Friday, 22 April 2011

The Commodore 64 is making a comeback. What!?!

Flashback to 1982 and my first computer, the Commodore 64. In comparison with today's machines, this humble little foray into a personal computer market dominated at that time by the IBM PC and the Apple II would be laughable. However I can state from personal experience that what was achieved within the limitations of the hardware was truly astounding and even to this day, I look back at what people produced in merely 64k of memory - with disk swapping - as a miracle of engineering and ingenuity. According to various sources, the Commodore 64 is considered the greatest selling single computer model of all time.

A trip down memory lane
If you didn't own a Commodore 64, if you didn't "get into it" beyond playing Donkey Kong or some such thing, none of what I am about to say is going to make any sense or be of any interest. Skip to the end of the article; why waste your time reading about stuff you know nothing about?

The BASIC which was the core of the Commodore was just that, basic, but there was oh so much that waited just hidden behind the blue screen. I managed to purchase several books that presented complete breakdowns of every memory address and every PEEK and POKE one could do to supercharge the most ordinary of BASIC applications. It was stunning what was lying in the wings.

An amusing story about this BASIC which came from Microsoft:

If you type “WAIT6502,1″ into a Commodore PET with BASIC V2 (1979), it will show the string “MICROSOFT!” at the top left corner of the screen. Legend has it Bill Gates himself inserted this easter egg “after he had had an argument with Commodore founder Jack Tramiel”, “just in case Commodore ever tried to claim that the code wasn’t from Microsoft”.

By the way, the above story goes into some technical coding details on the CPU. I mention this as I spent quite a bit of time back in 1982 writing in assembler for the Commodore. There was an application called "PAL" (Personal Assembly Language by Brad Templeton) where you wrote assembly language instructions as a BASIC application. You ran this compiler and it created your assembly code. At the time, after learning many of the technical details of this 8-bit micro-processor, I discovered how to create a BASIC extension like Simons' BASIC. Aside: I found this turbo loader which greatly increased the speed of my 1541 disk drive. I managed to disassemble it and incorporate it into my own BASIC so I had a natural speed increase of my work. Remember how slow the 1541 was but how fast it could be sped up?

Personal Story: When I first got my Commodore, I started playing around with its graphics mode. I wrote some BASIC applications to draw things which seemed kind of cool. However, one of the first things I did, was to write a routine to change all 64,000 pixels on the screen. It would about a minute and 20 seconds to modify all 64,000 pixels. Let's not forget that interpreted BASIC is slow and on an 8-bit processor, even slower.

Using PAL, I wrote a routine to do the same, clear all 64,000 pixels. I ran the routine and nothing happened. I tried it again. Nothing. Odd, Then I looked carefully at the screen and realised what was the most startling of discoveries. The assembly language code could clear the entire screen of 64,000 pixels in the blink of an eye. My BASIC code took about a minute and twenty seconds while the assembly code was taking - what? - a tenth of a second? When I figured this out, I was stunned. I didn't fully appreciate what assembly language was or how much faster it was than BASIC. I have to tell you that I was hooked. Of course, you had a bitch of time coding in assembler but the results were so bloody fast who would want to code any other way?

Commercial Applications
Apparently there were a hundred thousand commercial programs written for the Commodore. Multiplan from Microsoft was an amazing spreadsheet. Yes, it swapped to disk but it worked and did anything a spreadsheet was supposed to do, but in 64K! Superbase was your dBASE type of database application but once again, in 64K. And it had had its own scripting language.

By the way, I spent some time trying to disassemble the code for Superbase and discovered a very interesting coding technique used to hide code from nosy plagiarists. Superbase would load a section of code from disk into the memory of the computer. A small piece of code would then do XOR on bytes in memory modifying their assembly language instructions. This next piece of code would do the same thing. In other words, you couldn't just disassembly what was on the program disk as what was there was "encrypted" code and it was only decrypted once in the memory of the computer. Consequently, anybody trying to hack the code had a next to impossible job of doing so. Modern computers with their multi-tasking, thread based gawd only knows what, rule out code modifying code so I can't say if "encrypting code" is a technique used these days to dissuade hackers from stealing coding secrets. Nevertheless, I saw it for myself with the Superbase app on the Commodore 64 and was certainly impressed at this protection of commercial interests.

The first time I saw GEOS, I knew this was the end of an era. Why? I considered it to be the ultimate, the final push-to-the-limits of the C64. Nobody was ever going to do better than this. It was the best exploitation of the 8-bit processor and the Commodore machine I had ever seen. Yes, there had been some great applications, some interesting games, but this was the best practical use of the machine.

The company went on to produce a version for PCs but was unfortunately muscled out of the marketplace by Microsoft. Knowing what they did on the Commodore, I always felt they would have worked miracles on a PC.

The Comeback
A company by the name of Commodore USA has purchased the trademarks to both Commodore and Amiga. Its flagship product is a "reincarnated" Commodore 64, an exact replica built with modern components. It apparently has all the features of modern computers being able to load Windows 7 and having a built-in DVD Blue Ray disk drive however, the flick of a switch can give you the "classic mode". For anybody who's nostalgic, this would seem like a dream come true. I must say it's tempting, but then again, do I look back or do I move forward?

Final Word
I have a cardboard box in storage full of Commodore 64 reference books and disks. I was thinking of giving the whole lot of it away to some club as I felt it was too much of a find to just chuck out, but with the news of this company offering "nostalgia 64s", I may just think twice about doing so. Then again, there are so many new things to look into, I wonder if I want to take any time or should I say waste any time re-examining a period of my life which is now over and done. I found it amusing to see some images on the Net of the familiar opening blue screen:

**** COMMODORE 64 BASIC V2 ****

But there are still a lot of things I'd like to do or try to do, things which are new and not old. What's that old saying? You can never go home.

