Commodore

Commodore, a computer company, is called "the house that Jack built" because it was started by Jack Tramiel.

How Commodore began

Jack began his career by being in the wrong place at the wrong time: he was a Jew in Poland during World War 2. He was thrown into the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he learned to view life as a war to survive. When he escaped from the camp, he moved to Canada and started an aggressive, ruthless company called Commodore, whose motto to survive was, "Business is war!".

At first, Commodore just repaired typewriters; but it grew fast and started manufacturing pocket calculators.

War of the chips

In Commodore’s calculators, the CPU was a microprocessor chip manufactured by MOS Technology, a company with a troubled past:

Back in 1974, the most popular microprocessors were the Intel 8080 and the Motorola 6800. But one of the 6800’s inventors, a guy named Chuck Peddle, quit Motorola in 1975 and started a new company with his friends. That start-up company, MOS Technology, began manufacturing the 6501 microprocessor, which resembled Motorola’s 6800.

When Motorola threatened to sue, MOS Technology stopped making the 6501 and switched to the 6502, which Chuck Peddle designed differently enough to avoid a suit. That 6502 chip became very popular and was used in many devices, including Commodore’s calculators. Commodore was one of MOS Technology’s biggest customers.

Though the 6502 was legal, Motorola sued MOS Technology for its illegal predecessor, the 6501. The suit dragged through the courts for two years and cost MOS Technology many thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees. Finally, in 1977, Motorola won $200,000. The lawyer fees and $200,000 put MOS Technology in financial trouble.

MOS Technology wanted to be bought by some company having lots of cash. Commodore, rich by then, bought it.

Just before that sale, Canada’s tax laws changed. To duck taxes, Commodore moved its headquarters (in theory) to the Bahamas. That’s how MOS Technology became part of "Commodore Limited", a Bahamas company, and how Commodore found itself running a company that made chips. Commodore had entered the computer business.

Dealing with competitors

At MOS Technology, Chuck Peddle had sold a 6502 chip to Steve Wozniak for $25. Steve used the chip to create the Apple computer. When Commodore saw Apple computers becoming popular in California, Commodore offered to buy the Apple Computer Company — and almost succeeded. Apple wanted $15,000 more than Commodore offered, so the deal never came off. If Commodore would have offered just $15,000 more, Apple would today be part of Commodore!

After failed negotiations with Apple, Commodore hired Chuck Peddle to design a "Commodore computer", which Commodore hoped to sell through Radio Shack’s stores. Radio Shack said, "Great idea! Finish designing your computer, and tell us more." Commodore finished designing it and showed it to Radio Shack. Radio Shack said, "Your argument for selling low-cost computers was so convincing, we decided to build our own. Thanks for the idea." That’s how Radio Shack got the idea of manufacturing computers!

Pet

Rebuffed by Apple and Radio Shack, Jack Tramiel decided to fight back by building a computer better and cheaper than anything Apple and Radio Shack had. Commodore called its new computer the Pet, because Commodore’s marketing director was the guy who invented the Pet Rock. He reckoned that if folks were stupid enough to buy a Pet Rock, they’d really love a Pet computer! He was right: folks loved the idea of a Pet Computer. Sales skyrocketed.

Commodore told the press that "Pet" was an abbreviation for "Personal Electronic Transactor". Actually, Commodore invented "Pet" first and later made up what it stood for.

Commodore announced the Pet in 1977 and said its $495 price would include everything: the CPU, RAM, ROM, keyboard, monitor, and tape recorder. The ROM would have a good version of BASIC. The screen would display capital letters, lower-case letters, punctuation, math symbols, and many weirder symbols also (such as hearts, diamonds, clubs, spades, curves, circles, and rectangles).

Other microcomputer manufacturers were scared because Commodore’s price was far below everybody else’s, Commodore’s computer offered more features, and Commodore was rich enough to spend more on ads & marketing than all other manufacturers combined.

Many computer magazines called the Pet "the birth of a new generation" in personal computers. The Pet’s designer, Chuck Peddle, was treated to many interviews.

Disappointments Commodore raised its price from $495 to $595 before taking orders. To order the Pet, the customer had to send $595, plus shipping charges, then wait for Commodore to deliver. Many folks mailed Commodore the money and waited long, but Commodore didn’t ship. Folks got impatient. Computer stores that had advertised the Pet got worried: customers who’d prepaid complained to the stores, but the stores couldn’t get Commodore to ship.

