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. Later revisions of the machine (the C64C in 1986, and the C64G in 1987) were repackaged in sleeker, newer-style cases and used more modern hardware that was cheaper to produce, but retained compatibility with the older model. In these forms the C64 remained in production until 1990.
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 new 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.
The first Amiga model, known initially as just the Amiga but later renamed to the Amiga 1000, was released in July 1985 at a price of $1295. Featuring a 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU with 256k of RAM, and a multitasking operating system, it competed directly with the Apple Macintosh and recently released Atari ST, and like them featured a mouse-based user interface and floppy disk storage as standard. Although similar in design to the ST, the Amiga's use of custom graphics and sound chips made it rather more powerful, especially for games. However, Commodore initially positioned the system as a business machine, and attempted to isolate it from their consumer-oriented home computer market, for instance marketing the machine as the Amiga Computer rather than the Commodore Amiga.
In 1987, after relatively poor sales of the A1000 and strong competition from Atari, Commodore released two updated Amiga models, the A500 and A2000. The A500, released in October 1987 for $699, featured 512 k of RAM and a keyboard-style case with built-in floppy drive, very similar to that of the Atari 520ST. Now positioned as a consumer home computer and the 16-bit successor to the Commodore C64, the model became a popular games machine, outselling the competing Atari, though never rising to the heights of popularity that the C64 had enjoyed.
The higher-end A2000 model was released in March 1987 for a pricey $2395 (including 1 MB RAM and a color display monitor), and retained the separate keyboard and system unit of the A1000. Designed as a versatile and highly-expandable business machine, the A2000 could not compete with the increasing dominance of IBM PC compatibles and the Apple Macintosh, but found a niche market in Desktop Video production due to its built-in genlock capabilities. Later versions of the A2000 featured faster 32-bit 68020 and 68030 CPUs and a built-in hard drive, and was succeeded (in 1990 and 1992 respectively) by the further enhanced A3000 and A4000 models.
Multimedia and Better Graphics
Meanwhile in March 1991 the A500 system was repackaged with a CD-ROM drive and remote control, and released as the Commodore CDTV for $999. One of the very first multimedia devices, it was intended as a direct competitor to the Philips CD-i and marketed as a living-room appliance rather than a home computer system, and thus lacked a keyboard, mouse or floppy-disk drive (although these could be added separately). The home multimedia market never took off, and with a tiny range of software available on CD, the CDTV was quickly discontinued.
In the low-end model line, the A500 was replaced in 1991 by the A500+, with improved graphics capabilities and OS, and this was quickly superseded by the A600 in early 1992, which was intended by Commodore to be cheaper to manufacture. This was just as quickly replaced by the A1200, a 32-bit machine with 2MB of RAM as standard and the further enhanced graphics capabilities of the A4000 model. However, sales of the Amiga were declining as PCs, at last featuring high-end graphics and sound capabilities, as well as raw CPU speed that surpassed the Amiga systems, started to move from the business to home markets. By 1991, PC games accounted for over 80% of sales compared to the Amiga's 5%. Total lifetime sales of all Amiga models were around 4 million (compared with the C64's 17 million), with only approximately 1 million sold in the US market.
The Last Gasp
In September 1993 Commodore released the Amiga CD32. Unlike the earlier CDTV, this was a console style game system based on the A1200 with a CD-ROM drive. It lacked a mouse and keyboard (though these could be added) but instead used a controller (featuring a d-pad, four face buttons, and left and right shoulder buttons). Marketed as "the worlds first 32-bit console" (although the FM Towns Marty was released earlier), it was released to moderate success in Europe but a legal battle prevented its full release in the US. The library of games released were also lacklustre, with most being ports of earlier existing Amiga games that did little to show the power of the newer system. By early 1994 hype for the upcoming Saturn and PlayStation CD-based systems further depressed sales. Commodore was now losing money, around $350 million in 1993, and needed to sell around 400,000 units of the CD32 to stay afloat. It managed little more than a quarter of that, and in May 1994, Commodore filed for bankruptcy.
Commodore's assets and trademarks were purchased by German-based PC manufacturer ESCOM, eventually being sold to Gateway 2000, and then Tulip Computers. Manufacture of the Amiga range briefly continued, but no new models were forthcoming and the market dried up quickly. The Commodore name has surfaced on some small consumer electronics devices since that time.