The story of Commodore begins as the story of two companies, and three men.
Born Idek Tramielski, Jack Tramiel was a Polish Jew who, with his parents, had spent World War II imprisoned at Auschwitz. Tramiel's father perished in Auschwitz but Jack and his mother survived and emigrated to America in 1948. In 1955 Tramiel moved to Canada and founded Commodore International Limited. Commodore began assembling Czechoslovakian typewriters in Canada, and soon moved into the typewriter manufacturing business. After Commodore was embroiled in controversy after its primary investor was indicted on charges of fraud Jack sold a sizeable shareholding in the business to investor Irving Gould. Gould was to play a major role in the future of the company. After the controversy in Canada, Commodore shifted to California and began the manufacture of LED calculators.
Meanwhile MOS Technologies was a company that manufactured calculators and calculator chips for Texas Instruments. In 1975 MOS took on former Motorola chip architect and designer Chuck Peddle. While at Motorola Peddle had worked on the Motorola 6800 microprocessor and was convinced of the market potential for a low-cost processor similar to the 6800. He failed to convince Motorola management who forbade him to pursue the idea. Peddle resigned from Motorola and joined with MOS Technologies with the goal of producing a 6800 compatible processor for a mere $25 compared to the 6800's hefty $300 price tag. Together with Bill Mensch, another Motorola chip designer poached by Peddle, and other former Motorola engineers, MOS Technologies produced the 6501 8 bit microprocessor.
The 6501 was designed as a drop-in replacement for the 6800, but had several improvements. Most notably it could operate at faster clock speeds, had improved addressing modes and was cheaper to produce. The 6501 had met Peddle's target of a $25 processor. Motorola was unhappy with their $300 product competing with an almost identical product selling for $25 and the 6501 was soon subject to a lawsuit from Motorola. The result was the 6502 - an identical chip but with a different pin-out that couldn't be used as a drop-in replacement for the 6800. MOS went on to produce a highly successful personal computer based on the 6502, called the KIM-1.
Under Tramiel's iron-fisted leadership Commodore Business Machines was starting to buy up companies that could supply Commodore with the parts for its calculator business. One of the many Commodore purchases was MOS Technologies, and Chuck Peddle joined Commodore as its Chief Engineer. Commodore had been struggling with declining calculator sales and Peddle sold Tramiel on the idea that personal computers would be the next big market. Peddle was tasked to lead a Commodore/MOS research and development lab, and the Commodore PET 2001 hit the market in 1977 along with competitors from Tandy (TRS-80 Model 1) and Apple (Apple II). The PET series was extremely successful, outselling the competition through the 1970s, but with only black and white text (and special "PETSCII" graphic characters) and bulky package which included a built-in monochrome monitor it was best suited for business use than as a home computer.
In 1979 Tramiel realised that the Apple II, which had colour graphics and a more home-friendly packaging, was starting to gain momentum. He tasked Peddle to design a small, low-cost machine to better compete in the home market, to be unveiled at CES in 1980. Named the TOI Peddle's team designed a machine which with a good specification, but required expensive static RAM chips. In the meantime another MOS engineer, Robert Yannes, had produced a demonstration machine using another MOS chip which could do 22 column colour text, but wasn't a real computer. Tramiel was impressed with this machine and insisted that it become the next Commodore computer. Much of the TOI design was used to produce this new machine, which was eventually handed to the team at Commodore Japan to complete. It was released in Japan an 1980 as the Commodore Vic-1001 - later sold in the US as the Vic-20.
CPU: MOS 6502 @ 1Mhz
RAM: 5KB, 3.5KB available to programs.
Graphics: 176 x 184, up to 16 colours (VIC 6560 chip)
Sound: 3 voice, 3 octave
Clive Sinclair is a well known British inventer, with many remarkable achievements to his name. He started as an editor of electronics magazines, later starting his own electronic kitset business. In 1966 he designed the world's first pocket TV, but this wasn't manufactured or sold until 1977. He established a reputation for attractively designed pocket calculators at reasonable cost and in 1977 began selling a small computer kit, the MK14.
The Sinclair MK14 was designed by National Semiconductor to showcase their components, and sported a National Semiconductor SC/MP CPU, 256 bytes of memory and simple 7-segment digit display for output. Permanent storage, such as cassette was an optional extra. Sinclair employee Chris Curry saw massive potential for the home computer market and was instrumental in launching the MK14. Sinclair, despite selling over 50,000 MK14 units, was not particularly impressed and had no intention of producing another computer. It wasn't until Curry left Sinclair and founded Acorn Computers that Sinclair picked the idea up again, more out of malice towards Chris Curry than any belief in the home computer as a product. After hurried development the Sinclair ZX80 was released to an enthusiastic UK market in late 1980.
The ZX80 was was designed by Jim westwood as a very simple machine with black and white text, chunky character based graphics, no sound and only 1K memory. Hardware consisted of the CPU, a single RAM chip, ROM and an assortment of discrete TTL chips to provide the glue logic, TV and audio cassette interfaces. It had only 4K ROM, containing an integer BASIC, and it blacked out the screen while it was processing, displaying a picture only when waiting for input. Despite this its £99.95 price tag ensured its success and it went on to sell over 50,0000 units in less than a year.
