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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

Blaine 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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