The Home Computer Wars
A Nose for the Future - the Legacy of Jack Tramiel- Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, died in April (2012) in California, at the age of 83. He was my mentor and a great influence on my life. My first day with Commodore was April 1, 1980 - I had requested a meeting with Jack to ask him for a job. I was super confident because I already had job offers from Apple where I had been hanging out for a few months (I knew Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Mike Markula), and from Atari. In our first meeting, Jack asked me, "What do you know about Commodore?" and I replied, "I don't know much about Commodore but people who know you seem to think you're some kind of crook - but if you're not in prison, I figure you're not a crook but a shrewd businessman, and I'd like to learn to be shrewd like that." Those were my exact words because I practiced them for 45 minutes in front of a mirror. I wanted to shock Jack into hiring me and I had nothing to lose because I could always go to Apple.
To my surprise, Jack didn't change his expression. On the contrary, he said, "What do you think about the company?" to which I responded with a very strong list of 20 major problems I saw, from not getting credit for their superior operating systems, to horrible marketing, poor relations with user clubs, no advertising, weak software, 1940-style packaging, non-existent public relations...to name a few. Jack said, "Call me tomorrow and I'll tell you what I'm going to do with you. I normally don't have the luxury of hiring people to 'learn the religion' (he called his business philosophy the 'religion') but maybe it's time.
The next day I called his office ELEVEN times and each time his secretary put me off - Jack's on the phone, he hasn't decided what to do with you yet, he's in a meeting, going to lunch, will call you back in five minutes, and so on. It went on like that ALL DAY - finally, it was 7 p.m. and I said out loud to myself, angrily, "If I don't get him this time, I'm going to Apple and nothing Jack can do can get me to work for Commodore."
Magically, Jack himself answered the phone. Everyone in the company had gone home and he was walking past the secretary's desk and picked up the ringing phone (which he often did as he walked around the company - he was truly a hands-on leader). "Oh, Michael!" he exclaimed in his deep, booming baritone. "I know what I'm going to do with you." A day later I met him in his office and he announced that I was the new Assistant to the President. "But your job will not be to assist me," he explained. "Your job will be to follow me around and learn the religion. Then in six months I'll give you something important to do. In the meantime, don't do anything, just learn." We also agreed that I could add "Marketing Strategist" to my job title.
Well, that rule was out the window almost immediately. My first day was in London at a meeting of Commodore senior managers and engineers, from a dozen countries - I didn't know it at the time but Jack called this in-group "the family" and I was its newest member. At this meeting, he announced that he wanted to introduce a low cost color computer for consumers -- for the masses, not the classes, as he liked to say. It would be the world's first home computer. Everyone at the meeting wanted to do a color business computer which was already being engineered. I was one of about four people at the table who was strongly in favor of the small computer. (I took a few photos at that meeting including the only picture of Jack which is included on this page).
On the second day of the meeting, Jack heard all the arguments for and against the home computer and finally, banged his fist on the table and declared, "Gentlemen, the Japanese are coming, so we will become the Japanese." He made the case that if we didn't do a small color computer, the Japanese would do it for sure.
After the London meeting I flew to Germany with Jack and we negotiated taking over a failing electronics factory, which would become Commodore's European manufacturing center. When the German dignitaries asked why they should give Jack financial concessions he asked for, he said, "Because I was in Auscwitz and you owe it to me, it's a good business decision, and it will be great PR." We took over the electronics plant in Braunschweig, Germany and Jack explained to the employees that he was a Jew who had been in Auschwitz and said if anyone didn't want to work for a Jew, he would understand. Only six people of the more than 100 employees walked out.
From Germany we returned home to Santa Clara, California where Commodore was based (although officially for tax reasons the company was based in the Bahamas) - and Jack asked me to give my assessment of the marketing department. I interviewed them for 2 days and gave Jack my candid opinion. Lots of things were wrong. All the software contracts had lapsed. The advertising was horrible. The packaging looked generic. There was no PR. Someone was sleeping with his secretary and someone else was sniffing cocaine from a Dristan bottle (although I didn't reveal those secrets to Jack). On the third day, I went to lunch and when I came back the 12 marketing offices were empty. The marketing secretary was sitting at her desk with her head down, writing something on a yellow notepad. "Where is everyone?" I asked. "Oh...Jack came back just before lunch and fired the marketing department." "All of them?" I was shocked. "Yes." She kept writing without looking up and seemed totally unaffected by the sudden purge. "You don't seem upset," I told her. "Does this happen very often?" She said without looking, "Well, yes, actually it does."
