On the Edge

The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore
How Commodore failed becomes clear though the interviews; Why is harder to figure out.

The story of Commodore is simple: In 1976 a company making mostly electronic calculators buys a small chip manufacturer and goes on to three release groundbreaking personal computers, each model selling better than the last. By 1984 Commodore had become the dominant personal computer maker. But in the same year fires its founder and spends the next ten years sliding into irrelevance before going bankrupt in 1994. On The Edge is the story of Commodore as told by people who worked there over those years.

Except for a few mentions, the book only focuses on the U.S. operations over the period Commodore was a personal computer maker. The early years before acquiring chip-maker MOS Technologies (when Commodore was a successful typewriter and calculator maker) are mentioned only in passing. Also, the post-1994 period that saw the remaining assets, mostly related to the Amiga computer, sold several times over is not covered—considering that the book is already over 500 pages that’s understandable.

How Commodore failed becomes clear though the interviews, why is harder to figure out. During the Tramiel years, it seems that his personality and business practices where both the force that drove Commodore to success, attracted talented people and equally created problems inside and outside the company so that regular exodus of talent, both in the engineering and business sides, were surprisingly common. In the post-Tramiel period, when financier Irving Gould effectively ran Commodore, the lesson seems to be that the sudden departure of a strong hands-on leader left the company drifting. While it seems hard to believe that no replacement was found over the last ten years, that seems to be what happened. It common today to blame Gould for the failure, but perhaps broader changes in the personal computer industry would have made steering Commodore into the 1990s a challenge even for Tramiel.

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For people interested in the early computer industry, the coverage of MOS Technologies, both before its acquisition by Commodore and afterwards stands out. Started primarily by ex-Motorola engineers, MOS created the low-cost 6502 chip that, along with the Zilog Z80, made the first generation of home computers.

It’s been said that Commodore doesn’t get the credit it deserves the way Atari or the Apple is. The reasons for this are probably complicated, as much to do with efforts by those companies and fans to burnish their contributions to the early personal computer industry, as Commodore’s story not comfortably fitting into the archetype of the inventor in a garage that goes back at least as far as Hewlett & Packard’s California garage in 1939. Perhaps too, some of the people burned by Jack over the years would rather not have his company remembered too fondly, but that’s speculation. Maybe read this book and decide for yourself.

Note: a follow-up, Commodore: a Company on the Edge, was released in 2010 that includes “15 additional interviews, dozens of period photographs, an accurate chronological presentation and more amazing first-hand stories than ever before.”