Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET

Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET

There’s a nasty rumor floating around that in Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography, Steve Jobs, Jobs alleges that Commodore copied the Apple II when making its first computer, 1977’s PET. Here’s the story of Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET.

The book doesn’t come right out and say it, but it insinuates it. I know how the PET came to be, and the PET would have happened whether the Apple II ever existed or not.
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So why didn’t Commodore make the Commodore 128 differently?

I grew up on the Commodore 128. We got one for Christmas 1985 (an upgrade from a Commodore 64). It was a bit of a quirky machine, but I liked it.

On the retro computing forums, it might be the most controversial thing Commodore ever did. Which says something, seeing as some computer historians have summed up Commodore’s history in four words: Irving Gould‘s stock scam. But that’s another story.

The cool thing about Commodore was that its engineers weren’t shy about talking about their projects. Bil Herd, Fred Bowen, and Dave Haynie have all weighed in over the years, talking about what they did and why and what they would have done differently.

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Intel inside the Mac–no more question mark

OK, it’s official. Intel has conquered one of the last holdouts: Soon you’ll be able to buy a Pentium-powered Mac.

Of course there are lots of questions now.First of all, Apple having problems with its CPU suppliers is nothing new. Apple’s first CPU supplier was a small firm called MOS Technology. You’ve probably never heard of it, but MOS was a subsidiary of a company you may have heard of: Commodore. Commodore, of course, was one of two other companies to release a ready-built home computer about the same time Apple did. The problem was that the Commodore and Apple computers had the same CPU. Commodore, of course, could undercut Apple’s price. And it did. Commodore president Jack Tramiel was an Auschwitz survivor, and Tramiel pretty much assumed his competitors were going to treat him the same way the Nazis did, so he never cut them any breaks either. At least not intentionally.

When other companies released licensed versions of MOS’ 6502 processor, Apple was the biggest customer. Rumor had it that Commodore was hoarding 6502s.

When Motorola released its legendary 68000 CPU, Apple was one of the first companies to sign up, and the first two commercially successful computers to use the m68K were made by Apple. And life was good. Apple wasn’t Motorola’s only customer but it was one of the biggest. Life was good for the better part of a decade, when Intel finally managed to out-muscle the performance of the Motorola 68040. So Apple conspired with Motorola and IBM to come up with something better, and the result was the PowerPC. And life was good again. The PowerPC wasn’t the best chip on the market, but of the two architectures that you could buy at every strip mall on the continent, it was clearly the better of the two.

Over time Apple’s relationship with Motorola cooled, and the relationship with IBM was off again and on again. Intel meanwhile kept trotting out bigger and bigger sledgehammers, and by brute force alone was able to out-muscle the PowerPC. Steve Jobs got creative, but eventually he just ran out of tricks. Switching to Intel in 2006 may or may not be the best option, but it’s just as easy to do now as it’s ever going to be.

So, now there’s the question of whether this will hurt Microsoft or Linux or both. The answer is yes. The real question isn’t whether it will hurt, but how much. As soon as Microsoft loses one sale, it’s hurt. The same goes for Red Hat.

To me, the question hinges on how attached Apple is to its hardware business. Steve Jobs has only said that OS X has been running on Intel in the labs for years. I have never heard him mention whether the hardware was a standard PC clone motherboard, or something of Apple’s design. I suspect he’s avoiding the question.

It would be possible to make OS X run on Apple hardware and only Apple hardware, even if the CPU is a standard Pentium 4 just like Dell uses. And at least at the outset, I expect Apple will do that. Apple may only have 3-5 percent of the market, but it’s 3-5 percent of a really big pie. The company is profitable.

It would also be possible to let Windows run on this hardware. That may be a good idea. Apple still has something to offer that nobody else does: The slick, easy to use and stable OS X, but on top of that, you can boot into Windows to play games or whatever. It makes Apple hardware worth paying a premium to get.

If Apple chooses to let OS X run on anything and everything, it hurts Linux and Windows more, but it probably hurts Apple too. There’s a lot of hardware out there, and a lot of it isn’t any good. Apple probably doesn’t want that support nightmare.

I think this will narrow the gigahertz gap and, consequently, the speed gap. I think it will help Apple’s marketshare, especially if they allow Windows to run on the hardware. I don’t see it having a devestating effect on any other operating system though. It will hurt marginal PC manufacturers before it hurts software companies.