This is a wonderful book. Bil Herd has a unique story to tell. It’s a very different story from the other books about engineers or the computer industry.
Bil worked at Commodore in the mid-80s when the company was riding high off the success of the C64. He also left before they came plummeting back to earth. His book provides insight into many of Commodore’s problems and why the company was so unique.
He talks about two major projects in this book: developing two computers, the Plus/4, and the C128.
While those two are important for a few reasons, I think his talk about management struck a nerve. It made me think back to a job I used to have and some managers that I didn’t like.
I felt like there was an expectation of some knowledge of Commodore before reading this. I understand why, but I feel like I should point it out.
Reading this reminded me of the other books I’ve read about Commodore. I kept thinking about how the company had a Self-Sabotage Fetish. It was like they didn’t want to succeed, especially if the success wouldn’t be credited to the right people.
There is a lot to go over in this book. Let’s start with the Plus/4 and one of the more significant problems I have with Commodore. A problem that Bil tried to fix!
The Plus/4 and Backwards Compatibility Issue
This is a computer that was supposed to be part of a line of business machines. Unfortunately, just because you market something as educational or as a business computer doesn’t mean that the consumer will use it that way.
It also doesn’t mean that Commodore isn’t going to change its mind and scrap most of the line. Jacking up the price for no reason didn’t help either. There is more to this story than Bil presents, but I understand that he couldn’t be everywhere at once, and this is his story.
The story we get is of the C264, which would end up being called the Plus/4. It would also be a commercial failure, but not because of anything that Bil did. This computer was going to have the TED chip in it.
At this point, I started to get a bit lost in some of the tech stuff. Bill does a good job of simplifying it, but there were times I read something, and it went over my head. It would have made more sense if I could see what he was saying. There are several pictures in this book; many show pictures of what he is talking about. I think I needed more because I’m not a hardware guy.
Bil brings up the price. He says that the Plus/4 was supposed to sell for 79 dollars, and it ended up being sold for 349 dollars. It’s one of the bizarre things that Commodore did to shoot themselves in the foot.
At this time, Commodore still had its own internal Games Group. They would make software for the different computers and would do outreach with third-party developers. Bill also brings up a story that says a lot about Commodore.
It had to do with compatibility. The C64 software wasn’t compatible with the Plus/4. This meant that the developers couldn’t take advantage of the new computer because they were still making games and other software for the C64.
Bil tells a story about a developer showing him the educational software she worked on. The software was made for the C64, and she explained that it wouldn’t work on the Plus/4. I know that it wasn’t supposed to be the same type of computer, but, strangely, they wouldn’t have tried to make it compatible.
I get making software that wouldn’t work on another company’s computer, but not even thinking about making it work on your own company’s computer is strange.
We also hear a lot about FCC certifications and some of his issues with the QA Managers and other middle managers.
The Development of the C128
This takes up the bulk of the book. He goes through a lot of stuff here, and most of it is very interesting. However, this is where some of the technical stuff went over my head.
This happens a lot to me. I don’t have a background in engineering, and I’ve never built a PC. So, when you’re talking about building computers back in the 80s, I have to take the author’s word for a lot of this.
That being said, there is a lot in here. Most of the time, Bil explains things very well. He starts talking about what he did to solve problems every once in a while, and I don’t know what he’s talking about.
We start with Bil taking over the project. I’ve read two different accounts of this. Both have Bil working on another project and stepping in to solve problems on the project that would become the C128. He was then assigned to the project and eventually took over.
There wasn’t too much difference between the Brian Bagnall books and what Bil says here. Bagnall does name the engineer and mentions how other people felt about him. There were some other things said about his ability to build a computer.
Bil is a bit more diplomatic here. In his account, those stories are simplified, but he still mentions how that person shouldn’t have been in charge of the project. I don’t think it’s a big deal; I just wanted to say the differences.
There is a lot of talk about how close the small team was. They all knew what they were supposed to do and excelled at what they did. Bil talks about how there weren’t weekly meetings or things you might usually have with other projects.
Bil seems to have been acting as the project manager. He was tracking the problems through each iteration of the computer. At least he was for his part. I got the impression that he wasn’t always on top of what the software people were doing. This was probably just my reading of it.
He explains what they needed to do to get close to 100 percent compatibility with the C64. Hearing about it makes me think it might have been too complicated. This is probably due to me not growing up with computers from the 80s. Tech companies have dumbed them down a bit over the years.
The games and other software are gone over quite a bit. It is mainly from a testing standpoint as Bil tries to get them to work on the C128. Bil never said that the C128 would be 100 percent compatible. Commodore’s marketing team did that. This happened a few times.
