In early 1984, IBM released its first home computer, the IBM PCjr. Commodore soon responded with one of its best advertisements, pitting its Commodore 64 vs IBM PCjr.
The ad contrasted a stripped-down PCjr with no disk drive and a chiclet keyboard with a complete C-64 setup.
The ad was a little misleading because you didn’t get everything in the picture for the cost of a PCjr. You’d have to choose the printer or the monitor. But Commdore’s point stood. You could buy a computer for a lot of money, or get a lot of computer for the money.
The ad worked. The PCjr only lasted about two years on the market, and sold somewhere between 270,000 and 500,000 units.
The Commodore 64 lasted 12 years on the market and sold around 20 million units. Nobody knows exact sales figures for the C-64, but nobody disputes it was the best selling computer of all time.
People expected great things from the PCjr. They also expected great things from the Coleco Adam. The Commodore 64 just turned out to be too much of a juggernaut to compete against well. Its low price meant you couldn’t afford to make many mistakes if you wanted to compete. And the PCjr, as it turns out, just made too many mistakes.
The IBM PCjr
IBM rightly recognized that the IBM PC was a poor fit for most households. It was expensive, and its poor graphics and sound capabilities meant it wasn’t very good for playing games.
So IBM created a lower-cost machine and added color graphics with a couple of extra modes, plus a Texas Instruments sound chip that had been used in the TI-99/4A and Coleco Adam computers and Colecovision game console.
With competitive sound and graphics and the ability to run some (but not all) IBM PC productivity titles, it would have been a compelling home computer. Arguably IBM priced it too high, but Apple computers were expensive, and people bought them.
The problem was IBM gave it a lousy rubber chiclet keyboard, and it was difficult to add memory or a second drive to it. The IBM PC was successful because it was easy to upgrade, and the PCjr didn’t inherit that feature. It was a machine with too many compromises at a no-compromises price. A bare PCjr with 64K, no disk drive and no monitor cost $669. A usable configuration would set you back $1,300 or more.
The PCjr did have a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 CPU and it ran IBM PC DOS (a close MS-DOS derivative). You had to use a third-party expansion to expand it to 736K, but if you did, the computer would use it.
The Commodore 64
Commodore introduced the C-64 in 1982 at a price of $595. By the time the PCjr came out, it was selling for about $220. A bare C-64 wasn’t very usable either, 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 vulnerable, but IBM kept its price too high.
The machines’ fate
In late 1984 when IBM ran promotions lowering the price to something closer to Commodore’s level, the PCjr sold extremely well, approaching or even exceeding the C-64. But when the promotions ended, the computer became sales-proof. Dealers who had been able to sell 50 units a month suddenly could only sell two.
In mid-1985, Commodore released the 128, which featured more memory and a faster disk drive. IBM discontinued the PCjr in March 1985. Competing with the C-64 was hard enough. The 128, with its upgrades, was going to be too much.
Commodore won the battle but lost the war. 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.