Commodore: A Company on the Edge Hardcover – Dec 15 2010
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About the Author
Brian Bagnall is the author of numerous computer titles, including Core LEGO Mindstorms, On the Edge, and Maximum LEGO NXT. He is also a frequent contributor to Old-Computers.com, an online museum dedicated to recording and preserving computer history. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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Peddle is the figure who appears most frequently in the text, and the book at times takes on some of his irritation at the rewriting of history by Apple at the expense of Commodore. The chippiness is amusing at times, but, in truth, it's justified. I was there, even if as a kid, and I remember how hugely important Commodore were in those days. Apple were a relatively minor player with their expensive machines. The Macintosh was the first thing of any real significance they did, building on the Xerox PARC ideas and seeing (correctly) that GUIs were the way forward. But it was Commodore who brought home computing to the masses (along with Sinclair in the UK, a company whose significance I was happy to see this book acknowledge).
This is really terrific stuff if you want to get a good idea of how we got from there to here. Even the very Commodore-centric stuff speaks volumes about the way the commercial landscape was changing constantly in a general sense, and how a project that could seem a good idea when initiated could end up as a dud because the market had moved on in the meantime. There are some mindblowing "What if...?" moments where one can see how a chance moment or a seemingly-random decision can have an enormous knock-on effect when viewed in retrospect. (Particularly fascinating is the story of how VisiCalc became an Apple rather than a PET product by pure chance, and the ghastly moment where Bob Russell realizes that a tiny engineering blunder is going to ruin his disk drive plans and result in loading times 30 times longer than designed, and that nothing can be done about it.)
There are fascinating and enthralling vignettes as well: the story of William Shatner's association with Commodore (and how Commodore computers ended up with cameos in many of his movies), and a truly terrifying tangential recollection of the disastrous airplane flight that nearly killed several of Commodore's top people including founder Jack Tramiel.
There are a few criticisms I could make - in places the book feels like the editing was rushed and could do with a second pass - but it would be churlish to dwell on them. Giving the book five stars is a no-brainer for me, because I enjoyed every minute of it. And it felt really *important* to me that this story was being told. Although author Brian Bagnall must at some level be doing this for financial recompense, I sense that more than anything else this was a real labor of love for him. And it is one that I appreciate greatly: I'd like to say "thank you" for putting all the work in to tell such a rich and interesting story about some genuinely important but undersung heroes of the home computer revolution.
Oh, and I *really* want to read Volume 2 about the Amiga now...
Well, beware that the expanded contents on the early Commodore days are there at a price: the Amiga is not covered at all and is left for a second volume coming (hopefully) in 2012!
If I knew this in advance I would have much preferred to search for the earlier edition: a bit less detail and interviews but, ultimately, more comprehensive in overall scope.
In the end, if you were a big Amiga fan, you may want to track down a first edition (or, of course, wait for the next book), otherwise this is a unique and extremely deep insight into everything else Commodore which spans also the early personal computer industry as a whole (and let me say it should be a must read for all Apple fan boys too ;-) ).
The book should have been titled "A Biography of Chuck Peddle and Stuff" but I suspect that would not have sold well. Commodore was Jack. Further, for American audiences Commodore was the C64 and, to a lesser extent, the VIC20. Despite this fact, the vast majority of the book's focus is on Chuck Peddle and the PET. Even though the second edition of this book was published in 2010 and Jack did not die until 2012, the author appears to have never interviewed him.
The core problem appears to have been that Bagnall actually interviewed only a handful or two of the players. Thus we get huge amounts of detail from the perspectives of relatively few players (some admittedly central to the Commodore story) but most no longer active at Commodore during the VIC20/C64 years, the years of greatest interest to the audience for a book on pre-Amiga Commodore.