Meanwhile, Radio Shack entered the market with its TRS-80 model 1 priced at $599 — about the same price as Commodore’s Pet. Radio Shack was kinder than Commodore:

Radio Shack asked customers for just a 10% deposit. Commodore required payment in full.

Radio Shack didn’t charge for shipping. Commodore did.

Radio Shack set up repair centers throughout the USA. Commodore’s only repair center was in California.

Radio Shack delivered computers fast. Commodore still wasn’t delivering! Finally, Commodore admitted that the $595 Pet would not be delivered anytime soon! Commodore would deliver instead a $795 version that included 4K of extra RAM. So if you already sent $595 to Commodore and wanted a computer soon, you’d have to send an extra $200. That was a rip-off, since 4K of extra RAM was not worth an extra $200; but customers were so desperate that they sent the $200 anyway.

Radio Shack shipped its computers on a first-come, first-served basis; if you ordered a Radio Shack computer, Radio Shack gave you an accurate estimate of when you’d receive it. Commodore gave preferential treatment to its "friends"; if you ordered a computer from Commodore, you hadn’t the faintest idea of when it would arrive, since you didn’t know how many "friends" were on Commodore’s list.

Radio Shack’s computer came with a 232-page manual that was cheery and easy. Commodore’s computer came with just 10 loose pages that were incomplete and hard to understand.

After announcing a low-cost printer, Commodore changed its mind and decided to sell just an expensive printer. Commodore announced a low-cost disk drive but then reneged and decided to sell just an expensive unit containing two disk drives. Those lies lowered public confidence in Commodore.

At first, the Pet was the world’s best-selling computer; but all those disappointments made its popularity drop to #3, below Radio Shack (#1) and Apple (#2).

Commodore developed a souped-up Pet, called the Commodore Business Machine (CBM), but it wasn’t enough to let Commodore rise above the number 3 spot. As Commodore’s fortunes dipped, Chuck Peddle and his friends quit. Apple hired them but treated them as second-class citizens, so they returned to Commodore.

The problem with RAM Commodore came out with several Pet versions, each containing a different quantity of RAM. If you bought a cheap version and wanted to increase its RAM, Commodore refused to install extra RAM: instead, Commodore insisted you buy a whole new Pet.

Some customers tried buying extra RAM from chip dealers and installing the chips themselves. To stop those tinkerers, Commodore began cutting a hole in the PC board where the extra RAM chips would go. Commodore was an asshole.

The problem with tape Commodore changed the Pet’s tape-handling system. The new system was incompatible with the old: tapes created for the old Pet wouldn’t work on the new Pet. Commodore didn’t tell customers of the change. Customers who wrote programs for old Pets and then bought additional Pets discovered that their programs didn’t work on the new Pets. They thought their new Pets were broken.

When Commodore secretly changed the tape system, companies selling tapes of Pet computer programs received angry letters from customers who bought the tapes and couldn’t make them work on their new Pets. The customers though the companies were crooks; the companies thought the customers were lying. Eventually, folks realized the real culprit was Commodore, who’d changed the Pet secretly.

When the companies discovered that Commodore had changed the Pet without providing a label to distinguish new Pets from old, the companies realized they’d have to give each customer two copies of each program, so the customer could try both versions. That’s when many companies gave up trying to sell Pet tapes. They sold tapes for Apple and Radio Shack computers instead. Commodore programs became rare.

Vic

Jack’s experience at Auschwitz made him scared of Nazis and the Japanese. He feared that the Japanese would invade the USA by flooding America with cheap Japanese computers to put Commodore and other American companies out of business. And he noticed that Commodore’s share of the computer market was already sinking.

Paranoid, in April 1980 he called his engineers together and screamed at them, "The Japanese are coming! The Japanese are coming! So we’ll become the Japanese!" He laid out his bold plan: Commodore would build the world’s first under-$300 computer to display colors on an ordinary TV and produce three-part harmony through the TV’s speaker. At that time, the only under-$300 computer was Sinclair’s ZX-80, which was black-and-white and crummy.

Commodore’s engineers replied, "Build a color computer cheaply? Impossible!" Jack replied, "Do it!" Commodore’s engineers finally managed to do it.

