This was a series of books that taught me a lot about Commodore. I had never heard of the company or its computers until ten years ago. Reading about Commodore was great, and I think it gave me quite a bit of insight into the computer industry in the 80s.
That being said, I don’t think this needed to be three books. The first and the second books are very good. The third is fine, but I feel that it’s missing something. I think a lot of the information is in the other two books. I’ll get more into it later.
This is a good place to start if you’re like me and don’t know much about Commodore. There are a lot of great stories in these books, and I think Brian tells the history very well.
I think he’s working on a fourth book that talks about Commodore before they got into computers. I won’t be getting that one. It will probably be good, but if a book doesn’t have anything to do with computers, home consoles, arcades, or video games, then I won’t be reviewing it.
On the Edge
This book mainly focuses on the history of Commodore from 1977 to 1984. It does talk about the company after this, but those years are what it focuses on. It briefly touches on the Amiga and the last years of Commodore.
There are a lot of quotes from the engineers who worked at Commodore. It shows how much information was gathered for this book. There is a lot of insight into the decisions, what they wanted to do, and why there was so much turnover in the engineering team from computer to computer.
The book talks about Chuck Peddle, and some of the other engineers Peddle hired to work at Commodore. Several projects were talked about, but the PET resulted from this effort. The production and marketing of the PET was very interesting to me.
We also hear a little about Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, and his management style. The financial situation at the time was also explained. They would become successful, but it also seemed that there was a lot of short-term planning and not much long-term planning.
This isn’t stated in the book. It was the impression I got from reading it.
Chuck Peddle seemed to have a plan for the Commodore’s direction. He made several moves to try and put Commodore ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that he meshed well with Jack Tramiel.
I can’t tell what the problems were from reading this. We don’t have the full story here, as far as I’m concerned. I think there were a lot of communication issues and tribalism going on at Commodore. Everyone seemed to want credit for something, even at the beginning of their shift towards computers. There were also issues with paying the people who helped make the company successful.
When we look at the PET and the VIC-20, we can see how the management style affected the company. These two computers show the start of a pattern at Commodore. The engineers would make a computer; it would be successful, but they wouldn’t be compensated for that success, which led to a massive turnover.
Beyond this, Commodore didn’t seem to capitalize on its success. There were also issues with not reinvesting in the research and development in these early days. They were doing a lot with a little when compared to other companies.
In these early years, Commodore would work on several projects, almost complete them, and then Jack Tramiel would change his mind, and those projects would get scrapped. This would come up later after Tramiel left the company.
Reading this, it felt like there was chaos in the company with occasional successes. Like they would succeed despite what they were doing.
One thing that sticks out to me about this is the lack of compatibility between computers. It’s brought up a few times. Especially when talking about the computers that came after the C64. Some engineers made an effort to make computers compatible with it, like the C128, but it seemed to never occur to the company.
I think this book does an outstanding job of explaining the problems that can come up during computer development. I like how Brian explains everything.
When they released the C64, they had a huge influx of cash. This seems to have been wasted as they expanded and brought in people that weren’t helping them. Marketing also became an issue for them. It seems to me that they didn’t know how to market the computers and what markets they should be targeting, and when they stumbled into a market, they didn’t know how to capitalize on it.
We don’t get a lot of information from all of the departments at Commodore. I have to go off what I was reading. You might have a different view of it. When Tramiel left, the company seemed to die but didn’t realize it until it was too late.
The book also talks about how Tramiel left the company, how Commodore overspent on Amiga and other things, then pissed off the Amiga engineers to the point that they left the company. Brian also touches on Irving Gould’s mismanagement, the constant turnover, the lack of direction, and finally, Commodore closing its doors in the mid-90s.
The Amiga Years
This book focuses on a five to six-year period when the Amiga chipset was being made when Commodore was trying to acquire it, and other projects that Commodore was working on like the C128. We also get some of the same stories found in the first book.
The period we mainly focus on is 1982 to 1987. There is some new stuff here; some of the stories get expanded on. However, I felt like I was re-reading the first book at times. I like this book, but I felt like it could have been a lot shorter.
I think the story of the Amiga chipset is very cool, and there is a lot of information in this. I did know the story before reading this book, but it had been a while. I like having this as a reference to go back to if I forget something.
The story that I found the most fascinating was the sale of the chipset. This goes into the financial troubles of Amiga and how they were initially working with Atari, then found a better deal with Commodore.
It was a strange story, and it tells a bit about Tramiel’s negotiating style. He didn’t have a good reputation with the other businesses in the computer industry. He was using the same tactics with Amiga, but they didn’t work out this time.
We hear more about how Amiga wanted to sell the chipset to Commodore for around 5 million, but the whole company was sold to Commodore for 24 million. This was when Commodore was spending a lot of money. They weren’t spending money wisely; they were spending it to keep up with other companies.
Along with the Amiga story, we hear about the development of the C128, which was an attempt to build off the success of the C64. This was an attempt to build off a successful computer instead of just doing something different. It also came after the Plus/4, which wasn’t a success for various reasons.
