From an interview conducted by Rick Melick on November 17, 1996
Can you describe you position at Commodore and your role in the VIC-20 project?
I joined Commodore in 1980 as assistant to the president, founder Jack Tramiel. I had two business cards. One said “assistant to the president” and the other said “market strategist.” I wore both hats…but the title I quickly came to be known by was “VIC Czar” (named after the “energy czar” in Washington, D.C.). Later, I was in charge of international product marketing.
It was a strange and terrific experience. When he hired me, Jack said my job was not to assist him, but rather to study his tough-minded business philosophy, which he called the “religion.” He let me wander in and out of his office, listen to him making business calls, and generally study and absorb his management style. I had to learn fast.
My first day with the company, I attended an international meeting in London where Jack said he wanted to introduce a $300 color computer. Of the 2O-plus executives there, only a few supported the concept: Kit Spencer the general manager in the U.K., Tony Tokai, the Japanese general manager, Jack, and me. Everyone else, including Chuck Peddle who invented the first Commodore PET computer, were opposed to the idea, in favor of a larger machine they called the “Toy.”
I wrote a 3O page memo to Jack detailing everything I could think of that needed to be done with the VIC-20. Instead of a cover page, I just put a giant “happy face” caricature of myself on the cover, and tossed it on Jack’s desk, saying, “Make sure whoever does the VIC reads this.”
The next day Jack tossed it back to me and said, “make sure all of this gets done.” And that was that. Within a week, I was being called the VIC Czar. I went to Japan to look at competitive machines that were already being demonstrated there, and stole a few ideas from some Japanese personal computers.
I had a pretty good concept for what the VIC needed to be, a truly “user friendly” computer with a full typewriter style keyboard, expandable memory, cartridge port, programmable function keys and so on. A lot of work was done by our Japanese engineering group, working long distance with our California engineers, and the semiconductor engineers at MOS technology in Valley Forge.
The VIC was introduced at Seibu Department Store in Japan at a small computer show. It was called the VC-1001 in Japan, because the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was popular and apparently 1001 is more “friendly” in Japan than 20. That introduction had a lot of unintended but excellent consequences, including causing the Japanese to stop their planned introduction of some really good personal computers in the $600 price range (the NEC PC was the best, I think). Their delay gave us time to launch the VIC in the U.S., and by the time they were ready to compete with the VIC, we tromped them with the Commodore 64.
The VIC went on to become the first micro-computer to sell 1 million units and I’m very proud of that accomplishment, which is a credit to the entire team that worked on it. (More of the story is told in my 1986 book, “The Home Computer Wars”.)
Can you describe the corporate climate and your work environment at Commodore?
The corporate climate was based on Jack’s personal management style, which he called, “the religion.” Meetings were often loud and we came to call them, “Jack attacks” because of our leader’s pugnacious style. He did a fair amount of shouting, challenging and table pounding. He was most definitely the Patton of the computer industry, but treated very unfairly in the press. Jack was scrupulously fair, and that level of fairness is often mistaken for ruthlessness. He might hire a new vice president, they would agree on a six month goal and the V.P. would be told if he didn’t achieve it he would be asked to leave. Six months later, Jack would call a meeting, and if the executive really missed the goal, Jack would “fire” him—but was that a “firing” or doing what was agreed? Incidentally, I know one person who was fired when his entire group was shut down, but he marched to Jack’s office and refused to leave, saying “you can’t fire me, I refuse to leave” and Jack kept him on.
Commodore was run mostly by an infrastructure, not an organization chart. Many Commodore insiders had no titles, but exercised more power and influence than senior vice presidents, and the new vice presidents who came into the company from other industries were usually shocked by that, and seldom lasted longer than six months because they never learned to deal with the informal infrastructure.
A lot of people thought Jack was too tough but it was like working for Patton. It’s tough, that’s true, but you know you’re going to win, and that makes it worth the aggravation. When Jack left the company in 1984 over a dispute with the company chairman, Irving Gould, more than 35 top execs and engineers left the company, which essentially gutted the company of its infrastructure, and most of its talent…leading indirectly to Commodore’s eventual failure.
How did your work on the Commodore VIC-20 help you with your career today? What are you doing these days?
I am currently the Managing Director of the Emerging Technologies Management Research Program at the Wharton School. We study best practices and competitive strategies for companies in industries that are being created or transformed by emerging technologies, such as the Internet, Gene Therapy, etc. I also do some consulting for large corporations in the area of electronic commerce, and serve on the board of directors of a few companies, including Group Cortex, an Internet development firm in Philadelphia. A VIC-20 is displayed in a case on the wall of my office.
Does the VIC-20 hold a special place for you, or was it no more/less significant than the machine on your desk right now?
The VIC-20 is still on my wall, in a place of honor. It helped to define my career, and I’m totally surprised by how many people still recall it, and remember that I played a role in its success.
The VIC-20 Programmer’s Reference Guide was an excellent publication. How long did it take to compose, and what were some of the unique challenges in writing it?
The reference guide was a team effort, driven by the fact that no one had done a decent reference guide for computers that were out there. I had trouble finding information, so I insisted that we do a true reference guide, with a really open approach to sharing information so programmers could embrace the machine and develop software and accessories to support sales. The guide was one of the best selling tools we developed. Andy Finkel and the other authors worked diligently, often all night and on weekends, and we all treated this as a labor of love. We started with a group of four or five people, and within one year this grew to a staff of approximately 40 or 50 people. By the way, the VIC modem was one of the first attempts to introduce affordable telecomputing–it was the first modem priced under $100 and was developed by a team of outside engineers I recruited from outside the company. They did a great job on the design, and the key was making it into a plug-in cartridge, made possible by the fact that the Vic has a built-in RS232 port. A bit of trivia: In our first year, the Commodore Information Network was the most used service on Compuserve.
What do you think of the VIC-20 emulators, and the effort to preserve the history of the VIC-20 for future generations of computer enthusiasts?
Impressive, interesting, worthwhile. It shouldn’t be lost. The VIC jump started the home computer revolution. Millions of people will attest to that, and I believe this product helped the personal computer become accepted as an affordable, friendly, and user friendly device.
Michael, let’s get the facts once and for all: Was the VIC-20 name a result of rounding the total amount of memory in the system or a result of rounding the number of screen columns?
The name VIC comes from “video Interface Chip” which made the computer possible. At one point, I called the computer “The Commodore Spirit” but it turned out that “spirit” in Japan means “ghoul from hell” or something like that, so we went back to VIC. But VIC sounded like a truck driver, so I insisted on attaching a number. I picked “20” and when Jack asked, “Why 20?” I replied, “because it’s a friendly number and this has to be a friendly computer.” He agreed. The number 20 has no relation to any technical feature…just my idea of a friendly sounding number. That sounds a bit bizarre, looking back on it, but we did a lot of things by instinct in those days and our research at Wharton suggests that instinct is still a key driving factor in the development of “out of the box” technologies like the VIC.
(By the way, the Commodore PET was named after the “PET Rock” by Jack and Chuck Peddle. After they named it, they had to find a reason for calling it that, so Chuck combed the dictionary and came up with “Personal Electronic Transactor.”)
Thank you for inviting me to participate in your highly worthwhile efforts to document, archive, and preserve the VIC-20…a true icon in computer history.