MOS Technology, owned by Commodore, had already invented the amazing Video Interface Chip (Vic), which could handle the entire process of sending computer output to the TV screen. Since that chip was cheap, Commodore decided to use it in the under-$300 computer. Unfortunately, it put just 22 characters per line on the screen. (By contrast, the Pet had 40 characters per line, and most computers today have 80 characters per line.) So the under-$300 computer would display just 22 characters per line.

Naming the computer Since the new computer was feminine and foxy, Commodore wanted to call it the "Vixen". But Commodore discovered that a "Vixen" computer couldn’t sell in Germany, because "Vixen" sounds like the German word "Wichsen", which is obscene.

Commodore hastily changed the name to Vic and ran TV ads for the "Vic" computer. But that got Commodore into even worse trouble, since "Vic" sounds like the German word "Ficke", which is even more obscene!

Commodore kept calling it the "Vic" in the USA but called it the "VC" computer in Germany and pretended "VC" stood for "Volks Computer".

Price Commodore began shipping the Vic in 1981 at $299.95. Over the years, the price gradually dropped to $55.

Ads To sell the Vic, Commodore tried three kinds of ads.

The first featured TV star William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in Star Trek. The ad emphasized how the Vic was wonderful, amazing, out of this world, fun! But then people started thinking of the Vic as just a sci-fi toy.

To combat the "toy" image, Commodore changed to a second kind of ad, which said the Vic was as cheap as a video-game machine but more educational for your kids. When Texas Instruments began making similar claims, Commodore changed to a third kind of ad, which revealed that Commodore’s disk drives, printers, and phone hookups cost much less than Texas Instruments’.

Popularity The Vic’s low price, fun colors, and effective ads made it become popular fast in the USA, England, Germany, and Japan. Commodore quickly sold over a million Vics! The Vic became the world’s best-selling computer!

Commodore 64

In 1982, Commodore began selling an improved Vic, called the Commodore 64 because it included 64K of RAM. (The original Vic had just 5K.) The Commodore 64 also improved on the Vic by displaying 40 characters per line (instead of just 22) and including 20K of ROM (instead of just 16K).

Price The Commodore 64’s price went through 4 phases.

In phase 1, $599.95 was the recommended list price, and Commodore tried to force all dealers to charge that. If a dealer advertised a discount, Commodore refused to send that dealer any more computers. (Commodore’s policy was an example of price fixing, which is illegal.)

In phase 2, Commodore allowed discounts. Dealers charged just $350. Moreover, Commodore mailed a $100 rebate to anybody trading in another computer or a video-game machine. Bargain-hunters bought the cheap Timex Sinclair 1000 computer just to trade in for a Commodore 64. A New York dealer, "Crazy Eddy", sold junky video-game machines for $10 just so his customers could mail them to Commodore for the $100 rebate. Commodore donated most of the trade-ins to charities for a tax write-off but kept some Timex Sinclair 1000’s for use as doorstops.

In phase 3, Commodore stopped the rebate but offered a lower price: discount dealers charged just $148.

In phase 4, the Commodore made an improved version, the Commodore 64C, which discounters sold for just $119. It came with a copy of the Geos operating system, which made it resemble a Mac; and its keyboard contained extra keys.

Why so cheap? Here’s why the Commodore 64 cost so much less than an Apple 2c or IBM PC.

The Commodore 64’s advertised price did not include a disk drive or monitor. Moreover, Commodore’s disk drives and monitors were terrible:

Commodore’s original disk drive, the Model 1541, needed repairs often (because its head went out of alignment), ran slowly (because its cable to the computer contained just one wire to transmit data, instead of several wires in parallel), and put few bytes on the disk (just single-sided single-density).

Commodore’s original color monitor, the Model 1702, produced a blurry image (because the monitor was composite instead of RGB). Since the image was not sharp enough to display 80 characters per line clearly, most Commodore 64 software displayed just 40 characters per line. IBM PC software displayed 80 instead. Another problem with Commodore’s video was that the M looked too much like N, and the B looked like 8.

Eventually, Commodore developed an improved monitor (the 1802) and improved disk drives (the 1541C and 1541-2).

The Commodore 64 had a weaker BASIC than the Apple 2 and IBM PC. It didn’t even include a command to let you draw a diagonal line across the screen.

