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Human Engineered Software (or, The Software Icarus)

Jay Balakrishnan

Jay Balakrishnan

Narayana Pillai Balakrishnan was a native of Cherthala, India, who, after traveling the world for years as a player of traditional Indian music, came to Hollywood in the early 1950s to teach the trendy new practice of Hatha Yoga to the stars. The software company founded by Jay — an Americanized shortening of “Sanjay” — Balakrishnan, the son he and his American wife raised there, would evince through its short, chaotic life a similar blending of idealism with commercialism.

Like many American children of Indian parents, Jay Balakrishnan kept one foot planted in each culture, spending much of his childhood and adolescence in schools in India’s Kerala region. During a summer break from the University of Southern Florida, he discovered computers while working at the Naval Electronics System Command in Charleston; he describes the discovery as a “religious experience.” When he went back to university, he “loaded up on computer-science courses.” After graduation, he worked as a programmer for GTE and later Hughes Helicopter. Meanwhile, in 1978 he bought his first Commodore PET, intending to use it only to do calculations for a course in piloting. But he soon found the PET every bit as entrancing as the big machines he worked with on his day job. He wrote an assembler, initially planning to submit to a magazine as a type-in-listing. However, his friends told him it was good enough to sell commercially, and so Balakrishnan founded Human Engineered Software (HES, or HESWare), out of his apartment on his 25th birthday in June of 1980.

Unlike the other early software companies I’ve profiled on this blog, HES got its start on the relatively unpopular — in North America, that is — Commodore PET. Otherwise, though, this story begins similarly. Balakrishnan wrote all of the early software himself, packaged it himself, shipped it himself when orders came in from the tiny advertisements he took out in magazines and newsletters like Kilobaud, Compute!, and The Midnite Software Gazette. Running on a PET with as little as 8 K of memory, those early products were, like the assembler that got the ball rolling — literally; he named it HESBal — mostly programming tools: a file editor called HESEdit, a BASIC program lister called HESLister.

HES was soon doing well enough for Balakrishnan to quit his job at Hughes. Still, running a one-man software company got exhausting quickly. He had elected to offer the ultimate in customer support in the form of a 24-hour help line; this kept him captive in his apartment waiting for the next ring, his sleep interrupted constantly. Thus when a manufacturer of monitors and other hardware called Universal Supply came to him with an offer to buy the company but let him continue to manage it, he was receptive. Balakrishnan and HESWare moved north to Brisbane, California, where he found a partner in running the operation in the form of an ex-Xerox manager named Ted Morgan. He also now had the funding to reach out to other platforms and other authors. Seeing Britain as a potential untapped source of software for the briefly but hugely popular Commodore VIC-20, he traveled to London to attend a computer show and do some networking in June of 1982. It was here that he met the man whose games would dramatically raise HES’s profile and enrich its bank account: Jeff Minter.

I could easily write several feature articles on Minter and the surrealistic action games which he continues to write to this very day; his distinctive style and psychedelic flair make him both one of gaming’s first auteurs and its most long-lived. But, at least for today, we’ll confine ourselves to his connection with HES. When Balakrishnan met him, he had just founded his long-lived British software house, Llamasoft, on the strength of a Defender clone called Andes Attack. It lacked the skewed originality of Minter’s later games, but Balakrishnan was nevertheless impressed with the fast graphics. He worked out a licensing deal, renamed it Aggressor, and moved it from cassette to a VIC-20 cartridge for the American market. Later that year came the much more original Gridrunner, Minter’s — and HES’s — first big hit. More lovably bizarre VIC-20 and Commodore 64 hits poured out of Minter at the rate of a new game every few months, many showing an odd fixation on ruminants: Attack of the Mutant Camels (probably his best-remembered game), Revenge of the Mutant Camels, Advance of the Megacamel, Metagalactic Llamas: Battle at the Edge of Time. HES’s sales jumped from $1.4 million to $13 million between 1982 and 1983, largely on the strength of cheap and cheerful VIC-20 and 64 cartridges — although Balakrishnan did try to keep his hand in other fields as well, releasing hardware expansions for the VIC-20 and a word processor called, inevitably, HESWriter for the 64.

That year the HES story took another unexpected twist. Parent company Universal Supply had been building equipment largely for Atari and Mattel. That suddenly became a very bad business to be in as the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 became a reality. Balakrishnan and Morgan managed to extricate HES from the collapsing Universal Supply, reincorporating it as an independent entity once again. With stars in their eyes, with everyone telling them their industry represented the next big wave in home entertainment, they now embarked on one of the most spectacular boom-and-busts of the home-computer era.

