Did Commodore, more than Apple, contribute to the birth of the personal computer?

History is written by the winners, the personal computer is no exception

By: E. Bolognesi
Published: 12 September 2017, 4:02 pm

In 1980 Steve Jobs gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal claiming: "When we invented the personal computer, we created a new kind of bicycle”. In the box placed in the middle of the title you can read: “Steve Jobs invented the first personal computer in 1976 with his partner Steve Wozniak”.

The interview itself is probably not very well known but it could have been the beginning of a myth that still lives today.

The Wall Street Journal, August 1980

What most of the sources told us is that Wozniak and Jobs invented the personal computer (the Apple I) in the famous garage. Then Mike Markkula funded them and Apple Computers was born. This made it possible for the two friends to create the Apple II, an amazing computer that dominated the ’80s, making Apple rich and ultimately allowing Jobs to create the Macintosh. In people’s mind, 1984 was the year of Apple, marked by the famous Super Bowl television commercial directed by Ridley Scott.

We know how the story continues, but let’s focus on the first years. It’s the story of an epic fight between two startups that changed the world, with no other player on the field. Did it go exactly like this? For sure this is not how I remember the ’80s. My parents bought me my first computer in 1983 and it was not an Apple II, it was a Commodore Vic-20. I saw several commercials on TV and printed ads promoting the Vic-20 at the time. In the newsstands, there were plenty of magazines dedicated to computers, and the majority of them had programming codes or cassettes for the Vic-20, and later, the Commodore 64. Other common (but less popular) brands were Sinclair Spectrum, Texas Instrument, Oric, SEGA.

LIST was an Italian magazine with programming codes

But most importantly, I remember all my friends having a Commodore computer during the ’80s. I mean, literally, all of them. We didn’t have WhatsApp groups at the time, so the only way to have a social life was to physically visit people. Which means every afternoon I was in some friend's house. Trying computer games, exchanging them and talking about them was everyday routine. I can tell you that, as some point, in every house there was an 8-bit computer: Commodore 64, Vic-20, Commodore 16, Commodore 128. I have seen all of them, including the strange Commodore Plus/4. I also remember a colleague of my father showing off his Commodore SX-64 (a sort of notebook). A friend had a ZX Spectrum, but since he wasn’t able to exchange games with us, he convinced his parents to buy a C64. When I changed school, I met a guy with an MSX. Believe it or not, I never met anyone with an Apple II.

Of course we are talking about Italy, Apple was stronger in the US. I have never considered my experience statistically relevant, but when, years later, I started reading stories about the Apple II dominating the ’80s and watching movies like Pirates of the Silicon Valley, I wondered if I had lived in some kind of alternative reality.

This inconsistency remained unsolved until I read Commodore: A Company on the Edge by Brian Bagnall, a book that, needless to say, I strongly recommend. After reading it, I started searching for other sources and all of them confirmed a surprising fact: the story of the personal computer is different from the one known by the majority of us. Nobody hid the truth, it’s all out there, but it seems that we are still influenced by Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field when we look to what happened during the birth of the personal computer. The interview that appeared in the Wall Street Journal is a clear example.

So, let me try to recap a few facts that I hope you will find interesting.

1. The personal computer revolution started in 1975 with the Altair

The Altair 8080, created by Ed Roberts and released in 1975, is often considered the first personal computer. It was sold in kit, it was not very user friendly and it did not have a screen or keyboard. You needed to enter commands with switches and understand the output checking blinking lights. However, it’s thanks to Ed Roberts if Microsoft exists: Bill Gates and Paul Allen started their career writing a BASIC language interpreter for the Altair 8080.