The Commodore 64’s printer port was non-standard: it worked just with strange printers manufactured by Commodore, unless you bought a special adapter.

Popularity Because the Commodore 64 was cheap, Commodore sold over a million of them.

Many programmers who wrote programs for Apple computers rewrote their programs to also work on the Commodore 64. Soon the Commodore 64 ran nearly as many popular programs as the Apple 2c.

The Commodore 64’s price, even after adding the price of a disk drive and a monitor, still totaled less than the price of an Apple 2e, Apple 2c, IBM PC, or IBM PC Junior. The Commodore 64 was a fantastically good value! It also contained a fancy music synthesizer chip that produced a wide variety of musical tone qualities: when it played music, it sounded much better than an Apple 2e or 2c or IBM.

Jack jumps ship

After the Commodore 64 became successful, Jack Tramiel wanted to hire his sons to help run Commodore; but Commodore’s other major shareholders refused to deal with Jack’s sons, so Jack quit. He sold his 2 million shares of Commodore stock, at $40 per share, netting himself 80 million dollars in cash.

New computers

After Jack quit, Commodore tried selling two new computers — the Commodore 16 and Commodore Plus 4 — but they had serious flaws. Then Commodore invented two great computers: the Commodore 128 and Amiga.

The Commodore 128 ran all the Commodore 64 software and also included a better version of BASIC, better keyboard, and better video. To go with it, Commodore invented a better RGB monitor (Model 1902) and better disk drive (Model 1571). Later, Commodore invented the Commodore 128D computer, which included a built-in disk drive.

The Amiga is even newer and fancier. It contains three special chips that produce fast animated graphics in beautiful shades of color. Like the Mac, it uses a mouse and pull-down menus.

The Amiga’s first version was called the Amiga 1000. Later, Commodore replaced it by newer versions: the Amiga 500, 600, 1200, 2000, 3000, and 4000.

Amigas are used mainly by video professionals and by others interested in animated graphics. On TV, weathermen use Amigas to show the weather moving across the weather map.

Aside from graphics, not enough good software is available for Amigas. The Amigas are not compatible with the Commodore 64 or Mac. The Amiga 2000 can be made to imitate an IBM PC but costs more than most IBM clones.

Bankruptcy

In 1994, Commodore filed for bankruptcy. What was left of Commodore was purchased by Escom, which is now selling Amiga Technologies to Visual Information Services Corp. (Viscorp).

Tandy

Tandy, which owns Radio Shack, has been around for many years.

Thanks to Tandy

Radio Shack helped the computer industry in many ways:

Radio Shack was the first big chain of stores to sell computers nationally. It was the first chain to reach rural areas.

Radio Shack invented the first low-cost assembled computer. That was the TRS-80 model 1, which cost $599, including the monitor.

Radio Shack was the first company to keep computer prices low without skimping on quality.

Radio Shack sold the first notebook computer. That was the Tandy 100, invented by Tandy with help from Microsoft and a Japanese manufacturer, Kyocera.

Radio Shack sold the first pocket computers. They were manufactured for Tandy by Sharp and Casio.

Radio Shack invented the first cheap computer having fancy graphics commands. That was the Color Computer, whose BASIC was designed by Microsoft as a "rough draft" for the fancier BASIC in the IBM PC.

But when the IBM PC came out and became the standard American computer, Americans became conservative and wanted to buy just traditional IBM PC’s and clones. Tandy had difficulty figuring out how to be profitably innovative. Tandy tried building IBM clones innovatively, but in 1993 gave up: it stopped manufacturing computers and sold all its factories to another computer company, AST. Now Tandy sells computers built by AST and IBM.

Nicknames

Tandy’s computers are often called "TRS" computers. The "TRS" stands for "Tandy’s Radio Shack". Cynics add the letters A and H, and call them "TRASH" computers, so Tandy’s customers are called "trash collectors". On the other hand, Apple lovers are called "worms", "pie people", "fruits", and "suffering from Appleplexy"; IBM lovers are called "blue bloods" (because old IBM computers were blue); Commodore lovers are called "boat people", "swabbies", and "deck ducks"; and kids who play with Atari computers are called "Atari-eyed dreamers & screamers".

How Tandy began

The Tandy Leather Company was begun by Charles Tandy. Later, he acquired Radio Shack, which had been a Boston-based chain of discount electronics stores.

