When the Commodore 64 Ruled Personal Computing
In the early 1980s—when the average cost of a personal computer was $2700, and the average American earned just over $14,500 per year—Jack Tramiel decided to do for computers what Henry Ford had done for cars with the Model T: roll out a model that could be manufactured cheaply and efficiently, allowing more people to have PCs in their homes. “We design for the masses, not the classes,” Tramiel once famously said.
The result of Tramiel’s effort was the Commodore 64, a personal computer that brought home hardware from the sterile aisles of specialty stores to mass market retailers like Kmart. Priced at $595 in September 1982, it quickly fell to $400, then $300, and eventually $190. Unlike most PCs of the era, the Commodore 64 could play games. Like the Model T, it didn’t have the sexiest aesthetic—the boxy keyboard housed its guts, while a separate monitor quickly crowded one's workspace—but it was cheap enough to sell 500,000 units a month. To this day, it remains the best-selling single model of computer of all time—an impressive statistic for a machine that sold Dragon’s Lair on cassette tape.
Tramiel, often considered the “anti-Steve Jobs” for his lack of interest in design elegance, was born in Poland in 1928. Nazi occupation forced his family into Auschwitz, where the camp's infamous SS captain/physician Josef Mengele hand-picked Tramiel and his father for work camp detail. His mother survived, but his father died under circumstances that were never confirmed. Tramiel later said he believed Nazi experimenters injected him with gasoline.
Tramiel, who was fascinated with all things mechanical, learned to repair typewriters in the Army. Upon discharge, he opened a typewriter shop in the Bronx before relocating to Toronto in the 1950s. His interest grew to calculators, and by the 1970s, his business—Commodore, named after the Opel Commodore car that he admired—was involved in the burgeoning personal computing field.
Tramiel’s aim was economy, and he bought his own chip manufacturer, MOS, to keep costs down. The result of their efforts was the 6502 processor, which could be rolled out inexpensively and rapidly. After the success of Commodore’s VIC-20, a $300 PC that had a color monitor (unheard-of at that price point), Tramiel focused all of his company’s resources on the Commodore 64.
The C64 had 64 kilobytes of RAM, a speedier 6510 processor, and a music synthesizer. While not quite in the league of the most expensive computers of the era, it outworked the Apple II and its 44 kilobytes of memory. Tramiel hoped it would be a kind of gateway computer, capable of introducing home users to BASIC programming language while amusing them with a library of educational and entertainment software. Programs were sold on floppies—which were invariably slow to load—or on data cassettes that could be played with the addition of a $75 peripheral.
Tramiel was so enthusiastic about the potential of the C64 that he rushed it to market, cramming its parts into old VIC-20 cabinets and prompting a quarter of the shipped units to arrive defective. It didn't do much to undermine the launch; Tramiel sent clear instructions to retailers telling them to exchange bad units without hassle. The machine took off, selling for $595 and promising an eclectic end-user experience. Opposing machines like the Apple IIc, Apple Macintosh, and IBM PC Junior, Tramiel’s model cost just a fraction of the price and, subjectively at least, was far more entertaining. Software titles expanded into the thousands, from licensed games like Ghostbusters to Boulder Dash to quasi-adult offerings like Strip Poker. Serious users had Microsoft spreadsheet programs or desktop publishing.
As manufacturing costs dropped—the unit cost Tramiel about $135 to produce—so did the price of the C64. Tramiel offered a $100 trade-in allowance for people who brought in old hardware, and even allowed retailers to accept old video game consoles like the Atari 2600. By 1984, the Commodore 64 represented a staggering 30 percent of the home computing market.
While the price point was appealing, it was Tramiel’s distribution strategy that surprised competitors. Rather than stick to computer stores, the Commodore 64 was stocked at mass market retailers in much the same way television and game systems had broken out of their hobbyist markets. Seeing a Commodore 64 display at Sears helped normalize the idea of home computing.
But not all users were satisfied customers. While the price kept plummeting, consumers realized that the central hardware was only part of the puzzle. A dot-matrix printer, cassette deck, modem, and other accessories could add hundreds of dollars to their investment. At $50, software wasn’t inexpensive, either. Even at its lowest price point of under $200, a fully expanded C64 setup could run $1000 (which would be just over $2600 in today's dollars).
Still, the Commodore 64 managed to permeate an incredible number of U.S. households. By some estimates, 17 to 20 million units were sold through the early 1990s, at which point PCs with greater processing speeds and more attractive design elements became the norm. Commodore tried upping the ante with the Commodore 128 and other models, but consumers were no longer in need of training wheels. With the presence of a home PC having been normalized and other manufacturers bringing costs down, Commodore fell behind.
Tramiel, who had resigned to run the ailing Atari corporation in the mid-1980s, died in 2012. While his creation doesn’t have quite the same popular recognition as Apple, it might have been the single most influential piece of hardware to come around in the nascent home PC era. A “retro” mini version is due in fall 2018. Naturally, it comes with 64 games.