The first step in any good software flameout is to collect lots and lots of investment capital from folks as entranced as you are by the hype about your industry, but who are nevertheless guaranteed to want their money back when the hype doesn’t pan out. HES accepted huge cash injections from the major Silicon Valley venture-capitalist Tech Venture and from a company called Action Industries, a manufacturer of household knickknacks (!) based in Pennsylvania. Most interestingly, Microsoft also came on board. Their participation led to HES releasing a Commodore 64 version of Multiplan, Microsoft’s first attempt at a spreadsheet program in those years before the Office hegemony. Multiplan represents the only piece of software Microsoft would ever develop for the 64.

The next step is to overextend your distribution network. HES aggressively pushed their software into mass merchandisers like K-Mart and Toys “R” Us, opening the way for other publishers to do the same but paying dearly for the privilege of being first. By 1984 Balakrishan estimated that HES’s games were available through 8000 different outlets, while most competitors were only in 3000. This was good in its way, perhaps, but also meant that HES had to make a lot of copies right from the launch of each new title to have it available in so many places. And that in turn meant that when a new title turned out to be a flop — as did for example HESGames, an Olympic-themed effort that was roundly pummeled in the marketplace by Epyx’s Summer Games — they were left stuck with huge amounts of unsold inventory.

Jay Balakrishnan with Leonard Nimoy

Jay Balakrishnan with Leonard Nimoy

Finally, you have to spend hugely on advertising and promotion in comparison to the amount you spend on actually, you know, writing software. The remade HES made their first big promotional splash at Steve Wozniak’s second (and final) US Festival on Memorial Day Weekend 1983, where they had a big spread inside the tech expo. (At a press conference there HES’s spokesman inexplicably spilled the beans at considerable length about IBM’s still-secret PCjr project, to which HES, like a number of software companies, was privy. IBM was, needless to say, livid. An insider with whom I’m in occasional contact who was there claims the spokesman “might have been stoned — there were lots of drugs at that concert.”) They then rented a sort of permanent floating software exhibition on the retired aircraft carrier and newly minted museum ship Intrepid on Manhattan’s West Side. In early 1984 they made their biggest splash when they acquired the services of Leonard Nimoy as spokesman; if Commodore had used Captain Kirk to make the VIC-20 a raging success, they would use Mr. Spock to do the same for HES. Unfortunately, Nimoy seemed to know even less about computers than William Shatner; when asked what kind of computer he had at home, he said he didn’t know. (Nimoy was making a lot of strange career choices at this time, including driving a car for the Bangles in an incomprehensible music video for an admittedly pretty great song and plugging “erasable programmable logic devices” — Mr. Spock! get it? — something he presumably knew even less about than home computers, for Altera Corporation. InfoWorld magazine shruggingly concluded that he was maybe just “hard up for cash.”)

The somewhat, well, intellectual thrust of these promotional efforts, of using Mr. Spock as spokesman and hawking wares inside a museum, points to an interesting dichotomy about HES. They may have been rushing to hit the center of the mass market, but at the same time they weren’t dumbing down their products to do it. Far from it. HES was pushing hard to define themselves as a maker primarily of “edutainment” products. In a 1984 interview with InfoWorld, Balakrishnan describes an intriguing mix of upcoming high-concept titles, most of which would never see the light of day.

We’ve got a game called Cell Defense, in which you are in charge of your body’s immunological system, and viruses attack you. There are various levels. These affect how fast your cells reproduce and whether you are a sick or healthy organism. You are learning a lot about the body as you play the game.

Then we have another game called Reflections, that’s based on physics, with all kinds of lights and bouncing reflections. Then there’s Life Force, in which you essentially learn about genes and genetics. It has eight levels. In the first one, you create an amoeba, then you get into multi-celled organisms. Man is the seventh level. The eighth is the mystery one in which you create an unknown organism by taking ribosomes and nuclei and putting them together.

Our fourth game is called Ocean Quest, in which you go and look for sunken treasure. As you do that, you learn about undersea life. There are different scenarios that affect the game, such as whether you are in the Pacific or the Atlantic. Of course, undersea life and fish differ according to the region.