Under his leadership from his Fort Worth headquarters, Tandy/Radio Shack succeeded and grew 30% per year, fueled by the CB radio craze that was sweeping America. When the market for CB radios declined, he began looking for a new product to sell, to continue his 30% growth.

Commodore was inventing a computer and tried to convince Tandy’s staff to sell it. Don French, a Tandy salesman whose hobby was building computers, told Charles Tandy that Radio Shack should start selling computers.

Instead of buying computers from Commodore, Radio Shack hired Steve Leininger to design a Radio Shack computer and keep the cost as low as possible:

Steve wanted his computer to handle lower-case letters instead of just capitals. But since attaching the lower-case chip would have added 10˘ to the cost, management rejected lower case: Radio Shack’s computer handled just capitals. (In those days, lower-case letters weren’t considered important. Later, when customers began demanding lower-case letters, Radio Shack regretted not spending the extra dime. Customers were spending $50 to rip open the Radio Shack and rearrange the chips to get lower-case.)

The monitor was a modified black-and-white TV built for Radio Shack by RCA. RCA told Radio Shack that the standard color for the TV’s case was "Mercedes silver"; any other color would cost extra. Radio Shack accepted Mercedes silver and painted the rest of the computer to match the TV. When you use a Radio Shack computer, you’re supposed to feel as if you’re driving a Mercedes; but since Mercedes silver looked like gray, Radio Shack became nicknamed "the great gray monster". Californians preferred Apples, whose beige matched their living-room decors. (Later, in 1982, Radio Shack wised up and switched from "Mercedes silver" to white.)

Radio Shack’s original computer listed for just $599 and consisted of four devices: a keyboard (in which hid the CPU, ROM, & RAM), a monitor (built for Radio Shack by RCA), a cheap Radio Shack tape recorder, and an AC/DC transformer. Wires ran between those devices, so that the whole system looked like an octopus. Radio Shack wanted to put the AC/DC transformer inside the keyboard, to make the computer system consist of three boxes instead of four; but that internal transformer would have delayed approval from Underwriters Laboratories for 6 months, and Radio Shack couldn’t wait that long.

Radio Shack named its computer the TRS-80 because it was by Tandy’s Radio Shack and contained a Z-80 CPU.

To announce the computer, Radio Shack called a press conference to take place in August 1977 on a Monday morning on the front steps of the New York Stock Exchange. But when Radio Shack’s leaders stood on those steps and were surrounded by reporters, a guy ran up and yelled that a bomb went off two blocks away. The reporters ran off to the bomb site, and Radio Shack couldn’t announce its computer!

Radio Shack rushed to find a new place to announce the computer. Radio Shack heard that the Boston Computer Society was going to run a computer show that week — Wednesday through Friday. So Radio Shack’s management drove to Boston, got a booth at the show, announced its computer there — and was shocked to discover that the whole show and Boston Computer Society were run by Jonathan Rotenberg, a 14-year-old kid!

That intro was successful: people liked and bought Radio Shack’s new computer. The base price was $599. For a complete business system (including two disk drives and a printer), Radio Shack charged $2600, while Radio Shack’s competitors charged over $4500.

Problems with DOS Radio Shack hired Randy Cook to write the DOS. My friend Dick Miller tried DOS version 1.0 and noticed it didn’t work; it didn’t even boot! He told Radio Shack, which told Randy Cook, who fixed the problem and wrote version 1.1. Dick noticed it worked better but still had a big flaw: it didn’t tell you how much disk space was left and — even worse — as soon as the disk was filled it would self-destruct! Then came version 1.2, which worked better but not perfectly.

Since Radio Shack’s DOS was still buggy, Visicalc’s inventors put Visicalc onto the Apple instead of the TRS-80. Apple became known as the "Visicalc machine", and many accountants began buying Apples instead of TRS-80’s.

Meanwhile, a Colorado company named Apparat invented its own improvements to Radio Shack’s DOS. Apparat showed its improvements to Dick, who liked them and recommended calling them "NEWDOS". Many folks bought NEWDOS and formed NEWDOS colonies.

Dealing with the public In 1977, when Radio Shack began selling the TRS-80, customers didn’t understand what computers were.

