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The Commodore 64, also known as the C64 or the CBM 64, is an 8-bit home computer introduced in January 1982 by Commodore International (first shown at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, January 7–10, 1982).[4] It has been listed in the Guinness World Records as the highest-selling single computer model of all time,[5] with independent estimates placing the number sold between 12.5 and 17 million units.[2] Volume production started in early 1982, marketing in August for US$595 (equivalent to $1,576 in 2019).[6][7] Preceded by the Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore PET, the C64 took its name from its 64 kilobytes (65,536 bytes) of RAM. With support for multicolor sprites and a custom chip for waveform generation, the C64 could create superior visuals and audio compared to systems without such custom hardware.

The C64 dominated the low-end computer market (except in the UK) for most of the 1980s.[8] For a substantial period (1983–1986), the C64 had between 30% and 40% share of the US market and two million units sold per year,[9] outselling IBM PC compatibles, Apple computers, and the Atari 8-bit family of computers. Sam Tramiel, a later Atari president and the son of Commodore's founder, said in a 1989 interview, "When I was at Commodore we were building 400,000 C64s a month for a couple of years."[10] In the UK market, the C64 faced competition from the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum,[11] but the C64 was still the second most popular computer in the UK after the ZX Spectrum.[12]

Part of the Commodore 64's success was its sale in regular retail stores instead of only electronics or computer hobbyist specialty stores. Commodore produced many of its parts in-house to control costs, including custom integrated circuit chips from MOS Technology. It has been compared to the Ford Model T automobile for its role in bringing a new technology to middle-class households via creative and affordable mass-production.[13] Approximately 10,000 commercial software titles have been made for the Commodore 64, including development tools, office productivity applications, and video games.[14] C64 emulators allow anyone with a modern computer, or a compatible video game console, to run these programs today. The C64 is also credited with popularizing the computer demoscene and is still used today by some computer hobbyists.[15] In 2011, 17 years after it was taken off the market, research showed that brand recognition for the model was still at 87%.[5]

History

The Commodore 64 startup screen

In January 1981, MOS Technology, Inc., Commodore's integrated circuit design subsidiary, initiated a project to design the graphic and audio chips for a next generation video game console. Design work for the chips, named MOS Technology VIC-II (Video Integrated Circuit for graphics) and MOS Technology SID (Sound Interface Device for audio), was completed in November 1981.[6] Commodore then began a game console project that would use the new chips—called the Ultimax or the Commodore MAX Machine, engineered by Yash Terakura from Commodore Japan. This project was eventually cancelled after just a few machines were manufactured for the Japanese market.[16] At the same time, Robert "Bob" Russell (system programmer and architect on the VIC-20) and Robert "Bob" Yannes (engineer of the SID) were critical of the current product line-up at Commodore, which was a continuation of the Commodore PET line aimed

The C64 dominated the low-end computer market (except in the UK) for most of the 1980s.[8] For a substantial period (1983–1986), the C64 had between 30% and 40% share of the US market and two million units sold per year,[9] outselling IBM PC compatibles, Apple computers, and the Atari 8-bit family of computers. Sam Tramiel, a later Atari president and the son of Commodore's founder, said in a 1989 interview, "When I was at Commodore we were building 400,000 C64s a month for a couple of years."[10] In the UK market, the C64 faced competition from the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum,[11] but the C64 was still the second most popular computer in the UK after the ZX Spectrum.[12]

Part of the Commodore 64's success was its sale in regular retail stores instead of only electronics or computer hobbyist specialty stores. Commodore produced many of its parts in-house to control costs, including custom integrated circuit chips from MOS Technology. It has been compared to the Ford Model T automobile for its role in bringing a new technology to middle-class households via creative and affordable mass-production.[13] Approximately 10,000 commercial software titles have been made for the Commodore 64, including development tools, office productivity applications, and video games.[14] C64 emulators allow anyone with a modern computer, or a compatible video game console, to run these programs today. The C64 is also credited with popularizing the computer demoscene and is still used today by some computer hobbyists.[15] In 2011, 17 years after it was taken off the market, research showed that brand recognition for the model was still at 87%.[5]

In January 1981, MOS Technology, Inc., Commodore's integrated circuit design subsidiary, initiated a project to design the graphic and audio chips for a next generation video game console. Design work for the chips, named MOS Technology VIC-II (Video Integrated Circuit for graphics) and MOS Technology SID (Sound Interface Device for audio), was completed in November 1981.[6] Commodore then began a game console project that would use the new chips—called the Ultimax or the Commodore MAX Machine, engineered by Yash Terakura from Commodore Japan. This project was eventually cancelled after just a few machines were manufactured for the Japanese market.[16] At the same time, Robert "Bob" Russell (system programmer and architect on the VIC-20) and Robert "Bob" Yannes (engineer of the SID) were critical of the current product line-up at Commodore, which was a continuation of the Commodore PET line aimed at business users. With the support of Al Charpentier (engineer of the VIC-II) and Charles Winterble (manager of MOS Technology), they proposed to Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel a true low-cost sequel to the VIC-20. Tramiel dictated that the machine should have 64 KB of random-access memory (RAM). Although 64-Kbit dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) chips cost over US$100 (equivalent to $237.72 in 2019) at the time, he knew that 64K DRAM prices were falling and would drop to an acceptable level before full production was reached. The team was able to quickly design the computer because, unlike most other home-computer companies, Commodore had its own semiconductor fab to produce test chips; because the fab was not running at full capacity, development costs were part of existing corporate overhead. The chips were complete by November, by which time Charpentier, Winterble, and Tramiel had decided to proceed with the new computer; the latter set a final deadline for the first weekend of January, to coincide with the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).[6]

