I have permission for translation, publish and use the pictures.
Website of Michael Tomczyk
Hello Michael Tomczyk, please introduce yourself!
I was born and raised in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which is a small town surrounded by lakes and rivers. I grew up wanting to do something significant with my life, with a keen interest in "seeing the world." I always planned to be a writer/journalist. I attended the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where I majored in English Literature and minored in Journalism and Spanish. In college, I worked as photo editor for student publications and as a photojournalist for a local newspaper which was exciting because I photographed lots of celebrities and attended major news and sports events. I have unpublished photos of Mick Jagger, Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda and many other notables from the 1960s.
I attended college during the Vietnam War - of course, I wanted some control over my military life - and as a journalist I wanted to experience war - so I enrolled in Army ROTC and graduated in 1970 as a Distinguished Military Student which means I was in the top 5 in my class. I served 3 years in the Army including a tour at Fort Bragg where I was public information officer for the XVIII Airborne Corps, home of the 82nd Airborne Division. As an airborne officer I parachuted from all types of aircraft including helicopters and cargo aircraft. I served 3 years in the Army including a tour in Vietnam (I worked for the commanding general of the lst Signal Brigade but I slipped away to experience combat at the invitation of a friend of mine who was a platoon leader in the lst Cavalry Division). I was awarded the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medals. After Vietnam I served in the U.S. Strategic Communications Command/United Nations in South Korea. I rose to the rank of Captain. This may not sound like it is related to home computing - however - my experience in the military, and in "real war" prepared me for the "business war" that was a key part of Commodore's corporate culture.
By the way, on the day I graduated, a captain and a major in the ROTC program took me aside and told me that despite my graduating near the top of my class, they had serious concerns about my success as an officer, because they thought: 1) I smiled too much and 2) I put the welfare of the men ahead of the mission. On the same day, the colonel who commanded the ROTC unit told me that he was exceptionally pleased and said the "voluntary army" is coming soon - he told me that I was the new breed of officer that would do very well in the new Army. So who was right? Well, I worked for general officers during my 3 years on active duty, and I was promoted to the rank of captain after only 2 1/2 years which is very fast, and I received some very prestigious commendations. I think putting the men first gets the mission done in the best way possible and earns the loyalty of the men. Unfortunately, this philosophy was applied in the first Iraq War, but totally forgotten in the current (second) Iraq War. The reason is, the veterans from Vietnam who learned this lesson were in command during Iraq One but mostly retired by Iraq Two.
When and how did you have first contact with computers? What computer you bought later and why?
After earning my MBA from U.C.L.A. in Los Angeles - where I also worked as a management consultant in Beverly Hills while going to school - I wanted to "manage something." So I accepted a position as general manager of a San Francisco based company called Metacolor. The company was bought by some Canadian investors and they wanted someone to run the operation. Metacolor used NASA space technology to do special effects for motion pictures (we did effects for "Logan's Run" and "Time After Time."). This was in 1979 - that year, one of our clients - ATARI - made us a beta site to test a new game computer they had called the Atari 600. The Atari machine had a flat plastic membrane keyboard and I did not consider it a home computer - it was more of a game computer. It came with a very cool game called Star Raiders. It was I think the first game with a "star field" hard wired into the system - which made it look like the stars were whizzing by as you did battle with alien space ships. My staff were quickly addicted to that game and wouldn't put down the computer, so I took it home. Three days later I looked up at the curtains and saw a thin shaft of light streaming in - it was 6 a.m. and I had been up 3 days with almost no sleep, playing that game. "Well," I told myself, "if I can get addicted to this, then the whole world is going to get into home computing and I need to be in that industry."
I quit my job almost immediately and lived off my savings. During the next 6 months I took a course in BASIC programming at a local computer store - we had to switch between Commodore PETs and Apples because they didn't have enough of either brand, so I learned on both computers. At this time, Commodore ranked third behind Apple and Tandy (Radio Shack) as a personal computer maker. I loved the Commodore system because everything was integrated into a full desktop system, and it had a lot of user friendly features. I also started writing articles for computer magazines and spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, hanging out at Apple and other companies, doing stories, learning about new technologies and so on. I did an article on the person who designed Star Raiders, a company that had a circuit board that converted Apples from 40 columns to 80 columns (most computers displayed 40 letters across the screen, compared to a typewriter which types 80 letters across the page). At the end of six months I had $10 in the bank (the minimum amount to keep your account open) and $6 in cash in my pocket - but I had job offers from Apple, Atari and Commodore.
In early 1980 you joined Commodore as Marketing Strategist and Assistant to Jack Tramiel. What have you done previously and why did you choose Commodore? Did you start as Assistant to Jack Tramiel from day one?
I had gotten to know Steven Wozniak and Andy Herzfeld at Apple and knew Mike Markula the president. One day they invited me to go into the cafeteria and look through the job postings, find something I was good at, and they'd hire me. However, the job postings looked very "corporate." Apple required everyone to wear I.D. badges - although I never did and people were always yelling at me and I always ignored them. I'm not a "rules" person. I'm a rule-breaker. Anyway, Apple had too many geniuses - no matter how good I was, I would be lost in the crowd. That was good because a few years later, Apple fired about 70 of their "geniuses" and I might have been swept away in that purge.
