Founded in 1954 by Jack Tramiel, Commodore started as typewriter manufacturing company based in Toronto. Quickly expanding into adding machines, the company was incorporated in 1955 as Commodore Business Machines (CBM) and later produced electronic calculators. Competition with Texas Instruments in the North American calculator market led Commodore to acquire chip manufacturer MOS Technology, Inc. in 1976 to ensure the supply of calculator components. MOS chip designer Chuck Peddle (designer of the 6502-family of CPUs) became head of engineering at Commodore and convinced Tramiel to enter the computer market.
An 8-bit 6502 CPU based computer with 4 or 8 KB of RAM, the PET (ersonal lectronic ransactor) featured an integrated keyboard, monochrome display, and data cassette recorder in a single sheet metal case. Released in 1977 as the PET 2001 starting at $795, the machine proved successful in the business and education markets, particularly in schools thanks to its sturdy construction. Upgraded versions of the PET (the 3000, 4000, and 8000 lines) improved the memory, screen, keyboard and BASIC language and provided compatibility with disk drives. The series culminated with the SuperPET 9000 series which featured a second co-processor and multiple built-in programming languages including FORTRAN and COBOL.
The PET, though a strong seller, had failed to gain much headway as a home computer thanks to its very limited graphics and sound compared with competitors such as the Apple II. In an attempt to make "a computer for the masses" to address these issues, Commodore produced the VIC-20, based around the same 6502 CPU as the PET with the addition of the MOS VIC (ideo nterface hip) to provide color graphics and sound capabilities.
The VIC-20 featured a full-sized keyboard but removed the integrated screen and data cassette of the PET series. Display would be through a monitor or a TV attached to an (external) modulator. Debuting at the January 1980 CES show, the VIC-20 was released in the US market in 1981 at a price $299. The low price, along with the (at the time) unusual step of selling through non-specialist stores (The VIC-20 was the first computer to be sold by K-Mart), and a widespread advertising campaign featuring William Shatner, led to excellent sales of the machine. The VIC-20 was the first home computer to sell over a million units, with total lifetime sales of around 2.5 million.
The VIC's graphics and sound capabilities lent itself to the burgeoning games market and a respectable library of third-party games were produced. One problem was the machine's limited RAM (only 3.5 KB of which was free for use), which many games side-stepped by coming on ROM cartridges, including popular games such as Scott Adams' series of adventures.
The Commodore 64
MOS Technology continued development of the VIC chip powering the VIC-20 computer, splitting it to produce the VIC-II and SID (ound nterface evice) chips, for graphics and sound generation respectively. Envisioned as the heart of a new video game console, they found use in Commodore's unsuccessful Ultimax home computer. Unreleased in the US, it was sold briefly in Japan as the Commodore MAX Machine in 1982. It was designed with a cheap membrane keyboard, a MOS 6510 CPU (compatible with the VIC's 6502) and only 2.5 KB of RAM, and used a cartridge slot for loading programs. After poor sales, it was discontinued in less than a year.
Much of the architecture of the Ultimax was reused for a newer, more ambitious home computer: The Commodore 64. Featuring an unprecedented 64 KB of RAM, and the much improved graphics and sound capabilities of the VIC-II and SID chips, the C64 retained the keyboard-style case of the VIC-20, and compatibility with disk drives, printers and modems that the Ultimax had dropped. Similarly to the VIC, display was through a TV (using the inbuilt RF modulator) or a external monitor. Released for $595 in August 1982, It was nearly twice as expensive as the VIC-20, but still far cheaper than comparable machines such as the Apple IIe and Atari 800. Though a slow seller at first, Commodore used aggressive advertising and schemes such as a $100 rebate for anyone trading-in another home computer or game console. By 1983, the C64 was outselling the VIC-20 and would go on to sell around 17 million units by the end of its life, making it one of the best selling home computers of all time. In the US, the C64 dominant success led to the withdrawal of Texas Instruments and Timex-Sinclair from the home computer market, though it fought an uphill struggle in the UK market against the already released, and significantly cheaper Sinclair Spectrum.
With the advanced bit-mapped color graphics and hardware sprite abilities of the VIC-II chip, coupled with the high-quality sound of the SID chip, the C64 proved an excellent games platform, with an estimated 10,000 titles produced over its lifetime.
The Struggle for a Successor
In early 1984, after a power struggle within Commodore's board of directors, Tramiel resigned from the company. One of his remaining projects, the Commodore 16, was introduced as a successor to the now all-but-dead VIC-20. At $99, it was intended to compete with cheap home computers from TI, Mattel and Timex, but by the time of release in late 1984, those systems had already been discontinued. With less RAM and less powerful graphics and sound capabilities than its older C64 brother, the C16 failed to find a market and never took off. The hardware compatible Commodore Plus/4, with extended memory and a built-in productivity software suite, was intended for business users, but also failed to sell well. Both machines were quickly discontinued in most markets.
A number of other projects, including the SX-64 (A C64 compatible "luggable" computer), the Educator 64 (A C64 sold with an integrated monitor in a PET case, in attempt to reclaim the educational market), the Commodore LCD (a laptop-format C64) and the Commodore 900 (A 16-bit Zilog Z8000 CPU based system) were either poor sellers or abandoned before release.
The last 8-bit system produced by Commodore was the Commodore 128, released in January 1985. Featuring backwards compatibility with the C64, it also had enhanced graphics and twice the memory (128 KB), as well as a Zilog Z80 CPU co-processor. Although a reasonable success (selling a total of 4 million units in its lifetime), it offered little new to the game-oriented user and was outshone by the capabilities of the new 16-bit machines: Atari's ST, and Commodore's own Amiga.
The Sixteen-Bit Era and the Amiga
In August 1984, Commodore acquired a small company, Amiga Corporation, for $25 milion to obtain the design of its prototype 16-bit computer codenamed "Lorraine". Amiga had been set up by ex-Atari employee Jay Miner, and had initially been funded by investment from Atari. This would make future relations between Commodore and Atari extremely complex, especially since Atari had subsequently been bought by Jack Tramiel, and was producing its own 16-bit system, the Atari ST series. Accusations and lawsuits over stolen technology between the two companies would continue for many years.