The little-known story of Commodore

So I’m reading On The Edge, a longish book that tries to tell the story of Commodore properly, including the people who made it happen, and the companies it bought along the way.

I’m glad the story got told.

A lot of people don’t understand my fascination with Commodore. A story early in the book sums it up nicely. Atari was developing the 2600, and had three design teams on it. One team was using Motorola chips, one was using Intel chips, and the third was using MOS Technology chips, which was the company Commodore would end up buying and folding into its Commodore Semiconductor Group.

MOS asked Atari what price point it was looking for. At the time, a typical price for a microprocessor and associated I/O chips was $150. Atari said it wanted to pay $12.

MOS found a way to deliver what Atari wanted for $12. If you ever wondered why Atari used the hopelessly crippled 6507 CPU rather than a full-blown 6502 (itself a very cut-down chip), that’s why. At the time, the 6502 alone was selling for $25.

That’s my kind of company.

I’ve only read the first couple of chapters. I think the writing is pretty good but it wasn’t edited very well (there are several instances of misused apostrophes, for example). My biggest gripe is its lack of an index, so if I ever want to pull the book off the shelf and find that Atari 2600 story, it’s going to take some work to find it.

I’ll follow up with a more complete review when I finish it. I really, really wanted to write a book like this one back in 1995 after Commodore imploded for the last time, but I had no idea where to start.

One thing I learned from skipping to the back (I was looking for the index) is that financier Irving Gould died in 2001. I’m very surprised the first I heard of it was in this book. There’s plenty of blame to go around in the story of Commodore’s ultimate failure, but nobody but nobody was more despised than Gould. Mark Stephens (Robert X. Cringely)’s assessment that Commodore was Gould’s stock scam is an oversimplification, but to many people it certainly appeared that way.

Another important thing I learned was that Chuck Peddle, the inventor of the 6502 and the original PET computer, struck up a friendship with a computer science professor in Iowa. Every year, this professor would send the brightest, weirdest student he had to Peddle. That’s where Commodore got its brilliant engineers.

Note to self (and anyone else who’s listening): If you want to start a company and you want it to take off like a rocket, hire the brightest, weirdest people you can find. If you’re more interested in changing the world than in running a stock scam, after you hire them, do what you have to do to keep them happy and stay out of their way.

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