Steve Jobs and the Amiga

Steve Jobs was aware of the Amiga. He didn’t think much of it. Even still, Steve Jobs and the Amiga did have some connections.

Jobs’ opinion of the Commodore PET made bigger headlines after he died, but Jobs had an opinion about the Amiga, too. Both pre- and post-Commodore Amiga.

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Larry Page’s exile and rebirth

A lot of people really dislike Google the way I’ve been known for disliking Apple and Microsoft. It never really occurred to me that all three are related, until I read this piece on Google cofounder Larry Page. Much of what I disliked about Apple and Microsoft were their founders. I found the Bill Gates of the 1980s and 1990s childish (even when I was still a child myself) and a jerk. I didn’t know much about Steve Jobs in the 1980s–back then, people talked about Steve Wozniak more than they talked about Jobs–but as he resurfaced from his exile, I didn’t especially like what I was seeing then, either. Jobs, you see, didn’t come back to Apple as a demigod. He was still a little rough around the edges and, from my outsider perspective, for those first few years at Apple when he was trying to turn Apple around, he was still turning himself around to a degree as well.

I always saw Larry Page as different. He and his classmate, Sergey Brin, developed this great search engine that actually presented the results you were looking for on the front page, and it was fast. And he had this motto that said, “Don’t be evil.” It sounded good to me. And I guess it doesn’t hurt that Page isn’t much older than me. I found him easier to relate to than Gates or Jobs, who literally were getting their start in computers a year or two before I was born. Read more

Games would be just what Linux needed

Valve is intending to develop for Linux, as an insurance policy against Windows 8. I think that will lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If more games are available for Linux, demand for Linux will increase, along with market share.

There’s historical precedence for this. Read more

RIP, Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore

RIP, Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore

Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, the orchestrator of the first line of affordable personal computers, died this weekend at the age of 83.

I don’t know exactly what to think about it, and I’m probably not alone, though it didn’t take long for tributes to pour in. Read more

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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Commodore’s founder comes out of hiding

Commodore’s founder comes out of hiding

It’s been said that Ed Roberts of Altair fame was the last person to get the better of Bill Gates in a business deal.

But I’ll say it was Jack Tramiel.

Jack Tramiel in 2007. Photo credit: Alex Handy/Flickr

Tramiel was the founder of Commodore, and in the late 1970s, Commodore negotiated a one-time flat fee to use Microsoft Basic on an unlimited number of machines. That was fine in the days of the PET, which didn’t ship all that many units, but it didn’t look so good once Commodore sold a million VIC-20s. The story of the flat fee has been repeated before, but to my knowledge, nobody ever stated the price.

Jack Tramiel stated a dollar figure on Monday at a party celebrating the 25th anniversary of the C-64’s release: $25,000. Somehow, Apple got the same deal, but the overall value of the deal was less in Apple’s case. Let me explain.

Considering the number of C-64s sold–I’ve heard as few as 17 million, which seems low, but I hear numbers like 22-25 million a lot–I think Commodore did really well on that deal. Bill Gates’ initial offer was $3 per machine.

Commodore probably sold a total of 30 million machines with Microsoft’s 6502 Basic on board–besides the C-64, they used it in the VIC-20 and C-128, which both sold somewhere in the neighborhood of three million units apiece, and they also used it in a number of other less popular machines. So under Gates’ initial offer, Commodore would have been on the hook for $90 million.

I wonder if that had anything to do with why Microsoft wouldn’t produce any software other than a crippled version of Basic for the Amiga come 1985? I can understand not producing anything for the 64–Gates didn’t like the 64’s 6502 processor, and Microsoft didn’t make much of anything for the other 6502 machines either–but Microsoft of course produced lots of Mac software, and negotiated hard to get Atari to use an early version of Windows on the Atari ST. Supposedly Atari’s choice of Digital Research’s GEM was the reason Microsoft never made anything for the ST.

I imagine the world would have been very different if people could have run early versions of Word or Excel on an Amiga or ST in 1987 or so. But that didn’t happen, and it doesn’t have much to do with the 64.

