Friday, 8 May 2009

On the Edge

I wrote a review of Brian Bagnall's brilliant On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore to Librarything.

A brilliant book that pretty much makes other books about Commodore redundant. This book is so comprehensive that it's hard to think of what might be missing. This is a book about a very peculiar company and some brilliant people doing brilliant stuff. Commodore did some brilliant stuff, like the sound and video chips on the Commodore 64. I hadn't even realised that the CPU of C64 was actually the same as in VIC-20, C64 just had those chips and more memory, but it was on a totally different level performance and price wise to anything on the market at the time. The sound chip, SID, was way better than anything else in anything affordable to normal consumers even though it was a rush-job (like most of the stuff done at Commodore during their peak). The result was a chip that has produced some of the most memorable game music ever and is used to this day.

I also didn't know Amiga wasn't actually a Commodore product at first but the way it was built was reminescant of the way Commodore built some of it's products (PET, VIC-20, C64): by going far beyond what anyone else had ever done. Amiga, at the time of it's release, was an amazing home computer offering unrivalled price and performance. It's too bad Commodore marketing messed the North American market completely and effectively killed the product there. European sales were not enough to keep Commodore afloat in the end. What made Commodore a success at first was the combined price cutting by Tramiel who always wanted to sell at far lower prices than the competition and the engineers who didn't like compromises and were brilliant at what they did. To make such important products required both.

But first and foremost this book is about people. The odd, the brilliant, the obsessed people that made Commodore what it was. From founder and CEO Jack Tramiel who was not a very nice person and ruined a lot of lives but after whose dismissal by majority shareholder Irving Gould Commodore went downhill fast and would have folded a lot earlier without Amiga to the brilliant engineers like Chuck Peddle who created the computer section of Commodore and was then destroyed by Tramiel and the engineers who created C64, Robert Russell and Bob Yannes and many others. These guys were motivated to the point of obsession, brilliant at what they did and some very eccentric, none more so than Bil Herd, a brilliant hardware guy and alcoholic. The stories of some of the antics they made are just brilliant, like how and why Herd punched a hole in the wall of his office.

For someone who spent way too much of his youth playing with the C64 this book is a goldmine of information. For instance, the reason why the 1541 floppy disk was so ridiculously slow is revealed. Commodore was a major factor in bringing computers to home. Much more so than IBM and Commodore easily out-sold companies like Apple during the critical years when the home-market was created (the first three true home computers were TRS-80, Commodore PET and Apple II and the Apple sold way less than the other two). So this book is also a valuable tale of how the computer arrived to our homes. Everyone might have an IBM PC clone now but in the 80's it looked for a while like the future might be in Commodore machines but for some shocking marketing decisions. The whole computer business seems to have changed from brilliant engineers doing brilliant, ground-breaking work to the business-driven model of today where products are changed just enough to make people want to buy it.

The only little thing I was left hoping for was some sort of timeline of the events listed in the book, including the things competition did that was mentioned in the book. Sometimes it was hard to follow the order of the events because things happened in parallel so you might be tossed back several years with a new chapter. Another thing is, of course, that since this book is largely the voice of the engineers that made this happen, the opinions might be a bit lop-sided but this really only bothered me on a few occasions.

For me some of the best gaming experiences ever were with C64 and it's the reason I now work in the computer industry even though I never did do much programming on it. But I, like countless others, were drawn into the computing industry by Commodore. So their legacy is still strong even though the company folded in 1994. This book brings back many memories and also makes you wonder have we lost something while gaining computers with computing powers completely unthinkable 25 years ago.

A company that created PET, VIC-20, C64 and Amiga (they made it a success by creating a cheaper version which made it affordable to many more than the original Amiga 1000) deserves it's history to be told. This book does it and brilliantly. A must-read for anyone who has ever owned one of Commodore's computers.

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