The Commodore VIC-20
by Ian Matthews of Commodore.ca March 13, 2003 with proofing assistance from Brent Santin
Last Revised Dec 30 2018
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The VIC-20 debuted in June of 1980 at the Computer
Electronics Show but its development started almost by accident two years
earlier. Commodore engineered and manufactured the “Video Interface Chip
6560” or VIC1 for the video game market which was beginning to collapse.
After not being able to sell the chip to other companies for their
consoles, Commodore developed the VIC-20 as an inexpensive home computer
MOS Technology engineers Robert Yannes, Al Charpentier and Charles Winterble started with a design project called the TOI (The Other Intellect) from the legendary Chuck Peddle and Bill Seiler. It was apparent the TOI was not going to get to market because it required expensive static RAM chips and an 80 column display which was just not financially practical at the time. Yannes, Charpentier and Winterble showed their cost reduced version of the TOI to CEO Jack Tramiel in the fall of 1979 and he immediately green lighted it.
Jack knew that Apple was a small player but their newly released Apple II (which used the Commodore 6502 CPU) was gaining on them. He insisted the new low cost home computer be ready to demonstrate at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1980. The pressure was on the three MOS engineers worked 7 days a week on “Project Vixen” day and night to make it happen.
What they had shown Jack was not even at the alpha stage and could not have been practically manufactured. That “Vixen” demonstrator was a little more than a concept computer kludged together with few parts that could reasonably produced in volume. Everything had to be reworked and massively cost reduced to meet Jack’s expectations. Worse, the rest of the company didn’t take them seriously:
We couldn’t get any cooperation from the rest of the company who thought we were jokers because we were working late, about an hour after everyone else had left the building. We’d swipe whatever equipment we needed to get our jobs done. There was no other way to get the work done! – Neil Harris (one of the VIC-20 developers)
Jack Tramiel told his engineers they could only use 1K chips in the new machine because Commodore had huge inventory they were unable to use in other products. After much internal debate the VIC-20 was given 5.5K of RAM, 2K of which was used by the Basic Operating System.
To do any meaningful development in such a small area required the use of machine language, which is the most rudimentary first generation computer language that carries almost no overhead. Unfortunately 3.5K is not even large enough to load a machine language compiler. So developers were often forced to write machine code by hand. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that is a extremely time consuming.
The home computer competitors were the Apple II, Atari 400 and to a lesser degree the Radio Shack TRS-80. Those had dedicated sound and graphics features but they were much more expensive. Jack wanted cheap and Jack was seldom wrong about the market. To get around the hardware limits, the software engineers used clever commands to “Peek” and “Poke” sounds and graphics.
Cost was not the VIC’s only virtue. The VIC-20 would appear to have sharper images on the screen that its competitors because it used a composite connection to a computer monitor. The Atari and TRS-80 used an old (from the 1950’s!) RF modulator adapter to connect to both TV’s and monitors. The VIC would ship with a free RF modulator that could be used to connect it to a TV too, but Commodore demonstrated the VIC with higher quality monitors.
Remember that Commodore had negotiated a crazy deal with the fledgling Micro-Soft Corporation which allowed Commodore to pay a single flat fee in 1977 which allowed them to use an unlimited number of copies of Micro-Soft Basic as an Operating System. This meant there was never a question inside Commodore what OS they were going to use. Commodore Basic was nothing more than Micro-Soft Basic. That deal made virtually no money for Microsoft but it accidentally provided Microsoft with legitimacy and product scale which we know today is so critical to becoming a standard that developers flock to.
The question became which version of Commodore Basic to install in the VIC. It was decided that the (very) old Commodore Basic 2.0 from the original PET 2001 days would be best because it had fewer features (and time was tight, so less was better). Jack also liked the idea that Commodore could upsell consumers with an add-on plug-in cartridge that contained extra commands for extra money at some point in the future.
Between early 1981, when the VIC actually hit store shelves, and the first few months of 1985, when the last VIC production line was shut down, it had sold more than 2.5 million units. It had an very impressive peak daily production of 9000 units and was the worlds first computer to sell more than 1 million units.
