Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Commodore: The Undead Computer Company

My first computer was a Commodore64. Well, it wasn't exactly mine - it was the "family computer" and we got it at Christmas (after months of begging) in the early 1980s. As it belonged to everyone it lived in a corner of the living room where the noisy dot-matrix printer was sometimes printing out a term paper or the 13" portable color television used as a monitor would be emitting MIDI music from some arcade game or another. Dad never seemed to really understand what it was or how to use it, Mom would occasionally join in for a game of M.U.L.E or Wizard of Wor.

By high school it had moved into my bedroom and had a better dot-matrix printer attached, and a word processor that supported 80 columns (without any special add-ons and I can't for the life of me remember what it was called or who published it). The sound chip started going bad by early 1988 and the computer died entirely that summer. I was headed off to college in the Fall and bought a Commodore64C to replace it, so I could continue using all my software and peripherals. It came bundled with GEOS, and so I was introduced to a new world known as the Graphic User Interface. Obviously I was aware that the Apple MacIntosh and Amiga had a GUI, but nobody I knew could afford either of them, so imagine my joy to receive a GUI bundled with my 64C! I recall that I had an old joystick that had the "stick" part broken off, but the base - with the bottom chunk of the stick - still worked. It may not have been a mouse or a trackball, but with a couple of fingers on the "stub" to tilt it and my thumb on the "fire" button it wasn't the worst pointing device in the world.

One day, while I was buying some art supplies for class at a local hobby shop I noticed a C64 sitting on top of a box behind the counter with a repair tag on it. I inquired about it and the owner of the store said he had a sideline business repairing Commodore computers. I brought my old, dead C64 to him and after a week and $30 it worked like new. I kept it on hand just in case I needed it some night when I was printing a term paper and my 64C died or something (which, thankfully, it never did). There was this pawn shop near campus I would sometimes check out, just to see if they had anything cool for not much money, and one day I saw an Plus/4. The shop only wanted $5 for it, and even though I knew it wasn't compatible with the C64 my curiosity could afford to be satisfied - additionally it was in brand new condition in the original box with everything that came with it, and I doubt it was ever actually used and possibly never even plugged in. The thought crossed my mind that such an obscure flop might someday be of interest to collectors or curiosity seekers, and for five bucks I could forgo pizza for one night. I only ever hooked it up once, just to see if it actually did work. As I suspected the built-in software was crap, but in some ways it felt like finding a C64 from a parallel universe. It was familiar, but just. . .wrong.

I kept trying to get my hands on an Amiga while I was in college. Being the typical poor college student I couldn't buy a new one, so I kept an eye on the bulletin boards around campus for the occasional posting for an Amiga 500, 1200, or 1000 - only to find out my "best offer" wasn't enough or that it had already been sold. I lusted after an Amiga 2000, 3000, or 4000 with a NewTek "Video Toaster." I eventually did get enough money together by the time I was finished with college, but just one month before I graduated Commodore went bankrupt, so that was the end for Amiga. . .or so I thought. It was about another two years before I bought my first Mac. It wasn't the one I wanted, but various expenses in the interim again tied my hands regarding what system I could afford to buy.

The original C64, 64C, and Plus/4 all ended up in boxes in my parents' attic, where I basically forgot about them until the winter of 1998. Someone at the company I was working for expressed interest in buying vintage computers and I volunteered that I had three fully functional Commodore computers. The three computers, 1541 and 1541-II disk drives, two sets of joysticks, a 1530 Datasette Drive, 1650 Modem (300 baud - ack!), an MPS-802 dot-matrix printer, a third-party dot-matrix printer (don't recall the brand), a bunch of cartridges, and 100+ 5.25" floppy disks with all sorts of software were all loaded into the trunk of my '87 Mustang and I took them to work anticipating a quick sale. The guy, though, had spent his money on something else and was no longer interested. I didn't feel like lugging it all up to my apartment again when I got home so I left it all in the trunk and forgot about it. The car started giving me a lot of problems shortly thereafter, and it wasn't a nice car - it was pretty beat up (it was rusty and dented before I got it). I bought another used vehicle and, because the apartment complex would only let me have one car, I had to get rid of the Mustang. Nobody would buy it because it was beat up and didn't run by that point. I ended up calling a scrap dealer who hauled it away to be crushed. Unfortunately I remembered too late that a veritable treasure trove of Commodore Computer equipment was in the trunk. Maybe someone at the junk yard found it, but most likely it all got crushed with the car. The ending for my C64's was just as unhappy as the company that had made them.

But for Commodore the company, 1994 was NOT where their story ended! In fact, what happened after almost reads like a cyber soap opera. When then company went into bankruptcy its assets - including trademarks and technology - were liquidated and ended up in the hands of various other companies. Little did they know they were also purchasing the "curse" as well.

The Commodore Semiconductor Group (a.k.a. MOS Technologies) produced the chips at the heart of the Commodore computers up to the Amiga 1000. In 1995, after Commodore International collapsed, the management bought the semiconductor company and continued to produce chips under the name GMT in a plant Commodore had closed in 1992. By 1999 the company was actually quite profitable, but in 2001 the EPA shut the plant down for pollution violations. GMT was forced into liquidation.

