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Friday, September 15, 2006

Commodore Computer Devotees Tinker With the Past


COLUMN ONE

Commodore Computer Devotees Tinker With the Past

The company ruled the PC world in the '80s. It's gone now, but devotees of its machines are still coaxing life out of their kilobytes.
Times Staff Writer

June 27, 2006

FRESNO — Robert Bernardo spent a week this spring traveling the Pacific Northwest, trying to save part of yesterday's future.

The high school English teacher swung through Portland and Astoria, Ore., and then on to Ethel, Wash., to drop off a collection of antiquated computers — a PET8032, three VIC-20s, an SX-64 portable and a Commodore 128D.
FOR THE RECORD:
Commodore computers: A photo caption accompanying Tuesday's Column One about enthusiasts of computers made by now-defunct Commodore Business Machines misidentified the photo's subjects. Robert Bernardo was at left and Bill Terry was at right, not vice versa. —

Then on his way home to the Central Valley town of Visalia, Bernardo packed his white Crown Victoria with three more SX-64s, boxes of software and a couple of printers.

With any luck, this agglomeration of decades-old circuit boards and dusty disk drives will allow Bernardo to reboot a handful of computers made by the long-defunct Commodore Business Machines.

In an era when a home computer's power is measured in gigabytes, Bernardo still counts kilobytes as a devoted Commodore user 12 years after the last machine was assembled.

Once the largest personal computer maker in America, the company behind the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64 introduced millions of people like Bernardo to the digital age. The company went out of business in 1994, but its legacy survives in dozens of Commodore clubs around the country.

Bernardo presides over the Fresno chapter.

Never mind that the VIC-20 has so little usable memory — just 3.5 kilobytes — that it can store only a couple of pages of text in its buffers. Or that Commodore hardware was notoriously clunky and buggy. Bernardo still manages all his e-mail on a 1980s-vintage Commodore 64.

"I've never considered the Commodore obsolete," Bernardo said. "I can still do many things with it — e-mail, browse the Web, word processing, desktop publishing and newsletters. I still do games on it: new games that are copyright 2006, ordered from Germany."

Like classic car fans, Bernardo and other Central Valley Commodore devotees lug their gear every month to the Pizza Pit restaurant and put the hoods up, so to speak. For many, a Commodore machine was their first computer. They cherish their machines the way some guys pamper their high school hot rod.

The tinker mentality pervades American culture, from guys who fix their lawn mowers to computer geeks who build the next big thing in their garages. Commodore clubs are "about preserving a particular era in computing — just showing that you can make it serviceable takes ingenuity," said Robert Cole, a professor emeritus of technology management at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Commodore computers are rudimentary enough that enthusiasts with a little technical know-how can repair them themselves. They also can be programmed with relative ease using the BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) computer language. Linus Torvalds, the creator of the popular Linux computer language, cut his teeth writing code on a VIC-20 in the 1980s.

"It wasn't just an appliance. I liked it because it was open and it invited you to play with it," said Mike McDermott, a Commodore fan who co-founded a website that ranks building contractors. "You didn't just do what it told you. It invited you to tinker with it. They really did encourage you to go write programs for it."

And that, in turn, made people passionate about the quirky machines.

Bernardo, who sometimes sports a button that reads "I Adore My 64," says that every room but one in his three-bedroom house contains Commodore equipment. In the other is his "Star Trek" collection. But there is crossover between his dual passions. His prized possessions include six pieces of Commodore hardware and software signed by "Star Trek" star and former Commodore pitchman William Shatner.

If Bernardo and his ilk keep the memory of Commodore alive, they also may hold the key to its future. The Dutch company that owns the Commodore name is planning to resurrect the brand in the United States with devices that act as digital entertainment centers.

"The Commodore 64 was the biggest-selling computer in the world," said Patrick Olenczak, vice president of global sales for the company now called Commodore International.

But that fan base can have drawbacks.

"It's going to be difficult to fulfill their expectations of being a computer company because we're not," Olenczak said. "What we're doing is bringing new forms of computing into the living room…. We are not into computing the way we used to be."

