The C64 vs. Apple II was perhaps the most epic battle of the 8-bit era. Both companies sold millions of machines, yet both nearly went out of business in the process.
Comparing the two machines with the largest software libraries of the 8-bit era is a bit difficult, but that’s what makes it fun. The two machines are similar enough that some people ask if the Commodore 64 was an Apple product. The answer is no.
As a weird aside, it was possible, with a Mimic Systems Spartan, to turn a C-64 into an Apple II. Not many did, but the reason why is another story.
The Apple II had a clear edge when it came to business applications. The pioneering spreadsheet Visicalc gave the machine an early advantage that it never relinquished to any other 8-bit machine.
When it came to games, things get a bit blurrier. The Apple II had a major advantage when it came to role-playing games, partly because software developers assumed most Apple II owners had two disk drives, and they wrote their games to take advantage of that. Most C-64 software assumed a single-drive machine, even though dual-drive 64s were fairly common. Plus, the faster disk drives on the Apple II made role-playing games more enjoyable.
The C64’s advantage was with arcade-style games because of its 3-voice sound chip and sprite graphics. Fast movement was possible on the Apple II but it required a lot more complex programming, and the Apple II’s beeper couldn’t compare with the 64’s mini-synthesizer.
Austerity vs. Prosperity
One large difference I see, looking back, is that Apple developers weren’t shy about using the enhanced capabilities of the machine as time wore on while Commodore developers were. The first Apple IIs had 48K of RAM, but by the mid-1980s, 128K was standard. Software developers eagerly stretched their legs and used the extra memory and multiple disk drives. As a result, a second drive became almost a necessity in the Apple world. As time wore on, so did 128K.
Commodore developers wrote their software so it would run on a single-drive C64 attached to a spare television set. Entertainment software that took advantage of Commodore’s memory expansion or even a second floppy drive was rare. Some later productivity software would use it, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Few developers even wrote anything to take advantage of the 128, just utilizing it as a C-64 clone.
Proprietary vs. Open
Apple isn’t known for its openness today, but the Apple II’s architecture was very open. Since it was designed by a hobbyist in a garage, of course it used off-the-shelf components, and its multitude of expansion slots really helped extend the usable life expectancy of the machine.
This also meant it was possible to clone the Apple II. Several companies did. Apple challenged some of the clone makers in court, and usually won, but on copyright grounds. Vtech’s Laser 128 was the longest-running successful Apple II clone because Vtech managed to clone Apple’s software well enough without infringing on its copyrights.
Commodore had its own chip design house and fabrication plant, and with the C-64, they really took advantage of it. The reason nobody else could match the C-64’s price point at the time was because nobody else designed and built its own chips. In 1987 when they needed to improve profits, they redesigned the chips.
Late in life this became a disadvantage, as Intel was able to sell chips for less than Commodore could make them. But that was Commodore’s fault for not modernizing its chip production with process shrinks, rather than an inherent flaw in the 64 itself.
Both lines initially were 1-MHz 6502-series machines. But since Apple used the off-the-shelf 6502 while Commodore used its proprietary 6510, Apple was able to take advantage of faster 6502 variants produced by Rockwell and Western Design Center later in the 1980s, so the Apple IIc, IIgs, and IIe+ were much faster than the first Apple II, II+ and IIe.
Additionally, Apple’s disk drives were much faster than the 64’s. The 64 had a design flaw that couldn’t be corrected and still have the 64 hit the market on time. Fixing it later was a problem too, as that could have created compatibility issues.
The C-64 was a much more sensitive machine, so speeding up its CPU was far more difficult. A small number of people did create accelerators for the 64 but they didn’t sell in large numbers. In the late 1980s Commodore did design a IIgs-like successor to the 64 that likely would have been called the C-65, but it wouldn’t have been fully backward-compatible with the 64 and it was ultimately cancelled. The C-128 was a souped-up 64 sold from 1985-89, but it achieved 64 compatibility by implementing a separate 64 mode that disabled all of the enhancements, including the extra keys on the keyboard.
Ultimately, Apple survived into a fourth decade while Commodore barely made it into a third, so obviously the Apple II was more popular, right?
Not really. The C-64 sold 20-25 million units from 1982-1994, while Apple sold about six million Apple IIs. The Commodore 128, which some people consider a dud, sold an additional four million units.
Both companies had both good times and bad in the 1980s and early 1990s. But overall, Apple had the better management of the two. Apple learned more from Commodore’s successes and failures than Commodore did.
Good times and bad
Most people know that Apple fired Steve Jobs in 1985, but people often forget that Apple struggled through the mid 1980s. The Macintosh wasn’t selling well, and the Apple II line, due to its higher price, was more sensitive to competition from early IBM clones like the Tandy 1000, Epson Apex, and Leading Edge Model D than Commodore’s less-expensive machines were. It took 3-4 years longer for those machines to encroach on Commodore’s turf.
Commodore at times struggled to keep up with demand. That was a good problem to have, but it reinvested its profits poorly. So Commodore was bleeding cash by the end of the decade in spite of having sold more than 30 million machines between the 64, 128, and VIC-20.
Apple went on to become the most valuable company in the world, while Commodore went out of business in 1994.