At a Radio Shack show, I saw a police chief buy a TRS-80. While carrying it out of the room, he called back over his shoulder, "By the way, how do you program it?" He expected a one-sentence answer.

Radio Shack provided a toll-free 800 number for customers to call in case they had any questions. Many customers called because they were confused. For example, many customers had this gripe: "I put my mouth next to the tape recorder and yelled TWO PLUS TWO, but it didn’t say FOUR!"

Radio Shack’s first version of BASIC provided just three error messages: WHAT (which means "I don’t know what you’re talking about"), HOW (which means "I don’t know how to handle a number that big") and SORRY (which means "I’m sorry I can’t do that — you didn’t buy enough RAM yet"). Those error messages confused beginners. For example, this conversation occurred between a Radio Shack customer and a Radio Shack technician who answered the 800 number (Chris Daly).…

Chris: "What’s your problem?"

Customer: "I plugged in the video, then the tape recorder, then…"

Chris: "Yes, sir, but what’s the problem?"

Customer: "It doesn’t work."

Chris: "How do you know it doesn’t work?"

Customer: "It says READY."

Chris: "What’s wrong with that? It’s supposed to say READY."

Customer: "It isn’t ready."

Chris: "How do you know it isn’t ready?"

Customer: "I asked it ‘Where’s my wife Martha?’, and it just said WHAT."

Other Z-80 computers After the TRS-80, Tandy invented improved versions: the TRS-80 Models 2, 3, 4, 4D, 4P, 12, 16, & 16B, and the Tandy 6000. Like the Model 1, they contained a Z-80 CPU and included a monochrome monitor.

Coco To compete against the Commodore 64, Tandy invented the Color Computer, nicknamed the Coco. Like the Commodore 64, the Coco could attach to either a monitor or an ordinary TV, and it could store programs on either a disk or an ordinary cassette tape (the same kind of tape that you listen to music on).

Tandy began selling the Coco in 1980 — the year before IBM began selling the PC. Microsoft invented the Coco’s BASIC ROM and also invented the IBM PC’s. The Coco’s BASIC ROM was Microsoft’s rough draft of the ROM that went into the IBM PC. The Coco acted as "an IBM PC that wasn’t quite right yet". In the Coco’s BASIC, the commands for handling graphics & music were similar to the IBM PC’s but more awkward. Folks who couldn’t afford an IBM PC but wanted to learn to program it bought the Coco.

The original Coco was called the Coco 1. Then came improved versions (the Coco 2 and Coco 3) and a cheap, tiny version (the Micro Coco).

Pocket computers Tandy sold 8 different pocket computers, numbered PC-1 through PC-8. They fit in your pocket, ran on batteries, and included LCD screens.

Notebook computers In 1983, Tandy, Epson, and NEC all tried to sell cheap notebook computers. Just Tandy’s became popular, because it was the cheapest ($499) and the easiest to learn how to use. It was called the Model 100.

Later Tandy sold an improved version, the Model 102, which included more RAM (32K), weighed less (just 3 pounds), and listed for $599. It including a nice keyboard, a screen displaying eight 40-character lines, a 32K ROM (containing BASIC, a word-processing program, some filing programs, and a telecommunications program), and 300-baud modem (for attaching to a phone, after you bought a $19.95 cable). It was 8˝ inches by 12 inches and just 1˝ inches thick. Reporters used it to take notes and phone them to the newspaper.

Popularity

Tandy’s 7000 Radio Shack stores penetrated every major city and also remote rural areas, where few other computer stores compete.

Tandy offered "solid value". Tandy kept its quality high and its prices below IBM’s and Apple’s (though not as low as generic clones). Tandy’s computers and prices were aimed at middle-America consumers, not business executives (who buy from IBM) or bargain-hunting hobbyists (who buy mail-order).

Tandy’s computers were built reliably. Tandy’s assembly line checked them thoroughly before shipping to Tandy’s stores. If a Tandy computer needed repair during the warranty period, the customer could just bring it to the local Radio Shack store, which would fix it free even if the customer bought it from a different store. If the warranty expired, Radio Shack charged very little for the labor of fixing it.

Bad attitude

During the 1970’s, Tandy’s headquarters provided toll-free numbers that customers could call for technical help. Later, Tandy switched to numbers that were not toll-free. Recently, Tandy’s become even worse, by refusing to answer any questions unless the customer buys a support contract. Tandy’s claim to offer better support than mail-order companies is Texas bull.