Excuse me while I turn on my Dell laptop with 4 gig of memory, a 2.67 GHz quad core, and 237 gig Samsung SSD (Solid State Drive - Hey! No moving parts!). This machine, by the way, is a dream.


Wikipedia: Commodore 64
The Commodore 64 is an 8-bit home computer introduced by Commodore International in January 1982. Volume production started in the spring of 1982, with machines being released on to the market in August at a price of US $595. Preceded by the Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore MAX Machine, the C64 features 64 kilobytes (65,536 bytes) of memory with sound and graphics performance that were superior to IBM-compatible computers of that time. It is commonly known as the C64 or C=64 (after the graphic logo on the case) and occasionally as the CBM 64 (for Commodore Business Machines), or VIC-64. It has also been affectionately nicknamed the "breadbox" and "bullnose" due to the shape and color of the first version of its casing.

During the C64's lifetime, sales totaled between 12.5 and 17 million units, making it the best-selling single personal computer model of all time. For a substantial period of time (1983–1986), the C64 dominated the market with between 30% and 40% share and 2 million units sold per year, outselling the IBM PC clones, Apple Inc. computers, and Atari 8-bit family computers. Sam Tramiel, a former 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."

Part of its success was because it was sold in retail stores instead of electronics stores. Commodore produced many of its parts in-house to control supplies and cost. It is sometimes compared to the Ford Model-T automobile for its role in bringing a new technology to middle-class households via creative mass-production.

Wikipedia: Commodore International
Commodore is the commonly used name for Commodore Business Machines (CBM), the U.S.-based home computer manufacturer and electronics manufacturer headquartered in West Chester, Pennsylvania, which also housed Commodore's corporate parent company, Commodore International Limited. Commodore played a vital role in the development of the home–personal computer industry in the 1980s. Commodore developed and marketed the world's best-selling desktop computer, the Commodore 64 (1982).

The company declared bankruptcy in 1994 and since then there have been several attempts to revive its Amiga systems. The brand revived in 2005 after a few mergers with Yeahronimo Media Ventures Inc., SATXS Communications BV, and Tulip Computers.

Wikipedia: Commodore USA
Commodore USA, LLC is a reincarnation of the classic Commodore brand of personal computers. Founded in April of 2010 the company seeks to revive both the Commodore and Amiga computer brands. Barry Altman, the company's president, purchased the trademarks to both Commodore and Amiga in September of 2010.

The flagship product for Commodore USA is the reincarnated Commodore 64. This model is an exact replica of the original Commodore 64 on the outside, but it is built with modern components. The base model has an Intel Atom processor and an NVIDIA Ion 2 graphics card.

LLC = Limited Liability Company (Wikipedia)

Commodore USA
Commodore was a major player in the micro-computer era of the eighties and early nineties. If not for a series of unfortunate management decisions that led to Commodore's premature demise many believe they could have continued their dominance to this day. Their computers ushered in a generation of technology enthusiasts, who grew up with and loved the brand and models. These models and their features inspired many hardware tinkerers, programmers and technologists. There continues to be a huge cult following for the various generations of Commodore computers produced, with countless websites devoted to them, and thousands of enthusiasts who regularly meet at annual events all around the world.

Commodore USA, LLC, recently secured licensing rights to both the Commodore and AMIGA brands and will be releasing a series of all-in-one computers, desktops, notebooks and tablets in the coming years and months. We believe these much loved icons of the golden age of computing continue to have value and we will endeavor to produce competitive and innovative products in a manner befitting their heritage. We are excited to bring back the Commodore 64 (the greatest selling computer model of all time) as a modern keyboard computer suitable for every day usage. It also gives us great pleasure to reboot the famous AMIGA line of computers with the cutting edge technology you would expect in today's personal computers.

Commodore USA, LLC was founded by Barry Altman in April of 2010, with the express purpose of reviving and re-establishing the famous Commodore computer brand. We are Commodore and AMIGA fanatics, just like many of you. We ask ourselves what could have been, and we are appalled by Apple revisionism. Commodore is back, and we're determined to bring the much loved brand back to the mainstream and restore its prominence in the tech industry to that which it richly deserves. It ain't over 'till we say so.

PAL = Personal Assembly Language
PAL [C64,PET] (© 1979 Brad Templeton, Pro-Line Software)
In-memory assembler which is relocatable and only 4K long. Code is written with line numbers with the BASIC editor, then assembled to memory or disk. BASIC code can be interspersed with assembly language. Supports conditional assembly, linking files for assembly from disk or memory and combined BASIC and assembly programs. PAL = Personal Assembly Language

Wikipedia: Brad Templeton
Brad Templeton (born near Toronto on April 20, 1960), son of Charles Templeton and Sylvia Murphy, is a software architect, civil rights advocate and entrepreneur. He graduated from the University of Waterloo. ... Templeton is considered one of the early luminaries of Usenet, and in 1989 founded ClariNet Communications Corporation, which used Usenet protocols to distribute news articles, one of the first commercial examples of electronic publishing. ... He was the Chairman of the Board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation for ten years until February 2010, when he relinquished his tenure to John Buckman. ... To Commodore users he's probably best known for Power and the assembler PAL.

Google News search: Commodore 64
[Various tech publications and even regular news outlets are reporting on the arrival of this new old computer. The Washington Post titled their article, "Welcome Back, Old Friend". Ha!]


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