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Commodore – A Company on the Edge

CommodoreMainReview by By PressPlayOnTape
Do you know how your Commodore 64 came into existence? If you’re anything like me you’d probably have imagined it was put together by a team of engineers, designers and after many failed prototypes – approved by a panel of experts and money men on the board at Commodore.

Well, if you’re anything like me then you’d be wrong too. Commodore – A Company on the Edge by Brian Bagnall is not only the tale of the surprising events that transpired to bring the Commodore 64 into existence, and go on to be the worlds most successful home computer, but also the story of how, in the late 70’s and 80’s, a moderately successful calculator company transformed itself into one of the most powerful and successful computer companies in the world. Taking on Apple and Atari on their home soil and led by the charismatic, demanding and often terrifying company head and leader Jack Tramiel.

Starting at the very beginning, the book is initially a tale of two companies; Commodore – a company running a successful calculator business – a business, however, beginning to see serious decline, and MOS Technology – an upstart microprocessor manufacturer run by ex Motorola employee Chuck Peddle. When Commodore purchased MOS technology, the stage became set for the company to move into the personal microcomputer space and become the dominant force in an industry that was still in its infancy.

As the story progresses, Commodore – A Company on the Edge grants us an intriguing glimpse behind the scenes of Commodore and gives us a no holds barred insight into the inspirational characters that steered the companies course from insignificance to world domination. The author leaves no stone unturned in interviewing almost every person of note and of detailing every key moment in Commodore’s history. Of particular interest is the story of Jack Tramiel, the man who seemingly ran Commodore with an iron fist, set them on the path to riches and was eventually ousted by his business partner, investor and head of the board, Iriving Gould.

Jack’s motto was “Business is War” and he became renowned for employing some incredibly underhand business tactics. For example, when Jack targeted a company that he wanted to assimilate, he would place a huge order with that company and then continually delay payment. Eventually the company would end up heading towards bankruptcy due to the unpaid debt, and at this point Jack would swoop in and purchase the company for way less than its true market value. He was also a fearsome company head. Every employee of importance was answerable to him, and if they displeased him, many would find themselves on the end of a “Jack Attack” – a severe dressing down from the demanding boss. Most managers would head for the exit after such an confrontation, however, those with the gall to stand their ground and stick to their guns would gain a grudging respect from the man at the top and could later find themselves moved into positions of authority within the company. Jack also made some blunders. When Commodore marketing executive Michael Tomczyk secured a deal with Nintendo to licence and port hit Nintendo games to the C64, Tramiel said no on a whim and not only left Tomcyzk red faced in front of Nintendo, but opened the door for Atari to step in and bring the games to Atari hardware instead. It was a foolish move that cost Commodore many thousands of dollars and helped push the popularity of Atari’s consoles.

It’s interesting insights like this throughout the book that keep the reader enthralled, and as the chronicle progresses, you begin to see the synergy between Jack Tramiel’s overbearing yet forward thinking input into his company, and Commodore’s growing success. Eventually, even though Jack often serves as the anti-hero, you find yourself with a grudging respect for the man and surprisingly somewhat saddened when he is eventually forced out of his own company.

Jacks famous selling philosophy was “Computers for the masses, not the classes” and despite all of his flaws, there was always one winner when it came to his decisions and that was the consumer.

Throughout the book, you discover not only how Commodore’s greatest successes were achieved but also learn of the many failures that were born along the way. The C64 was only one in a long line of computers created by Commodore, with many falling at the wayside and some not even making it past the initial prototype stage. You also learn of the many visionary pioneers who helped spearhead a computing revolution, and some, who, after helping take Commodore to the very pinnacle of the personal computer industry, never saw the rewards for their efforts. From the Commodore PET to the C128, the VIC chip to the SID chip, all of the highs and lows are captured in this exhaustive chronicle of what was once the worlds most successful micro computer manufacturer.

“Commodore – A Company on the Edge” is a fascinating and thoroughly researched insight into one of the most iconic computer companies of all time. It’s a diverse and ultimately rewarding read for any fan of the subject matter.

Commodore – A Company on the Edge by Brian Bagnell is available now at most good book stores or online at amazon.com.

8 thoughts on “Commodore – A Company on the Edge

  1. mrsid says:

    Great article Steve. Never heard of this and it is now on my xmas list!

  2. khertz says:

    I highly recommend this book. One of the best company bios i have read.

    Now waiting for the follow up on the Amiga, which should be due soon.

    • pressplayontape says:

      Sadly the author has confirmed he won’t be writing the follow up which would’ve been based on the Amiga – which is a real shame in my opinion 🙁

  3. den.aris says:

    Only just finished this myself. It disappeared into storage a few years back and I thought I’d lost it. Really enjoyed it but just makes me even more bitter about those idiots at the top near the end.

    Shame it didn’t mention Commodore UK’s struggle to gain ownership under Dave Pleasance as he was a true supported and legend in his own right.

  4. uniforix says:

    I have had this on my Amazon radar for a while, this review definitely sells it to me, think I will get this for a read over Christmas 🙂 nice review!

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