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Silicon Valley celebrates Commodore 64 at 25

At the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., some of Silicon Valley's best and brightest came out to applaud 25 years of what might be the best-selling computer of all time.

The Commodore 64 may be the best-selling computer of all time. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., celebrated the C64's 25th anniversary Monday night.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--I don't want to date myself, but when I was in high school, one of the things I remember was that, among the geeks like myself who hung out in the computer lab, a bit of a culture war was under way.

No, it wasn't Macs versus Windows. But Apple was a player in this battle.

In fact, it was the Commodore 64 versus the Apple IIe, and while the school had a collection of Apples in the lab that all of us had to use, those of us who had C64s felt like we we owned the superior computer.

Maybe it was because the machine seemed pluckier. More accessible to the common man. Easier to use. Better looking. Whatever. We knew we were right. Those Apple owners were stuck-up elitists.

I suppose today some people probably feel the same about the Mac versus Windows stand-off, and, well, once again, as a Mac user this time, I'm on the right side of the fence.

But Monday, it was all about the Commodore 64, as hundreds of Silicon Valley's best and brightest came out to the Computer History Museum here to celebrate the machine's 25th anniversary.

It's hard to believe it's been that long. But I can still remember the day when my dad and I went to the local Long's to pick up my new C64. It was one of the happiest days of high school I can remember.

Over the years, I put that computer through its paces. I played endless games on it. I wrote BASIC programs. I word processed. I connected to my local BBS and illegally downloaded copied games. And so much more. That machine and I were like best friends.

I must not have been the only one because it turns out that the C64 may well be the best-selling computer of all time.

At the 25th anniversary celebration for the Commodore 64 in Mountain View, Calif. Monday night, Commodore founder Jack Tramiel was on hand for a rare public appearance. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

At the celebration Monday night, Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, who was the guest of honor during what I'm told was a very rare public appearance, told the gathered crowd that the C64 sold between 20 million and 30 million units, a staggering number.

So given the presence of luminaries like Tramiel, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Pong designer Al Alcorn and many others, I decided to ask some of them if they agreed that there had been a culture war during the early '80s, with C64, Apple IIe and, to a lesser extent, Atari 800 devotees carving out their sides in a pitched battle of self-righteous geekery.

I got to spend a little time talking with Tramiel and I first asked him what was different about people who bought C64s and those who ponied up for the Apple IIe.

"The only difference was the price," Tramiel said. "Because it seems that in this country, if you sell something cheaper, it couldn't be as good. If it's more expensive, and it's the same product, that must be a better product. That didn't stop me. I still wanted to sell it for a low price. If a person pays three times as much for a computer, he has to be proud of it, because he paid for it."

Fair enough. But does he agree that there was a culture war, maybe even one akin to today's Mac/Windows split?

Not really, Tramiel suggested. In fact, how could there be a culture war when one platform has 95 percent of the users, he asked. Never mind that Mac users are probably infinitely more passionate about their machines than Windows users.

So, since Tramiel didn't buy my premise, I decided to give Wozniak a try.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was on hand at the Computer History Museum to help celebrate the Commodore 64's 25th anniversary. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Woz didn't seem to buy it either. In fact, his position was that, secretly, most C64 users really fancied themselves Apple IIe users.

"I talked to young people," Woz said, "and a lot of Commodore 64 users (told me they) would have gotten an Apple II if they could afford it."

He added that users felt they could learn more from the Apple's open system, while the C64's closed architecture offered only a cheaper price.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that these two didn't acknowledge the culture war the way I did. After all, they were unabashed partisans. But if you read between the lines of their comments, you can see that I'm right. Tramiel bashed the price of the Apple; Wozniak said everybody really wanted an Apple.

Atari engineer Al Alcorn, who designed 'Pong,' speaking at the 25th anniversary celebration for the Commodore 64. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But, there was still an evening of celebration at hand, and I decided to press on with checking out the scene.

One thing I hadn't expected was that a lot of former Commodore employees had come out to be with their kind, and to talk to Tramiel, who they mostly hadn't seen in years.

I ended up talking with Bil Herd, who worked for Commodore from 1983 to 1986, and who was the lead designer of the company's consumer group. He said he had designed the Commodore 128, as well as several other of the company's machines.

Herd explained that he had gotten lucky as a high school dropout who just happened to know how electrons worked and had landed his job at Commodore.

He said that he worked his butt off while under Tramiel's tutelage and that one thing he remembered about his time there was, "You learned not to give excuses. You learned to just get it down."

Herd said he had come here Monday from his home in New Jersey just because he wanted a chance to see Tramiel again.

"You just don't get Jack out in public," Herd said.

He began to reminisce about his time at the company and smiled as he recalled how Tramiel had come up with the idea to give consumers $100 off a Commodore 64 if they traded in their existing computer.

"It got thousands of the competition off the street," Herd said. "We had a warehouse full of the competition's (machines)."

And what did they do with those old computers?

"I used a Sinclair as a doorstop," Herd laughed.

Later, the several hundred attendees filed into the museum's auditorium for a panel discussion moderated by New York Times reporter John Markoff.

New York Times reporter John Markoff interviewing Commodore founder Jack Tramiel on stage during the 25th anniversary celebration of the Commodore 64 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And Markoff seemed to prompt the panelists--Tramiel, Wozniak, former IBM PC developer William Lowe and former Commodore International vice president of technology Adam Chowaniec--to answer the question of whether there might just have been a culture war after all.

Most didn't seem to want to bite.

But then, at last, one final nugget from Tramiel, riffing on the fact that the Apple IIe cost more than three times as much as the Commodore 64: "We made machines for the masses, (Apple) made machines for the classes."