Perhaps it’s been a little too easy for most of us to overlook the passing of Commodore International founder Jack Tramiel this past week, but his influence is far reaching even today. In the 1970s personal computers were just taking off, but the cost of systems like the Apple II made them prohibitively expensive for many. After releasing the Commodore PET for the education market in 1977, Tramiel’s company focused on reducing component costs and selling an affordable computer directly to consumers. That computer was the VIC-20, and it hit the market in 1981 for $299. I received one for Christmas that year, and I was hooked.
By 1982 Commodore took the form factor of the VIC-20 and released its successor: the Commodore 64, which went on to become the single best selling computer of all time. Retailing for $595, it had capabilities that rivaled or surpassed systems costing more than twice as much. Tramiel then decided to cut prices further to gain market share, prompting an all-out price war with competitors (Apple decided not to get into the price spiral to the bottom and kept their prices and margins higher). Commodore’s board of directors was less than pleased with this strategy and by 1985 Jack Tramiel had resigned, eventually moving on to Atari in an attempt to compete with Apple.
Tramiel was a Holocaust survivor. In 1939 he and his family were shipped to a Jewish ghetto after the German invasion of Poland, and eventually he ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Two years after being rescued by Allied forces in 1945 Tramiel emigrated to America. In one of his last interviews Tramiel said that in the 1980s he had made a point to aggressively sell Commodore computers in Germany so he could educate that nation’s youth about the Holocaust, using software developed by his company.
Jack Tramiel made it clear that he wanted computers to be “for the masses, and not the classes.” Back in the early 80s that was a very big deal, and Commodore went a long way towards getting this emerging technology in front of a lot of young people, myself included. With my VIC-20 poised on a TV tray and wires running to the family television I had a least a dozen kilobytes of RAM and a cassette deck to load and save my BASIC programs. I graduated to an Apple IIe a few years later, but that early shot at computers and programming helped get me to where I am now. Thanks, Jack.