I met with Conrad Jutson, the VP in charge of home computers at Atari. He was from the stereo industry and saw a computer as a stereo system, like an appliance. He offered me a job as director of software for Atari computers. I came away thinking they didn't have enough geniuses. I was right. In the next 5 years, Atari lost ONE BILLION DOLLARS which most people don't seem to recall - despite the enormous popularity of their video games. I'm not sure of the reasons for this but I would say they made some serious business mistakes.
So Apple was the "papa bear." Atari was the "baby bear." Commodore was the "mama bear." They had, from what I could determine, about half geniuses and half idiots. The engineers were great in 1979 but the marketers were fairly clueless. Next, I secured an interview with Jack Tramiel. An interesting bit of trivia... I wasn't sure I had enough money to pay for gas to Santa Clara from San Francisco so I asked the editor of Compute! Magazine to wire me some money for an article I wrote for him - he sent it western union and I picked it up the evening before my meeting.
Jack was seated behind a large desk and I sat opposite him in a chair. In our meeting he asked me, "What do you know about Commodore?" I replied with a perfectly straight face, "I don't know much about Commodore but people who know you seem to think you're some kind of a crook - I figure if you're not in prison you're not a crook, you're just a shrewd business person and I'd like to learn to be shrewd like that." Then I told him about 20 things that were screwed up at Commodore, everything from horrible user support to poor documentation and lousy marketing. Jack said, "I normally don't have the luxury of teaching someone like you the 'religion' - he called his business philosophy the 'religion' - but I may be coming to a point where I could do that. Let me give it some thought. Call me tomorrow."
The next day I called him... ELEVEN TIMES. Each time his secretary screened me by saying Jack's in a meeting, he hasn't made a decision yet, he's on the phone, he's at lunch, he promises to call you after lunch, he in another meeting, he still hasn't decided what to do with you... and so on. Finally at 7 p.m. I decided, this is my last call. If I don't get through on this one, I'm working for Apple and I won't work for Jack if he begs me. So I called one last time. Everyone had gone home except Jack. He happened to be walking by the desk and picked up the secretary's phone. "Oh - Michael!" he exclaimed. "I know what I'm going to do with you. Come see me and I'll explain everything."
So we got together and he told me he was hiring me as Assistant to the President. My job would be not so much to assist him but rather to follow him around and learn the company's business philosophy. Then in 6 months he'd put me into a management position - that was the plan. He said "I have to go to Europe for a meeting of our general managers - you can join me there or start when I get back."
"Well, if I'm going to have this job, I should meet the general managers, don't you think? So I should join you in London." He said fine, set it up with the secretary. My first day with the company was April 1, 1980 - ironically it was "April Fool's Day" in the U.S. We met at a luxury estate outside of London and sat around a square arrangement of tables with everyone facing each other. There were about 25 people there. In the first session Jack said, "I want to make a small color home computer for the mass market." This created an uproar. Everyone argued that we should make business computers which had higher prices and profit margins, not a small cheap computer... everyone hated the idea... except three people. I was one of the 3 people, and it was my first day on the job! Jack left the meeting to do some business in the U.K. - our second largest market - and he was gone until the next day.
The next day, after a lot of routine business, briefings on different topics and very positive sales results overall - Jack returned. He repeated his intention. There was a heated argument against the idea by most of the people in the room except the 3 of us who wanted the new computer - me, Kit Spencer the marketing guru from the U.K., and Tony Tokai from Japan (who was there with Yash Terakura his brilliant software engineer). Jack resolved the argument by standing up, pounding once on the table and declaring, "Gentlemen, the Japanese are coming... so we will become the Japanese!"
He was right. The rest is history. We came back to the U.S. Jack fired the marketing department and asked me to hire a new marketing department - he hired the marketing VP. We also negotiated a deal to get a factory "given" to us in Braunschweig, Germany - which was ironic considering that Jack was a 6 year survivor of the Holocaust including internment in Auschwitz. He told me he didn't hate the Germans - it wasn't the Germans who killed the Jews, he said - it was the rules. Germans obey rules, and if madmen set the rules, the Germans obeyed them, and that's what caused the Holocaust. When the German government asked why they should give him essentially a free factory - actually he asked for a failing electronics factory that he would "rescue" and use to make computer for Europe, Jack had a superb response. He said, "Because you owe it to me" and added "and it will be great PR for you." They agreed.
When we got back to the U.S., I wrote a 30 page single-spaced memo and when it was done I drew a large happyface cartoon on the cover, with a beard and mustache. I threw it on Jack's desk. "What's that?" he asked. "That's everything that should be done with the new computer - price, features, everything. Make sure whoever is in charge does all that." About a week later after showing this around the company, he came into my office, threw the memo on my desk and I said, "What's that?" He said, "That's everything that should be done for the new computer - make sure it happens." He told me I was now in charge of the new computer - but I would have to manage by persuasion since no one involved actually reported to me. However, he had told everyone that anything to do with the new computer had to be "cleared through me." And I learned a great lesson - how to manage "horizontally" which is also called "collegial" management or managing by persuasion.