I rushed to Jack's office and he looked at me with a pleasant expression. "What happened?" I asked. "Well, you said you didn't like the marketing department so I fired them. So go and hire a new marketing group, and I'll hire a new marketing vice president. We'll divide things up like that. You get the team, I'll get the VP." And that's what we did. Jack announced in a meeting that in addition to assistant to the president, I was also the new U.S. director of the marketing.
On my third week, I used my Commodore computer to type a 30 page single spaced memo including everything that should be done with the new color home computer. When I was finished writing it, I drew a large happy face with a beard and mustache on the cover and took to Jack's office and tossed it on his desk. "What's this?" he asked. "That's everything that needs to be done for the new home computer - make sure whoever is in charge, does those things."
A few days later Jack came to MY office and tossed my memo on my desk. "What's that?" I asked. "That's everything that needs to be done with the new computer," he laughed. "And you're in charge of making it happen." He added that he had instructed everyone involved with the computer that everything concerning the computer needed my approval, although he also noted that this was not going to be easy because none of the people involved actually reported to me, so I had to do a lot of this job using persuasion. His authority carried a lot of influence of course, but basically, I was on my own. The result was the Commodore VIC-20 and my role is explained in my memoir, "THE HOME COMPUTER WARS" (1984) - the rest is history.
The coolest thing Jack ever said to me was "You have a nose for the future." He added that I had the best nose for the future of anyone in the company...except him!
Today, I owe my "legacy" to Jack Tramiel. Because of his confidence in me, I am listed in Wikipedia as a computer pioneer, I have a modest fan base in Europe in the "retrocommodore" community, I'm an established author (my book, THE HOME COMPUTER WARS has become a collectible), and I have become an international "innovation champion."
When I think about a 'nose for the future' I have to admit, not everyone has a keen sense of what's coming. Just like some people have better eyesight than others, some people have a sharper vision of the future and what's needed. I've always described one of my life-goals as "helping to make the future happen faster." My motivation is a realization that bold, risky, creative innovations need to be developed, constantly, because innovation drives the future, and secures our civilization against all manner of threats ranging from war to pandemic diseases, to climate change. While it's difficult to teach vision or a 'nose for the future' - it's possible to share this 'future sense' - which in my case currently involves writing books and articles that point out some of the emerging technologies and radical innovations that are looming on the near horizon, that have the ability to transform and improve our lives. My new book, "NanoInnovation: What Every Manager Needs to Know" will be the first attempt to explain what's "really happening" in nanotechnology, and I anticipate moving on to other areas where more clarity (and vision) is needed, to produce a series of informative, eye-opening and hopefully entertaining books for managers, students, teachers and anyone interested in the field of innovation and what's coming next. If you are reading these "insights" I urge you to keep learning about the future. Keep your radar active. Scan the horizon--and beyond. And help me, and all the innovation champions who are leading these efforts, to improve our world and our lives. Become an innovation champion yourself. Leave the world a better place. It's the best feeling in the world to know that you've done something to change the world, even in a small way, and innovation is one field that guarantees you can do this.
It's gratifying when people think you've done something significant enough to warrant a listing in Wikipedia.
My "claim to fame" is the leadership role I played in the development of the first home computer, the Commodore VIC-20. The VIC-20 was the first microcomputer to sell one millions units. I also conceived and contracted the design for the first computer modem priced under $100 (also a million seller), and originated the Commodore Information Network on CompuServe, one of the first Internet-style user communities.
Jack Tramiel died on April 8, 2012 at the age of 83. He has his own legacy, he was able to secure the future of his family and descendants which was one of his personal motivations given the Holocaust experience.
Born in Poland, Jack was a slave laborer and a prisoner in Auschwitz. He once told me when we were riding on the Autobahn in Germany, "I helped build this highway!" and laughed at the irony.
After the war he joined the U.S. Army, learned to repair typewriters, started an office equipment store in New York, and became the founder of Commodore, the electronics pioneer responsible for introducing affordable handheld calculators and home computers, including the Commodore P.E.T., CBM business computer, VIC-20 and Commodore 64. My own feelings about the death of my mentor are expressed in one phrase: To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.
I was privileged to work with computer pioneers like Jack Tramiel and Steve Jobs who also died this year. I knew Steve and used to hang out at Apple in 1979 - and as I mentioned, I turned down a job offer to join Commodore. Jack Tramiel and Steve Jobs stand as exemplars of how strong-willed innovators can drive technology forward and improve our lives. Developing innovations that change people's lives is a wondrous, magical experience. I know because I was blessed with an opportunity to make a contribution to the birth of tthe first home computers, thanks to Jack Tramiel's generosity and confidence in my talents.
