The Spectacular Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Commodore

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 07/21/2011

Have you have seen my Commodore 64 unboxing video?

I’m strangely excited about this thing, which is little more than a powerful netbook motherboard (NOTE: New versions have very powerful 3.5GHz i7 processors) in a retro case with a really fine keyboard. Yet somehow, when loaded with a solid version of Linux, it becomes a symbol of a time before Microsoft’s rise to dominance, when it could have been anyones game, and computing was much more exciting.

Perhaps my enthusiasm comes from following the players behind the machines, as one would normally follow the careers of their favorite athletes. The feats of accomplishment that pioneers like Chuck Peddle (inventor of the PC industry), Jack Tramiel (founder of Commodore), and Al Charpentier (made C64 line possible). Before these three guys, people accepted that computers were expensive monochrome monstrosities only for business. Chuck got the guts down to $25, Jack put the cash-strapped consumer first, and Al gave it graphics.

There’s just so much to this story that I’m busting to tell now that Commodore’s in the spotlight again, but I just want to get a few articles out to set you on the path to personal computer history enlightenment. Check out the book On The Edge. Did you know that Commodore has a chance to buy Apple for $250K from the Steve’s, but Jack passed on it because it was too expensive? Did you know that Commodore had Apple and Atari on their knees as the sole provider of the chips that fueled the low-cost computer revolution? Did you know that while other companies had to source their parts, Commodore burned their computers from sand? Maybe that’s exaggerating it a bit – but not much.

And this is all before the excitement of the Amiga, and a vibrant alternate history of computers that might have been had Jack not had to raise money from a certain Canadian chairman, Irving Gould, during tough times. If Jack Tramiel were running Commodore while it had the Amiga computer, you would all be working on Amigas today and cursing Jack more than you ever cursed Bill or Steve, for you see, Jack is one of the few men who pulled one over on Bill Gates by getting unlimited perpetual rights to a Microsoft operating system for a one-time bargain basement price.

The Amiga computer was a perfect storm of a great new Motorola chip that actually responded to the Commodore 6510 threat, a hardware design from a very talented Atari hardware engineer who tried to do a start-up (Jay Miner), and an OS from a guy who could make that hardware multitask with 256K and room left over to run programs (Dale Luck). A computer like this in Commodore’s hands, who had the unique ability fabricate those custom hardware bits that no one else had or could, it was a competitive advantage with world-changing potential. And in Jack’s hands, it was a shoe-in. Unfortunately, it was no longer Jack’s Commodore, the soul-sapped automaton that remained flubbed nearly every critical decision, from marketing to technical innovations.

And here we are, Commodore is reborn from the ashes. The new Commodore 64 is little more than a replica case with an awesome keyboard, and a Intel Atom netbook motherboard inside. You could very well install Windows on it, and turn it into a game machine. The new Commodore is even selling just the case for people who wan to build their own machines with much more expensive and powerful i7 chips. But the machine has won my heart, because it provides the perfect symbolic vehicle for a newer and ultimately more important passion of mine: the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement.

As fond as people are looking back at their old C64’s, the software inside was still Microsoft! Yeah, good ol’ Jack ripped Bill off to get it, and it’s not even branded, but that was Microsoft BASIC on that blue screen that popped up from ROM when you turned it on. In contrast, the new C64x (x for x86 architecture), dove-tails the Commodore spirit with another whole set of legends: Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds and Mark Shuttleworth, who created GNU, Linux and Ubuntu respectively.

Who knows, maybe we’ll get to add Barry Altman and Leo Nigro who orchestrated Commodore’s rebirth to that list. Because at long last, after a series of underwhelming netbooks that shipped with Linux, we have a vehicle that screams out “THIS IS RIGHT!” when loaded with Ubuntu, or some other equally awesome distribution of Linux, such as Mint.

It took the mighty power of Apple (who I have come to equally love), forging the unholy alliance of UNIX-geeks and design snobs on astoundingly vertically integrated hardware, the likes of which we haven’t seen since… well, since Commodore, to start to break the M$ strangle-hold. Maybe now, Commodore can provide the “two” in the one-two punch to finish the job.