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They Adored Their 64s

Reproduced March 25 2002 with permission  from Plesman Publishing Author/s: Michael Macmillan  Issue: June 12, 2000

Computing Canada Magaine logoBlaine Popp is an auto mechanic by  trade, though he does a little computer repair on the side from his home in  Calgary. He holds down two jobs in part to sustain his other lifelong passion,  which doesn’t always come cheap.

In an age when Intel’s production  cycles can render PCs obsolete in a single hockey season, Popp is something of  an odd man out. Aside from his everyday personal computer, he also owns a  basement full of Commodores.

You name the model, and he has it —  PET, the 5K VIC 20, Commodore 64, not to mention a boatload of various parts and  accessories.

A dedicated Commodore user since he was  first introduced to them in high school, Popp said most people are usually taken  aback by his hobby.

“Oh yeah, people look at you funny, or  say, ‘are they still around’?”

Popp said he isn’t in it to get rich,  since, unlike other antiques, money and used Commodores don’t mix. “There’s lots  of boxes out there, so they’re not worth much,” he said, adding that although  the original monitors are very hard to find, and as such can be quite valuable.

Popp is a member of the Calgary  Commodore User Group, a core group of around 40 people that meet on a regular  basis to discuss their Commodores

And they’re hardly an anomaly — a  casual Web search reveals that almost every major urban centre in Canada has  such a group. Indeed, estimates of Commodore’s current install base, in Europe  and North America, is estimated by some to be as high as six million. And many  of them are still writing applications, finding ways to merge PC applications  with Commodores, or just sharing games.

Officially, Commodore International,  founded by Poland native and concentration camp survivor Jack Tramiel, folded in  1995, 41 years after its birth in New York. Tramiel moved the company to Toronto  in 1955.

But it wasn’t until 1977 that the  company moved away from calculators and other office supplies, to produce its  first computer, the Personal Electronic Transactor, or PET.

Though PET didn’t set the world on  fire, the VIC, and especially Commodore 64s, attracted lots of attention — and  respect.

In its heyday in the early 80s,  Commodore enjoyed utter dominance of the home computer market, with marketshare  around 33 per cent, and US$1 billion in sales in 1984 alone.

And the 256K Amiga 1000, released in  1985, is now widely considered to be decades head of its time. It was the first  multimedia computer ever manufactured, with sophisticated graphics and built in  speech synthesis

Ask a Commodore fan what keeps them so  interested more than a decade after any new product has shipped and they’ll most  likely tell you tell you it’s a matter of simplicity.

“I think what is key about my ‘C’ use  is that I am doing nearly everything anyone, except a specialist, would do with  a computer that costs less than a night at the movies,” said John Dennis Elliot,  a former professor of education at Nova Scotia Teachers College, and another  Commodore enthusiast in Truo, N.S.

Elliot uses a C64 and C128 for word  processing and Internet connections, via Lynx and w3m browsers, although he’s  unable to view images.

Though he also has a stripped-down 386k  PC, running WordPerfect 6 and Netscape 3.01, he said it’s still slower than his  Commodores. Commodore developers are currently working on a graphical browser.

There are many reasons and rumours  regarding why Commodore ultimately failed: Infighting which led to Tramiel’s  departure and the rise of Apple and IBM and their more sophisticated operating  systems certainly contributed to its demise. But Popp said the blame rests on  management’s shoulders.

“Commodore had terrible marketing. When  they came out with the Amiga, they marketed it to gamers, but at the same time  Apple was marketing to families and businesspeople.”

Elliot said hanging on to an old  computer is more than just a hobby. He used to start teaching his students on  Commodores, if for no other reason than to show them that being old and being  obsolete, are two different things.

“If we pulled out of the closets the  Icons, Commodores, and Radio Shack . . . we would be able to have all students  word processing whenever they wish.”

Where’s Jack?

Commodore Inc. officially passed away  in May 1995.

The once mighty Commodore, which in the  early 80s employed a staff of thousands and commanded a 32 per cent of PC  market, limped out of IT history with a handful of employees.

Only six years later, tracking what  became of the Commodore estate isn’t easy.

For starters is the current whereabouts  of Jack Tramiel, the native of Poland who spent two years in a Nazi  concentration camp and who eventually founded and led the upstart Commodore from  its Toronto headquarters, is unknown.

Tramiel resigned from Commodore in  1984. He later took over the reins of an ailing Atari. Web searches indicate  that he continued to be active in the PC industry — attending trade shows,  doing interviews, etc., until the mid-90s.

By that time, Atari folded into JTS  Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based hard drive manufacturer.

Tramiel became a major shareholder in  JTS, but had no visibly active role in the company. JTS later sold Atari rights  to U.S. toy maker Hasbro.

JTS then apparently folded — its  original San Jose phone number is now disconnected and no JTS Web site exist. A  one-time JTS partner company based in India now bears the name.

A 1997 Forbes profile found Tramiel  enjoying semi-retirement and doing charity work in Monte Sereno, Calif.

If he is still residing there, his  number is unlisted and no record of a Jack Tramiel (or his wife) shows up in any  other area of California.

In 1996, a German company called Escom  AG purchased the rights to the Commodore name, including the Amiga. The company  then proceeded to produce Amigas under a subsidiary, called Amiga Technologies  GmbH. A former Commodore director was recruited as president.

But Escom filed for bankruptcy shortly  thereafter, and U.S. PC maker Gateway took over Amiga, setting up a separate  division. However, they opted out of that deal in 1998 and eventually licensed  production to Bill McEwen, who quit Gateway to take over the Amiga empire late  last year.

“The Amiga was a robust, multimedia,  easy-to-use, elegant system,” said McEwen, president and CEO of Amiga (www.amiga.com)  in Snoqualmie, Wash.

He said the Amiga is still widely used  by NASA and Disney’s animation crews and actor Dick Van Dyke, an Amiga junkie,  hosted Amiga’s most recent user conference.

Amiga has partnered with a British firm  to supply a new platform and will be issuing the first new Amiga product, a  software development kit, in June, he said.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Plesman Publications

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group
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