Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore Business Machines, liked to say that he built "computers for the masses, not the classes." Perhaps nowhere is this philosophy better epitomized than in the company's iconic 1981 offering, the VIC-20. Advertised as The Friendly Computer and aggressively priced under $300, the VIC-20 became the first computer to sell more than 1 million units. By the time production ceased in 1985, more than 2.5 million had been made.
The VIC-20's legacy is not defined by any particular technical innovation, but rather by Commodore's success in opening up the computer market to a new group of consumers. Its low cost made it affordable to a wider audience, and at a time when many were still skeptical about the usefulness of a home computer, its relative affordability made the purchase seem less like a serious investment and more like a middle class indulgence. For most purchasers, the VIC-20 was the family's first computer and thus provided the first exposure to computing for countless future programmers, engineers and entrepreneurs around the world.
Commodore positioned the VIC-20 not only as a competitor to other home computers but to home video game systems as well. The company hired William Shatner (Captain Kirk of the Star Trek television series) as a spokesperson and launched a far-reaching campaign with television, radio and full-page magazine advertisements. "Why buy just a video game?" Shatner would ask. "For under $300 get the Commodore VIC-20 the wonder computer of the 1980s."
In addition to being sold in computer and electronics specialty stores, the norm of the day, the VIC-20 was also available from more pedestrian department and toy stores such as K-mart, Montgomery Ward, and Toys "R" Us. The strategy of placing the VIC-20 in mainstream stores helped to reinforce a marketing effort which focused on presenting the computer as a user-friendly home appliance that was both fun and educational.
The computer itself was a tidy and well engineered piece of equipment. Although its 4 kilobytes of RAM left it slightly underpowered when compared to other offerings of the day, it also brought considerable strengths. Its features included full built-in BASIC, eight-color graphics, and three-voice sound.
Physically, the VIC-20 was a single board computer with an integrated keyboard in a rugged, plastic case. It was connected to a standard television set, and an optional tape drive provided inexpensive storage.
At the time, keyboards on home computers were tending toward the flimsy. They were often undersized and missing essential features. Commodore was able to attract attention by providing what would soon be considered standard fare for personal computers: a full-size, quality keyboard.
"The VIC keyboard is one of the best I've seen," read a review in the May 1981 issue of Byte Magazine. "It's well constructed and has a good feel when typing."
"The VIC-20 computer unit is unexcelled as a low-cost consumer-oriented computer," Byte concluded. "Even with some of its limitations (eg: screen size of 23 rows by 22 columns, maximum programmable memory of 32 K bytes), it makes an impressive showing against more expensive microcomputers like the Apple II, the Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Atari 800."
Compute! magazine was equally effusive, writing in the April 1981 issue that "it is pretty clear that the VIC will provide very stiff competition to the TRS-80 Color Computer" and concluding that with the capabilities it offered for $299 "VIC will create its own market, and it will be a big one."
Jack Tramiel was hard-driven businessman with a reputation for fierce cost management as well as sometimes caustic behavior. He was an atypical leader in the emerging personal computer industry, and the Commodore environment stood in sharp contrast to the youthful, counterculture image surrounding Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and other early home computing pioneers.
Tramiel was born in December 1928 in Lodz, Poland. Jewish, he was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps from the time of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 until the allied liberation of Auschwitz in April 1945.
In 1947 he emigrated to the United States. He enlisted in the Army where he learned office machinery repair. Having completed his Army service, in 1953 he opened Commodore Portable Typewriter, an office machinery repair business in the Bronx, New York.
Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s Tramiel's Commodore International (later Commodore Business Machines) pursued a range of manufacturing endeavors, beginning with typewriters, then moving into adding machines and later early electronic calculators. Along the way his business success ebbed and flowed. He was ensnared in the Atlantic Acceptance scandal of 1965, which saw the collapse of one of Canada’s largest savings and loans. His reputation was slightly tarnished by the scandal, but he was not indicted.
In 1976 Commodore bought semiconductor manufacturer MOS Technology. Although the move was originally a tactical effort to improve control of the supply chain for its struggling calculator business, the purchase of MOS positioned Commodore to be an early mover in the microcomputer market.
MOS included a small team of engineers, headed by Chuck Peddle, that were the original designers of the Motorola 6800. The engineers had left Motorola to pursue development of a lower-cost, improved-performance version of the technology. The team produced a line of microprocessors that included the MOS 6502, the CPU at the heart of many early computers including pre-1984 Apples, various Atari systems, the Nintendo Entertainment System and the BBC Micro. The 6502 was priced at $25 at a time when Motorola's 6800 sold for about $300.
In addition to his contributions to the engineering of the 6502, Peddle was also engaged in the development of computer systems that put the new microprocessor to work. KIM-1, his original effort released in 1975, was designed as a development board to showcase the 6502 and give engineers a jumpstart in prototyping systems. Affordable and well-documented, the KIM-1 became popular with hobbyists. When Commodore acquired MOS, the calculator company inherited the KIM-1 and its legacy as one of the earliest hobbyist computers.