Commodore’s investors forced Tramiel to leave Commodore in 1984, while the company was still in its prime. Up until this year, Tramiel has always declined comment when asked anything about Commodore. I saw a couple of news stories this year where Tramiel said a few words but nothing major–primarily acknowledging the machine’s place in history, and being happy to have been a part of it.

To me, it’s fascinating that Tramiel has finally broken his 23-year silence. I really couldn’t care less what Steve Wozniak thinks about the C-64. It bothered me that none of the news stories I’ve found gave much mention to Commodore engineers like Bil Herd and Bob Yannes–Herd at least got mentioned; Yannes didn’t get a mention at all, and considering he designed the sound chip that was a big part of the machine’s success, that’s a glaring omission. But Herd and Yannes and the other engineers all got their say in the book On the Edge, while Jack Tramiel declined comment. The only hint of his perspective in that book came from his sons.

Of course, I’m more interested in Tramiel’s side of the Irving Gould story–Gould was the financier who drove Tramiel out, and ultimately appointed his henchman, Mehdi Ali, who drove the company completely into the ground. But that story was the whole reason Tramiel didn’t want to talk about Commodore at all for 23 years. The C-64 is a much safer topic. interviewed Tramiel, and it gives a few small surprising insights into the man–he still spends a few minutes a day playing the old games on a C-64, and he owns a Dell–but the most interesting thing to me is the financial aspect. He talks about how Commodore’s products made some of his employees rich, and he delighted in the cottage industry that sprung up around the C-64, allowing some of its users to make a lot of money selling products to go with it.

Tramiel’s wrong about one thing though. He says there was very little difference between a C-64 and an Apple or an Atari computer. They all used the same CPU and some of the same I/O chips, but the graphics and sound capabilities were different. Commodore and Atari had far better sound and graphics capabilities, and creative programmers were discovering new tricks even into the 1990s.

Woz is wrong too. He said Apple was the sales leader until the C-64 came around, but Atari immediately outsold the Apple II when the 400 and 800 hit the market in 1979, and Tandy outsold them 10-20:1 from the onset in 1977. Apple didn’t sell a million units in a single year until 1984. And for the record, there were 6 million Apple IIs sold between 1977 and 1993. Commodore sold 7.5 million C-64s just in its prime years, 1984-86.

When it comes to writing the history of the computer, Commodore always gets ignored. The news reports from this week don’t tell the whole story, but at least now Commodore is getting recognition for being something more than a stock scam (which was Cringely’s assessment of the company.)



My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive

It’s that time of year again. MacWorld time. I work with Macs way too much, so of course I have opinions. If you expect me to withhold them, you don’t know me very well.

Let’s face it: Apple’s in serious trouble. Serious trouble. They can’t move inventory. The Cube is a bust–unexpandable, defect-ridden, and overpriced. The low-end G4 tower costs less than the Cube but offers better expandability.  Buying a Cube is like marrying a gorgeous airhead. After the looks fade in a few years, you’re permanently attached to an airhead. So people buy a G4 tower, which has better expandability, or they get an iMac, which costs less.

Unfortunately, that gorgeous airhead metaphor goes a long way with Apple. The Mac’s current product line is more about aesthetics than anything else. So they’ve got glitzy, glamorous cases (not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, I hear some people lust after Britney Spears too), but they’re saddled with underpowered processors dragged down by an operating system less sophisticated under the hood than the OS Commodore shipped with the first Amiga in 1985. I don’t care if your PowerPC is more efficient than an equivalently-clocked Pentium IV (so’s a VIA Cyrix III but no one’s talking about it), because if your OS can’t keep that CPU fed with a steady stream of tasks, it just lost its real-world advantage.

But let’s set technical merit aside. Let’s just look at pure practicalities. You can buy an iMac for $799. Or, if you’re content with a low-end computer, for the same amount of money you can buy a low-end eMachine and pair it up with a 19-inch NEC monitor and still have a hundred bucks left over to put towards your printer. Yeah, so the eMachine doesn’t have the iMac’s glitzy looks. I’ll trade glitz for a 19-inch monitor. Try working with a 19-inch and then switch to a 15-inch like the iMac has. You’ll notice a difference.