Following the videogame crash and burn, conventional wisdom held that the simple action games which had defined digital entertainment for the masses prior to that point were now passé — dangerously so, in fact. Tellingly, in that same InfoWorld interview Balakrishnan manages to never mention Jeff Minter or his games in describing HES’s rise to prominence. HES’s 1984 portfolio, like the bookware phenomenon, can be read as a sign of a home-computer software industry wanting to differentiate itself from videogames for very practical commercial reasons. Yet, just as most of the people producing bookware really, deeply believed in it as a potential revolution in reading, HES had plenty of idealism to accompany their excess. If they oversold how much the computers for which they produced software could actually do, well, that was down at least as much to their own dreamy technological utopianism as a simple need to move product. It was a strange, heady time in computer games.

Of course, it also couldn’t last, and for the overextended, over-expanded HES least of all. As these things so often do, the downfall came amazingly quickly. Leonard Nimoy debuted as HES’s spokesman in March of 1984. InfoWorld published the aforequoted ebullient profile of HES and Balakrishnan in their September 3, 1984, issue. Six weeks later the same magazine announced that “HES nears bankruptcy,” that they were casting about desperately for a buyer from amidst their erstwhile competitors while the investors bayed in outrage and flatly refused to throw good money after bad and the axe fell on two-thirds of their 90-person workforce. Days later they filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. When asked what had happened, Morgan didn’t have a whole of insight to offer: “People stopped buying products.”

The remnants of HES were eventually acquired by Avant-Garde Publishing of Eugene, Oregon, a company which dated from the same year as HES and had its own fleet of eager venture capitalists behind it. Avant-Garde kept the HES name alive for a while; the original plan for the merger had the HES name being used for lower-end, mass-market software, the Avant-Garde name for higher-end IBM and Apple software to be sold through dealers. But, while Avant-Garde did keep a number of older HES titles in circulation for a time, they released just one new one under the label. Within a couple of years Avant-Garde too would be gone, justifiably so in light of cheesy efforts like Joe Theismann’s Pro Football, Dave Winfield’s Batter Up!, and Slugfest: Chris Evert-Lloyd Tennis, which purported to teach you or your kids how to play their respective sports with the help of their respective athlete endorsers.

Jay Balakrishnan continued undeterred as a serial entrepreneur. By the January 1985 Consumer Electronics Show he had already started a new outfit called Solid State Software to develop a new line of productivity software for the trusty old Commodore 64. The circumstance were, mind you, quite a bit different from the glory days of HES. At the January 1984 CES you couldn’t get behind the facade of HES’s grandiose exhibit to see him unless you were a VIP. In January 1985 Info magazine found him sitting behind “a card table in an 8′ X 8′ booth with a stack of 2-color brochures. How times change.”

(Print sources include: the January 1985 Creative Computing; the May 19 1983 Popular Computing Weekly; the September 3 1984, October 15 1984, October 29 1984, and November 19 1984 InfoWorld; Info #6; the October 11 1985 MicroTimes; the February 1981 and April 1986 Compute!. Online sources include articles in The New Indian Express and Rick Melick’s site. The photographs come from InfoWorld. And my anonymous source for the US Festival anecdote shall remain anonymous…)

 
 

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The Legend of Escape from Mt. Drash

The only published advert for Escape from Mt. Drash

Ultima collectors are a hardy and dedicated lot, not only authoring web sites but even huge books on their passion. An oddity called Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash has for years been rivaled only by the original hand-assembled Akalabeth as the Holy Grail for these folks. Drash, a game for of all platforms the lowly Commodore VIC-20, trickled out of Sierra in the spring of 1983, achieved miniscule distribution and miniscule sales, then vanished from history. For some years there was reason to wonder whether it had actually been released at all, rather than only being something that came and went from a single advertisement (as shown above, from the July 1983 Compute!) and a few product catalogs. Only in 2000 did a working copy of the game finally surface on the Internet, the source being an Indiana teenager whose parents had come home from a garage sale with it several years before.

As befits a Holy Grail, a legend sprung up around Drash that consisted of a few known facts woven together within a tapestry of conjecture. Drash, the story went, was an attempt by Sierra to make a quick buck off the Ultima name by releasing a slapdash game to the VIC-20 market, terra incognita to Richard Garriott, without his knowledge or consent. The implication is that someone at Sierra eventually got nervous about this dubious scheme and buried the game — in some versions of the story literally, by dumping remaining copies into a landfill in a tale that echoes the (itself likely exaggerated) tale of Atari’s dumping of millions of E.T. cartridges into a New Mexico landfill that same year. It’s a glib story which seems to explain much about the game’s obscurity while also investing it with a nice dollop of the nefarious, a plus for collectors of an industry that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly rife with the sort of dark secrets and forbidden fruits that their pals who collect, say, vintage records get to enjoy. Yet it’s also a story that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, to an extent that it’s hard to understand how so many bright people could buy into it. There are two serious objections, either of which would make it highly improbable. Together they make it impossible to believe.