At Commodore, Peddle along with engineers who included Bill Seiler, and John Feagans designed the Commodore PET. The PET was released in 1977, the same year as the Apple II and the TRS-80. (Although there are some disagreements on details, Tramiel apparently walked away from an opportunity for Commodore to partner with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in bringing the Apple II to market.) The PET grew into a series of increasingly capable computers manufactured between 1977 and 1982.
The PET was an international success, at least as popular in Europe as it was in North America, and Commodore found itself the world's "third largest" computer manufacturer. The company had a tight, vertically integrated manufacturing capability that included microprocessor fabrication, and a savvy international salesforce. It was against this backdrop that Tramiel decided in 1979 that he wanted to build a $300 color computer based on the 6502.
By this time Peddle had moved on to start his own venture, Sirius Systems Technology. MOS engineers including Robert Yannes, Al Charpentier and Charles Winterble put together a prototype originally called the MicroPET. Tramiel demonstrated the prototype at the June 1980 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
Commodore engineer Robert Russell ported the PET operating system to the VIC-20, including the PET's Microsoft BASIC interpreter.
The first VIC to appear on the market was a Japanese version named the VIC 1001, released in Tokyo at a computer show September 1980. The western VIC-20s were on display at the January 1981 CES, with a formal North American release of May 1981.
The VIC name was derived from a critical component of the new computer, the Video Interface Chip 6560 (NTSC version) or 6561 (PAL version), also known as the VIC-I. This chip had been designed by MOS primarily to be marketed to video game manufacturers and others with applications for color graphics, such as remote terminal and biomedical device manufacturers. However at the time the video game industry was in turmoil and Commodore was not finding any takers.
The VIC-I chip was key to driving to driving down complexity and cost for the VIC-20. It not only supported the eight color graphics with an additional eight background colors, it also provided four sound channels, two analog-to-digital converters and even support for a light pen.
The VIC-20 was designed to connect directly to a standard color television set or color monitor. Other ports included a cartridge port for users to plug-in games and other software, an Atari-compatible joystick port, a cassette tape drive port, and a serial port for connection to accessories such as a printer or disk drive.
Of all the connection options, the ability to add RAM, software and other capabilities via the cartridge port was particularly significant. Regularly seen in game systems, the cartridge concept was familiar and non-threatening to users. The 44-pin port made most, if not all, important signals available, and adding capabilities via the port did not require users to open the case. Commodore also produced expansion chassis, the VIC 1010 and VIC 1020, that transformed the port into a bay of 6 expansion slots.
Commodore offered official RAM expansion cartridges up to 16K, while third party offerings went up to 64K. Software cartridges provided their own ROM memory which meant that software published in cartridge format was not necessarily limited to the VIC-20's available memory.
When first released, there was not a great deal of software available for the VIC-20. Commodore published a series of 6-pack software collections on cassette tapes called datasettes. There were collections of games, office applications and educational software.
Commodore also published dozens of software titles on cartridges. The company negotiated the conversion of popular arcade games from Bally Midway bringing over titles such as Gorf and Omega Race. The company also produced a cartridge of popular Scott Adams Adventure games. All told these titles helped put the VIC-20 on a solid footing in head-to-head competition against standalone game systems.
Commodore successfully encouraged the development of software by third-parties, the result being hundreds of titles published on cassette and cartridge. For leading edge technology adopters who bought the VICMODEM Telephone Interface Cartridge, additional public domain titles were available for download via bulletin boards and early online services such as CompuServe. In 1982 the Commodore Information Network was the most trafficked section on CompuServe.
A number of magazines such as Compute!, Home Computing Weekly, Popular Computing Weekly, Family Computing, RUN, Ahoy!, and Commodore Power Play published BASIC language program listings for VIC-20 owners to type-in themselves. Users could also buy books of program listings, many of which were compilations of those previously published in the magazines. The magazines also included articles with programming tips and techniques.
For budding technologists in the 1980s, these magazine listings were often their first exposure to computers and programming. Counted among them is Linus Torvalds creator of the Linux operating system who recalls learning to program on his grandfather's VIC-20.
"I'd play around with it and read the manuals and type in the example programs," Torvalds told an interviewer in December 2012 for the website Computing. "In the manuals (and in computer magazines of the time) there were simple games you could type in and study. While I played some of them - and even a few commercial ones - the actual programming ended up being the most interesting part."
The arrival of the VIC-20 was a watershed moment for the evolving computer industry. It fulfilled the promise of "home" computers that had begun with the development of the microprocessor but had remained stubbornly elusive until that point. Computers were now truly consumer appliances. Affordable and somewhat common, they were as comfortable in the family room or teenager's bedroom as they were in the office or classroom. The impact of this revolution would be far greater than the fortunes of a single company. Along with Torvalds, an entire generation of young people were gaining ready access to new technologies and preparing to shape a future in which computers and software would be increasingly integrated with daily life.
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