So the eMachine will be obsolete in a year? So will the iMac. You can spend $399 for an accelerator board for your iMac. Or you can spend $399 for a replacement eMachine (the 19-inch monitor will still be nice for several years) and get a hard drive and memory upgrade while you’re at it.

On the high end, you’ve got the PowerMac G4 tower. For $3499, you get a 733 MHz CPU, 256 MB RAM, 60 GB HD, a DVD-R/CD-R combo drive, internal 56K modem, gigabit Ethernet you won’t use, and an nVidia GeForce 2 MX card. And no monitor. Software? Just the OS and iMovie, which is a fun toy. You can order one of these glitzy new Macs today, but Apple won’t ship it for a couple of months.

Still, nice specs. For thirty-five hundred bucks they’d better be nice! Gimme thirty-five hundred smackers and I can build you something fantabulous.

But I’m not in the PC biz, so let’s see what Micron might give me for $3500. For $3514, I configured a Micron ClientPro DX5000. It has dual 800 MHz Pentium III CPUs (and an operating system that actually uses both CPUs!), 256 MB of RDRAM, a 7200 RPM 60 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM and CD-RW (Micron doesn’t offer DVD-R, but you can get it third-party if you must have one), a fabulous Sound Blaster Live! card, a 64 MB nVidia GeForce 2 MX, and in keeping with Apple tradition, no monitor. I skipped the modem because Micron lets me do that. If you must have a modem and stay under budget, you can throttle back to dual 766 MHz CPUs and add a 56K modem for $79. The computer also includes Intel 10/100 Ethernet, Windows 2000, and Office 2000.

And you can have it next week, if not sooner.

I went back to try to configure a 1.2 GHz AMD Athlon-based system, and I couldn’t get it over $2500. So just figure you can get a machine with about the same specs, plus a 19-inch monitor and a bunch more memory.

Cut-throat competition in PC land means you get a whole lot more bang for your buck with a PC. And PC upgrades are cheap. A Mac upgrade typically costs $400. With PCs you can often just replace a CPU for one or two hundred bucks down the road. And switching out a motherboard is no ordeal–they’re pretty much standardized at this point, and PC motherboards are cheap. No matter what you want, you’re looking at $100-$150. Apple makes it really hard to get motherboard upgrades before the machines are obsolete.

It’s no surprise at all to me that the Mac OS is now the third most-common OS on the desktop (fourth if you count Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000 as separate platforms), behind Microsoft’s offerings and Linux. The hardware is more powerful (don’t talk to me about the Pentium 4–we all know it’s a dog, that’s why only one percent of us are buying it), if only by brute force, and it’s cheaper to buy and far cheaper to maintain.

Apple’s just gonna have to abandon the glitz and get their prices down. Or go back to multiple product lines–one glitzy line for people who like that kind of thing, and one back-to-basics line that uses standard ATX cases and costs $100 less off the top just because of it. Apple will never get its motherboard price down to Intel’s range, unless they can get Motorola to license the Alpha processor bus so they can use the same chipsets AMD uses. I seriously doubt they’ll do any of those things.

OS X will finally start to address the technical deficiencies, but an awful lot of Mac veterans aren’t happy with X.

Frankly, it’s going to take a lot to turn Apple around and make it the force it once was. I don’t think Steve Jobs has it in him, and I’m not sure the rest of the company does either, even if they were to get new leadership overnight. (There’s pressure to bring back the legendary Steve Wozniak, the mastermind behind the Apple II who made Apple great in the 1970s and 1980s.)

I don’t think they’ll turn around because I don’t think they care. They’ll probably always exist as a niche player, selling high-priced overdesigned machines to people who like that sort of thing, just as Jaguar exists as a niche player, selling high-priced swanky cars to people who like that sort of thing. And I think the company as a whole realizes that and is content with it. But Jaguar’s not an independent company anymore, nor is it a dominant force in the auto industry. I think the same fate is waiting for Apple.


My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive

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