The day Commodore died

Amiga 500 with monitor and second floppy drive.My novel Amiga will be published by Black Rose Writing on November 27, 2019. I will describe my publishing journey in a series of posts. This is the second of this series.

This week marks a sad anniversary. On April 29, 1994, Commodore filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors. For Commodore employees and those of us who used, wrote about, and built businesses around their products, this was a dark day. It meant the end of our favorite computers, the Commodore 64 and the Amiga.

As much as we hate to admit it, Commodore’s demise was inevitable. Despite the guessing about whether Commodore could have survived if it fired Executive A or built Product B, very few computer companies were going to survive the 1990s. Even Apple barely made it. There were several reasons why Commodore and the Amiga were doomed.

When the industry started in the late 1970s, dozens of companies tried their hand at producing computers. Even Mattel and Coleco made computers. This posed a problem for software developers who tried to create and support products for a wide range of systems, and for computer stores that had to order and stock all those titles. A shakeout was inevitable as it became clear which computers customers wanted. The Commodore 64 found a spot with the IBM PC and Apple II because of its low cost and advanced capabilities. Strong hardware sales led to strong software support, which in turn spurred more hardware sales. Competing products like the TI-99 and Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer faded from the market.

The next generation of Motorola 68000 computers like the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga looked like they can win the market with greater speed, a mouse-and-windows interface, and advanced graphics and audio. But by the mid-1980s, the IBM PC and compatibles had a lock on the business market. In the early 1990s, PC systems were able to match the Macintosh, Atari ST, and Amiga for graphics and audio, and Microsoft Windows was growing in popularity. As parts for PCs became standardized and commoditized, prices went down. With the large number of business and home applications for Windows, Commodore and Atari could no longer compete in the computer industry. Apple didn’t even become competitive again until the iPod became the gateway drug into the Cult of Mac.

And yet, Commodore retains its allure. You will find plenty of users who buy and customize old systems, produce documentaries and YouTube videos, and publish books about these computers. (And there’s that novel coming out in November.) So why do people wax nostalgic for Commodore and not other extinct brands like AST?

For those who grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s, Commodore was our first computer. We played our favorite games, wrote term papers, and went online for the first time. Commodore 64 music with the SID chip still has a following.

With Commodore, we also have a sense of “what might have been.” The Amiga was far ahead of other computers at that time, introducing multitasking and desktop video. It also had an influence on popular culture, with Amiga animation being used in music videos and TV shows.

Commodore also reminds us of a simpler time in the computer industry, as a character in my novel Amiga reminisces:

My laptop was far more powerful than that old Amiga. It could connect wirelessly to the Internet. It could play high-definition video. Its RAM and hard-drive space were measured in terms we hadn’t even imagined in the eighties. But it didn’t bring joy. It brought viruses, malware, spam, and foaming-mouthed hateful comments on social media. Computers became things we used to buy things, curate photos of lunches, and scroll past memes that demanded, “Like and share if you agree!” Computers had become tools. They inspired as much passion as a hammer or wrench. Tracy Kidder wrote about a soul of a new machine, but our new machines had no soul.

The Amiga was different. Every click was a new discovery. Opening a program was an adventure. The Amiga had moments that made me exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t know a computer can do that!” There were no industry standards or rules. We defined them as we went along. We were pioneers in pristine, unexplored wilderness before we paved it over with an information superhighway. The Amiga made me feel like anything was possible, because when I was 24, anything was possible.

Commodore is gone, an inevitable casualty of changing times and a consolidating market. But twenty-five years later, it leaves fond memories for its users and inspires a new generation to explore its role in computing history.