I recruited a small team of mostly computer programmers who had taught themselves how to program in assembly and machine language - which was needed to develop software for the VIC-20. The ages of this team ranged from 18 to 24. I called them the "VIC Commandos" because other groups kept stealing our computers to take to computer conventions but we needed those to develop software, user manuals, etc. So one day I called our team together - we had half-wall office cubicles so everyone could see and hear us - and in a loud voice I announced that the next person who stole a computer from our offices would be fired and I would see to that, personally. No one ever took a computer from our offices after that. As a symbol of our "commando" status, we got some large brass coins from one of our team whose father was in the advertising specialties business. We would stand around in a group meeting, flipping those coins like the actor George Raft an old 1930s gangster movie. I can still flip a coin pretty well.
I also bought the back covers of all the major computer magazines of the period, which made it look like we "owned" the personal computer market. I thought it was very important that whenever anyone bought a computer magazine like COMPUTE! or COMPUTE's Gazette, they saw a huge Commodore ad on the back cover. Kit Spencer, the marketing guru at Commodore in the U.K. (who became a good friend) developed some very cool and colorful graphics we used in our packaging and marketing materials. These graphics were very "European" and nothing similar had been seen in the U.S. I recruited a professional illustrator to design the covers for our game cartridge boxes and personally discussed and approved all of the artwork.
We also wrote an innovative user's manual - I was co-author of the VIC-20 manual although I didn't put my name on the manual. Four of us also wrote a massive reference guide called the VIC Programmers Reference Guide which gave software and hardware developers the details like schematics and memory maps, how animated "sprites" worked, etc. They needed to produce applications and accessories - this was a big deal because no computer maker had released so much information, before this. We knew that we needed to feed the developer market. Also, when we reached a
Tell us a little bit of the work at Commodore. Was it work you loved to do? How was the working climate at Commodore? Was it always as funny as a Commodore fan is thinking? Or was it hard and stressful?
Working at Commodore was like being in a "business war." Everything was tough, rough, fast-moving, invigorating, high-risk but high-reward. It was like living and working in a real life video game. There were unusual politics - like grey-haired vice presidents constantly trying to put me into their division because they were older and thought I was "too young" for so much responsibility. I successfully resisted this although it was a constant battle to remain autonomous because in all honesty most of the grey-haired executives did not come from the computer industry and did not understand the home computer market…and they also didn't seem to understand our strategy. Low cost home computers introduce millions of people to computing. They allow elementary schools and middle schools to afford computers, so kids learn computing on Commodore computers. When they graduate and start work, they would be familiar with Commodore as a brand, and very loyal - and buy our business systems. That was the strategy. We all felt that we were doing something that would help change the world and we knew this while we were doing it.
I enjoyed every moment at Commodore. I had been in the Vietnam War, which was at times exhilarating and dangerous - this was a similar experience. I became very comfortable with taking risks, championing very new approaches and strategies, and plunging into the unknown. Jack was a risk taker as well. We were totally in synch - but getting a large organization to maintain a "culture of innovation" is very difficult. At the Wharton School, I have learned that most pioneers grow stale and as leadership changes, the corporate culture of innovation is lost. Apple has been up and down - they are currently "up" but that's because they kept Steve Jobs. Microsoft remains innovative - they kept Bill Gates and his team in place. Irving Gould the chairman of Commodore ousted Jack Tramiel in January 1984 and essentially killed the company which was tragic because we were poised to do some really creative things like building multi-application software suites into the CPU and developing new types of graphic interfaces, visual metaphors, speech synthesis…much more. I personally selected the 256 word vocabulary for our speech cartridge called the "Magic Voice." Most of this was lost when Gould forced Jack out of the company. That was a shocking and bitter day for all of us. Even people who disliked Jack's intense management style felt the loss because everyone loves working for a "Patton" who knows how to win wars, even if some of the troops occasionally get wounded or killed.
Six months after Jack was ousted from the company, 35 company gurus (including me) left the company in one week - that was May 1984 - Commodore plunged into a "death spiral" - which reveals the importance of leadership and vision. The grey-haired executives who took over thought Commodore should try to become IBM - in fact they overpaid for the Commodore Amiga which kept the company treading water for a couple of years, and they also started producing IBM clones - at one point Commodore was the largest seller of IBM clones in Europe! If Jack and the rest of us had remained in the company, IBM would have been asking to make Commodore clones!
Is it right that the VIC was developed in Japan and US? You also had to fly often to Japan? Did you know the "Commodore PET JET" (small plane), that Tramiel mentioned?