The Altair computer was not so user friendly

2. Chuck Peddle and the 6502 chip determined the history of personal computers

The same year the Altair was released, in 1975, an engineer called Chuck Peddle, with his team at MOS Technology, created a microprocessor called 6502. It was cheaper and more powerful than the ones existing at the time. It was not meant to be a CPU, but it ended up shaping the history of personal computers. MOS did not just produce the 6502, they also created other components and assembled a kit for hobbyists called KIM-1. With this kit you could create a fully working computer, with keyboard, led display and tape interface. You could say it was the Raspberry PI or the Arduino of the ’70s. Peddle wrote a very detailed documentation to help hobbyists. It was definitely easier to use compared to the Altair.

MOS Technology sold around 7000 KIM-1 computers in total.

KIM-1 Original Advertising

Guess who was an early adopter of the 6502 chip? Our dear friend Steve Wozniak, with his partner Steve Jobs. They bought a 6502 to build their Apple I. The funny thing is Peddle helped them. From Bagnall’s book:

Peddle helped anyone with an interest in developing for the 6502, including two kids working out of one of their parents’ garage. “While we were out visiting Atari, my west coast manager said, - Hey, there’s some kids working on a machine in his garage and it’s not working. We have a development system with us, so why don’t we go over and help them?"

Wozniak and Jobs eventually completed their computer built around the 6502 chip. The Apple I was presented in 1976, but it didn’t go very well, they sold less than 200 Apple I (much less than the KIM-1).

3. The Commodore PET was the first “home” computer

In 1976, MOS Technology was acquired by Commodore. Chuck Peddle was still not happy with the KIM, he wanted to create a fully assembled computer, so he designed the Personal Electronic Transactor (PET). Announced in January 1977, the Commodore PET had a built-in 9-inch monitor, keyboard, cassette unit and 4KB of RAM. Bill Gates developed a special version of his BASIC language for the PET, following the requests of Peddle, including support for the graphics characters (PETSCII).

The all-in-one concept was revolutionary and it was the most user friendly computer ever created.

Popular Science shows the PET as an example of home computer

Later, in 1982, Byte referred to the PET as the world’s first personal computer, this would make Peddle the inventor of the personal computer.

4. Despite what Jobs said, the Apple II was less advanced and less user friendly than the PET

The PET was not the only computer released in 1977. Apple Computers released the Apple II, while Tandy (Radio Shack) introduced the TRS-80. These 3 machines are known as the 1977 Trinity. Two of them were based on the 6502 chip created by Peddle.

The Apple II has the status of “legendary computer”, but the reality is the 1977 Apple II had several flaws: it didn’t have lower case characters, it lacked cursor keys, it didn’t have floating point BASIC and it didn’t have a TV output. But you might think it was cheaper than the PET. Wrong, Apple was asking $1,298 for its computer (while the PET price was $595), and it didn’t even include a monitor or cassette unit. It’s no surprise that the Apple II was third in terms of sales, compared the to rest of the trinity.

The Floating Point Basic of the Apple II by Microsoft

5. The Apple II was the best computer for gaming in 1979-1981

Wozniak was right on one thing: computers need to have colors. He designed his machines with colors from the beginning because he knew people would have played games on them. In 1979 Commodore was still selling the PET while Apple launched the Apple II+, an improved version that finally shipped with the floating point BASIC created by Bill Gates. This made Apple the best choice for game developers. Jordan Mechner (author of Prince of Persia) started programming on the Apple II. The Ultima series, Might & Magic, Wizardry, all started on this platform. No surprise that in 1981 the Apple II sold 210,000 units, more than the PET.

Richard Garriott wrote the first Ultima on the Apple II

6. The Commodore Vic-20 was the biggest hit in the early ‘80s

Instead of trying to create an “Apple killer”, Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel decided to create a low end computer (influenced by the success of Sinclair in the UK). The Vic-20 was still using the 6502 chip, it had colors and sound (thanks to the new VIC video chip) but it had only 22 columns display. The available RAM was just 3.5K. I still can’t believe my first computer was so crappy, anyway it was a success. The Vic-20 is the first computer to sell more than 1 million units. In 1982, the Vic-20 was the best-selling computer of the year, with 800,000 machines sold, leaving the Apple II in the dust.