Commodore knew they needed software to kick off the VIC-20 so they produced 5 adventure games a user would interact with by typing text commands. They made $1.5M ($3.1M in 2018 dollars) from those 5 cartridges alone.Commodore also quickly released several memory expansion cartridges (3K, 8K, and 16K) and other companies produced even large 32K and 64K cartridges. If you look at the photo gallery at the end of this page, you will find an advert for a gigantic 64K memory expander made by Advanced Processor Systems.
There are reports that during its development it was called the MicroPET and there is a lot of debate over the origins of the “20” portion of the VIC-20 name. We have spoken to the the Commodore executive responsible for the VIC’s development, and the author of The Home Computer Wars, Michael Tomczyk, and he stated repeatedly that he choose the name simply because he thought it “sounded good”.
Some sites incorrectly report that the VIC was software compatible with PET but it really was not. Because the VIC and the PET use completely different memory maps, PEEK and POKE commands were not compatible and because the VIC had only a 22 character screen while the original PET’s had 40 character screens, only VERY rudimentary Basic 2.0 software would function on both machines. However, the VIC-20 was generally peripheral compatible with most Commodore 64 devices.
Commodore’s wildly successful 1Mhz, 8 Bit CSG/MOS 6502 CPU powered the VIC. With good sound and colour graphics, Commodore had winner.
The VIC was to be another important Commodore first:
the Commodore KIM1 for hobbyist market, was the worlds first single board computer
the Commodore PET for the business market and early adopters, was the worlds first personal computer
the Commodore VIC20 was the first color computer that retailed as a “computer for the masses” at less than US$300 ($630 dollars in 2018)
Critics said the machine was seriously under-powered but consumers bought them as fast as Commodore could produce them. Other than the price, consumers were attracted to the VIC-20 because most software came on easy to use ROM cartridges that just plugged in the back and started to work. As the vintage VIC-20 television advertisement below states “If you are going to spend your time playing computer games, why not do it on something that can also teach you about computing”:
Commodore’s very user friendly BASIC 2.0 operating system and programming language automatically booted when the machine was turned on. No peripherals were required except a television to be used as a monitor.
Countless software developers today began building their skills using a VIC20 bought for them by parents as Christmas or birthday present. This was years before most schools even had computer courses. About the time the VIC came out, my Commodore PET ownership and experience allowed me to skip an entire course. I recall enrolling in Grade 10 “Data Processing” class (which used Commodore PET’s). On the first day I was told I would be getting an A+ and that I should not to show up for class because I would be taking highly constrained computer time away from others.
Worlds Cheapest Modem at just $110 the VIC Modem was release in January 1982
Many peripherals, like the VIC 1515 printer, 300 Baud VIC Modem, CBM 1020 Docking Station, 1540 Floppy Drive, and 1530 CN2 Cassette Drive were released to various levels of consumer demand. A VIC 20 combined with Terminal Cartridge and VIC Modem was one of the only ways to use “Bulletin Board Systems” (aka BBS services) and pre-internet Information Services like CompuServe. If you have the hardware, we still promote the Cottonwood BBS that “Wiskow” still runs at now cost to you.
Unlike the PET, Commodore never produced version Basic 4.0 upgrade ROM chips for the VIC. Like the PET, however, the Commodore VIC-20 was released world wide relatively quickly after it’s U.S. and Canadian introduction.
Commodore was becoming more sophisticated in its approach to marketing and one of the results of this was that the VIC-20 was sold under different names in different parts of the world:
Commodore Germany produced VIC’s were branded as VC-20 which was supposed to be a play on the hugely popular and inexpensive Volkswagen car brand: the VolksComputer was a big hit in Europe. The impetus for changing the name was likely that “VIC” spoken the German way is very close to f*ck. A VIC user in Europe, Holger Zahnleiter, reports that In 1983 he bought a VC20 kit for DM800; it came with a 16K expansion cartridge and a tape drive. We have several pictures of the VC-20 in our photo-gallery at the bottom of this page.
