saying the Commodore PET was based on Apple designs is either revisionist history, or pure ignorance. Chuck Peddle designed the chip that made the Apple II possible. He built the KIM-1 around that chip. Peddle was capable of adding a keyboard and a video circuit to his KIM-1 without Steve Wozniak’s help. The two machines had some similarities. The big ones were a 6502 processor and a video circuit rather than a single-chip solution. But that was due to both designers having to get by with what was available at the time. Later PETs used a 6545 video chip, a variant of the more common 6845 video chip that powered many 1980s computers.

Perhaps the introduction of the PET surprised Jobs. But it shouldn’t have surprised him that Commodore would have a fallback plan. It had been in business for 22 years at that point. Established businesses do things like that.

What if Commodore had bought Apple?

I suppose Jobs was bitter, but in the end it worked out for him. Had Commodore bought Apple, Jobs and Woz would have had the same trouble communicating with founder Jack Tramiel and controlling financier Irving Gould that Chuck Peddle and countless others did. Jobs and Woz would have had ideas, but Commodore had no shortage of talented engineers and visionaries in the 1980s.

The Steve Jobs of the late 1990s would have helped Commodore immensely in its hour of need, but that man didn’t exist yet when Commodore needed him. Things started going bad for Commodore around the same time things started going bad for Apple the first time around. Jobs didn’t save Apple and ended up going into exile at Next. At the time Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, Jobs was the bitter CEO of a company that was trying to decide whether to be a hardware or a software company and Pixar was still a fringe company few people had heard of and even fewer understood.

The way things happened, Apple was still around for Jobs to return to after he learned the lessons of Next and Pixar.

It’s fairly easy to imagine the path Commodore would have traveled. The Apple II would have supplanted the PET. Most likely, the Commodore 64’s chips would have ended up in some form of enhanced Apple II or Apple III. Something like the Lisa and/or Macintosh project still could have happened. The acquisition-hungry Commodore probably still would have bought Amiga. The Mac still could have appeared in 1984 or so, with the Amiga custom chips coming into play a year or two later. Jobs would have left at some point, as Commodore management clashed with virtually all of its talent sooner rather than later, or just burned it out. Commodore still would have had financial troubles.

What about Jobs?

The question is whether Jobs would have been wealthy enough, post-Commodore, to do his side projects that taught him how to be an effective CEO.

And the other question is whether a Commodore with (presumably) greater riches would have lasted longer. Perhaps it would have. Or financiers Irving Gould and Mehdi Ali could have just paid themselves larger salaries and still bled the company to death by 1994.

And furthermore, with Amiga OS in the mix, there would have been little incentive or need for Commodore to buy Next and bring Jobs back. So even if the company had survived into the late 1990s and needed someone to turn it around, Jobs may not have had the opportunity anyway. Ostensibly, Apple bought Next for the operating system, and Jobs becoming CEO was an accident.

Had Commodore succeeded in buying Apple in the 1976-77 timeframe, history would have been very different. And not necessarily better for one Steven P. Jobs.

Steve Jobs wasn’t done with the PET, of course. A few years later, Jobs had some opinions on Amiga, too.

2 thoughts on “Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET

  • November 6, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    My college buddy Christian Cosas kindly sent me the PET-related text from the book: In September [1976] Chuck Peddle of the Commodore computer company came by the Jobs house to get a demo. “We’d opened Steve’s garage to get the sunlight, and he came in wearing a suit and cowboy hat,” Wozniak recalled. Peddle loved the Apple II, and he arranged a presentation for his top brass a few weeks later at Commodore headquarters. “You might want to buy us for a few hundred thousand dollars,” Jobs said when they got there. Wozniak was stunned by this “ridiculous” suggestion, but Jobs persisted. The Commodore honchos called a few days later to say they decided it would be cheaper to build their own machine. Jobs was not upset. He had checked out Commodore and decided that its leadership was “sleazy.” Wozniak did not rue the lost money, but his engineering sensibilities were offended when the company came out with the Commodore PET nine months later. “It kind of sickened me. They made a real crappy product by doing it so quick. They could have had Apple.”

  • November 6, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Regarding Commodore’s engineering vs. Apple’s engineering, Commodore’s engineers didn’t think all that much of Apple’s engineering either. So I’ll take anything Wozniak says about the PET with a grain of salt.

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