Examples of the scattershot approach of failing to interview more broadly are legion but I will give an illustrative example. Bagnell clearly interviewed the engineer, Bill Herd, extensively and dedicates pages to him. However, Bill joined Commodore in 1983, well after the VIC20 and C64. His work was on projects that barely saw the light of day (how many had a Plus/4?) and that were supplanted by the real Commodore successor to the C64, the Amiga. It was designed by the engineers at Amiga. At the same time, the author never even interviewed Shiraz Shivji, who, with his team, was the first to propose to Jack that Commodore make a personal computer and who headed the systems engineering team for the C64.
In it's favor is a wealth of detail on the engineering history and certain of the players, particularly for the PET years.
The saddest part is that the book fails to bring Commodore to life. Here was a company defined by a bigger-than-life Jack Tramiel and surrounded by a fascinating cast of characters yet the book fails to convey the color and feel of being a part of it. So many hilarious and fascinating anecdotes are left out that could have given a sense of the place.
A far better telling of the crucial period at Commodore can be found in Mike Tomcyzk's "The Home Computer Wars" which, though perhaps too narrow, properly focuses the attention on Jack Tramiel and is filled with revealing anecdotes. The truly great history of Commodore remains to be written.
The book is primarily made up of quotes from Commodore employees, articles of the time, and other sources, which are woven together in a lucid chronological format. It was very interesting to find out the details and reasoning behind aspects of popular computers such as the VIC-20 and, especially the C64.
The technical details (chip manufacturing, software device drivers, etc) may be of more benefit to someone with a technical background, but anyone can enjoy all aspects of this book. As a software developer, I found much of the "behind the scenes" detail extremely rewarding.
It was also surprising to see how much Commodore did accomplish in such a dysfunctional environment, which began with the volatile founder and CEO, Jack Tramiel, at the top.
This book starts at the beginning of Commodore, which was created in 1958 in Toronto, Canada as a calculator company, and went public in 1962. It stops coverage in June 1984, shortly after the Plus/4 came out. There is an announcement in the back of the book, stating that a book titled "Commodore: The Amiga Years" will be arriving in 2012, which will likely pick up where this one left off.
Think "Chuck Peddle" - not "Steve Wozniak"...
I also found it very interesting to learn that Commodore was far more the innovator during the late 70s and early 80s than was Apple, or other personal computer companies of the day. Apple is a benefactor of receiving a lot of revisionist press from the likes of Robert X. Cringely (whose real name is Mark Stephens and was an employee of Apple) and others who like to perpetuate the myth of the two Steves being the most innovative during that era.
Here are just a few facts of that era...
- Chuck Peddle (Commodore engineer) created the 6502 microprocessor, which was used by Wozniak to create the Apple II (and used by scores of others in their computers, including Atari)
- The Commodore 64 is the best selling computer model of all time, as specified in the Guinness Book of World Records
- The Commodore VIC-20 was the first computer to sell a million units
- The Commodore PET was a fully functioning home computer, and came out far before the Apple II
- Byte magazine states "More than any other person, Chuck Peddle deserves to be called the founder of the personal computer industry"
Steve Wozniak built the Apple II by piecing together parts created by others. Chuck Peddle built his machines staring with raw sand.
Sadly, barely anyone knows the name of Chuck Peddle, although everyone can name the two Steves. Perhaps if Commodore were around today, this might be different.
With the current popularity of Apple, it's easy to be fooled by the Apple-focused coverage of that time. But, do yourself a favor and find out the truth of that era, by reading this book and others surrounding that time, such as the one about Xerox PARC (the company who created the original GUI which was lifted by Apple later).
All in all, this is the most well-written and thoroughly detailed book of any that I've read from this era. Brian Bagnall is truly gifted in the art of bringing those magical days of old to life once again. I look forward with great anticipation to his forthcoming book on the Amiga Years.
Reading the book gives a good insight into what it would have been like to walk the halls of Commodore in their most inovative years. The characters are more fleshed out than the original book and you can almost imagine being in the room with them.
Anyone who is a fan of Commodore and the home computer wars should give this book a read.
Now if someone would only write the same type of book for Atari (pre/Post Jack Tramiel) this Atari user would be in heaven!
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