The subject of clones was always controversial in Commodore circles, even during Commodore’s heyday. There were no true Commodore 64 clones in the 1980s and 1990s. Why? And would it have made a difference?
Other clones in the 1980s
There were clones of other computers in the 1980s. Almost everyone knows about IBM clones. There were Apple II clones too, including an add-on to make the Commodore 64 compatible with the Apple II+. So why weren’t there any Commodore 64 clones?
Commodore was different. The Apple II and IBM PC were two of the most expensive computers on the market. And both of them were made from off-the-shelf chips, available from more than one manufacturer. That made it possible for someone else to come in, design and build workalike personal computers using the same chips, and settle for a lower profit margin.
Commodore did two things differently from Apple and IBM. They designed and built their own chips, and they sold computers for a lower profit margin. Under Jack Tramiel, they used this to drive competitors like Texas Instruments and Coleco from the home computer business. Commodore also came dangerously close to driving Atari out of the home computer and video game console business too. If Irving Gould and Jack Tramiel had waited a year later to get into the fight that led to his resignation, things might have turned out very differently for Atari.
The difficulty of cloning Commodore
That put two obstacles in the way for anyone wanting to make Commodore 64 clones. They’d have to make chips that were compatible with Commodore’s without infringing on its patents. The video chip would have been tricky, as it took Commodore themselves a couple of years to get it right. Then they’d have to find a way to beat Commodore’s price. And they’d have to clone Commodore’s operating system without infringing on Commodore’s copyrights.
The patents are all expired and we still can’t clone the SID chip, though the rest of the chips in the 64 can be. It was just too hard to do back then. Even Commodore couldn’t quite replicate the SID chip exactly as it tried to reduce costs. The later SID chips didn’t play digitized audio quite like the old ones did.
Cloning IBM was so much easier. Or, if you were stuck on Commodore, cloning the Commodore 1541 disk drive was still easier. Commodore made the chips in its disk drives too, but so did other companies.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em
It was more profitable to sell into the Commodore ecosystem than to try to be their ecosystem. Commodore didn’t charge any royalties for software and peripherals. Commodore was more than happy to let other companies sell cassette tape drives, modems, printers, and power supplies. And while Commodore published a lot of software early on for the 64, it left the software market once the 64 had a good number of third party publishers.
What about Drean Commodore 64 clones?
There was a sort of Commodore 64 clone sold in South America: the Drean Commodore 64. In this case, Commodore shipped parts to Argentina, where appliance maker Drean assembled and sold them. Drean only actually manufactured the power supply. Assembling the computers in Argentina gave the two companies tax advantages. But it was licensed and even co-branded. It had both Drean’s and Commodore’s names on it. This made it more like the Sears Video Arcade than a true clone.
Should Commodore have allowed clones?
Lots of people argued over the years that Commodore should have allowed clones, and they cited the IBM market as an example. But the IBM market succeeded because it became an open standard, and it was extensible. When IBM wouldn’t put a 386 processor in an IBM PC, Compaq did it instead, and extended the market.
The Commodore 64 wasn’t extensible and wasn’t designed to be. Commodore intended to be selling some type of 16- or 32-bit computer by 1985, and designed the 64 to dominate the 1982-84 market. It was the most capable 8-bit computer with 64 kilobytes of RAM they could build to meet a price point of $595 that could fall with the price of memory chips.
It all worked. The 64’s continued success the second half of the decade wasn’t anything Commodore anticipated. But it sold in smaller numbers from 1986 onward.
Why Commodore failed
Commodore failed because it ran out of money, not because it ran out of market. Had Commodore been able to update its manufacturing process to something comparable to what Intel and the rest of the industry was using by mid-decade, it would have had better profit margins to work with on all its computers. It also would have had more room to sell the C-64 for less than $100. Commodore never could make the 64 for less than $35. Had Commodore been able to cut the price of the 64 to $50, it would have sold in slightly better quantities during the early 90s.
We can look at Apple as an example. Apple struggled in the 1980s but survived, because its high-priced computers had good profit margins. Apple experimented with allowing Macintosh clones for a time. They found it didn’t extend their market as much as they’d hoped, so Steve Jobs ended that experiment in the late 1990s. The Mac remains a niche technology, but Apple itself is insanely profitable.
Commodore’s problem wasn’t the number of 64s produced or sold. It was the Amiga. The Amiga was successful in the late 1980s when it was competing with IBM PC clones with poor graphics and sound and Macintoshes that cost twice as much. Once 386SX-based PC clones hit the market for $1,000, the Amiga couldn’t compete. Commodore couldn’t sell an Amiga with a hard drive for that price.
Other companies and clones
We should also note that Apple aggressively went after its cloners. Apple wasn’t able to drive V-Tech’s Laser 128 from the market but it effectively sued Franklin Computer out of business.
IBM didn’t want to be cloned either. And IBM designed the IBM PS/2 line to be unclonable without buying chips from IBM or at least paying IBM a royalty. The risk was the industry following the old standard instead of IBM’s new standard. And that was exactly what they did. IBM’s 1981 standard survives in extended form today but IBM isn’t in that business anymore. IBM clones were great for us. They weren’t as great for IBM.
Modern Commodore 64 clones
In the first decade of the 21st century, self-taught engineer Jeri Ellsworth created a 64-on-a-chip, fitting all of the circuitry that went into the original 64 onto a single chip. Her design was marketed as a plugin TV gaming console housed inside a joystick called the C64-direct-to-TV. Commodore was gone and the patents expired, so the only thing the company marketing it had to worry about was licensing the original Commodore 64 games on it. The concept was very similar to the mini-consoles of today. But retro gaming wasn’t as big then as it is now, so it wasn’t as successful commercially.
In 2018, the C64 Mini hit the market. It looked exactly like a quarter-size Commodore 64. It didn’t have the same games the earlier C64-direct-to-TV had, so how successful it turns out remains to be seen.
During the same timeframe, different companies produced Commodore-compatible motherboards and keyboards, and the old Commodore 64C case tooling surfaced. So it’s possible to assemble a Commodore 64 clone using new parts today. But at the very least, you still need a SID chip for perfect compatibility. One of the new motherboards contains a C64-on-a-chip but its sound emulation isn’t quite exact. The analog components on the original SID chip are impossible to replicate in hardware using 2018 technology.
And of course, thanks to emulation, lots of fans create their own miniature Commodore 64 clones using a Raspberry Pi and software loaded on an SD card.