The VIC was developed mostly in Japan although the VIC chip (the Video Interface Chip) and SID sound chip, were engineered by our semiconductor division (MOS Technologies in Valley Forge, PA). I flew to Japan to meet with the Japanese team and I actually got the idea for the programmable function keys from an NEC computer called the PC5000 which was being shown in Tokyo but never made it to the U.S. market. I thought the function keys were cool and would allow programmers a lot of flexibility to create their own applications, which was true. The VIC was first launched in Japan as the "VIC-1001" at Seibu Department Store - where engineers from competitive Japanese companies kept trying to unscrew the case to look at the circuit board - we had to keep chasing them away.
You were involved in VIC20 (or VIC1001 in Japan, VC20 in some German countries). But what did you think about the first Commodore computer, the PET 2001?
I learned how to program in BASIC on the Commodore PET. The PET was the first affordable self-contained personal computer. It had a built-in monitor, typewriter style keys and other features that made this a perfect computer for schools - a more sophisticated version called the CBM (Commodore Business Machine) was later introduced. There is a great story I heard from Chuck Peddle, the engineering guru who designed the PET. When he and Jack Tramiel were trying to develop a name, the "Pet Rock" was very popular in the mass market, so Jack said, "Why not call this the Commodore PET?" So this became the name - however, when the Pet Rock lawyers contacted them and threatened legal action, they had to scramble to come up with a "meaning" for PET. To avoid a lawsuit, Chuck spent a night poring through the dictionary and came up with the name "Personal Electronic Transactor." They put periods after the word PET - so PET became "P.E.T." and the personal electronic transactor was born.
Commodore accepted advance payment (approx. $600) and took orders 6 months before the computer was manufactured, which helped them finance production - however, the surge of orders was so strong that it became apparent that they priced the computer too low. Although I wasn't there at the time, it is my understanding that Jack took the P.E.T. to Europe at a higher price, to capture more value, and used the money to fund production to meet the huge demand in the U.S. market. Jack was an extremely shrewd business strategist and was the "Patton" of the computer industry. Sometimes his very strong business approach was mistaken for ruthlessness but I would not call him ruthless - he once told me, "Business is war - you have to be in it to win."
The VIC20 was a totally new product and Commodore was not known for cheap computers with color for home use. Did you see any problems introducing the VIC20 into the market because of that?
Commodore was known in Europe for introducing affordable handheld computers, so the company already had experience launching mass market consumer electronics. You have to remember that at this time, there were no affordable color home computers in the $300 price range. Personal computers were selling for around $600. The cheapest modem cost $400.
When Jack asked me how to price the VIC-20 I said "$299.95" - because that's a friendly number and would sell a million units in the mass market. Actually, the VIC-20 was the first microcomputer to sell a million units. I have a picture of myself standing with Jack in front of a large sign commemorating that achievement.
At this time, there was some concern that sitting close to a color television set would "fry your eyeballs" - due to the radiation from the monitor. We used to joke in the VIC Commandos group that you could "buy an Apple and fry your eyes." To combat this concern, I insisted on a 13 foot cord that would allow users to sit on a sofa in the living room and attach the VIC-20 (and later Commodore 64) to their television set, which they could use at a distance. Of course, today we all work a few feet (or inches) away from our computer screens, and no one seems to have "fried eyeballs." So maybe that was a bogus issue.
It was first introduced in Japan as VIC1001. Jack Tramiel often stated that the reason for this was "to keep those people out [of the US market]". Is it right, that both, you and Jack Tramiel, had "fear" from japanese developments in the home computer market? Japanease computer did not very well outside Japan. Commodore computers did not sell very well in Japan, as far as I know. What was the reason for that? Also tell us about your stay in Asia!
I have always explained this as the "bear in the woods" strategy. What do you do when a bear chases you through the woods? You take off your backpack and throw it down in front of the bear. The bear stops to examine it and you run away or climb a tree. So what do you do when the Japanese are coming into your market? The same thing you do with a bear.
We took the VIC to Tokyo and introduced it in Japan first at $300 - knowing in advance that the Japanese were planning to introduce personal computers in the U.S. priced at $500. One excellent Japanese machine was the NEC PC 5000 - I saw a prototype in 1980 when I visited Tokyo. This gave me the idea for putting function keys on the VIC. When the Japanese saw all the features we included for $300 they stopped and went into an 18 month planning and analysis cycle, to develop a more competitive machine. So they did not enter the home market. By the time they were ready to enter the home market we had the Commodore 64 at around $500 which again forced them to reconsider their entry.
When the Japanese finally entered the market they were persuaded by a Japanese-American manager from Microsoft to adopt the MSX system which used VERY crude graphics that were pixilated and very "retro" - 12 companies in Japan and Taiwan formed an MSX consortium in an attempt to adopt a uniform computing standard. If successful they would have devastated the U.S. and European markets because 12 companies with a uniform standard, all advertising heavily, would have been difficult to compete with. This is exactly what happened to Apple when a dozen computers adopted the Microsoft platform. Fortunately, the MSX system was so crude and the graphics were so horrible, that they looked like children's toys and never posed a threat. When I saw what was happening I quickly declared that "MSX is MS-Dead." As a result, the Japanese never entered the home market with a home computer - the closest they came was the Nintendo video game machine which was very cool.
