For those that were involved with home computers during the 1980's, the Commodore brand was everywhere. The company burst on the scene, was the toast of the decade, and then seemed to vanish almost overnight. Where did Commodore come from, how'd they get so popular, and what happened to them?
The Early Years
Commodore made its name initially in the 1970's making calculators. Commodore's calculators were very successful until Texas Instruments entered the market and was able to sell calculators to the public for less money than it cost Commodore to make them. The company that would become Commodore actually started in Toronto in 1954 manufacturing Czechoslovakian designed typewriters and then adding machines. When typewriters manufactured in Japan became available at a cheaper price, Commodore turned to calculators.
Trying to recover from the infiltration of Texas Instrument calculators on their market, Commodore struggled to find their next niche. In the mid-to-late 1970's, Commodore purchased a number of chip suppliers and entered the personal computer market, little did they know they were about to experience success they had not thought possible. In 1977 Commodore launched the PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) and was officially a computer company from that point on. The PET was primarily placed and marketed to schools and was found to be durable and highly popular. The design did not lend itself to the home computer market mainly based on its lack of graphics and seemingly poor sound quality.
In 1981, Commodore rectified this with the launch of the Commodore VIC-20. The VIC-20 had a suggested retail price of $ 299 and was not limited in where it was for sale. Many computers of the time were available solely through distributorships, but Commodore made the VIC-20 available through normal retail outlets. Commodore aggressively marketed the VIC-20, even using William Shatner as a spokesman. The VIC-20's tagline was "Why Buy Just A Video Game?" The aggressive marketing paid off and the VIC-20 became the first computer to have one million units shipped to customers. Over the life of the VIC-20, over 2.5 million units were sold.
Commodore's most famous model, the Commodore 64, was introduced in 1982 and featured better sound and graphics capability than the VIC-20. The initial price was $ 599 which was significantly lower than most other 64K home computers on the market. In fact, Commodore's slogan for the 64 was "You Can not Buy A Better Computer At Twice The Price". In 1983, in an effort to try and dominate the home computer market, Commodore drastically cut the price of both the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64. Soon this started a computer price war involving Commodore, Texas Instruments, Atari, and most smaller brands of computers. When the dust settled Commodore had shipped about 22 million Commodore 64's making it the best selling computer of all time, driven Texas Instruments out of the home computer market, almost bankrupted Atari along with many smaller companies, and exhausted almost all of their own savings.
In dire financial straits following the mid 1980's computer price war that they had started, Commodore refocused in the late 1980's and purchased a small company called Amiga Corporation. Commodore brought the Amiga 1000 and its new 16-bit technology to the home computer market in 1985. The Amiga 1000 was marketed directly at its strengths which were much better sound and graphics capability. The initial price on the Amiga 1000 was $ 1295 and was the computer of choice for technology and gaming geeks of the time.
The End Is Near
Commodore then found themselves in legal trouble involving lawsuits back and forth between them and Atari Corp. which had since been purchased by Commodore's original founder Jack Tramiel. By 1987, most lawsuits had been dropped or settled with Commodore coming out on the wrong side. The release of the Amiga 500 in 1987 found Commodore triumphing over Atari and outselling their popular ST model by a margin of 1.5 to 1. After a number of adjustments in the home computer market, including the rise of Apple and the PC (IBM both and its clones), along with Commodore removing its line of computers from retailers and making them only available through distributors, and Commodore's stance that they would no longer pursue mass marketing campaigns, Commodore found themselves languishing at or near the bottom of major computer companies. 1994 would find Commodore only operating profitably in the UK and Germany and eventually filing for bankruptcy.
After bankruptcy, the Commodore and Amiga brand names would change hands numerous times with a number of companies marketing the next model of computer or peripheral unit under this already established name. The name though would never again see the success it saw in the 1980's when everyone had to have the Commodore 64.