We should first of all take note of the author of Drash: Keith Zabalaoui. Zabalaoui was a member of what I somewhat facetiously called Garriot’s “entourage” in my previous post, one of his old high-school running buddies who hung around with him in Houston and helped from time to time with his various projects. It could only have been through Garriott that Zabalaoui came into contact with Sierra in the first place. So, the legend requires us to believe that Zabalaoui met the folks at Sierra through Garriott and sold them a game, then agreed with them to secretly release it as an illegitimate knockoff of his friend’s work. Finally, after publishing the game and receiving at least some sort of royalties he continued to keep the whole affair a secret from his buddy. That’s behavior that borders on the sociopathic. There are also some serious plotting problems to this little narrative; didn’t Richard ever say, “Hey, Keith, whatever happened to that game you were working on for Sierra?”

And then let’s look at this from the other side, from the viewpoint of Sierra. Yes, the company may have started with advertising pasted together from newspaper clippings around Ken and Roberta Williams’s kitchen table, but those days were already long gone by early 1983. Sierra was by then negotiating licensing deals with Big Media players like The Jim Henson Company and accepting millions from venture capitalists who saw them as major players in a major emerging industry. Can we really believe that such a company, which by now employed a substantial legal team, would risk their reputation by sticking someone else’s trademarked name on a game in the hopes of making a quick few (tens of?) thousands of dollars and maybe sticking it somehow to Garriott, the man who had recently jilted them? As John Williams says, “Sierra On-Line management was young but not stupid.” Ken Williams had been closely involved in the complications of securing for Garriott and Sierra legal right to the Ultima name from the now defunct California Pacific after Garriott had first agreed to sign with Sierra. To imagine that he would then just blatantly steal the trademark is… well, absurd is perhaps being kind. To imagine that the legal team the venture capitalists insisted be in place would even allow him to do so is to fail to understand how such relationships work.

So, the true story is, as these things so often go, more prosaic than the legend. Zabalaoui did visit Sierra in Garriott’s company, where he was inspired to start work on a simple maze-running action game. When he eventually showed the finished product to them, they were doubtful. It wasn’t a terrible game, but it wasn’t a great one either. And by early 1983 the huge but breathtakingly short-lived VIC-20 software market had already passed its peak and started on a downward slope that would soon turn into a veritable cliff as the ever-plunging price of the vastly more capable Commodore 64 made the older machine more and more irrelevant. And Zabalaoui’s game required more than just a VIC-20: one also needed to have the 8 K memory expansion (to boost the machine’s RAM from just 5 K to 13 K) and a cassette drive, since it was too large to be installed onto a cartridge. Most of the kids who owned VIC-20s as learning toys or game machines didn’t equip them with such luxuries. Sierra hemmed and hawed, and then made a suggestion: if they could maybe market it as an Ultima that might help… Garriott was perhaps not thrilled with Sierra at this point in time, but he was always good to his friends. When Zabalaoui came to him with Sierra’s request, Garriott agreed, likely more as a personal favor to someone who had helped him out with his own projects quite a bit in the past than anything else. Today, of course, when the industry is so much more mature and so much more sensitive to the power of branding, one in Garriott’s position would never risk tarnishing his trademark in such a way. But in 1983 both Garriott and his industry were still very young.

Even with the Ultima name, Sierra was obviously skeptical about the game’s chances, particularly as the VIC-20 software market continued to decline even as packaging was prepared and the game was sent off for duplication. They manufactured the minimum quantity required by their contract with Zabalaoui, on the order of a few thousand units, placed that one halfhearted advertisement, and watched with disinterest as the game foundered commercially. The vast majority of the production run was likely, like that first copy that was rediscovered in 2000, written off and trashed, whether by Sierra themselves or their various distributors. It’s an example of a phenomenon you see from time to time in business, where a project about which no one (with the possible exception in this case of Zabalaoui) feels terribly enthusiastic just sort of drifts to completion through inertia and the lack of anyone stepping up to kill it with a definitive “no.” In this case that led to Escape from Mt. Drash passing into history as the first of the spin-off Ultimas, games that are not part of the main sequence but nevertheless use the name. Future entries in that category would actually be some of the most impressive to bear the Ultima name; Mt. Drash, however, should most definitely not be included in that group.