Actually, the Nintendo machine was partly inspired by me - let me explain - in 1983 I convinced Jack to let me negotiate a license for the Nintendo video games like Donkey Kong. I had convinced a Nintendo VP in charge to do the deal and we had the rights to all Nintendo games. When the contract was finalized I took it to Jack to sign and his response shocked me. He looked up and said, "I decided not to do this deal." I was devastated. I argued hotly to do the deal, arguing that I personally would lose face, and he had originally authorized this, and the terms were very favorable to us, financially - and we would sell millions more computers. He was adamant. He simply said no and held his position. The only reason I can gather is that he was afraid of upsetting our existing licensing relationship with Bally-Midway, which I also helped negotiate.
The result was that by this time Nintendo was so excited by the prospect of having their games in millions of homes, on video machines - that they developed their own video machine! The rest is history. Ironically, in 1984-85 when Jack and his sons essentially took over and rescued Atari, they found themselves locked in a losing battle with Nintendo.
By the way, I should mention that Jack had done business with many Japanese companies over the years - although the Japanese were a competitor in the consumer electronics market, we also had very strong partnerships with Japanese companies. I believe Seiko/Epson provided our dot matrix printers. I think Seiko also invested in the company at some point. Also, Commodore had a watch business in Hong Kong that involved Japanese partners. I recall accompanying Jack to Japanese booths to get sneak previews of products and technologies that were not being revealed to the public, so our relationship were strong and valuable. I am proud of the fact that during my career I have both competed with and collaborated with, Japanese companies.
The VIC20 is known as the "friendly computer". Also, the PET (later CBM, Commodore Business Machines) was chosen because it sounds nice and uncomplicated. Do you think that this "friendly touch" of the machines was a big part for the success of both, PET and VIC20?
I was one of the first people to promote the concept of "user friendliness" in personal computing. During the early 1980s I became associated with this phrase, so much so that the editor of BYTE Magazine sent me a very nice note one day complimenting me on helping to pioneer the notion of "user friendliness" - which I repeated like a mantra over and over in press releases, articles, interviews and inside the company. In every meeting I stated that our prime directive was "user friendliness."
The editor of BYTE said in his note that there is a German word that means user friendliness: BENUTZEFREUNDLICHKEIT. So I had some large wood-and-brass plaques made that said "Benutzefreundlichkeit: Official Motto of the VIC Commando Team" and gave this to each of our team members. I used a lot of management tricks like this to keep everyone motivated since we were working 24/7 trying to fulfill Jack Tramiel's vision, which he called "making computers for the masses, not the classes."
I also trademarked the phrase "The Friendly Computer" which we put on our packaging. I got this idea from an Atari slogan I saw on their packaging: "Computers for People." I asked our lawyers, "Can Atari trademark that?" They said "Sure." So I replied, "Then I'm going to trademark The Friendly Computer." And so we did. It prevented other companies from calling their computers "friendly" and this was important. It may not be so obvious today, but in the early 1980s, most computers were NOT thought of as friendly. You had to learn a programming language to use them, or a software system. There were lots of tangled cords involved running to the disk drive, printer, etc. Most people were familiar with computer punch cards and mainframes or minicomputer workstations. The term "microcomputer" was still relatively new. So waving the "friendly computer" was a hugely important strategy.
Ergonomic decisions were your work. Why you chose that color of keys and case? Because it looked similar to PET/CBM computers (white/beige with brown keys)? What other question you preferred?
The editor of BYTE Magazine sent me a very nice note one day complimenting me on helping to pioneer the notion of "user friendliness" - which I repeated like a mantra over and over in press releases, articles, interviews and inside the company. In every meeting I stated that our prime directive was "user friendliness." The editor of BYTE said in his note that there is a German word that means user friendliness: BENUTZEFREUNDLICHKEIT. So I had some large wood-and-brass plaques made that said "Benutzefreundlichkeit: Official Motto of the VIC Commando Team" and gave this to each of our team members. I used a lot of management tricks like this to keep everyone motivated since we were working 24/7 trying to fulfill Jack Tramiel's vision, which he called "making computers for the masses, not the classes."
Why there is no RESET switch? Never thought of that?
Well, there were several things we undoubtedly overlooked. Actually, I was more concerned with overheating and heat synchs and more basic things - for example, in the first 100,000 units, the VIC-20 would overheat after about 4 to 6 hours of use and lock up. I remember developing software and manuals on my own VIC-20 at home, and suddenly having it lock up before I had saved my work. That was so frustrating - but I had a remedy. When my VIC-20 overheated, I would get a back of ice from the freezer and put it on the console and after a few minutes the system would restore. I guess I could joke that our first reset switch was a bag of ice!
What computer technologies do you use today, that impress you?
Today, I am writing this on a Samsung Netbook (NC10) that lasts NINE hours on a battery charge. Although I used both Apples and Windows computers for many years, I now use a Windows operating system because when one application crashes, only that app tends to crash and the rest stay intact. I also see a lot of messages telling me that the computer is checking and fixing a problem that caused a crash or lockup, so "intelligent, self-correcting software" which was just a dream in the 1980s is almost here.
