Jack Tramiel died on April 8, at the age of 83. This isn’t going to rank real high on the radar of too many people, but it was notable to me, because I remember a bit about Jack.
I don’t know much about his history, and the history of Commodore. What I remember is that he was a Polish immigrant. He founded Commodore Business Machines in the 1950s, as a typewriter parts company. It eventually got into selling electronic calculators. It got into the computer market in 1977. Its first computer was the Commodore PET. Jack later said that he didn’t get into the computer business because he particularly loved the concept. He just did it to make money.
While Apple Computer pioneered high end personal computing, Commodore pioneered the low end of that market. Tramiel was I think the first to have the concept of profiting by selling computers in volume, at prices that consumers could afford. The company’s first popular, low-priced computer was the VIC-20. Its Commodore 64 computer was wildly popular. It was sold in toy and department stores, for what was then a bargain basement price of about $550. It was the most widely sold computer of its era.
Tramiel was said to be ruthless, wanting to crush all his competitors. He largely succeeded at it. When I say this, you have to understand that back in the late 70s, up to the mid-80s, the computer market was really separated into the two strata of high-end and low-end. While there were people who bought high-end computers to use at home, most of them were bought by schools and businesses. At that time, computers like Commodore’s were mainly bought for use at home, and it mainly competed against other computer manufacturers in the home market. Commodore began to make a foray into the high-end market with its Amiga computer, which came out in 1985, but its influence was not as widespread in that market as was technology from IBM, Microsoft, and Apple.
The consumer division of Atari (which was owned by Warner Communications) and Commodore were fierce rivals in the low-end market. In a surprising move, Jack left Commodore in 1984, and bought Atari from Warner. He made a go of it with Atari for another 12 years, first coming out with the Atari ST computer, its first 16-bit model, and then other models like the TT030, and the Falcon 030, the last computer they made.
Here’s a British interview I found on YouTube with Jack Tramiel from around 1984/85, introducing Atari’s new line of 8- and 16-bit machines.
When Jack bought Atari, there was some credence given to the idea that he would do for Atari what he had done for Commodore, making it a dominant player, crushing all its rivals. It didn’t even get close to that, at least in the U.S. Atari did very well for several years in Europe, becoming one of the dominant computer manufacturers there, but the U.S. market was already changing. By the time Tramiel bought the company, consumers were beginning to “standardize” on the IBM PC, and later PC clones, facilitated by Microsoft’s operating system, MS-DOS. Atari admitted defeat in the computer market in 1993, but continued to make a go of it in the consumer video game business, with the Atari Lynx color portable game system, and the Jaguar 64-bit console.
Commodore went into bankruptcy in 1994. Its intellectual property has since been acquired and used by a couple companies.
Atari was on its last legs in 1996. It had been whittled down to nothing, just a few employees. Atari’s intellectual property was sold to a disk drive manufacturer, JTS, that year. It was bought and sold a couple times after that. It eventually “landed” with a company called Infogrames around the year 2000. They changed their name to “Atari” in 2003, and continued to sell video games under the Atari label.
Tramiel went into retirement after selling Atari. He later joked, in a self-effacing way, “I wanted to destroy Atari, and I did!” (What he meant was, “As the head of Commodore, I wanted to destroy Atari. The way I ended up doing it was to acquire Atari.”)
Well, anyway, I enjoyed Atari’s computers. I still have a 130XE and a Mega STe (both models from the Tramiel era) that I’ve kept in storage. Maybe one of these days I’ll donate my Mega STe to some computer museum that wants it. I’ve promised myself that one of these days I’m going to drag out the 130XE and transfer all my old Atari disks so I can run the old stuff on an emulator when I want to reminisce. I did that with my STe stuff about 10 years ago. Ah memories…