The Commodore 64 hits 30 this week

3 Jan 2012

Some 30 years ago this week the very first Commodore 64 was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show. The iconic machine went into production just eight months later and a legend was born.

According to Commodore 64 fan site, the personal computer was first shown as a prototype at CES in VIC-20 casing in January 1982.

The designers of the computer started working on the machine in November 1981 originally as a follow-up to the VIC-20 with the working title VIC-40.

Volume shipments began in August and later that month the first prized models were made available to the public.

The Commodore 64 had just 64k of RAM and 20k of ROM.

During its lifetime, sales totalled between 12.5m and 17m units and for a time it outsold IBM PC clones, Apple Inc computers and Atari 8-bit family computers.

More than 10,000 pieces of software, from productivity apps to games, were created. Part of the reason for its success was it was sold in retail stores as opposed to electronics stores and it has been compared to the Model T Ford in terms of bringing the latest technology to the public via mass production.

Another key reason for its success was the ability of its engineers to bring out a machine that sold for less than US$600.

The enabler of this was vertical integration via Commodore’s ownership of MOS Technology’s semiconductor fabs.

The Commodore 64 battled for supremacy in the US against Apple and Atari and in Europe against the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the BBC Microcomputer and the Amstrad CPC 464.

It was still selling more than 1.5m machines by the early 1990s.

However, due to the economics of manufacturing hard disk drives which cost more than the computer itself to make, Commodore’s fortunes began to ebb and by 1994 it had filed for bankruptcy.

Return of the Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 is an object of affection amongst today’s veteran coders and software engineers, as it was one of the earliest initiators and outlets for their talents.

Last summer, new versions of the Commodore 64 began shipping. These were modern PCs – Ubuntu 10.04-powered – that sat inside the shell of the iconic 1980s personal computer.

The new Commodore 64s come with a dual-core Intel Atom D525 1.8GHz microprocessor that comes standard in the latest netbooks. It also boasts an integrated Nvidia graphics chip and there is an option of equipping a model with a Blu-ray DVD player.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years