Jack Tramiel has passed away

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.


The Commodore 64

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…

Related posts: Reminiscing, Part 4A history of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga

A history of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga

A while back I wrote my “Reminiscing” series of posts talking about the history of the machines I used growing up, as I remembered it. I came upon a few materials on reddit over a period of about a month that gave more authoritative histories of the Atari ST and Amiga. They’re really neat to look at. Atari and Commodore were fierce competitors since they both got into the computer market in the late 1970s, up until they both stopped computer production in 1993/94. There were the same flamewars during those years about which computer was better between devoted camps as there are now about which operating system, or system of software development (open source vs. closed source) is better. That competitive, beat your opponent to a pulp spirit still lives on.

The Atari ST

The Atari ST
The Atari ST, from Wikipedia.org

Landon Dyer has a blog called DadHacker. He’s written a two-part series on the building of the Atari ST, as an on-the-ground engineer. He gives a kind of blow-by-blow of what he could recall of the events of the time, and the issues they dealt with in developing it in a very short time period. Here are part 1 and part 2.

When I was getting my undergraduate CS degree at Colorado State University one of my dormmates, Darryl May, had worked at Atari under the Tramiel “regime” before coming to school. As I recall he had done customer support, among other things. He was not high up on the totem pole, and so was not privy to a lot of the stuff that was going on, but he told me a few stories.

The higher-ups in the company hierarchy were not entirely sealed off from everyone else. He said there were a few times where he just happened to bump into Jack Tramiel in the men’s bathroom.

Another story was that there were framed pictures put in odd places on some of the walls. He said they were where Jack Tramiel had caused a “dent” by punching them with his fist–just releasing stress…

I used to really like Atari computers, 8-bit and ST, and one of the aspirations I had was to maybe work at Atari one day. After hearing this, and maybe a few other tales I can’t remember, I lost interest. I didn’t conflate this with the machines themselves. I still liked them, and I have fond memories of them to this day. It’s just that the company culture didn’t sound so hot, and I began to see why there was such a love/hate relationship with Atari back then among the devoted.

In 1993 I had the opportunity to attend a Falcon 030 presentation given by David Small, the inventor of the Magic Sac and Spectre GCR/128 Macintosh emulators for the ST. The Falcon had started to ship a short while before. As I recall, and my memory’s fuzzy on this, he told a tale of how the Falcon development team was treated. One of the things I remember him saying is after promising to pay the engineers for their efforts, rather than paying them in cash, they were given company stock…which at the time was probably trading as a penny stock. I remember it hovered around $1 a share, often going under that amount, with really no hope of it getting any better. Small winced as he delivered the punch line, and drew audible sounds of disgust from the audience. We all knew what the situation was with Atari.

The impression I’ve gotten from listening to first hand accounts is that Jack Tramiel was a “penny wise, pound foolish” hard ass. I don’t get a sense that he had a creative spirit. His strategy, as it was when he was at the helm at Commodore, was to sell machines to a mass market. For whatever reason, it worked out for several years in Europe, where Atari was one of the dominant sellers of computers. In the U.S. it didn’t work out. I remember asking Darryl about this, and in his view Atari was just a tax write-off for the Tramiels. Jack Tramiel was set to retire, and just didn’t have the motivation to really make Atari do well. That was his theory anyway.

Giving credit where it’s due, in an interview I saw on a British computer TV show from the 1980s, Jack Tramiel revealed that one of his goals when he ran Commodore was to keep the Japanese out of the U.S. PC market. He did this by undercutting them on price. Maybe he succeeded, since I remember there was talk in the 80s about the Japanese working on low-end MSX machines to sell to the U.S. market. Somehow that never got off the ground. Incidentally, MSX was Microsoft’s attempt to do for low-end 8-bit computers what it did for IBM PCs and clones: create a standard OS. Apparently Tramiel was someone who fought to keep computer production in the U.S. We can thank him for that, though in hindsight he just delayed the inevitable. From what I remember, Atari shifted computer production to Asia, even under Tramiel’s management. Today a lot of the PC production lines are in Asia, though I’m sure there are still some here.

As I’ve mentioned before, Atari stopped producing computers in late 1993. The company continued on, trying to compete in the video game market, but dying a slow death, until it was finally “retired” in its sale to JTS (a disk drive manufacturer) in 1996.

The Amiga

The Commodore Amiga
The Commodore Amiga, from Wikipedia.org

I found a couple videos that cover the history of the Amiga. What’s intriguing to me is there are some juicy tidbits about what went down between Amiga Corp. and Atari. This was something I had read about, but never completely understood.

