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When Commodore ruled the world

And programmers talked to rabbits

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"We made machines for the masses," said Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, before motioning to the man beside him, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. "They made machines for the classes."

Last night, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, Tramiel and Wozniak joined several other veterans of the 80s PC wars in celebrating the 25th anniversary of Tramiel's Commodore 64 - the home machine that many call the best-selling personal computer of all-time.

Unlike Wozniak's Apple II, the Commodore 64 was a steal. When it debuted in August of 1982, it sold for $595, and Tramiel soon dropped the price to a mere $199, offering PC goodness to enthusiasts on the tightest of budgets.

According to Tramiel, Commodore sold nearly half a million C64s a month during his time with the company - he departed in 1984 - and he estimates that somewhere between 22 and 30 million units were purchased before the machine finally gave up the ghost in the mid-90s.

Sitting on Tramiel's other side, former Big Blue exec William Lowe acknowledged that sales figures for the original IBM PC weren't even close. "We sold half that many," said the man often called "the father of the IBM PC." Wozniak couldn't remember how many people bought the Apple II, but he was quick to point out that it was the undisputed sales king prior to the Commodore's heyday.

And then he took a swipe at his old 80s rival. "[The Apple II] sold for three times as much as the Commodore, but we wanted to build a company that would be around for awhile."

But he acknowledged that the C64 was just as important to 80s PC culture as anything Apple ever produced. The fledgling computer geeks who bought the Commodore may have had less money to spend, he said, but they were just has passionate - and just as productive.

"I never heard anyone say 'Oh, you only have a Commodore.' I never heard that once in my life," he said. "They were two different groups of people, but they were very similar in what they were trying to do."

Woz also acknowledged that he and Steve Jobs once tried to sell themselves to Commodore. After building a prototype for what became the Apple II, the first person they showed it to was Chuck Peddle, who worked under Tramiel.

"Steve started saying 'All we want to do is offer this to you for like $200,000 and we'll get jobs at Commodore and we'll get stock and we'll be in charge of the whole program,'" Wozniak remembered. "And we got got turned down. We were told, basically, that Commodore decided to build a simpler, lower-cost, black-and-white machine without a lot of the pizazz of the Apple II."

But the evening's best anecdotes came from Tramiel himself. At one point, the Buddha-like business guru explained that Commodore purchased MOS Technology - which eventually supplied the C64's CPU - because a big name partner nearly cut off his chip supply.

When Commodore was still making handheld calculators, all chips came from Texas Instruments. "I was doing extremely well, and Texas Instruments decided 'This was too good of a business to leave to just one guy,'" Tramiel explained. "So they went into [the calculator business] also, and they slowed my [chip] shipments - almost cut me off. Believing that business is war, I had to find a way of not being dependent on the outside for chips." So he bought MOS.

The C64 was so darn cheap because Tramiel knew exactly what his CPU costs would be months down the road. "If I had bought my chips from someone else, I could have never come up with a price of $199," he said. "Without MOS Technologies, it probably wouldn't have been as successful as it was."

Prodded by master of ceremonies John Markoff, Tramiel also recounted his earliest dealings with a man named Bill Gates. In the late 70s, Gates asked Tramiel if he'd been interested in bundling Microsoft Basic with the C64's predecessor, the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor).

"He told me I wouldn't have to give him any money [upfront]. He just wanted $3 for [each unit sold]," Tramiel said. "I told him that I was already married." Tramiel insisted he wouldn't pony up more than $25,000 total, and six weeks later, Gates agreed.

Well, Tramiel had all but one the evening's best anecdotes. The museum's panel also included Adam Chowaniec, who oversaw development of the Amiga, the successor to the Commodore 64. When Chowaniec was asked if he was ever truly "scared" during the days in the PC trenches, he explained that at one point, Commodore had an outside programmer developing the Amiga's operating system.

"I went to see the person writing this operating system," he remembered. "We flew out to his home, where he was writing this software on a bunch of early Sun workstations. He had about four or five Suns and a big cage with a rabbit in it. And he spent a lot of time talking to the rabbit."

We will leave you with that. ®

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