Commodore 128, top-12 dud? By what measure?

PC Magazine presented a list of 12 computer duds, and while I agree with most of them, my old friend the Commodore 128 makes an appearance. Commodore released several duds over the years, but calling the 128 one of them doesn’t seem fair.

PC Magazine hedges, sort of, calling it “a different kind of dud” in the light that it sold 4 million units. But then it justifies it by comparing it to the Commodore 64, which sold 12 million units (by its estimate; that’s on the low end of what I’ve heard). By that standard, the only things sold in the 1980s that weren’t duds are the Atari 2600 and Nintendo NES.

The most frequent complaint I hear about the 128 is that it should have been more like the Apple IIgs, rather than a multi-mode machine with both a “64 mode” and a “128 mode” that wasn’t compatible with the 64. What the 128’s critics always forget is that the Apple IIgs wasn’t nearly as successful as the 128. The IIgs was on the market for 6 years and sold 1.25 million units, total. The 128 was on the market for 4 years and sold 4 million units. So how is the IIgs a success and the 128 a failure?

Furthermore, I’ve heard the 128 called “not all that backward compatible.” It should be noted that the IIgs also wasn’t 100% backward compatible. I’d also like to see a full list of C-64 programs that didn’t work on the 128, because I only know of two: The C-64 CP/M cartridge, which also only worked the rarest of 64s, and Archon II.

Admittedly, I’ve always had a fondness for the machine; I owned and used one longer than I’ve owned and used any other computer and it’s still lurking in my basement.

And when you think about it, the machine succeeded in the face of rather long odds. It was introduced in 1985, near the height of the C-64’s popularity. The 64 became Commodore’s entry level machine, displacing the VIC-20, which sold 3 million units. The 128 faced competition on three fronts. Commodore positioned it directly against the Apple IIc and IBM PCjr, which had similar feature sets, and it did well compared to them.

But the days of 8-bit computing as a whole were numbered. The PCjr flopped, but a wave of IBM-compatible computers inexpensive enough that home owners could afford them arrived in its wake. The 128’s strategy of offering C-64 compatibility for gaming and CP/M compatibility for business use looked reasonable in 1985, but once you could buy a PC clone for less than $1,000, run Lotus 1-2-3 on it and bring work home, there was an entire class of consumers that wasn’t going to give the 128 a second look.

And the third front was a new generation of 32-bit computers based on the Motorola 68000: The Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga. The Mac existed in a different pricing universe than the 128, but the ST and Amiga didn’t cost a lot more than a 128. But that was part of the idea in the first place. The 128 came out in the spring of 1985, positioned as a mid-range machine for people who were ready to graduate from 64K computers. A couple of months later the Amiga 1000 arrived, priced at around $1,300. A year or two later, Commodore introduced the Amiga 500, a truly home-oriented machine, for $700. It sported a 7 MHz Motorola 68000 CPU, 512K of memory, and an 880K 3.5″ floppy drive. The Atari 520ST, with similar specs and pricing to the Amiga 500, was introduced the same year as the 128.

A lot of 128 owners didn’t like Commodore’s attitude toward the machine. Once the Amiga 500 appeared in 1987, Commodore quit advertising the 128, and they never encouraged software development for it. In light of later revelations that Commodore only intended it to be a stand-in until the Amiga was ready for the home market, its actions make sense. They sold it, fairly reluctantly, for another couple of years. They sold the 64, also fairly reluctantly, until 1993 or 1994.

Commodore could have done a few things differently with the 128, but I still can’t see how it can be considered a flop or a failure when it outsold several machines that are widely considered to be a success, like the Apple IIe, Apple IIgs, the Commodore VIC-20, and, sadly, the entire Amiga line. Its success paled next to the 64, but aside from two iconic video game machines, so did everything else that decade.

I can think of at least two things from that decade that were much bigger duds than the 128, which PC Magazine didn’t mention: The Apple III, which was an ill-fated and unnecessary attempt to replace the successful Apple II and was plagued by reliability problems; and the IBM PS/2 line, which was ahead of its time and sold fairly well, but the proprietary nature of its Microchannel bus ruined IBM’s reputation. Even after IBM changed back to the industry standard ISA architecture and its successors, VLB and PCI, it couldn’t shake that proprietary reputation and public mistrust. When I was selling computers at retail in 1994-95, I faced legions of consumers wouldn’t even look at an IBM. People either came into the store with their mind made up to buy an IBM, or to buy anything but an IBM. Even when I had an IBM model for less money than anything else–which, believe it or not, did happen one July–that latter group still wouldn’t look at it.

Compared to the Apple III and the IBM PS/2s, the 128 looks like an awfully shrewd move to me. Top-12 dud? More like last hurrah.

3 thoughts on “Commodore 128, top-12 dud? By what measure?

  • August 17, 2011 at 10:32 pm
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    Well, there, see. You did think of something else to write about. But face it, the 128 just didn’t have Steve Jobs attached to it :-), although I’ve yet to understand why that should make a difference.

  • August 18, 2011 at 11:29 am
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    I don’t know if I would call it a “dud” per se but … eh, I see what they are saying in the article. Home computers kind of fell into specific niches back then. Apple II because the educational/school computer, Commodore 64 became the game computer, and PCs became the serious business computer. Note that these are sweeping generalities, but that’s often how the machines were portrayed in the media. Commodores were looked down upon as toys by most other computer brands and owners, so getting a 128 in your office wasn’t very likely.

    I could see calling it a dud based on the amount of 128-specific software released, especially games. I knew several people with 128s and, other than 80-column mode for word processing, most of their time was spent in 64 mode. I guess a modern comparison would be if people bought Nintendo Wiis just to play Wii Sports, and then all their old Gamecube games. (That’s not the case, but just sayin’.)

    I would be much more likely to put the +4 or the C16 on the list. I’ve never met anyone who bought one of those machines new, and to release a Commodore machine at the height of the C64’s popularity that wasn’t compatible with that machine … those things were doomed from the start. (I own one of each now, of course.)

    • August 18, 2011 at 7:08 pm
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      Paul: Yes, it’s irritating how Apple gets held to one standard, and everyone else to a different one. Maybe it’s because Apple is still in business and most of its competitors from the 1980s aren’t, but if you go back and read Infoworld, there were times in the 1980s when Apple’s survival wasn’t a guarantee either. Everyone struggled to make it out of the ’80s alive.

      Rob: Yeah, the amount of 128-mode software was always a problem. I’d run an 80-column word processor and Desterm and GEOS in 128 mode, but spent the rest of the time in 64 mode. Had they used the 6845 chip for 80-column video like Bil Herd wanted to do, that would have helped. Since people already knew how to program that chip, it would have been much easier to port games from other platforms to it. There might have been some good British ports from the Amstrad and BBC Micro, since both of them used the 6845.

      I agree the C-16 and Plus/4 were big-time duds. I understand the rationale behind designing them. They might have been a useful insurance policy in case the 64 tanked. But since the 64 didn’t tank, they should have just quietly discontinued the project.

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