8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars DVD Review: The Real Halt and Catch Fire

Documentary chronicles the rise and fall of Commodore Business Machines.
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Trivia time: what is the top-selling single computer of all time? If you guessed something in the Mac or IBM families, you’re wrong. No, the all-time champ is still the Commodore 64, first released 35 years ago and ultimately notching upwards of 17 million units sold. Led by the scrappy Jack Tramiel, Commodore made it their mission in the 1980s to popularize the concept of home computers, delivering competent product at reasonable prices to stimulate sales to casual users (including me) instead of just hardcore hobbyists. At the height of their popularity, the company imploded after the forced departure of Tramiel, becoming a victim of corporate politics and a major technological shift they weren’t prepared to embrace. This fascinating new documentary traces the rise and fall of the company and features new interviews with key employees including Tramiel.

If you’ve ever watched Halt and Catch Fire, this film will seem very familiar, since its true story clearly shows that Commodore, not Apple, was the basis for the first season’s plot. As much as Apple’s founders always wanted to think of themselves as the scrappy upstarts revolutionizing the industry, their premium price point (which continues today) ensured that they only appealed to the well-off enthusiasts. Without Commodore single-handedly launching the affordable home PC era, many prominent programmers of today likely would have never have gotten their start and career passion as kids, as alluded to within the film.

The film is narrated by Bil Herd, an affable ex-Commodore engineer who adds a major level of legitimacy to the project. He’s a solid choice for narrator due to his first-hand knowledge of the events recounted, and even gets on camera for a few interviews to add his recollections. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak also appears to share his thoughts on the early days of the PC revolution when his company faced Commodore, not IBM, as their principal rival. The film also calls on Chuck Peddle for insight due to his role in designing the low-priced MOS 6502 microprocessor, variations of which were used in virtually all platforms of the era including the Commodore 64 and the Atari 2600 game console. Interestingly, Commodore owned MOS, so they were able to keep their component costs startlingly low while also dictating the market price for their competitors.

By far the most important interview subject is Commodore founder Jack Tramiel. He was the scrappy, brash boss who successfully navigated the company from making calculators to PCs in spite of his lack of technological knowledge. His illuminating interviews reveal how he applied simple principles learned from his parents to drive his company to maximize their efficiencies, minimize their costs, and deliver superior, desirable product at acceptable prices. He’s still an imposing character even at his advanced age, making it easy to see how driven he must have been in his prime. Although his company faded away, this documentary definitively makes the case that his work changed the world.

The DVD bonus feature is a recent TEDx Talk interview with Tramiel’s son, Leonard, who was also involved in the company during its heyday. It’s not especially inspirational by TED Talk standards, but adds a bit more information and perspective about Commodore’s history.

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