The first successful home computer: Commodore VIC-20

What was the first successful home computer? Some people would argue it was the Apple II, the TRS-80 Model I, or perhaps even the Apple I. But I argue it was Commodore’s VIC-20.

Maybe I’m biased. I was a Commodore fan growing up and my first experience with a computer was probably on a VIC-20. But I think I can make a case.

The VIC-20, priced at $299, was the first computer to sell more than a million units.
The VIC-20, priced at $299, was the first computer to sell more than a million units.

I grew up reading that the VIC-20 was the surprise bestselling computer of 1982. But as early as April 1981, some people predicted it would be a huge success once its release came in May of that year. Compute! magazine said this $300 color computer would create its own market, and even before the computer was released the magazine was devoting 15-20 of a given issue’s 200 pages to the VIC-20.

In hindsight it’s easy to see why Compute! thought what it did. At the time Commodore released the VIC-20, the cheapest home computers cost $600.

But the opinion wasn’t unanimous. Like I said, the books and magazines about computers that I read growing up said the VIC-20’s success was a surprise. Commodore itself had mixed opinions.  Some feared the VIC-20 would eat into PET sales. Jack Tramiel argued that if Commodore wouldn’t compete with the PET someone else would. Other Commodore executives rightly pointed out that few customers would stop at buying a $300 VIC-20. By the time they were done buying peripherals, they could spend $1,000 on a complete setup, just like PET customers didn’t stop at a bare computer.

The strategy worked. As of 1980, Commodore had sold about 150,000 PET and CBM computers, which were functionally similar to the Apple II but not priced for the home market. A complete setup could cost $5,000.

By the summer of 1983, Compute! had launched a magazine dedicated entirely to Commodore computers. In its premiere issue, the editors estimated Commodore was selling 100,000 machines per month. At that point, the VIC-20 was still a significant portion of those sales, but the C-64 was taking over. Then again, it was the VIC that set the table for the 64.

By the fall of 1984, Commodore stopped producing new VIC-20s. The remaining inventory lasted into 1985. It gave way to the Commodore 16 as the new entry-level computer. Then, when the C-16 flopped, Commodore repositioned the 64 as its entry-level machine.

At its peak, Commodore had 38% of the computer market all to itself. The VIC-20 was the first computer to follow their successful formula.

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