Voice recognition and synthesis software is also quite advanced. Some people think that artificial intelligence has never achieved its potential but actually it's already here. Telephone call centers use computers to ask questions, we respond, the system recognizes what we say, and directs us to where we need to be…which is now, thanks to cheap broadband computers and inexpensive telecommunications…in places as faraway as India. The computer has truly flattened the world, as Tom Friedman has observed in his book ("The World is Flat").
Speaking of India, that nation has embraced Dr. Negroponte's vision of an affordable computer that works by cranking to charge the battery, for $50 or $100. India has developed computers that range in price from $10 (recently announced for a tablet style computer) to $50 for an educational computer. These visions trace their roots to Jack Tramiel and his mantra, "Computers for the masses, not the classes."
In the future, we will see some really exciting development - I am working now with a company called Noveda Technologies in New Jersey that is located in the first 'net zero' energy building in the United States. Noveda has a smart metering system that enables a large building, office complex, campus or manufacturing facility to monitor and reduce its energy use and cost to net-zero or near net-zero.
This is one future vision that I feel strongly about because we MUST reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in order to survive as a species. The levels of CO2 have risen above the "tipping point" of 380 parts per million in just a few years and is heading toward a level of 550 parts per million - which is the point at which we all start having difficult breathing. This is easy to validate because in poorly ventilated office buildings where CO2 levels reach 500 ppm, the workers report difficulty breathing. This is only one reason why we need to control energy use and emission of greenhouse gases. By the way, my capstone project for my master's degree in environmental studies was a webzine series entitled "The Paradoxes of Global Warming."
Who designed that case? It was used by VC20, C64 and C16 computers and is very well known. It was so high, because the first versions of the VIC20 hat a built-in power supply. But it never changed later and today often is voted as one of the most unergonomic computers. What are you thinking about the case today?
The case was designed to accommodate a typewriter style keyboard at a time when most devices had plastic membranes that wore out quickly or would "stick" on humid days. The body was shaped to help dissipate heat which was and is today a major problem with computers. The rounded shape was designed to make it more comfortable for the user's wrists - since many computers had hard edges that would become painful after a few hours. The function keys were inspired by the NEC PC5000, the prototype I saw in Japan in early 1980. All of the power supplies from the era were clunky and oversized and hot and we were constantly changing and trying to improve these. I'm not sure who actually did the case design although at one point Jack and I were considering trying to get designs from car designers at Porsche and other places that had really great designs. I'm not sure if this came from one of those designers or not but we were talking to lots of people including designers at the time. I can't recall if this came through our U.S. engineers or from our Japanese team. I do recall arguing very strongly with Jack and insisting on a typewriter style keyboard when he wanted a membrane or button style keyboard because the cost was significantly lower. I won that debate, thank goodness. Today I'm very pleased with the look and ergonomics.
You wanted to call it "Spirit" but that was not a good choice because it means "terrible things" in Japanease language. Later it became the VIC20. You said that you added 20 after VIC, because it sounds friendly. But why the name changed to VIC? Is it true, that this name came from the video/sound chip called "Video Interface chip"?
It's true that I originally wanted to call the VIC the Commodore Spirit but at the last minute I got a frantic call from Japan saying we couldn't use that name because in Japanese, Commodore Spirit doesn't translate as a friendly ghost or as a patriotic spirit - it means ghoulish soul-eating creature from hell - or something like that - so we abandoned my favorite name. We also considered calling it "Vixen" - but in addition to being a female fox, that word had some pornographic connotations.
We called the computer the VIC because the main chip that provided the core features was called the Video Interface Chip. It was developed by our talented chip designers at MOS Technology in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
I thought that the word "VIC" by itself sounded like a truck driver's name, I added the number 20. Jack asked me "why 20?" and I replied, "Because it's a friendly number. Everything about this will be friendly. It has to be a user friendly computer."
Was there any big mistake that was done at Commodore by introducing the VIC20 in today's point of view? What could have been done better?
Actually, the VIC-20 represents a wide range of pioneering achievements. It was the first affordable computer, which was needed to bring computing into homes and schools, to jump-start the home computing revolution.
We shortened the computer development cycle from about 2 years to one year - by 1984 we were introducing the next generation of our products every 12 months! This speed was also essential to driving the market forward.
In terms of mistakes, I think we could have delayed the introduction until the overheating problem was solved, but that might have pushed back the launch but we were moving at a blinding rate of speed, even compared to today's product development cycles.
One of our great strengths was Commodore's ability to draw on resources from Asia and Europe in addition to the U.S. Today we call this globalization but we were already excelling at this in the 1980s. Our packaging "look" and graphics and lots of software came from Europe. The first prototypes were driven by the Japanese team (using technologies developed by our U.S. engineers and chip designers I should emphasize). Our manufacturing center in Europe was based in Germany - and we introduced our innovations to the European market every year at Hanover Fair. The multinational involvement in the VIC-20 and our other computers was remarkable given that most U.S. companies were still "U.S.-centric" and treated other markets as "secondary." Commodore valued its markets worldwide and we worked very hard to deliver synchronous market introductions, instead of "serial" introduction which meant that non-U.S. markets received their products years after the U.S. We were a truly international company and pioneered many best practices including how we managed our network of overseas vendors - which today we study at Wharton as contemporary best practices.
