Commodore 64 vs IBM PC

The IBM PC and Commodore 64 were introduced about a year apart. The PC came out in 1981. The 64 followed in 1982.  They were two of the most important machines of the 1980s, and both have long legacies. Here’s the story of the Commodore 64 vs IBM PC.

Although the two machines share a legacy, for the most part they existed in different worlds.

Commodore challenged the IBM PC in some of its advertising.

Commodore 64 vs IBM PC: The biggest contrast was the price.
Commodore challenged the $1355 price of the IBM PC in this 1983 advertisement.

Commodore attacked the price of the IBM PC, which, in September 1983, sold for over $1,300 in a configuration with 64K of memory. Yes, that’s 64 K, not 640K. Commodore priced its 64K Commodore 64 at around $300 at the same time.

IBM’s goal was to sell about 250,000 units per year, and at that price, IBM more than met its sales goals. IBM had a network of business-like computer stores where it sold the majority of its machines.

Commodore took a different approach. Commodore sold business-oriented computers in those types of quantities before 1981. With the C-64, Commodore was going after volume. One of the ways Commodore achieved that volume was by selling in mass-market discount stores like Kmart and Target, as well as toy stores like Children’s Palace and Toys R Us.

And thanks to the C-64, Commodore had about 38 percent of the computer market all to itself in the early and mid 1980s.

The IBM PC

The IBM PC, in its standard early 1980s configuration
IBM built its original IBM PC, introduced in 1981, using mostly off-the-shelf parts.

The IBM PC was conservative and business-like. IBM recognized that expandability was an advantage, so they made the IBM PC open architecture, allowing the owners to put multiple disk drives, memory, and I/O ports inside the box.

The IBM PC’s 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 CPU wasn’t state of the art, but it was faster than most of the other CPUs on the market at the time. It could use up to 640K of memory, which, in 1981, was a monstrous amount. The 8088 CPU could use up to a megabyte, but IBM reserved 384K of the address space for I/O. That was what led to Bill Gates’ infamous “640K ought to be enough for anybody” quip. He didn’t mean forever. But for a machine intended for a shelf life of a couple of years, it sounded like a good compromise.

IBM used mostly off the shelf parts. This sped development but raised the price in the short term. It left IBM vulnerable to cloning, but it took a while. It also meant IBM could swap in newer chips for older ones. It did this in 1985 with the PC/AT. It featured a newer, faster CPU and extended memory capability, but IBM was able to do it without breaking compatibility with the existing IBM PC software base.

The Commodore 64

For your $595, you got this box, cables to connect it to a TV, a power brick, and a book that told you how to hook it up and a little bit about how to use it.

Commodore introduced the C-64 in 1982 at a price of $595 and aggressively cut prices over the next three years. A bare C-64 wasn’t very usable, but a disk drive cost around $200. A lot of people bought a C-64 and 1541 disk drive and connected it to a 13-inch TV. A decked-out C-64 setup with a color monitor, two disk drives, a printer and a modem cost around $1,100.

With the C-64, you got a full travel keyboard, excellent graphics and sound for its time, and a huge software library. The 64 had a lot of games and a lot fewer productivity titles like word processors and spreadsheets. But the titles were good enough for writing letters and doing homework.

The C-64 had a slower 8-bit CPU, limited to 64K of memory. Commodore later released memory expansion for it, but little software used it. Commodore’s disk drive was painfully slow. One of the most popular Commodore upgrades was a fast load cartridge.

The C-64 was very proprietary. Commodore made all of the major chips itself, which gave it a lot of control over pricing early on. But because Commodore didn’t modernize its manufacturing process like Intel did, the 64’s price never could fall below $99. And since all of the chips were so tightly integrated, swapping one chip out for a newer, more capable chip wasn’t an option like it was on the IBM PC.

The machines’ fate

Commodore lost the war due to attrition. The 64 exceeded expectations and survived until 1994, but Commodore never released a successor that sold like the 64.

IBM lost control of the IBM PC ecosystem in the mid 1980s. When Intel released the 386 CPU, IBM resisted using it, fearing a 386-based PC would cut into minicomputer sales. Compaq built a 386-based PC in 1986, essentially forcing IBM to do the same a year later. IBM tried to put an end to cloning by releasing its PS/2 line in 1987. While technically superior, the old architecture was good enough for most users.

IBM PC clones eventually overtook the industry, and Commodore went out of business in 1994. IBM had some success with its PS/1 and Aptiva computers in the 1990s, but eventually sold its PC business to Lenovo. But the computer you’re reading this on, if it has an Intel CPU in it, is a direct descendant of that IBM PC. Yes, even if it’s an Apple.

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