This was weird to me at first. I thought this would be a deep dive into the Amiga and its role in the Commodore story. It made more sense when I thought about it. Brian was looking at the years following the C64 and the Amiga line of computers.
We also get a recounting of the C128 story, some abandoned projects, and how Marshall Smith quickly ran the company into the ground. A lot of the gains made by Jack Tramiel were whipped out during Marshall Smith’s short time at Commodore. The company was bleeding cash, and they didn’t know how to stop it.
This leads to the story of Thomas Rattigan coming into the company and his attempts to turn things around. He canceled many of the projects that weren’t in the C64 or Amiga line of computers.
Rattigan was the first person to have a plan for Commodore after Tramiel left the company. He gave them some direction and tried to stop the bleeding. Unfortunately, Rattigan had a falling out with Gould and was forced out of the company.
From reading this, it felt like Gould just wanted the spotlight. He wanted to be given credit for the success of the company. The only problem was that he had nothing to do with the success of Commodore, and he played a significant role in the company’s failures.
We don’t get any quotes from Gould. This is a bit of a problem because the reader is only presented with one side of the story. Granted, a lot of people agree with that side of the story. I also understand why Brian couldn’t get any quotes from Gould as he passed away in 2004.
This is a book that you could read on its own. These don’t have to be read in order, and you could skip one. Brian lets you choose what part of Commodore’s history you want to know more about by writing them like this. Unless you want to be like me and read all of them during your off week, let’s move on to The Final Years.
The Final Years
This book covers the years from 1987 to 1994 when Irving Gould liquidated Commodore. The Commodore trademark would continue, but they were done as a hardware company. Part of me wonders how the company would have faired if Gould and Rattigan had been able to put their egos aside.
I think Brian does a much better job expanding on the first book here. The Amiga Years re-used a lot of information and stories from On the Edge. In this one, I felt like there was more information I hadn’t read before.
The fall of Commodore is explained very well. There were some great stories about the people trying to save the company. Everyone outside of those in charge were trying to keep the doors open.
While reading this, I felt like the blame could be placed on Irving Gould and Mehdi Ali. They were probably trying their best, but they seemed to have no idea what they were doing. Even worse, they didn’t want to learn how to run the company.
There was also a void of leadership in the engineering department. The people coming up with the products that the company needed to sell. Projects were stuck in the production cycle and weren’t making it to the production stage.
I noticed that the style of project management was the agile method. They would iterate until they had worked out all of the problems in the hardware and software. This method tends to work well when you’re dealing with stuff like this. It lets you work through the design, and when done right, it gives everyone a voice.
In this case, the process was working, but they got stuck because there were too many people thinking, they knew what was best, and there was no leadership. No one said this is what we are doing, where we want to go.
The C65 is the project that I think best exemplifies the problems with Commodore’s project management. I felt that few people at Commodore supported this project, but it was allowed to continue until it was obsolete.
This was supposed to be an NES killer. However, by the time it was getting on track, the SNES was released, and the C65 wasn’t going to be able to compete as it was an 8-bit machine. It spent several years going through an identity crisis and being turned into a computer and then back into a console.
Feature creep also seems to have been an issue for the C65. With several team members having different ideas of what it should be, things were added without anyone else’s knowledge. No one seemed to be in charge of the project.
The last two projects discussed here are the CDTV and the CD32. Both went against the business model that brought them success. In the case of the CDTV, it seems like no one knew what it was supposed to be. There were other issues with these two, but I have to cut this off at some point.
These projects took resources from other projects that might have done better than the CDTV and CD32. I know I’m looking at this in hindsight. If they had stuck with computers, they could have been in a better position than they were in.
The Final Years was great. Two people aren’t in the book, Irving Gould and Mehdi Ali, so they don’t have a chance to give their side of the story. I’m not sure if they would have said anything that could have changed my mind, but it would have been nice to have their side of the story.
This felt like I was reading something that wasn’t real at times. You had people who cared about what they were doing, and they were getting screwed by people who didn’t realize what they were doing. I also felt like some managers didn’t want to be in the computer industry.
I didn’t touch on this, but it was a huge mistake for Commodore to shut down their games division. It just didn’t make any sense. They made a games machine computer, and I think the higher-ups felt embarrassed about it.
I know I’m looking at this from the future. I’m just saying that it was strange that Commodore could look at their market research and conclude that they did.
Instead of going all-in on being a gaming computer, they chased the business market and failed every time. However, there were two other things that I felt were more prominent reasons as to why Commodore had to close its doors.
Two things stood out to me from reading these books. The first was how Commodore never effectively built on the success of the C64. They tried but never pulled it off and lost the momentum they had gained.
The second was how they squandered the Amiga chipset after spending so much money trying to acquire it. When the computers were released, they did a terrible job marketing them. It felt like they didn’t want to succeed.
These books were fun to read. I think On the Edge gives a good overview of what happened, and if you want to drill down on the Amiga or the end of Commodore, you could pick up one of the other books.