I’m not the first one to reveal the true story of Escape from Mt. Drash. John Williams has occasionally tried to correct the record in the past via comments to other blog posts and the like that repeated the legend. Recently it has begun to seem that word is finally getting out. Blogger Pix had the opportunity to interact with Garriott personally last year, and asked him directly about the Mt. Drash legend. Garriott at last confirmed to him that he had known about the game and duly authorized its release.

So why should I take up the cause now? Well, there are still plenty of online sources that repeat the legend. I’d thus like to add this blog’s weight — to whatever extent it has weight — to the true story. This I partly do as a favor to John Williams, who has gifted me (and you) with so many memories and insights on the early days of Sierra and the industry as a whole. John is, understandably enough, annoyed at the persistence of this falsehood, as it directly impinges the honor of Sierra and by extension himself.

More generally — and yes, I know I rant about this more than I should — this can serve as a lesson to people who consider themselves historians in this field to be a bit more rigorous, and not to substitute easy assumptions for research. I won’t get into the original source of the false legend here, only say that I’m disappointed that it was repeated for so long without ever being seriously questioned. When you are thinking of saying something that directly accuses people of unethical dealings you really need to be sure of your facts and careful with your words. Frankly, that’s a lesson that Richard Garriott himself could learn; despite my admiration for his vision and persistence as a gaming pioneer, I find his glib dismissal of the folks at California Pacific and Sierra who launched his career as dishonest, “stupid bozoos,” and “heavy drug users” to be unconscionable. It’s a lesson his fans should also take to heart.

If you do have one of those websites that repeats the legend of Escape from Mt. Drash… hey, it happens. I’ve made a hash of things myself once or twice in public. But maybe think about taking a moment to make a correction? I’m sure that at the very least John Williams and the others who built Sierra would appreciate it.

 

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Computers for the Masses

The company that would eventually become Commodore International was formed in 1958 as an importer and assembler of Czechoslovakian portable typewriters for Canada and the northeastern United States. Its founder was a Polish immigrant and Auschwitz survivor named Jack Tramiel. Commodore first made the news as a part of the Atlantic Acceptance scandal of 1965, in which one of Canada’s largest savings and loans suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed. When the corpse was dissected, a rotten core of financial malfeasance, much of it involving its client Commodore, was revealed. It seems that Tramiel had become friends with the head of Atlantic, one C.P. Morgan, and the two had set up some mutually beneficial financial arrangements that were not, alas, so good for Atlantic Acceptance as a whole. Additionally, it appears that Tramiel likely lied under oath and altered documents to try to obscure the trail. (The complicated details of all this are frankly beyond me; Zube dissects it all at greater length on his home page, for those with better financial minds than mine.) The Canadian courts were plainly convinced of Tramiel’s culpability in the whole sorry affair, but ultimately decided they didn’t have enough hard evidence to prosecute him. A financier named Irving Gould rescued Tramiel and his scandal-wracked company from a richly deserved oblivion. Commodore remained alive and Tramiel remained in day-to-day control, but thanks to his controlling investment Gould now had him by the balls.

Tramiel and Gould would spend almost two decades locked in an embrace of loathing codependency. Tramiel worked like a demon, seldom taking a day off, fueled more by pride and spite than greed. Working under his famous mantra “Business is War,” he seemed to delight in destroying not only the competition but also suppliers, retailers, and often even his own employees when they lost favor in his eyes. Gould was a more easygoing sort. He put the money Tramiel earned him to good use, maintaining three huge homes in three countries, a private yacht, a private jet, and lots of private girlfriends. His only other big passion was tax law, which he studied with great gusto in devising schemes to keep the tax liability of himself and his company as close to zero as possible. (His biggest coup in that department was his incorporation of Commodore in the Bahamas, even though they had no factories, no employees, and no product for sale there.) Some of his favorite days were those in which Tramiel would come to him needing him to release some capital from his private stash to help him actually, you know, run a proper business, with a growth strategy and research and development and all that sort of thing. Gould would toy with him a bit on those occasions, and sometimes even give him what he wanted. But usually not. Better for Tramiel to pay for it out of his operating budget; Gould needed his pocket money, after all.