William Shatner on a commercial promoting the Vic-20

7. The Commodore 64 is the best selling computer ever

The Commodore 64, released in 1982, is so important that it would deserve a dedicated article. For now it’s enough to say that this amazing 8-bit computer dominated the market during most of the ’80s. Superior graphics and sound, 64K of RAM, multi-color sprites (ideal for gaming) and low price made the C64 the best selling single computer model of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Commodore 64 sold more than any other computer in 1983-84

The 1984, the year of the launch of the Macintosh with the famous Super Bowl commercial, was actually the year of the Commodore 64. The 8-bit computer made by Commodore sold 2.6 million units in 1984, much more than the Apple II and more than the IBM-PC, killing all other competition. The C64 continued selling between 1.3 and 1.6 million a year for the rest of the ’80s reaching an estimated total of 12.4 million units. The truth is the Commodore 64 was the only force able to stop and delay the rise of the IBM-PC.

As we know the IBM-PC ended up dominating the world, but the C64 was still selling well during the ‘80s.

Conclusion

All of this doesn’t change the fact that Steve Wozniak was a great engineer while Steve Jobs was an amazing innovator, a marketing genius and a brilliant product designer. There’s a reason if Apple is now one of the top companies in the world while Commodore is dead. But this doesn’t mean we have to change history and forget the people who made it.

Commodore played an important role in the way computers have evolved. Next time you switch on your PC or your Mac, think about Chuck Peddle, the 6502 chip, the PET and the C64.


Latest Comments

imaginateca - 13 September 2017, 3:03 pm
Good article!!!
Just to give two cents: while in Noth America Commodore was the top seller, in Spain it was the ZX Spectrum (the 16k, then the 48k -a hit- and then 48k+ and so on...). Some of the kids had Commodore too (the sound was amazing). Those were the computers which with the kids and young people discovered computers through games (and many many of them started to program in Basic and in very few cases in Assembler). Each month, the publication of the Spanish magazine Micromanía was the moment when we ran to the kiosk (as the published cheats -the well known 'pokes' and tricks and maps of the games and gave notions of Basic and Assembler).
Yes, the revolution at home was headed by Commodore and (later) also by Sinclair.
Long life to them!!

E. Bolognesi - 13 September 2017, 4:58 pm
Interesting. I know Sinclair was very popular in the UK, I didn't know about Spain. The chart of the article (from arstechnica) shows the global sales, it would be nice to know the market share in the different countries. Anyway the ZX Spectrum is definitely an important milestone of the home computers history, one day maybe I'll run a research and write an article about it :)

Periko Palotes - 13 September 2017, 7:02 pm
Don't forget the Amstrad CPC! I think that, at least in Spain, the best sellers where Spectrum and, later, Amstrad. I really think that both Commodore and MSX were pretty infrequent in Spain (Back at the time, I personally didn't know any owner of a Commodore and only a bunch of MSX owners).

flash951 - 13 September 2017, 7:19 pm
Good article.
Being an Commodore fan with the same background as you, I still want to make two corrections:
1. Apple II was in fact produced and delivered to customers 2-3 months before any Commodore PET was ready to be delivered.
Commodore PET was probably pre-sold to some customers at the beginning of the year 1977, when they showcased a working prototype PET. The prototype had a rounded design carved from wood and a regular TV-set used as the 9" monitor, it was far from the final product ready for production.
Commodore PET computers was not shipped to any customer before 2-3 months after the Apple II computers. Commodore maybe was the first to sell them though, cause a few pre-sales at the early show.
2. Even Commodore released the VIC-20 (released first in Japan in 1980 as VIC-2001) as their low cost model, they still continued on with new models in their PET-series of "business" computers. The PET 4000 and 8000-series was released after the 3000-series (2001-N series in USA).
In 1982 they released the CBM-II series of computers to replace the PET/CBM-series.