The UK branch of Commodore wasn't part of the bankruptcy, but was unsuccessful in its bid to buy the failed parent company's assets. They limped along selling back-stock until they also found themselves in financial distress. A company called Escom bought the Commodore brand name and Amiga trademark but didn't fare much better, declaring bankruptcy itself in 1996. The next year Tulip Computers NV acquired the Commodore brand name. A pre-existing licensing deal Escom made with Web Computers International allowed the release of the Web.it Commodore 64 computer in 1998. The Web.it wasn't a bad looking internet-enabled device, but it wasn't based on Commodore hardware at all, it was standard PC components and came with Windows CE and some other rather uninspiring software plus a C64 emulator built in. It was basically a flop.
Meanwhile the Amiga brand was sold off separately, passing to Escom in 1995 and then to Gateway (yes, THAT Gateway) in 1997. Gateway had plans to release a Linux multimedia system under the name, but it never came to fruition - probably because Linux's multimedia support at the time sucked. Amiga, Inc. was formed in 2000 by two former Gateway employees who obtained an exclusive license from Gateway. In 2003 Amiga, Inc. transferred its rights to the AmigaOS (but not anything else Amiga-related) to a company called Itec, which was itself acquired by another company called KMOS.

In 2003 the Commodore name appeared on some MP3 players made in China, though it's unclear if those were licensed products or not. Tulip Computers relaunched Commodore International as a subsidiary and threatened legal action against those using the trademark without permission. In 2004 Tulip released the DTV - a Commodore 64 built into a joystick, preloaded with popular classic games, which you could connect to your TV. Later in 2004, Tulip sold the Commodore brand name, assets, and patents to Yeahronimo Media Ventures. In 2005 YMV changed its name to Commodore International Corporation and with that Commodore, as a company, was raised from the dead.

In 2005 "Commodore Gaming" was formed as a partnership between CIC and Amsterdam's "The Content Factory" to produce custom gaming computers. In 2007 they introduced their first line at CeBIT in Germany. The systems are high-end off the shelf components in custom tower cases featuring customized graphics. But the computers themselves have nothing to do with the old Commodore systems.

On the Amiga side of things KMOS changed its name to Amiga, Inc. in 2005 and continued development of AmigaOS with another company called Hyperion Entertainment. Amiga, Inc. licensed a manufacturer called Eyetech to produce the AmigaOne - the first new Amiga hardware since the death of Commodore. Eyetech had been working on the project since 2001, but didn't release an ATX format board until 2004, but the full version of the new OS wasn't ready until 2007 so the earlier models were bundled with Linux distributions. AmigaOS 4.1 was released in 2008, however AmigaOne production had already stopped by 2006. Another hardware manufacturer, ACube Systems, has since been licensed to produce Amiga boards and currently offers three different models, including the "Minimig" - a full hardware emulation of an Amiga 500. The other two boards (the Sam440's) offer more modern PowerPC hardware. ACube's boards are currently the only Amiga-compatible boards in production.

While Commodore was dead and the vultures were picking over the remains in the late 1990's a company named Genesi was formed to develop "power architectures" (PPC-based hardware) and also began developing the Amiga-compatible MorphOS operating system in 1999. Genesi produced the Pegasos I & II desktops to run MorphOS. However, AmigaOS was not supported on Pegasos computers because of some sort of disagreement between Genesi and Amiga, Inc./Hyperion. Hyperion announced support for Pegasos in January 2009 - too bad Genesi discontinued the systems in 2006. There was also a rift between Genesi and the MorphOS development community, which I gather led some developers to create the open source AROS operating system.

But despite all the legal wrangling and financial problems that means, quite literally, the Amiga is STILL being developed - both as hardware and as an operating system.

The resurrected Commodore company announced in 2009 a line of four new Commodore branded netbook computers based on the Intel Atom processor and running Windows XP. However, at the time of this writing, they don't appear to actually be for sale yet but - if they are in the price range of other netbooks on the market - these new Commodore computers will probably be in about the same price range that the C64 and Amiga 500 were in the early 1990s ($300 - $500), which would nicely continue the Commodore tradition of affordable computers.

If Commodore hadn't spent over a decade dead while its tomb was being robbed I have a suspicion the company would be in about the same place anyway. Taking a look at the reasons Apple abandoned the PowerPC chips I have to think Commodore (had they stayed in business and continued producing Amigas) would have made the same decision - though maybe they would have gone with AMD processors instead, hard to say. It also would have been nice to see Commodore port the AmigaOS to an x86-architecture, though if Amiga, Inc. continues trying to develop an operating system for virtually non-existent hardware they'll probably find themselves in a financially vulnerable position where Commodore could buy them - which would nicely bring the family back together under one roof, wouldn't it? But I'd also have to say "why bother" when Commodore could just throw development money at the AROS project, which is an open-source implementation of AmigaOS 3.1 already ported to both the 32-bit and 64-bit x-86 platforms. Meaning you could buy one of those Commodore-branded computers and run AROS as your operating system and pretend like all those tumultuous years in between never happened.

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