There has been renewed interest in the birth of the first home computers. In Fall 2011, I gave extensive interviews to websites in Italy and Austria, and recently did an interview for a Polish Magazine (Commodore & Amiga Fan) which included a photo of me from 1981 on the cover. I want to thank Piotr Zgodzi?ski for doing the interview. These interviews help provide a living history and a nice way of sharing my reminiscences with audiences and fans in many countries.
The experience of Europeans with Commodore computers is more recent than the U.S. experience from the 1980s. Some countries didn't get home computers until the 1990s so those who got their start in those days are younger and the memories are fresher. I am always humbled to receive emails from people in various countries thanking me for my role in developing what was their first home computer, which got them started in computing. In many cases, their Commodore computing experience helped them in their careers. This confirms that what we were trying to achieve was worth the effort and dedication.
In March 2012 I did a video interview with Joerg Droege for Scene World Magazine, which you can view by clicking here or on the image below. This was a good opportunity to reminisce about some of my experiences at Commodore and is a rare video of me talking about my Commodore years.
If you're interested in the development of home computing, you can find the inside story in my 1984 book, THE HOME COMPUTER WARS (which to my astonishment has become a collectible on Amazon.com). I've also told the story in several online interviews (some are listed at the bottom of this page). It's a fascinating saga and as I've said many times, this was a technology champion's dream come true, and in real life was a lot like living and working inside a video game. At times the Commodore years were surreal and bizarre, but always invigorating.
After securing job offers from Apple, Atari and Commodore, I was hired on April 1, 1980 by Commodore founder Jack Tramiel as Assistant to the President and Marketing Strategist. After a quick promotion to U.S. Director of Marketing, I went on to become the product manager for the first true home computer, the Commodore VIC-20. I was really honored to become a confidante and protege of Jack Tramiel, a truly remarkable visionary who was the "Patton" of the home computer era.
On my first day with the company, at a meeting of general managers, engineers and marketeers in London on April 1, 1980, Jack announced that he wanted to develop a low cost color computer. Most of the managers in the room were strongly against this, and a heated debate ensued. Only four people were in favor of the new computer - including me, and this was my first day on the job!
The second day of the meeting, Jack returned and repeated his intention, and again, most of the people in the room argued against it. Jack pounded his fist once on the table and declared in that deep booming voice of his: "Gentlemen, the Japanese are coming, so we will become the Japanese!" The decision was made - but still, there was very weak support, even among the U.S. engineering team who wanted a larger color computer for business use.
When we got back to Santa Clara, California, where Commodore was based (we later moved to Valley Forge, PA) - I wrote a 30 page single-spaced memo and for the cover sheet I drew a caricature of myself - a happyface with a beard and mustache. I tossed it on Jack's desk. "What's that?" he asked. "That's everything that should be done with the new computer," I said. "Make sure whoever does it reads that."
A few days later, Jack came into my office and tossed it on my desk. "What's that?" I said. "That's everything that should be done with the new computer - make sure it happens." He explained that he had instructed everyone to run everything involving the new computer by me for my input and approval - although he cautioned me that I would have to accomplish a lot by persuasion since none of the people involved actually reported to me, but I had his tacit authority and that was enough for me.
I immediately hired a product team of a half dozen people - mostly computer enthusiasts and programmers in their teens and twenties - no one over 25 - including Neil Harris (who today runs his own game company), Andy Finkel and several other "wunderkinds" who were incredibly gifted, creative programmers, writers, engineers and technology enthusiasts. We created software programs (games, educational and business utilities), user manuals, and a very thick programmer's reference guide (to help 3rd party developers create the "razor blades" for our computers). I worked with Kit Spencer in the UK and Harald Speyer in Germany, and a talented U.S. illustrator, to develop distinctive packaging that was more European in design than American.
The U.S. engineering team contributed custom semiconductors (the name "VIC" came from Video Interface Chip and we also incorporated a pioneering sound chip called the SID (Sound Interface Device). Commodore was fortunate to have our own semiconductor operation (MOS Technology). Tony Tokai the Japanese general manager, and Yash Terakura, his chief engineer/programmer, worked on the prototype. During the design, I traveled to Japan and viewed some competitive products from other companies that gave me a few ideas for the VIC-20, such as programmable function keys which became a popular innovation. I recall telling everyone involved that "user friendliness" was the "prime directive" for this computer - when I said that to Yash Terakura, he replied, "This will be a friendly computer - I am a friendly engineer!" Yash and I recently had lunch and reminisced over the past 30 years, and our connection and friendship is as strong as it was in 1980.