The greatest mistake was stopping the race car by throwing the driver out of the front seat. Jack Tramiel was building the corporate culture into a true culture of innovation. He was grooming his three sons to become vice presidents, to help continue that culture - Gary Tramiel had worked in banking and finance; Sam was an operations genius who ran a watch business and consumer electronics center in Hong Kong; Leonard had a degree in astrophysics from Columbia - he worked on the design of the P.E.T. and had 2 experiments on the NASA space shuttle. These talented sons together with the rest of us on the Commodore team would have continued our innovation trajectory for decades more but unfortunately this did not happen.
After Jack left Commodore, Jack and his sons wound up rescuing Atari, which had lost a billion dollars for its parent firm, Warner Communications. They turned the company around in 6 months, had it profitable in a year, refinanced the company and turned it into a family business which they ran for several years.
Is there a legacy from Commodore? The VIC-20 turned the concept of the home computer revolution into a home computer reality. We created the launchpad that led in a direct path to ubiquitous computing, the Internet, and lots more that we take for granted today. We created possibilities that are still evolving.
Today, I try to draw on this energy to find ways to motivate modern innovators to replicate the kind of creativity, dedication (and risk taking) that went into the first home computer. We all have an obligation to continue the evolutionary process of innovation. We can all be innovation champions, by encouraging our children to pursue careers in science and engineering. We can keep up-to-date with new technologies and participate in social networks that promote innovation. We can use technology to make ourselves more productive in our jobs. We can find ways to provide computers, healthcare devices and other innovations to "the masses" at the bottom of the pyramid in developing countries. There is still a lot that needs to be accomplished. We all have to keep going.
Tell us something about the Commodore Information Network and the VICmodem!
As VIC-20 sales surged toward the million unit level, we could not keep pace with all the customer service inquiries. One idea I had was to hire some student interns to answer customer calls - they all came from Drexel University, which still had a terrific intern program. This was not enough, however. At the same time, I was frustrated that telephone modems cost $400.
If we could create a community of users who could communicate by phone - using the Source or CompuServe (the key telecomputing services at the time) - they could talk to each other and user groups could answer a lot of technical questions. This would provide another channel for addressing customer service questions.
Our Commodore engineers were too busy to work on this so I recruited some engineers from a small company that was making infrared modems used in factories and warehouses. I gave them a challenge to create a modem that would cost $33 - which would allow me to retail this at $99 given a 3x markup. These engineers would earn a royalty on the sales and this was a strong incentive. I felt we could sell more than a million modems if we could reach this price point. We went back and forth many times.
Finally, the engineers accosted me at my hotel room at a computer convention - in the hallway, they showed me how their acoustic modem worked and complained that the cord from the modem to the computer was driving the cost up. I took one look at their design and said, "Put it on a cartridge." They were surprised. "It's easy," I told them. "Design the circuit to fit on a plug-in cartridge. The VIC-20 has a built-in RS232 interface and a slot - so why not do a direct-connect modem?" That was truly a "eureka moment." I further explained that if they did the design, Commodore would manufacture the cartridge. The engineers went away and the next day came back with the design for the cartridge, which met my cost target. I never asked to have my name on the copyright although I guess I could have been credited for that since the cartridge modem was my idea.
I called the device the "VICModem" and introduced it at around $100 - the first $100 direct connect modem - and I also negotiated more than $100 in free services from the Source, CompuServe and Dow Jones which were the only major telecomputing services at the time. The VICModem became the first million-seller modem.
After that I hired an editor to create what I called the "Commodore Information Network." This would provide a community on CompuServe, where users could get answers to their questions - very similar to the way the Internet works today.
In those days, CompuServe paid the content provider a fee based on traffic. One day, Jack Tramiel came into my office waving a check. "What's this?" he demanded. "Why are we getting a check for $36,000 from CompuServe? Is there something going on I don't know about?" I simply smiled and said, "That's our fee for being the largest user community on CompuServe." Jack's eyebrows went up and we both grinned and started laughing. He was still laughing as he walked down the hall, holding the check.
Please tell us short about the planned MAX MACHINE. You described a MAX Machine with 256 words speaking ability and four built in software programs etc. That sounds like the 1983's V364 prototype. Did you mean that computer? Or is the computer you described a totally other prototype? Do you have any pictures?
I have a prototype of a device that was supposed to be the Max. This machine was going to have built in voice synthesis (from our Magic Voice cartridge) and four built-in software programs: word processing, graphics, electronic spreadsheet and database. Upgrades and fixes to the software would be either soft-loaded or provided on a cartridge. It would have been a revolutionary innovation. The Commodore Plus-4 was an implementation of this, I believe, although it was never developed the way that we envisioned it. This would have created a home computer with a lot of the sophisticated we saw later in the Lotus and Microsoft Office software application suites. We were also planning to move rapidly into voice synthesis, since we had on our staff (in Texas) the inventor of the speech algorithms for the Texas Instruments Speak-n-Spell (he developed the Magic Voice cartridge).
