The man behind the Commodore 64

Commodore founder Jack Tramiel gives rare interview at 25th anniversary event for his signature creation, on which he still plays Pac-Man. Video: Commodore 64's silver anniversary

When people talk about the most influential names in the history of personal computers, you usually hear about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, and so forth.

But one name that certainly belongs in that group is Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore Business Machines (and later, CEO of Atari). As the man behind the PET, the Vic-20 and the Commodore 64--which may be the best-selling personal computer of all time--Tramiel may have had more influence than anyone.

That's debatable, of course. But there's no doubting the reverence Silicon Valley's elders have for Tramiel, an Auschwitz survivor and former member of the U.S. Army who decided that his future lay not in repairing typewriters as he'd done in uniform, but in building electronics.

On Monday night, hundreds of the Valley's graybeards turned out in Mountain View, Calif., for the Computer History Museum's celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64, and there was no doubting that Tramiel was the man of the hour, not least because he rarely ventures out in public.

Among those on hand to fete Tramiel were Wozniak, IBM PC designer William Lowe, Pong designer Al Acorn, and many, many others.

During the event, Tramiel took the time to talk to CNET News.com about his most famous creation, about the current state of personal computers and about whether there really was a culture war between C64 users and Apple IIe users in the mid-1980s.

Q: What does the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64 mean to you? Can you believe it's been 25 years?
Jack Tramiel: Yes, I live it every day.

Do you still use a Commodore?
Tramiel: Yes, the 64.

What do you use it for?
Tramiel: Games.

What's your favorite game?
Tramiel: Pac-Man.

How many hours a day do you use your C64?
Tramiel: A few minutes.

We heard that about 500 people were going to show up for this event. How does it make you feel to have such a favorable reception 25 years later?
Tramiel: I believe that Commodore was the first personal computer, and we also were able to help supply products or parts for the Apple and the Atari. Being involved in seeing it be developed, in the marketing and traveling around the world, I saw, in its first two years, that this was going to be an unbelievable hit, and that it was going to change the world. And it did change the world, and I'm proud that I was part of it.

Video:
Celebrating one of the best-selling PCs ever.

You've said you were inspired by a trip you took to Japan and that that's what got you thinking that the future was in electronics.
Tramiel: Well, Japan is a big story, and there's no question that they're a different kind of people than we are. If they want to do something, they put their mind to it and they do it. They're very proud of their country, which we are not. I remember shipping the PET to Japan, to develop that particular market. And it was unbelievably successful in Japan. But about two years after, a Japanese company by the name of NEC decided to go into the personal computer business. That day, when they announced it, PET sales stopped, because the Japanese were willing to wait until the Japanese computer came out.

And you haven't seen the same loyalty in the American market?
Tramiel: No, because we will buy from anybody, as long as it's cheap.

But the Commodore was cheap. It cost less than $600.
Tramiel: That was one of the reasons why I made sure that we reduced the price--to make a fair profit, not to stop the imports that came into the country. And I felt very good because we did. There were very few foreign machines coming into the country. When I left Commodore, the world changed. Then, all of a sudden everybody came in because the prices went up. So I feel very responsible for that particular idea that I had, to give people a computer for the money, to make a computer for the masses, not for the classes.

And when you say people, you're not just talking businessmen. Kids could afford it if they saved up enough.
Tramiel: I wasn't thinking of businesses at all, because I didn't want to compete with IBM.

Do people still stop you to tell you their memories about the C64? There's quite a cult following out there.
Tramiel: There is, but I'm very quiet. This is the first real event which I've come to, because I don't like to be in the press. I'm quite happy if people do not know me.

Do you have any thoughts on the PC market today?
Tramiel: The PC market is very strong and it's going to become stronger. It's going to be very important how the products are being packaged from now on. The technology is there. It's about how it's packaged. I believe the smaller we make them, the more they will sell, and the easier they're going to be to use. And I think we're going in that direction.

What other computer do you use (besides a Commodore)?
Tramiel: A Dell.

What do you think it was about the Commodore 64 that made it so popular across the board?
Tramiel: Because I brought everything into it. I brought in sound, video, a full keyboard, and color. It was easy to use. And there was a tremendous following after that, supplying software and everything else. And I did not rely only on the United States. Through my previous connections with the adding machines and typewriters I was selling, I already had a network of dealers around the world. So it was easy to go back to them with computers. I just had to convert the dealers to understanding that this was a consumer product. This is what happened. The young people were able to buy it because it was very affordable.

How influential was the C64's BASIC for future programmers?
Tramiel: Every time I went to fairs around the world, especially the fair in Hannover, Germany ( in the world), kids, ages 12 to 20 would come around to show me their bank books. They said, "Tramiel, I made over $200,000 this year selling software." And that gave me a real kick. Not only did I make my employees rich, but I even made young people rich. They knew that if they worked hard and used the BASIC to design software, they could make money.

When I was in high school, it seemed like there was almost a culture war between users of the Commodore 64, the Apple IIe, and the Atari 800. What do you think was different about the machines and the people who used them?
Tramiel: The only difference was the price. Because it seems that in this country, if you sell something cheaper, it can't be as good. If it's more expensive, and it's the same product, it must be a better product. That didn't stop me. I still wanted to sell it for a low price. But if a person pays three times as much for a computer, he has to be proud of it, because he paid for it. He can't call himself stupid.

So you think the computers were on par with each other?
Tramiel: Each one. Even today, they're the same. If you take an HP, or a Dell, they're all the same.

But it seemed like people had loyalties back then, the same way people have loyalties today between Mac and PC.
Tramiel: There's absolutely no loyalty. One has 95 percent and the other 5 percent...But I believe that what Apple's doing today is one of the smartest things that they can do. They're becoming a consumer company, selling much more than computers, to everyone.

What computers or operating systems came along since the C64 that remind you of it?
Tramiel: Nothing reminds me of it. We live in a different world, a much more developed world today. The computer business today is different than it was in 1975. In some ways it's good, and in some ways it's bad. But the important part is that we all work hard to bring it to the way it is, and people say, "How can you live without a computer?" which is wonderful.

CNET News.com's Kara Tsuboi contributed to this report.

 

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