Thoughts on Jack Tramiel

by Eric Schwartz
from the AmiTech Gazette, April 2012

There was a notable obituary in the computer world recently. Perhaps equally notable is that his passing was marked with barely a percentage point of the recognition Steve Jobs received upon his death, despite being an equal or greater influence to the world of personal computing in his heyday. That person was Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore Business Machines, and father in a sense to the biggest-selling single computer model of all time, the Commodore 64. Much of his career was known for two principles -- a basic belief that computers and technology should be affordable and available to as many people as possible, and the business savvy mixed with dirty ruthlessness to make it happen. Often associated with slogans like "computers for the masses, not the classes" and "power without the price," Commodore machines were generally cheaper than their contemporaries (sometimes in the "inexpensive" sense, occasionally in the "shoddy" sense) and utilitarian yet capable. The approach worked, especially with the VIC-20 and C-64, which quickly outsold the competition, and forced them to adapt.

Tramiel was forced out of Commodore in 1984 after butting heads with Irving Gould and the board one too many times, in no small part because it was apparent Jack intended to eventually install his sons in high-level positions within the company. Not long after, he bought the struggling Atari home game and computer division from Warner Communications and managed to turn it around, with the concepts for what would become the Atari ST already on the drawing board before all the papers were signed. The Tramiel tenure at Atari was a moderate success, but with no "big hits" like the Commodore 64, perhaps because the market was already beginning its seemingly inescapable shift to DOS/Windows and "PC" domination by then.

I made a comparison to Steve Jobs earlier, and it's interesting to see the similarities. Both had very strong (yet different) beliefs about technology and business. Both were forced out of companies they founded, and had to find their fortunes elsewhere. Both had the reported capacity to be terrible pricks to anyone who got on their bad sides. Perhaps if Jack had never retired, and was the workaholic charismatic public figure Jobs was, perhaps he'd be the one getting the lion's share of the press. He seemed happier working behind the scenes though, and is remembered fondly as a holocaust survivor, family man, and the boss behind the biggest success of the 8-bit home computer era.

It's hard to say exactly how much of an impact Mr. Tramiel had on our favorite computer, the Amiga, but you definitely can't say none at all. Jack had already left Commodore before the Amiga corporation became part of it. When Amiga was looking for capital, they borrowed from Atari (still with Warner at the time) with the contractual expectation the Amiga tech would go to Atari either by sale or by default. Amiga spoke with Jack during his "transition period" between Commodore and Atari, and he made it clear he was interested in the technology, but not the company or the people behind it. When word came down that Tramiel would be the new head of Atari, the Amiga people started scrambling for money and courting what they hoped would be better buyers than a Tramiel-run Atari. As we know, Commodore swooped in at the last minute before the Atari contract was up and paid off the loan, supposedly nullifying the contract. Jack didn't exactly see it that way, (and was more than happy to get back at the company that booted him) and sued Amiga and Commodore for breach. The suit was eventually settled, but it did hold back Amiga development a bit. When the Amiga was finally brought to market, a primary direct competitor was Atari's 520ST computer, pushing heavily on a lower price and (slightly) faster clock speed.

With a story like this, you can definitely say Jack Tramiel had an effect on Amiga in its formative years, and there's plenty of "what if" points where if Jack had taken another path we might have seen a different path for Amiga as well. Perhaps the Amiga would have become an Atari computer or game console if someone other than Jack was holding the reins. Perhaps it never would have come to fruition at all. Even if Commodore may not have turned out to be the best "mother hen" for the Amiga and its engineers, it's hard for me to speculate a situation where the Amiga fares much better than it historically did, so perhaps we can thank Jack Tramiel for all his indirect influence, seemingly mostly in the Amiga engineers' desire to avoid working under (or being fired by) him.

On a semi-related note, at the April meeting Jim Lawrence plans to demonstrate Commodore as Vision, a Linux-based operating system intended to run on the Commodore-badged PC hardware. It's free to download (though huge and time-consuming), so it may be worth a look if you have PC hardware that supports it. Also, I'll drop by with my latest acquisition, which is not an Amiga, but aspires to become the next-best thing sooner or later, and hopefully a source for more meeting demos in the future.