During the 1980’s, Tandy established a dress code for its computer centers: employees who met the public had to don blue or gray suits, blue or white shirts, no beards, and no moustaches. Tandy fired a center manager for refusing to shave his beard. Wasn’t the personal-computing revolution supposed to give us tools to express our individuality?

Recently, Tandy shut down all its computer centers. At regular Radio Shack stores, beards are permitted.

Atari

Of all the major computer manufacturers, Atari has been the most creative — and the strangest!

Atari is in the USA’s strangest state: California. Even Atari’s name is strange: "Atari" is a Japanese war cry that means "beware!"

Video games

In 1972, Atari invented the world’s first popular video game, Pong. Next, Atari invented the game called Asteroids, then dozens of other games. Atari’s games were placed in arcades and bars. To play the games, you had to insert quarters. In 1975, Atari invented a machine that could play Pong on your home’s TV.

In 1976, Atari gave up its independence and was bought by Warner Communications (the gigantic company that owned Warner Brothers movies & cartoons, Warner Cable TV, and DC Comics).

In 1977, Atari invented the Video Computer System (VCS), a machine playing many games on your home TV. Each game came as a ROM cartridge. Later, Nintendo and Sega invented machines that were similar but fancier.

Early personal computers

In 1979, Atari began selling complete personal computers. Atari’s first two computers were the Atari 400 (cheap!) and the Atari 800 (which had a nicer keyboard). They were far ahead of their time. Of all the microcomputers being sold, Atari’s had the best graphics, best music, and best way of editing programs. Compared to Atari, the Apples looked pitiful! Yet Atari charged less than Apple!

But Atari made two mistakes:

The first mistake was that Atari didn’t hire Bill Gates to write its version of BASIC. Instead, it hired the same jerk who invented Apple’s DOS. Like Apple’s DOS, Atari’s BASIC looks simple but can’t handle serious business problems.

The second mistake was Atari’s belief that personal computers would be used mainly for games. Atari didn’t realize that personal computers would be used mainly for work. Atari developed spectacular games but not enough software to handle work such as word processing, accounting, and filing.

Atari developed some slightly improved computers (the 600 XL, 800 XL, and 1200 XL) but still lost lots of money.

Jack attack

Atari got bought by Jack Tramiel, who’d headed Commodore. Here’s why:

When Jack quit being the head of Commodore, he sold his Commodore stock for 80 million dollars. He used some of that cash to take his wife on a trip around the world.

When they reached Japan, the heads of Japanese computer companies said, "Jack, we’re glad you quit Commodore, because now we can enter the American computer market without having to fight you."

That comment scared Jack. He didn’t want to let the Japanese invade the U.S. computer market. So he started a second computer company, Tramiel Associates, just to stop the Japanese invasion.

Tramiel Associates bought Atari from Warner. Since Jack was rich and Atari was nearly worthless (having accumulated lots of debt), Jack managed to buy all of Atari at 4PM one afternoon by using his Visa card. Now Jack and his sons run Atari.

Jack replaced Atari’s computers by two new computers (the 65 XE and the 130 XE), which ran the same software as Atari’s earlier computers but cost less. Then in 1985, he began selling the Atari 520ST, which was cheap imitation of Apple’s Macintosh computer, and therefore nicknamed the "Jackintosh". It used the Gem operating system, invented by Digital Research for the Atari and the IBM PC. Gem made the 520 ST look like a Mac but did not run Mac software: you had to buy software specially modified to work on the 520 ST.

When the 520 ST first came out, its prices were about half as much as the Mac and Amiga so that, by comparison, the Mac and Amiga looked overpriced. To fight back, Apple lowered the Mac’s price, and Commodore lowered the Amiga’s. But the 520 ST remained the cheapest of the bunch.

When Apple announced the Mac Plus, which contained 1 megabyte of RAM, Atari retaliated with the 1040 ST, which contained 1 megabyte also. Then Atari announced a 2-megabyte version (the Mega-2) and 4-meg version (the Mega-4).

Atari’s had difficulty competing in the USA, but Atari computers remained popular in Europe for a while. Eventually, Atari’s fortunes declined. Finally, in 1996, Atari died: it got merged into another company, JTS, which makes disk drives.