Commodore’s business over the next decade changed its focus from the manufacturing of typewriters and mechanical adding machines to a new invention, the electronic calculator, with an occasional sideline in, of all things, office furniture. They also built up an impressive distribution network for their products around the world, particularly in Europe. Indeed, Europe, thanks to well-run semi-independent spinoffs in Britain and West Germany, became the company’s strongest market. Commodore remained a niche player in the U.S. calculator market, but in Europe they became almost a household name. Through it all Commodore’s U.S. operation, the branch that ultimately called the shots and developed the product line, retained an everpresent whiff of the disreputable. One could quickly sense that this company just wasn’t quite respectable, that in most decisions quick and dirty was likely to win out over responsible and ethical. Which is not, I need to carefully emphasize, to cast aspersions on the many fine engineers who worked for Commodore over the years, who often achieved heroic results in spite of management’s shortsightedness or, eventually, outright incompetence.

Tramiel and Commodore stumbled into a key role in both the PC revolution and the videogame revolution. In 1976 the company was, not for the first nor the last time, struggling mightily. Texas Instruments had virtually destroyed their calculator business by introducing machines priced cheaper than Commodore could possibly match. The reason: TI owned its own chip-fabrication plants rather than having to source its chips from other suppliers. It was a matter of vertical integration, as they say in the business world. Desperate for some integration of his own, Tramiel bought a chip company of his own, MOS Technologies. With MOS came a new microprocessor, one that had been causing quite a lot of excitement amongst homebrew microcomputer hackers like Steve Wozniak: the 6502. Commodore also ended up with the creator of the 6502, MOS’s erstwhile head of engineering Chuck Peddle. For his next trick, Peddle was keen to build a computer around his CPU. Tramiel wasn’t so sure about the idea, but reluctantly agreed to let Peddle have a shot. The Commodore PET became the first of the trinity of 1977 to be announced, but the last to actually ship. Tramiel, you see, was having cash-flow problems as usual, and Gould was as usual quite unforthcoming.

The PET wasn’t a bad little machine at all. It wasn’t quite as advanced in some areas as the Apple II, but it was also considerably cheaper. Still, it was hard to articulate just where it fit in the North American market. Hobbyists on a budget favored the TRS-80, easily available from Radio Shack stores all over the country, while those who wanted the very best settled on the more impressive Apple II. Business users, meanwhile, fixated early on the variety of CP/M machines from boutique manufacturers, and later, in the wake of VisiCalc, also started buying Apple IIs. The PET therefore became something of an also-ran in North America in spite of the stir of excitement its first announcement had generated.

Europe, however, was a different story. Neither Apple nor Radio Shack had any proper distribution network there in the beginning. The PET therefore became the first significant microcomputer in Europe. With effectively no competition, Commodore was free to hike its prices in Europe to Apple II levels and beyond. This meant that PETs were most commonly purchased by businesses and installed in offices. Only France, where Apple set up distribution quite early on, remained resistant, while West Germany became a particularly strong market, with the Commodore name accorded respect in business equivalent to what CP/M received in the U.S. And when a PET version of VisiCalc was introduced to Europe in 1980, it caused almost as big of a sensation as the Apple II version had the year before in America. Within a year or two, Commodore stopped even seriously trying to sell PETs in North America, but rather shipped most of the output of their U.S. factory to Europe, where they could charge more and where the competition was virtually nonexistent.

In North America Commodore’s role in the early microcomputer and game-console industries was also huge, but mostly behind the scenes, and all centered around the Commodore Semiconductor Group — what had once been MOS Technologies. In an oft-repeated scenario that Dave Haynie has dubbed the “Commodore Curse,” most of the innovative engineers who had created the 6502 fled soon after the Commodore purchase, driven away by Tramiel’s instinct for degradation and his refusal to properly fund their research-and-development efforts. For this reason, MOS, poised at the top of the microcomputer industry for a time, would never even come close to developing a viable successor to the 6502. Nevertheless, Commodore inherited a very advanced chipmaking operation — one of the best in the country in fact. It would take some years for inertia and neglect to break down the house that Peddle and company had built. In the meantime, they delivered the 6502s and variants found not only in the PET but also in the Apple II, the Atari VCS, the Atari 400 and 800, and plenty of other more short-lived systems. They also built many or most of the cartridges on which Atari VCS games shipped. All of which put Commodore in the enviable position of making money every time many of their ostensible competitors built something. Thanks to MOS and Europe, Commodore went from near bankruptcy to multiple stock splits, while Tramiel himself was worth $50 million by 1980. That year he rewarded Peddle, the technical architect of virtually all of this success, with termination and a dubious lawsuit that managed to wrangle away the $3 million in Commodore stock he had earned.