The product was code named the VIC-40 as the successor to the popular VIC-20. The team that constructed it consisted of Yash Terakura,[17] Shiraz Shivji,[18] Bob Russell, Bob Yannes, and David A. Ziembicki. The design, prototypes, and some sample software were finished in time for the show, after the team had worked tirelessly over both Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends. The machine used the same case, same-sized motherboard, and same Commodore BASIC 2.0 in ROM as the VIC-20. BASIC also served as the user interface shell and was available immediately on startup at the READY prompt. When the product was to be presented, the VIC-40 product was renamed C64. The C64 made an impressive debut at the January 1982 Consumer Electronics Show, as recalled by Production Engineer David A. Ziembicki: "All we saw at our booth were Atari people with their mouths dropping open, saying, 'How can you do that for $595?'"[6][19] The answer was vertical integration; due to Commodore's ownership of MOS Technology's semiconductor fabrication facilities, each C64 had an estimated production cost of US$135.[6]

Reception

In July 1983, BYTE magazine stated that "the 64 retails for $595. At that price it promises to be one of the hottest contenders in the under-$1000 personal computer market." It described the SID as "a true music synthesizer ... the quality of the sound has to be heard to be believed", while criticizing the use of Commodore BASIC 2.0, the floppy disk performance which is "even slower than the Atari 810 drive", and Commodore's quality control.[20] Creative Computing said in December 1984 that the 64 was "the overwhelming winner" in the category of home computers under $500. Despite criticizing its "slow disk drive, only two cursor directional keys, zero manufacturer support, non-standard interfaces, etc.", the magazine said that at the 64's price of less than $200 "you can't get another system with the same features: 64K, color, sprite graphics, and barrels of available software".[21]

Market war: 1982–1983

Game cartridges for Radar Rat Race and International Soccer

Commodore had a reputation for announcing products that never appeared, so sought to quickly ship the C64. Production began in spring 1982 and volume shipments began in August.[6] The C64 faced a wide range of competing home computers,[22] but with a lower price and more flexible hardware, it quickly outsold many of its competitors.

In the United States the greatest competitors were the Atari 8-bit 400, the Atari 800, and the Apple II. The Atari 400 and 800 had been designed to accommodate previously stringent FCC emissions requirements and so were expensive to manufacture. Though similar in specifications, the two computers represented differing design philosophies; as an open architecture system, upgrade capability for the Apple II was granted by internal expansion slots, whereas the C64's comparatively closed architecture had only a single external ROM cartridge port for bus expansion. However, the Apple II used its expansion slots for interfacing to common peripherals like disk drives, printers, and modems; the C64 had a variety of ports integrated into its motherboard which were used for these purposes, usually leaving the cartridge port free. Commodore's was not a completely closed system, however; the company had published detailed specifications for most of their models since the Commodore PET and VIC-20 days, and the C64 was no exception. Initial C64 sales were nonetheless relatively slow due to a lack of software, reliability issues with early production models, particularly high failure rates of the PLA chip, which used a new production process, and a shortage of 1541 disk drives, which also suffered rather severe reliability issues. During 1983, however, a trickle of software turned into a flood and sales began rapidly climbing, especially with price cuts from $600 to just $300 ($1500 to $800 in 2019).

Commodore sold the C64 not only through its network of authorized dealers, but also through department stores, disco

The product was code named the VIC-40 as the successor to the popular VIC-20. The team that constructed it consisted of Yash Terakura,[17] Shiraz Shivji,[18] Bob Russell, Bob Yannes, and David A. Ziembicki. The design, prototypes, and some sample software were finished in time for the show, after the team had worked tirelessly over both Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends. The machine used the same case, same-sized motherboard, and same Commodore BASIC 2.0 in ROM as the VIC-20. BASIC also served as the user interface shell and was available immediately on startup at the READY prompt. When the product was to be presented, the VIC-40 product was renamed C64. The C64 made an impressive debut at the January 1982 Consumer Electronics Show, as recalled by Production Engineer David A. Ziembicki: "All we saw at our booth were Atari people with their mouths dropping open, saying, 'How can you do that for $595?'"[6][19] The answer was vertical integration; due to Commodore's ownership of MOS Technology's semiconductor fabrication facilities, each C64 had an estimated production cost of US$135.[6]

In July 1983, BYTE magazine stated that "the 64 retails for $595. At that price it promises to be one of the hottest contenders in the under-$1000 personal computer market." It described the SID as "a true music synthesizer ... the quality of the sound has to be heard to be believed", while criticizing the use of Commodore BASIC 2.0, the floppy disk performance which is "even slower than the Atari 810 drive", and Commodore's quality control.[20] Creative Computing said in December 1984 that the 64 was "the overwhelming winner" in the category of home computers under $500. Despite criticizing its "slow disk drive, only two cursor directional keys, zero manufacturer support, non-standard interfaces, etc.", the magazine said that at the 64's price of less than $200 "you can't get another system with the same features: 64K, color, sprite graphics, and barrels of available software".[21]

Market war: 1982–1983

1983 saw Commodore attempt to compete with the Apple II's hold on the US education market with the Educator 64,[61] essentially a C64 and "greenscale" monochrome monitor in a PET case. Schools preferred the all-in-one metal construction of the PET over the standard C64's separate components, which could be easily damaged, vandalized, or stolen.[62] Schools did not prefer the Educator 64 to the wide range of software and hardware options the Apple IIe was able to offer, and it was produced in limited quantities.[63]

SX-64