The Marketing team would advertise features that were either removed or were never promised. However, since marketing said it would be in the computer, Bil had to make it work. I can’t imagine how frustrating that was.
The talk of what chips make up the C128 is talked about. There were two that stood out to me. I had heard of the Z80 processor before. Adding this made the C128 a dual-processor computer. Thankfully, the Z80 is a chip I knew a little about, only because I’ve been reading books like this, and it occasionally comes up.
The other chip was a bit of a mystery to me, and Bil explained it. This was the 8563 chip. I don’t think there was much more of a description aside from the number. Bil talks about how he didn’t ask the right questions before agreeing to use it.
He mentions asking if it was a better version of the chip they were going to use, the other engineer said yes, and he put it in the design. This is one of the moments where Bil puts the blame on himself. He shoulders a lot of the blame during the development of the C128.
This did make me wonder what the computer would have looked like without the 8563.
Despite the issues during its development, the C128 was finished and released, which is not something that you can say about every computer that Commodore built around this time.
Bil includes this, which seems a bit out of place. The development of Commodore’s portable LCD computer is honestly kind of funny but in a sad way. It speaks to the incompetence of Commodore’s management.
So, Commodore was making an LCD computer. It was a portable computer. Granted, it was portable when compared to other computers at the time. Bil says it was luggage.
Commodore had this computer done, or at least close to it when the President of Tandy told the CEO of Commodore that the LCD computer wasn’t profitable. I think my brain melted when I heard this story again. It was so weird.
This would have been like the President of Sony telling the CEO of Nintendo that the Switch wasn’t going to work and Nintendo canceling it. I had heard this story before, but it still makes me chuckle when I read this. I’m still not sure that it belongs in this book.
Issues with Middle Management
Throughout the book, Bil talks about his issues with the management at Commodore. From the other books that I’ve read, his coworkers echoed his feelings, the people who worked at Commodore before he got there and those working there after Bil left.
It seems like the middle managers were trying to sabotage the C128. I’m not sure what their reasons were, but it feels like they didn’t like it because it wasn’t their idea. There seemed to be a “Not invented here” mentality at Commodore.
This is a mindset that I dislike. In this case, it came in the form of the QA managers trying to kill the project and get Bil fired. I don’t understand why they wanted to do this, Bil didn’t speculate why, and the other books I’ve read didn’t shed any light on it either.
This did lead to a few interesting stories.
Like Bil breaking into offices to prove that the Managers weren’t doing their jobs, breaking into other departments so problems could be worked on, and my favorite story, when the QA managers tried to get Bil fired. What I like about the last story is how it went down. I’ve heard two versions of it, and they largely agree on what happened.
Bil was in a meeting, and one QA manager brought up a problem with the C128. Bil said he knew about it; it was his fault, and here is how he would fix it. The Manager, not having anything else to say, kept repeating himself until one of the vice presidents told him to stop.
It’s a funny story, and it speaks to the tribalism in Commodore. The working-level employees seemed to get along just fine. The Managers seemed focused on justifying their existence instead of helping to get things done.
This is one of the sad parts of Commodore. You had many people trying to do something, and the managers were often ineffective at best. It was a problem in the mid-80s, and it would be one of the causes of the company’s downfall.
Other Stories and Exit from Commodore
These will be a bunch of different stories that I don’t think fit into the other sections.
Bil learned about being a mule. I’ll explain. When you work in a company with many offices, you might find yourself bringing stuff back and forth between them when you go on business trips.
We did something like this with Oreos and Peanuts, where I used to work. One office loved Oreos because their country didn’t get all of our flavors, and the local Oreos weren’t as good. Another office was located near peanut farms, and one guy would bring pounds of them back to the main office.
I liked this story! It made me think about those examples of bringing stuff to different offices. I’m sure other companies have similar experiences.
To go off of the mule story, Bil talks about how he got into Macross. He spent a lot of time going to Japan while working on the Plus/4. I thought this was awesome! He also went out of his way to learn as much of the language as possible.
Also, from his time in Japan. The story of the Japanese engineers playing a game of “Will the white guy eat it” was pretty funny. It made me wonder how many times that happened to me.
I like this book because Bil does a good job explaining things to people who don’t know much about computers. He also sheds a lot of light on the development of the computers he had a hand in.
This book also gives you a lot of insight into the problems with Commodore. Bil talks about some of the many issues. I saw many things that Bil was talking about in other books. I’m glad that I have this side of the story.
This is a great book if you want to know more about Commodore, the Plus/4, or the C128.