In Japan the VIC-20 was sold as a VIC-1001 which included a special character ROM and a different Kernel and keyboard from the standard VIC-20. While this allows Japanese buyers to use Katakana character it made the computer largely incompatible with non-Japanese VIC’s. How the name 1001 was arrived at is non known, but most think that it was simply a ‘lesser’ number than the Commodore PET which sold in Japan as a PET 2001. We have several pictures of the VIC1001 in our photo-gallery at the bottom of this page.
Commodore sold the PET product line through a tightly controlled channel of authorized resellers, which gave the PET a professional image and a business grade support system, but limited mass market adoption. If you have to go to a computer store and you don’t really know what a home computer is or can do for you… you are not likely to do it.
When the VIC-20 arrived, Commodore had a whole new plan: sell them everywhere! Soon enough folding cardboard stands filled with VIC computers and peripherals were appearing in all kinds of stores. Commodore used “Captain Kirk” William Shatner as their TV spokesman who asked consumers “Why buy a just a video from Atari? Invest in the Wonder Computer on the 80’s from Commodore”.
There were still authorized resellers who provided a high level of service and had qualified hardware technicians on site but the majority of VICs were sold in all major department stores and many other businesses that had never dreamed of selling computers previously. In Canada, Commodore even sold VIC’s through the Canadian Tire automotive / hardware store chain!
Late 1982 saw the beginning of the end: the more expensive but much more capable Commodore 64 was announced. Just as the VIC 20 was becoming popular and many stores and some multi-level marketing organizations had acquired significant inventories, rumors began to emerge that Commodore was completing work on a vastly more powerful version of the VIC 20 to be called the VIC 64, which of course was eventually released as the Commodore 64.
As the rumors of the impending C64 release continued there was excitement and uncertainty in the Commodore distribution channel and consumers. This was probably the first experience many consumers had ever encountered with the phenomenon we now refer to “upgrading”.
Undoubtedly some were resentful. Many retailers had acquired large inventories of VIC product found themselves scrambling to modify their marketing plans and to obtain price-protection as the value of VIC-20 products plummeted. You can see in the flyer to the right the the venerable Canadian Tire chain had dropped their retail price to just $80 ($165 in 2018 dollars) by September of 1984.
Commodore 64 production ramped up, VIC prices dropped, and by 1984 it was obvious that there would not be a place in the Commodore lineup for the venerable VIC-20 and they stopped production, without even making an announcement in January of 1985.
The VIC-20 sold a worlds first 1 million units and had a massive 800 pieces of software available for it. The VIC was not a just a commercial success. It was a home run for Commodore financially, it expanded the fledgling home computer industry for all companies, and it turned hundreds of thousands of consumers on to programming.
Commodore VIC-20 Chronology
6560 VIC1 Chip developed, intended for game consoles to be manufactured by OEM’s (read: not Commodore)
Jack Tramiel announced at a strategy meeting in London, England. The intention is to build a US$300 home computer.
VIC-1001 Announced as the worlds first Colour Computer for less than $300 and sold in Japan’s Seibu Department Store. The machine would later be rebranded VIC-20.
1981 Jan – Feb
First VIC’s delivered to retailers
Bally Arcade licenses Commodore to manufacture its arcade games into cartridges for the VIC-20
VIC Modem, a 300 Baud Cartridge, is released for $110
1982 Fall / Winter
Commodore 64 announced
Commodore has shipped 750,000 VIC-20 computers by the end of 1982. Apple Computer has shipped 600,000 Apple II computers by the end of 1982. Timex has shipped 600,000 Timex/Sinclair 1000 computers by the end of 1982. Texas Instruments has shipped 575,000 TI 99/4 computers by the end of 1982.
Commodore’s sales of VIC-20s exceeds 1,000,000 units!
January 13th – Commodore shows off prototype 264 and 364 at CES and indicates they should be in production by June
January 15th – Commodores founder, visionary and CEO, Jack Tramiel quits Commodore with secret plans to buy the near bankrupt Atari
Commodore shows a Golden Jubilee version of the 64 to commemorate the 1,000,000 C64 to be produced in the US
Commodore shows off the C128 Personal Computer at CES. This new machine has three modes: 64, CP/M and the new 128KB mode
Last VIC is produced and shipped
Total lifetime sales are about 2,500,000 units (http://www.oldsoftware.com/history.html)
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