imaginateca - 13 September 2017, 9:04 pm
You are right. Amstrad CPC was also very popular after Spectrum. Searching for numbers on the Spanish internet, it is difficult to compare because the numbers provided by the magazines in those years could be manipulated and because CPC was introduced much later than the irruption of Sinclair in the Spanish market.
But yes, Spectrum and Amstrad CPC were so popular at different moments. After Amstrad CPC there was another hit: the Commodore Amiga, which was also very popular just a bit earlier than the time when the IBM PCs become popular at home. MSX was always very uncomon.
As you may know the piracy market in Spain was large and very popular, so it was so easy to know if this or that system was popular seeing the amount of copies over the tables of pirates every Sunday morning in popular markets. I have seen thousands (yes, thousands) of copies sold in a public square in Madrid every Sunday morning of the latest releases. And most of them were Spectrum (the most), Amstrad and Commodore:
http://www.amstrad.es/v5.4/...
http://www.elmundodelspectr...

Jonathan Schaper - 14 September 2017, 7:46 am
In my book, the first PC with real potential for the mass market was the TRS-80, which came out around the same time as the Apple II and prior to the Commodore PET. It was cheap, and you could plug it into your TV for colour games. We didn't bother getting the Vic 20 when it was released because we already had the TRS-80. Not sure if / why the Vic 20 overtook the TRS-80 -- maybe because the Vic 20 was sold anywhere, while the TRS-80 was primarily sold through Radio Shack -- I'm too young to recall -- but we knew some people with the Vic 20 and I don't remember it as being a real improvement. I think most kids were interested in games systems like the Atari over having a PC at any rate. But when the Commodore 64 came out, that was a definite leap. It was affordable, and you could argue for its word processing capability as a reason to get a computer when you really wanted it for games. Unlike game systems, you could copy games from other people. And I think it made the use of floppy discs more common, which definitely improved the experience. Before that you had to load games from tape cassettes. A friend's parents had an IBM for work, and in comparison I was unimpressed by its small in-built monochrome screen.
For much of the 80s everyone tended to get the 64, which proved to be excellent for sharing and trading games. Almost everyone had Bard's Tale, for example, even though I doubt a large percentage paid to get it. It also worked well for video game rental stores (before the software industry lobbied to put them out of business) -- there might be a small section for IBM or Apple or Atari, but the majority of the store would be for Commodore games. By the late 80s, that began to change with people going off in different directions (Amiga vs IBM vs Atari ST vs Apple), a resurgence in the popularity of games systems like Nintendo, and the closure of videogame rental stores. I could rarely play a game a friend owned without also attempting to use an emulator, which rarely did any good. As a result you no longer had that culture where you could trade games with everyone at school. It was really only the popularity of Windows 95 that returned things to a state where programs tended to be widely compatible again.

John Tetreault - 14 September 2017, 7:59 am
Games are exactly why the VIC 20 and C64 overtook TRS 80. They had a game cartridge port too so they were bridge devices being both computer and video game system

Jonathan Schaper - 14 September 2017, 8:22 am
By 1980 there were game cartridges for the TRS 80. I only question why the Vic 20 overtook it (I think Tandy missed the boat at competing with the 64). I still suspect it was because you could get the Commodore at places like K-Mart.

Fatnick - 14 September 2017, 9:03 am
It's worth remembering that there's a strong regional component. The 64 was important in Europe, but actually a lot less so than the Spectrum or the MSX (depending on country.) With that said, i don't think Apple was really relevant anywhere outside of of the US at all!
(on the subject of the IBM pc, we also often forget how crap it as a game machine right up until the end of the 80s. For the DOS port of outrun, for example, you were stuck with a 15-colour graphics and beeper sound and terrible controls!)

