Friday, December 28, 2007

On the Edge

I started On the Edge:  The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore this summer but had to put it on hold as I went back to class.  Now that class is done, I have a few weeks to read what I want and finishing this was my first order of business.

On the Edge tells the tale of the rise and fall of one of the great American computer companies:  Commodore.  You've seen me refer many times on this blog to stories about Commodore and the Amiga.  My first computer was a Commodore 128 and I spent most of high school and college on an Amiga.  While the C= 128 was fun, the Amiga was just amazing.  It was so far ahead, it took the PC nearly a decade to catch up.

This book recounts the brilliant engineering and terrible management that characterized Commodore throughout its history.  Apple had Steve Jobs.  Microsoft had Bill Gates.  Commodore never had that great leader.  It had leaders, but none of them were great.  They never understood the market.  It was Jack Tramiel's company during the Commodore 64 days.  He had something with the PET and the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64.  But to him it was never a computer.  It was just a commodity to sell and he failed to understand how to leverage his great hardware into something bigger.  He cut R&D funding.  He pushed for too many compromises on the altar of cost reduction. He fired nearly everyone who did the best work.  Chuck Peddle created the 6502 and the PET.  He was the leader of the engineering group at Commodore and had great vision for computers.  Tramiel saw him as a threat and fired him.

I didn't realize that Commodore had the sales or the opportunities it had.  Despite what we've been taught to believe, the Apple II didn't start off too well.  Commodore and Radio Shack both outsold it in substantial numbers.  The Commodore 64 not only used the 6502 processor, but Commodore created and owned it.  The same 6502 that was at the heard of the Atari and Apple computers and even the NES.  They had their destiny in their own hands.  They could have created a 16-bit version or at least made it faster.  Instead, they fired all the staff responsible for creating it and lost a great opportunity.

Around the time the Amiga was acquired, Tramiel himself was fired by Irving Gould, the financier of the company.  Gould wouldn't keep management in place long enough to let a real strategy be executed. He too felt threatened by those who were his biggest assets.

Brian Bagnall does an excellent job chronicling the years of Commodore.  The book seems to be based largely on the recollections of people like Chuck Peddle and Dave Haynie but includes a myriad of other sources.  The book follows the personalities rather than the events.  In this way, the reader comes to know these men and can feel for them as they are jerked around by management.

As someone who grew up on Commodore's machines and who faithfully read every Dave Haynie post on FidoNet for years, I found it painful to watch the company I knew and loved die.  It was painful when the Amiga died in 1994.  It was painful to relive them reading this book.  I enjoyed it though.  If you are one of those who drank the Amiga Kool-aid during it's decade-long run, grab this book.

The book is also insightful for those of us working in the technology industry today.  Commodore died not because it couldn't create competitive products, it died because it made bad decisions.  Bad non-technical decisions.  The moral of the story:  it doesn't matter how cool the technology or how good the engineers.  If a company has poor management, it will fail in the long run.  Something to consider before your next job interview.


  1. Steve,
    Many people will disagree with you. Jack WAS Commodore's analogue of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. In many ways, he was more pivotal in getting computers into the hands of the general public than Apple. During the Commodore 64 anniversary talk at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Wozniak confirmed Apple was interested in the widest possible profit margin with the Apple II. Jack had the luxury of cutting the costs dramatically through vertical integration. (A side note: Commodore did not create the 6502. It was a design of MOS before their buyout by Commodore)  
    I suggest you try to get your hands on The Home Computer Wars. On The Edge is a superior book in many ways, but Wars will give you greater insight into the "spiritual" aspects of Commodore under the leadership of Tramiel.
    Many of us believe that if Jack had not been asked to leave in 84, and instead passed the tourch to someone else in time, Commodore would still be around today in some form.

  2. Thanks for the feedback.  I'll definitely check out The Home Computer Wars.  After reading On the Edge, I get the feeling that Jack would have been a poor choice going forward.  You are correct that he was the analogue of Jobs/Gates, but I don't think he was as good for the company as they were.  Well, perhaps Jobs is a good comparison because he too was bad for Apple at one time.  Jack forced people like Peddle out, killed the R&D efforts, and had a management style (no budgets?) that wouldn't really scale.  At the same time, he's the soul behind the C=64.  He is the one that pushed for mass marketing and steep price cuts.  Alas, in doing so he also alientated the buyers and suppliers that Commodore would need later.
    Thanks for the correction about the 6502. It was created before the acquisition in 1976, but Commodore still owned it and its engineers and could have leveraged that power into bigger and better computers.  Instead, it managed to push out most of the engineers and did very little to improve the chip.  In fact, the 16-bit 6502-variant found later in the Apple //gs wasn't a MOS/Commodore design.  Something like that instead of the dual-processor C=128 would have had a much better chance of retaining the market.