Commodore’s transformation from a business-computer manufacturer and behind-the-scenes industry player to the king of home computing also began in 1980, when Tramiel visited London for a meeting. He saw there for the first time an odd little machine called the Sinclair ZX-80. Peddled by an eccentric English inventor named Clive Sinclair, the ZX-80 was something of a throwback to the earliest U.S.-made microcomputers. It was sold as a semi-assembled kit, and, with just 1 K of memory and a display system so primitive that the screen went blank every time you typed on the keyboard, pretty much the bare-minimum machine that could still meet some reasonable definition of “computer.” For British enthusiasts, however, it was revelatory. Previously the only microcomputers for sale in Britain had been the Commodore PET line and a few equally business-oriented competitors. These machines cost thousands of pounds, putting them well out of reach of most private individuals in this country where average personal income lagged considerably behind that of the U.S. The ZX-80, though, sold for just under £100. For a generation of would-be hackers who, like the ones who had birthed the microcomputer industry in the U.S. five years before, simply wanted to get their hands on a computer — any computer — it was a dream come true. Sinclair sold 50,000 ZX-80s before coming out with something more refined the next year.

We’ll talk more about Sinclair and his toys in later posts, but for now let’s focus on what the ZX-80 meant to Tramiel. He began to think about a similar low-cost computer for the U.S. consumer market — this idea of a “home computer” that had been frequently discussed but had yet to come to any sort of real fruition. To succeed in the U.S. mass market Commodore would obviously need to put together something more refined than the ZX-80. It would have to be a fully assembled computer that was friendly, easy to use, and that came equipped with all of the hardware needed to hook it right up to the family television. And it would need to be at least a little more capable than the Atari VCS in the games department (to please the kids) and to have BASIC built in (to please the parents, who imagined their children getting a hand up on their future by learning about computers and how to program them).

Luckily, Commodore already had most of the parts they needed just sort of lying around. All the way back in 1977 their own Al Charpentier had designed the Video Interface Chip (the VIC) for a potential game console or arcade machine. It could display 16-color graphics at resolutions of up to 176 X 184, and could also generate up to three simple sounds at one time. Commodore had peddled it around a bit, but it had ended up on the shelf. Now it was dusted off to become the heart of the new computer. Sure, it wasn’t a patch on the Atari 400 and 800’s capabilities, but it was good enough. Commodore joined it up with much of the PET architecture in its most cost-reduced formed, including the BASIC they’d bought from Microsoft years before, added a cartridge port, and they had their home computer. Well, like any engineering project it was a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the basic idea. After test marketing it in Japan as the VIC-1001, they brought it to North America as the VIC-20 in the spring of 1981, and soon after to Europe. (In the German-speaking countries it was called the VC-20 because of the unfortunate resemblance “VIC” had to the German verb “ficken” — to fuck.) In the U.S. the machine’s first list price was just under $300, in line with Tramiel’s new slogan: “Computers for the masses, not the classes.” Tramiel may have been about the last person in the world you’d expect to start advocating for the proletariat, but business sometimes makes strange bedfellows. Discounting construction kits and the like, the VIC-20 was easily the cheapest “real computer” yet sold in the U.S.

For the first time in the company’s history, Commodore created a major U.S. advertising campaign to accompany the VIC-20 that was well-funded and smart, perhaps because it was largely the work of an import from the much more PR-savvy Commodore UK named Kit Spencer. He hired as spokesman William Shatner, Captain Kirk himself. “Why buy just a videogame?” Shatner asked. “Invest in the wonder computer of the 1980s,” with “a real computer keyboard.” The messaging was masterful. The box copy announced that the VIC-20 was great for “household budgeting, personal improvement, student education, financial planning.” In reality, the VIC-20, with just 5 K of memory and an absurdly blocky 22-characters-per-line text display, was of limited (at best) utility for any of those things. But always Commodore snuck in a reference, seemingly as an afterthought, to the fact that the VIC-20 “plays great games too!” Commodore was effectively colluding with the kids they were really trying to reach, giving them lots of ways to convince Mom and Dad to buy them the cool new game machine they really wanted. Understanding that a good lineup of games was crucial to this strategy, they made sure that upon release a whole library of games, many of them unauthorized knockoffs of current arcade hits, was ready to go. For the more cerebral sorts, they also contracted with Scott Adams to make cartridge versions of his first five adventures available at launch.

