Andrew Leigh writes "On The Edge: The Spectacular Rise And Fall Of Commodore by Brian Bagnall is fodder for anyone interested in the buried history of the personal computer. Whether you owned a Commodore computer or want to hear a new angle on the early stages of computer development, you'll find this book easy to pick up and almost impossible to put down. Bagnall has gone to a massive amount of effort in telling this tale, researching and interviewing the real personalities involved. It takes readers on an important and often emotional ride that will many times leave you shaking your head at how painfully it all went wrong." Read the rest of Andrew's review
Before Commodore entered the home computer market, they were primarily a calculator manufacturer. The story begins in the mid 70's with the development of Chuck Peddle's famous 6502 chip, through to the release of the first personal computer, the Commodore PET. It then reveals how the VIC-20 became the first home computer to break the elusive one million barrier. Then comes the Commodore 64, and how the company made it the best selling computer of all time. The Commodore 128 is given plenty of coverage, along with the failed Commodore 16 and Plus/4 computers (which are probably better off forgotten). At this point, Commodore seems like it is losing its way, and the story cuts to the struggling company responsible for the original Amiga computer. You'll learn about the various Amiga models that followed, including the successful Amiga 500 and the pre-DVD CDTV and CD32 units. The hirings, firings, disagreements, discontent, resignations and celebrations that occurred during the company's run are given more than their fair share of coverage. It doesn't always show Commodore in the best light, which is what readers should demand from any history.
It's a sad truth, and the book describes this in an often bitter fashion, that the early history of computers seems to focus on Apple, IBM and Microsoft while Commodore's massive contributions to the industry are routinely ignored. The common misconception that Apple started the home computing industry is simply wrong. Commodore was the first to show a personal computer, the first to deliver low-cost computers to the masses, the first to sell a million computers, and the first to arrive with a true multimedia computer. Fortunately this book sets a lot of the record straight.
On The Edge delves deeply into the business strategies behind the company. Students of any business discipline will be well advised to heed the lessons about how not to run a company. One of the book's main characters and the founder of Commodore, Jack Tramiel, was an incredibly ruthless business man. Whether you love him or hate him, he was ultimately behind the incredible success of the VIC-20 and Commodore 64 computers. The book outlines how he managed to be the first to sell his home computers to the mass market through department stores, driving prices down and annihilating most of the competition. It also amusingly tells how he would regularly lose his temper and have what employees referred to as "Jack Attacks" when things went wrong. Many people referred to him as the scariest man alive and he probably was. Jack Tramiel unfortunately does not publicly talk about the Commodore days, so Bagnall was not able to personally interview him, however family members and those close to him give their personal accounts of events.
The book also explains how Irving Gould, the money-man and venture capitalist behind Commodore, constantly interfered when things were seemingly running smoothly. It is widely recognized that Irving Gould and Medhi Ali (the CEO he instated at the time) ultimately caused the sad demise of Commodore through 1993-94, yet the details of how it happened have always been sketchy until now. Thomas Rattigan, former CEO of Commodore, was interviewed by Bagnall and gives his personal thoughts and experiences during his time with the company. He also talks about his untimely dismissal by Gould. The later sections of the book describe how numerous marketing mishaps and poor business sense led to a dwindling stock price and an eventual filing for liquidation. Bagnall accurately describes the heartbreaking end to a great company that deserved much more success and recognition.
This book certainly does not shy away from getting its metaphorical hands dirty with the technical details and manufacturing processes involved in building the Commodore computers. If anything, more detail would be welcome here, as the personalities interviewed obviously drove their designs by an enormous amount of passion. Bagnall has interviewed all the original key players involved on the technical side, including the humble and personable Chuck Peddle. You'll read how he built the MOS 6502 microprocessor, with the talented layout artist Bill Mensch. The chip was used by not only Commodore but rivals Apple, Atari, and Nintendo. Many other notable and significant technical pioneers have also been interviewed and give their experiences and opinions.
You'll learn why your 1541 floppy disk drive was so unbearably slow. You'll learn how millions of dollars worth of Amigas were scrapped because of a cheeky message placed in the ROM by a disgruntled employee. You'll learn how exhausted coders had to take naps at their desks while code compiled on a mainframe. You'll also learn why those tedious "peek" and "poke" functions weren't built in as BASIC commands for easier usage on your C64.
Interestingly, Steve Wozinak, one of the co-founders of Apple Computers, claims in his new book (titled "iWoz") that he invented the personal computer and provided Chuck Peddle with the idea for the first Commodore PET. When you read On The Edge, you'll find that it tells a different story. Chuck Peddle receives a great deal of coverage, and after reading about his efforts you will feel this is deservedly so. His efforts have gone largely unsung and On The Edge may well be the first step towards him earning the title of being the father of the personal computer.
Commodore Business Machines was a company that produced superior computers for the mass market. Their legacy deserves to be told and more importantly heard. Computing history didn't just involve the big players that still exist today. Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and others all shaped the future. On The Edge is an experience that will change the way you view computing history and maybe even entice you to dust off that old Commodore computer that's been sitting in the cupboard. Bagnall tells it like it is and also leaves you thinking "what if?" many times. The great stories are filled with characters that anyone who works in the IT industry will recognize in their own workplace. It truly demonstrates the fragility and ad-hoc nature of not only Commodore itself, but the entire industry back then. It really makes you cringe in disbelief at how some stupid and insignificant decisions shaped the future as we know it now. No one could have known how important these decisions were back then.
At a hefty 557 pages, On The Edge is good value. Bagnall's informative and relaxed writing makes it a breeze to travel through decades at a blistering pace. It sheds some much needed light on a period of history clouded by revisionism.
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