And Commodore used to be in computing in the biggest way.

Few companies illustrate the ruthless evolutionary efficiency of the high-tech economy better than Commodore. Founded in 1959 as a typewriter company by Polish immigrant Jack Tramiel, it later moved into adding machines and then calculators.

Commodore purchased a small chip foundry and built computers around the processors it manufactured itself, the first being the PET, Commodore's first desktop, introduced in 1977. In 1981 came the VIC-20 that could do color graphics and generate simple music.

The company's biggest hit was the Commodore 64, introduced in 1982 with 64 kilobytes of memory, high-resolution graphics and an impressive sound synthesizer. It was followed in 1985 by the Commodore 128 upgrade and the Commodore Amiga, a desktop with phenomenal graphics at the time.

But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, IBM Corp.'s PC clones gained supremacy.

Tramiel was known for aggressive advertising. But he also took manufacturing shortcuts that sometimes put dud computers on the market.

"Jack encouraged the environment where shortcuts were overlooked and rewarded," said Bil Herd, the chief engineer of the Commodore 128. "The attitude was get it under the Christmas tree — there is always time for them to return it for service in January."

Tramiel was ousted from Commodore in 1984.

Commodore found itself expanding in too many unprofitable directions without Tramiel's ironfisted stewardship, and although the company had a few subsequent hits, such as the graphics whiz Amiga, it also had a number of costly flops that forced cuts in the workforce and closure of plants.

Reached at his home in Monte Sereno, near San Jose, Tramiel, now 78, would not comment on the business while he was running it or afterward, but allowed in a brief conversation that he was "very happy" that enthusiasts kept the Commodore name and machines alive.

"Today's computers are definitely more advanced than Commodores," Tramiel said. "But at the time it was the best computer for the money, because I was building a computer for the people at a price everybody could afford."

Commodore dissolved in 1994, and its name went through a succession of owners. In its place rose Apple Computer Inc., Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., and industry experts don't think the resurrected Commodore has a future in the U.S. PC market.

"History's passed them by," said Tim Bajarin, who runs Silicon Valley consultancy Creative Strategies and has monitored the PC market for more than 20 years. "It's a blast from the past with no future. You've got HP and Dell, and Apple's picking up tremendous steam. It's basically pushing a boulder uphill."

Commodore enthusiasts don't deny the Sisyphean nature of their hobby. It's not clear how many Commodore clubs there are, but they are scattered around the country, with devotees collecting and restoring the computers for old time's sake.

"User groups are there for the camaraderie and friendship," said Herd, who now runs a handful of small companies including an Internet service provider in New Jersey. "They remember the times of this really cool computer, but it's more about the people."

At Pizza Pit in Fresno, club members say they enjoy trading stories about keeping their machines running.

"Fifty percent of the time when we set things up, the hardware fails," said Bill Terry, a former math teacher in Tulare. Interrupted by a group of children singing "Happy Birthday" at the next table, Terry said the school district paid for him to take computer lessons to upgrade his teaching credentials.

Hobbyist developers continue to build applications for Commodore machines. Most write games, but enthusiasts also have developed ways to read Windows spreadsheets on Commodore or access modern CD-ROM drives. The efforts recall the earliest days of computing, when most applications were home-built.

Jeri Ellsworth, a self-taught computer engineer in Portland, developed a joystick that sells for $30 and contains about 30 old Commodore games. The joystick's popularity lies with "all the 30-, 40-year-olds like myself who are trying to relive a little bit of their past," Ellsworth said. "The toy is priced low enough that people don't hesitate purchasing it just to play a few games they remember from their childhood."

It's a natural instinct: holding on to the past at a time of great change, said Cole, the Berkeley professor. If not with Commodores, something else.

"I suspect the iPod at some point will perform that role," he said. "Thirty years from now, old people still using old iPods — it's absolutely plausible. People are so in love with their iPods that a lot of them will resist change."

Newsday Inc.



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