In March 1981 the ZX80 was succeeded by the ZX81. The ZX81 addressed many of the ZX80's failings, introducing an 8K BASIC ROM, replacing the TTL chips with a single Uncommittted Logic Array (ULA) chip and implementing a non-maskable interrupt (NMI) which allowed it to display a picture while it was executing programs! The use of the ULA instead of a number of TTL chips reduced complexity considerably and allowed Sinclair to reduce the price. A kitset ZX81 could be bought for £49.95 and assembled without much technical know-how. This brought it within the reach of almost anyone who wanted one, and over 1.5 Million were sold before it was discontinued in 1984.
CPU: Z80A @ 3.25Mhz
RAM: 1K, expandable through add-on modules up to 56K usable memory, 32K could be used by BASIC.
Graphics: 64x44 block graphics
The History of Atari is subject to much debate and misinformation, often spread by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell himself. Atari started life named Syzygy, and was founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney as an electronic games research and development company. Bushnell and Dabney had met as electrical engineers working for Ampex, and Bushnell had convinced Dabney of his vision for a standalone computer video game that could be located in pinball arcades. Initially planned as a computer game they quickly realised that the size and cost of a minicomputer powerful enough to run the game would be prohibitive. Dabney suggested approaching it as a digital electronic game that directly interfaced with a CRT to draw the game images, and Computer Space, the world's first video arcade game, was born.
In 1972 Bushnell and Dabney recruited Al Alcorn from Ampex, renamed the company Atari Inc. and developed Pong. Pong was suspiciously similar to a game developed by Ralph Baer for Magnavox, later sold as the Magnavox Odyssey. Over the next few years Atari sealed its reputation as a leading developer and manufacturer of digital arcade games, and in 1975 released a home concolse version of Pong which could be plugged into standard television sets. In 1977 they released the Atari VCS (2600) and in 1978 announced the Atari 400 and 800 home computers, released in 1979.
Having eveloved from Atari's expertise in arcade and home gaming, the Atari computers had graphics and sound capabilities that were far beyond those of its stodgy competition from the likes of Apple, Commodore and Tandy. The 400 was a lower cost model with a flat membrane keyboard, a single cartridge slot and limited expansion options. The 800 was larger with a full size full motion keyboard, BASIC ROM as standard and memory expansion up to 48K. Both had joystick ports and excelled at video games.
Atari subsequently released several versions of these computers, with the 600XL and 800XL in 1983 and, under the leadership of Jack Tramiel, the 65XE, 130XE in 1985 and XE GS games system in 1987. The Atari 8 bit line ceased production in 1992.
Apple Computer began its life when it released the Apple 1 computer in 1976. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs incorporated the company in 1977 and went on the produce the highly successful Apple II line of computers - a line which would continue until 1993. Wozniak, known as Woz, was the older of the two, and was the engineering genius behind
these early computers, whereas Jobs recognised the commercial potential and had a flair for marketing. Between the two of them, and a fair bit of good luck, Apple grew to become a highly profitable home computer company.
In 1978 Apple began to develop a new computer to supersede the 8 bit Apple II line. The Lisa project was to produce a state of the art graphical computer that drew heavily on research by Xerox PARC. In 1979 another project was started - the Macintosh project - which was lead by Apple employee Jeff Raskin. Raskin planned for a low-cost 8 bit computer with a modest 256x256 resolution monochrome bitmap display. Over several iteration the Macintosh design evolved into a much more powerful system, rivaling its older sibling, the still unreleased Lisa. In 1981, having failed to convince then CEO Mike Scott to put him in charge of the Lisa project,
Jobs turned his attentions to the Macintosh. Raskin quit the Macintosh project after conflicts with Jobs leaving Jobs to head the
project himself. Under Jobs direction the Macintosh became the computer that was eventually released in 1984.
In 1983 Jobs recruited John Sculley from Pepsi to lead the company. After the release of the Macintosh Jobs started behaving erratically and by 1985 Jobs' relationship with Sculley had deteriorated to the point where Sculley forced Jobs out of Apple altogether. Jobs then founded NeXT Computer, with the goal of producing a computer as far
ahead of the Macintosh as the Macintosh had been ahead of its competition.
The first NeXT computer, nickname the "Cube" was a matt-black cube made of magnesium alloy which was sold with a highly advanced 400dpi laser printer. It ran a graphical operating system like the Lisa and Macintosh before it, but its OS was based on a BSD Unix micro-kernel, was object-oriented and used Display PostScript to ensure that content appeared exactly the same on screen as it did in print. While prohibitively expensive it found its place as a high-end workstation, and was eventually used by Tim Berners-Lee as he invented the World Wide Web.
In 1990 NeXT released the NeXTstation series, a more affordable sytem than the cube, but running the same NeXTstep operating system, and having a more traditional form-factor. The NeXTstation Turbo had a 33Mhz 68040 32 bit processor, built-in hardrive and a high-resolution grayscale or colour monitor, and built-in ethernet. This looked and
performed like a machine of the future. The NeXTstation line ceased production in 1993, but the NeXTstep OS continued development.
In 1996, after a series of CEOs and facing financial difficulties, Apple found itself looking for a next generation platform to replace the now aging Macintosh operating system. After breaking negotiations with Be - makers of the technically excellent BeOS - Apple turned its attention to NeXT. In December of that year Apple paid over $400m for
NeXT Computers, and Steve Jobs returned to Apple, this time as CEO - a position he was to hold until his resignation on Wednesday 24th August 2011. In technical terms Mac OS X bears a striking resemblance to NeXTstep.