When I joined Commodore, annual revenues were about $154 million. Commodore was the 3rd largest personal computer company, behind Apple and Radio Shack. In only 3 years we experienced explosive growth - becoming the first billion dollar personal computing company (on a calendar year basis, we reached $1 Billion a few months ahead of Apple). The home computer product line that I championed and helped develop, accounted for more than half a billion dollars in revenues.
My real achievement was embracing the business philosophy of my mentor, Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, a Holocaust/Auschwitz survivor whose personal mantra was "we make computers for the masses, not the classes." The VIC-20, which I championed, helped design and product-managed (despite very strong opposition within the company) brought affordable computing to school classrooms and living rooms around the world and jump-started the home computer revolution.
During Commodore's heyday, in addition to my marketing and product management roles, I was a PR spokesperson for the company, appearing on the Today show and other programs. I gave countless interviews and attended half a dozen trade shows every year from the Consumer Electronics Show to Hanover Fair. Having spent 3 years as an investor relations consultant in Wisconsin and California, I was also tapped to edit the company's annual reports, working with our investor relations consultant in New York, and Irving Gould, the company's chairman and largest shareholder.
Some interesting trivia - I was one of the first people to champion the phrase "user-friendliness." Impressed by my enthusiasm for this concept, the editor of BYTE Magazine sent me a note telling me that there is a German word - Benutzefreundlichkeit - that means "user-friendliness." I adopted this as our slogan for my product team, which I dubbed the "VIC Commandos" and had brass plaques made that read: BENUTZEFREUNDLICHKEIT: Official Motto of the VIC Commando Team."
I felt so strongly about "user friendliness" that I had our legal team trademark the phrase "The Friendly Computer" which made it difficult for competitors to call their computers "friendly." I also locked in the back covers of the leading computer magazines for Commodore ads, which made us look like we "owned" those magazines. In those days, it was important to gain every advantage and edge you could come up with, and I guess I'm sort of a natural marketeer in that respect.
Later, we brought in a professional marketing team that was really classy and "New York" quality. They hired Bill Shatner from Star Trek to be our spokesperson, and used the incredibly ironic voice of Henry Morgan in our TV ads.
I have a photo of myself showing Bill Shatner of Star Trek fame how to use the VIC-20 and I believe that his first computer was a Commodore CBM (our business version). After learning how to use a Commodore business computer, Bill went on to write novels and screenplays on computer. He is a great example of how we got the world started in home computing. Like many pioneers, Commodore did not survive to enjoy the glory, but the legacy is profound.
The story is told in my book, The Home Computer Wars, which has become a collector's item. Autographed copies sell for as much as $380 from rare book dealers (most of my autographs include quirky poems).
I still receive occasional emails from Commodore fans, thanking me for making it possible to own their first home computer. In June 2010, a film crew spent several hours interviewing me for a documentary on the birth of the home computer. I'll post more information when the documentary is ready to air.
I once asked Jack how he coped with his Holocaust memories. Without missing a beat replied, "I live in the future." That phrase has become my own personal mantra, not to forget the past, but to keep me focused on the future. My entire career has been devoted to helping to make the future happen faster, by championing, studying, explaining and helping to develop radical innovations.
For those of you who may be interested in learning more about the history of the first home computer, I've included a few links to online interviews:
- What Was Japan for Commodore? (interview, 2004)
- An Interview With Michael Tomczyk (interview, 1996)
- Some Comments & Personal Photos (2007)
I recently gave a couple of interviews - one to Stefan Eggar in Austria - here is the link to the English translation of my interview with Stefan: http://scacom.bplaced.net/Collection/English/interview.html and another in March to Robby Bloey at his website - http://www.mos6502.com/.
I still enjoy reminiscing about the beginning of the home computer revolution, where I was an ardent "revolutionary" and early champion of home computing including telecomputing. I'm extremely proud and humbled that I had an opportunity to make a mark on the history of computing.
In November (2012) I'll be in Rome, Italy to deliver a presentation to a conference of Oncologists, speaking on nanoinnovation. I will also participate in a 30th anniversary event commemorating the launch of the first home computers at Commodore, being organized by members of the European "retrocommodore" community.