Within a few months of the launch, Tramiel made a deal with K-Mart, one of the largest U.S. department-store chains of the time, to sell VIC-20s right from their shelves. This was an unprecedented move. Previously department stores had been the domain of the game consoles; the Atari VCS owed much of its early success to a distribution deal that Atari struck with Sears. Computers, meanwhile, were sold from specialized dealers whose trained employees could offer information, service, and support before and after the sale. Tramiel alienated and all but destroyed Commodore’s dealer network in the U.S., such as it was, by giving preferential treatment to retailers like K-Mart, even indulging in the dubiously legal practice of charging the latter lower prices per unit than he did the loyal dealers who had sometimes been with him for years. Caught up in his drive to make Commodore the home-computer company as well as his general everyday instinct to cause as much chaos and destruction as possible, Tramiel couldn’t have cared less when they complained and dropped their contracts in droves. Eventually this betrayal, like so many others, would come back to haunt Commodore. But for now they were suddenly riding higher than ever.

The VIC-20 resoundingly confirmed at last the mutterings about the potential for a low-cost home computer. It sold 1 million units in barely a year, the first computer of any type to do so. Apple, by comparison, had after five years of steadily building momentum managed to sell about 750,000 Apple IIs by that point, and Radio Shack’s numbers were similar. The VIC-20 would go on to sell 2.5 million units before crashing back to earth almost as quickly as it had ascended; Commodore officially discontinued it in January of 1985, by which time it was generally selling for well under $100. Attractive as its price was, it was ultimately just too limited a machine to have longer legs. Still, and while the vast majority of VIC-20s were used almost exclusively for playing games (at least 98% of the software released for the machine were games), some who didn’t have access to a more advanced machine used it as their gateway to the wonders of computing. Most famously, Linus Torvalds, the Finnish creator of Linux, got his start exploring the innards of the VIC-20 installed in his bedroom. For European hackers like Torvalds, without as many options as the U.S. market afforded, the VIC-20 as well as the cheap Sinclair machines were godsends.

The immediate reaction to the VIC-20 from users of the Apple II and other more advanced machines was generally somewhere between a bemused shrug and a dismissive snort. With its miniscule memory and its software housed on cartridges or cassette tapes, the VIC-20 wasn’t capable of running most of the programs I’ve discussed on this blog, primitive as many of them have been. Even the Scott Adams games were possible only because they were housed on ROM cartridges rather than loaded into the VIC-20’s scant RAM. Games like Wizardry, Ultima, The Wizard and the Princess, or Zork — not to mention productivity game-changers like VisiCalc — were simply impossible here. The VIC-20’s software library, large and (briefly) profitable as it was, was built mostly of simple action games not all that far removed from the typical Atari VCS fare. Companies like On-Line Systems released a VIC-20 title here and there if someone stepped forward with something viable (why throw away easy money?), but mostly stayed with the machines that had brought them this far. To the extent that the VIC-20 was relevant to them at all, it was relevant as a stepping stone — or, if you will, a gateway drug to computing. Hopefully some of those VIC-20 buyers would get intrigued enough that they’d decide to buy a real system some day.

Yet in the long run the VIC-20 was only a proof of concept for the home computer. With the segment now shown to be viable and, indeed, firmly established, the next home computer to come from Commodore wouldn’t be so easy to ignore.

(By far the best, most unvarnished, and most complete history of Commodore is found in Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge and its predecessor On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore. Both books are in desperate need of a copy editor, making them rather exhausting to read at times, and Bagnall’s insistence on slamming Apple and IBM constantly gets downright annoying. Still, the information and stories are there.

Michael Tomczyk’s much older The Home Computer Wars was previously the only real insider account of Commodore during this period, but it’s of dubious value at best in the wake of Bagnall’s books. Tomczyk inflates his own role in the creation and marketing of the VIC-20 enormously, and insists on painting Tramiel as a sort of social visionary. He’s amazed that Tramiel is willing to do business in Germany after spending time in Auschwitz, seeing this as a sign of the man’s essential nobility and forgiving nature. News flash: unprincipled men seldom put principles — correct or misguided — above the opportunity to make a buck.)

 

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