Diem McM - 14 September 2017, 3:10 pm
In the UK in the 80s, my friends either had a ZX Spectrum or a C64. There were some Vic 20s but I think the C64 quickly surpassed that model. I didn't know anybody with an Apple. My Uncle gave me a Commodore Pet that I used to learn BASIC. By the time schools started to get computers, they were always BBC Micros.

Mike Levin - 14 September 2017, 3:53 pm
Thanks for the article. Yep, the only affordable decent chip in those days was the Chuck Peddle designed 6502 and later 6510 from MOS who basically made a $25 version of a Motorola $300 chip. Everyone used it (including Apple II) until the Z80 and Acorn ARM came along, but by that time Commodore, which was already MOS's biggest customer bought them and become the only CPU source for its own competitors.
Seldom told is how Apple and Acorn went on the offensive with a very long play that affected the mobile industry more than anything else. 25 years later, it became the ARM designs we know today (yep, Apple had a hand in the founding of the IP licensing company that replaced Acorn) in our iPhones and Androids.
But in all that intervening time, everyone's flagship models switched to Intel or Motorola leaving MOS in the dust until mobile hit and the low-power profile of RISC chips (MOS, ARM) was an advantage again, at which time MOS was gone and ARM could walk into the business, being used for most mobiles by that time, but solidified as the main surviving still-in-use legacy of the cheap home computer days of late 70s early 80s.

Smith_90125 - 15 September 2017, 1:08 am
The C64 had better graphics and sound, but the Apple II had an easily used and reliable disk drive. Sometimes ease of use matters more than what the thing can do - especially at a time when EVERYONE was new at computers, there wasn't that "smart kid down the street" to call and ask for help.

Jonathan Schaper - 15 September 2017, 6:45 am
That might be it, but I still lean towards better marketing. I found 1981 list prices of $400 for the TRS-80 vs $300 for the Vic 20, of $400, but the TRS must still have been competitive in price or else my father would not have bought it (he grew up with war rations and did things like save unused ketchup packs from fast food restaurants so they wouldn't be "wasted"), and he was definitely not an early adapter. My personal memory of using both (granted much less with the Vic 20 since that was at friends' places) was no real noticeable difference -- I never felt the jealousy I did feel towards people who owned Atari or Intellivision game systems.

Samuel Falvo II - 15 September 2017, 8:23 am
No it didn't. The drive was tied hard to the CPU's clock speed, and remained so up to and including the Apple IIgs. The choice of DOS was a major issue as well. Then there was the small matter of configuring slots. It was just like MS-DOS; worked great once you tweaked everything just so. But only after then.
Commodore drives literally "just worked," right out of the box. They are intelligently controlled peripherals with their own CPUs, completely decoupled from the host CPU, allowing them to function at the C64's 1MHz, the C16's 3.5MHz, the C128's 2MHz, etc. You sent them DOS commands (albeit encoded as short strings), which were always consistent across drives (including from different vendors).
If you're referring to the user experience of the Commodore 64 which was a regression from the PET's BASIC 4.0, rest assured C16 fixed that in BASIC 3.5, and the C128's BASIC 7.0. The VIC-20 and C64 are, except for the earliest of PETs, the only machines without dedicated disk commands.
Finally, most users wouldn't have used them anyway, because most people treated disks as cartidges: insert the disk, type “LOAD "*",8,1” and enjoy. Or, they used GEOS, which hid all that anyway.
The ONLY real innovation Apple had were expansion slots with (limited) DMA support. Beyond that, they were technologically inferior in every way.

Michael Barry - 16 September 2017, 11:23 am
I owned an Apple ][+ and a Commodore 64 in the early 1980s, and I enjoyed both. The Apple had a faster disk, built-in graphics support in BASIC and better keyboard feel, so I ended up using it more. The C=64 was a nice little unit, but it felt (to me) like a neat toy, whereas the Apple felt (to me) like a serious machine. I got the Apple first, so that could also have influenced my opinion (first love syndrome?).

Join the discussion! Leave your comment to this article