Amiga started out as its own company developing video game peripherals. As I recall, and parts of this may be wrong, at some point Atari started giving funding to Amiga, back when Atari was owned by Warner Communications (now called Time Warner), and expected to get first dibs on some technology that was being developed (maybe the chips). There came a point where Amiga was running low on cash, and put itself up for sale. Amiga wasn’t satisfied with the way they were being treated by Atari. Commodore appeared to be interested. Amiga pursued a deal with Commodore, and eventually reached an amicable price per share with them. I’m not clear if the Tramiels were in on the negotiations with Amiga. From what I read it sounded like the deal with Commodore was either near completion when Jack Tramiel bought Atari, or it was already overwith. They tell the story in the video (below) so I’ll leave the details to them, though they don’t talk about who was in charge at Atari.

Commodore bought Amiga, and Atari’s working relationship with them went out the window. Atari sued, citing their agreement, but ultimately lost. The Amiga computer went to Commodore. As I recall the Tramiels already had some ideas about a 16-bit machine they wanted to develop by the time they bought Atari, but they had to work fast to get it out in time to compete with the Amiga.

(Update 4-5-2010: The above was an account from memory of the relationship I had read about between Atari and Amiga. Apparently it was in the ballpark, but not precise. You can read more about the Atari-Amiga contract here under the subheading “Amiga Contract”. Martin Goldberg, who apparently worked for Atari at the time, left a comment to this post (see below) about what went down between Atari and Amiga. Martin strongly disputes RJ’s account (given in the video below) of the Atari-Amiga-Commodore negotiations.)

From what I read one of the main players at Amiga was Jay Miner, though according to the video below he was the head guy. He used to work at Atari, and developed the graphics chips for their 8-bit computers in the late ’70s. Maybe he did more than that, but I don’t recall. He brought the same know-how to the Amiga computer project, creating the famous graphics (and sound?) co-processors that gave the Amiga real pizzaz.

The video below is the story of the founding of Amiga Corp., and the purchase of Amiga by Commodore, as told by the original guys and gals who made it all happen.

Another neat thing about this video is they show the CES mock up of the Amiga Lorraine (its code name) that I remember reading about in Compute! Magazine back in 1984. I remember they told the story of the Amiga’s appearance at CES with a great sense of foreboding that the machine looked revolutionary, and if it became anything more than vaporware it would represent a next generation leap in computing. This is interesting in retrospect, because Compute! did not greet the Apple Macintosh, which was a final product ready for sale at the time, with the same sense of excitement. They covered the unveiling of the first Mac, but then they were like “on to the next subject…”.

You have to remember that back then what was considered “standard” was a computer that when you booted it up would greet you with a command line interface, and the only machines most people knew about that had high resolution graphics combined with a “large” color palette were the IBM PC and the Apple II.

I would say that all three, the Apple Mac, Atari ST, and the Commodore Amiga represented the next generation of popular computing at the time. Each came at it from a different angle, and none of them turned out the way their visionary creators anticipated. All three pursued the business computing market, thinking it would help establish the machines with a healthy customer base, but none of them made large inroads in it. Instead each found a following in creative businesses. The Mac was adopted for professional (paper) publishing. The Atari ST was adopted by musicians for its MIDI hardware and software. The Amiga was adopted by video production studios since its hardware capabilities fit in well with what they needed. Video production software followed suit.

A show I heard about during my last year in college (’92-’93) that used Amigas with Video Toaster cards for the special effects shots was Babylon 5. It’s the reason why I got interested in the show in the first place. But wow, the storywriting in the series held my attention. It told a tale of epic proportions. They only used Amigas for the first season though. I heard that Amiga/Video Toasters were used for the effects shots in the SeaQuest DSV series as well.

I can’t help it…Diversion into trivia: Two actors in the Babylon 5 TV series also starred in the movie Tron. What were the actors’ names, and what characters did they play in the movie? They’re both in this fan video. See if you can find them. One of them is pretty easy to pick out.

Here’s a video of an Amiga production plant being shut down in 1994, when Commodore shut its doors for good. Not much to see here. Pretty boring, but it gives you that sense that things are coming to an end.

Update 5/30/08: I found this video of a 25th anniversary commemoration of the Commodore 64, presented by the Computer History Museum. Finally the C-64 gets its due. It was really kind of a get together of some people who defined personal computing in the 1980s. At first it was just a one-on-one chat with Jack Tramiel. Later they brought up Steve Wozniak (representing Apple), a guy who used to work for IBM during the IBM PC days, and another guy who worked for Commodore. They reflect a bit on what happened at Apple and IBM at the time as well. Interesting discussion.

On a lighter note, a reminder of how far we’ve come since then. 😐