A Geek’s Tribute to Jack Tramiel

If you’re a personal computing buff, there’s a chance you might be thanking the wrong innovator.

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Jack Tramiel proudly displays his wares in 1984. Image source: LA Times

After Steve Jobs passed, the physical and virtual worlds were both immediately awash in laments and post mortem accolades for the personal computing prophet.   The mass outpouring of praise and regret crossed cultural, corporate and communal lines.  But more recently, Jack Tramiel left us, and only the hardcore old-guard techies seemed to notice.

Most of us are middle-aged by now, but we remember Jack’s gifts like they were just given yesterday.  The wonderous sensation of fingertips pecking at cheap brown keys is now long faded and replaced by strokes across slick capacitive touchscreens, but we can still see the time-spanning coils of Commodore DNA just below the surface.

Commodore first struck the consumer computing scene with the PET, and then followed with the surprisingly popular VIC-20, but it was with the Commodore 64 that Tramiel’s company hit its stride.  Against a swelling sea of myriad competitors in the early 1980s, the earth-toned C64 gained an immediate huge, passionate following and went on to become “the single best-selling personal computer of all time” (Wikipedia).

The C64 wasn’t my first computer.  After learning the essentials on the ground-breaking Radio Shack TRS-80 in college, I purchased a tiny Timex Sinclair 1000.  It was a true hacker’s device with its membrane keyboard, insanely low price and technical openness.  It was with the Timex that I discovered a serious interest in and natural knack for coding.  But it was the Commodore 64 that launched me and a far more talented multitude to the next level.

As a middle-class 21-year-old I spent a fair amount of money on that system and its peripherals, almost maxing out my Dillard’s credit card to the dismay of my parents.  The conventional view of personal computers at the time was that they were very expensive and largely useless toys.  But having spent some time seriously studying the subject, I knew that the powerful little Commodore 64 was relatively cheap, and well-worth the investment.  So did the many members of a rapidly-arising cottage industry who expanded its functionality in ways I daresay even Jack Tramiel may not have envisioned.

Tramiel, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and immigrant to the US from Poland, was cut from that same can-do cloth.  He held a prescient vision of  “computers for the masses, not the classes” and it can be said that Jack, more than any other single individual, kickstarted the personal computing world as we know it today.  While at the helm of Commodore, Mr. Tramiel transformed the company from a successful typewriter and calculator company into a PC pioneer before IBM even realized there was a market.

The public didn’t yet realize personal computers were viable, either, when the Commodore 64 was launched in 1982.  I was heavily into video gaming at the time and looking for the Next Big Thing in that space.  I had also just discovered Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD) on the green-screened Tektronix 4052, and realized I had an aptitude for work in this fledgling industry.  I knew a little of the VIC-20 and was considering a purchase, when I stumbled onto a print article in Compute! magazine about its new, more capable brother.

It had advanced graphics capability.  Oh, and who can forget that amazing audio!

Tramiel had the foresight to empower the new machine as not just a general computing device, but as a powerful gaming platform as well.  But more than that, he opened it up.  The affordable C64 possessed ports that exposed its wonderful workings to white-hat hackers, and gave us the keys to the kingdom with a thick, specification-filled manual that sucked us in like moths to a monitor light.

I remember poring through those specs day after day, struggling to understand memory PEEKs and POKEs and expressing gratitude to my parents for previously supporting my interest in electronics.  The latter led to fun do-it-yourself projects like the mercury-switch joystick I made from scratch for the C64 after seeing one advertised.  I had been drooling over the incredible number of peripherals that popped up around the C64 but found much more pleasure in building my own than buying.  Same for many others.  And Commodore’s philosophy of opening their products up to the hacking masses made it all possible.

Purists will note that it was the briliant MOS engineers Chuck Peddle and Bill Mensch who were originally more instrumental in the success of low-cost computing, and there is no disputing that their powerful but cheap 6502 processor signaled the actual singularity event.

But there is also no denying Tramiel’s impactful leadership.  His impossible challenge to Peddle to quickly build a true computer around that legendary chip resulted in wholesale transformation of civilized society.  Modern history is now divided into two technological epochs, Pre- and Post-PC, and it was Jack Tramiel who pulled together and empowered the resources necessary to make it happen.  He had the foresight to continue making the 6502 available even to competitors (this had actually begun before Commodore purchased MOS), enabling a broad, rapid explosion of innovation.  A notable 6502 customer at the time?  Little Apple Computer Company, just getting started in a Palo Alto garage with its ultimately-historic Apple I.

Jobs and Steve Wozniak in fact entertained the notion of selling their baby to Commodore, but Tramiel would not agree to their asking price.  One can only wonder how different two eulogies might have been if he had let loose of a little more cash.  Hints can be found in some of the other online paens to Jack, such as Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz’ controversial labeling of him as the “anti Steve Jobs”.

But while I can definitely admire Steve Jobs for his own contributions, Jack Tramiel is more my personal hero.  His dream of computing for all was a long time growing but it’s safe to say that without Tramiel’s insistence on an open platform, Apple would have, ironically, never had a chance.  So in essence, Jobs owed Tramiel.  I do hope he expressed that at some point.  I can’t say it enough:

Thanks, Jack.

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