Do you have any rare item in your Commodore collection (prototype, etc)?
I have the Commodore Max, the original VIC-20 that I used when I was developing the first manuals and software, and a framed VIC-20 showing the case in two pieces which was presented to me when I left the company. I have a plaque which is a design award from the 1981 consumer electronics show, some advertising materials, a VIC-20 poster with the "rainbow" design, a photo of myself showing the Commodore 64 to William Shatner (from Star Trek) - I think that was the first time Bill Shatner worked with a computer. Later we taught him how to use the Commodore wordprocessing system and years later he was writing novels and scripts on computer! Of course, there is the Benutzefreundlichkeit plaque, the coin that was the symbol of the VIC Commandos, and some promotional pins, etc. I also have several boxes of Commodore memos and materials, annual reports, etc. that provide quite a detailed look at what was going on at the time - these are my "Commodore papers" and are quite revealing. Maybe one day I'll auction them on eBay…
Did you see Jack after Commodore? Why didn't you go with him to Atari? Have you remained in contact?
When I left Commodore, I wasn't sure if I would go to Atari with Jack and his sons but at the time, Jack invited me to meet with him in New York. We went to an off-Broadway show and had a gourmet dinner, and then he explained to me that he was going to use Atari to bring together his sons who were working in different cities and not as close as he would like them to be, as a family. He explained that for him, Atari was going to be a family company in the true sense of the word "family" and it wasn't so much a place for "business family." We agreed that I probably wouldn't feel comfortable there.
Jack and his family sold half their Commodore stock on the market and it's my understanding that Irving Gould bought the other half - estimated to be worth about $100 million in total.
After that, I called Jack once at home to see how he was doing, and he said "I put down my machine gun long enough to make myself a sandwich" - which was a joke. He was in the process of closing down 20 out of 21 buildings owned by Atari, which were unnecessary. He said there was a whole warehouse full of office furniture piling up from the closed buildings. Of course, there were layoffs of people as well.
After that I only saw him once - at a consumer electronics convention. He was sitting on the second floor of the Atari booth where they were serving "hot dogs and champagne." He used to say, "you have to eat hot dogs before you eat caviar." He asked how I was and he said he was creating the family business he envisioned. There was no talk about me being associated with Atari and I never saw him again.
The only regret that I have personally is that I created a huge fortune for the Tramiel family, but my own rewards were totally wiped out when Jack left the company. I had $1 million in stock options that were not registered when Jack was fired. By the time they were registered and I was able to sell them, the company's stock price fell from over $90 to less than $6 a share. Instead of being worth $1 million I was actually $200,000 below the option price. I have to admit that I was bitter about that for a few years, since I had created a lot of the value but was prevented from selling my stock because of the terms of the options deal. Ironically, a few of my colleagues who joined the company a year or more before me walked away with several million dollars each. I think that's my only regret from my Commodore experience.
You worked with Jack Tramiel. I don't know him personally but I saw various interviews and he also spoke at the 25th jubilee of C64. He seems to be very nice and also a funny guy, often laughing or making jokes. Is that impression true?
Jack was enormously charming, humorous, fun to be around, and impressive. Despite his reputation as a business general, he was actually very caring, sensitive and personable. When an executive had a nervous breakdown, he paid the costs and was extremely concerned. He helped many people in the business "family" in many ways. I saw many examples of his generosity on a personal level, to me and many others.
He does carry his Holocaust experience with him and his visit a few years ago to Auschwitz was probably very cathartic for him and his family.
What else can you tell me about working with Jack Tramiel?
Jack's influence on me was the same as any mentor for a protégé. I learned a great deal about management - lessons you can't learn unless you are actually there to see them unfolding. These lessons have benefited me throughout my life, and will always be an important part of my life experience.
Why you did you leave Commodore six month after Jack Tramiel did?
Most of us were traumatized when Jack left. We had lost our commanding general. In a very strange epilogue, about 35 of the key people in management in the U.S. - the president of the company (Greg Pratt), key engineers, semiconductor designers, and many others - decided to leave in the same week in May 1984. No one asked any of us to stay. This essentially gutted the company's creative infrastructure.
After that, several people took turns trying to run the company but no one was up to the task. Several general managers from other countries took their turn but didn't understand the market and were most of the senior executives were grey haired vice presidents from other industries who liked pin striped suits - that speaks for itself. The corporate culture was dead. Jack was out of the company. No one could fill his shoes. Those of us who understood the vision and corporate culture, and where we were headed, left to follow our own destinies. The company staggered on thanks to the Amiga, for a few years, then slowly and steadily spiraled down toward bankruptcy.
Do you get lot of emails from Commodore fans? Did you hear any nice story?
I still receive several emails a year thanking me for my role in the development of the VIC-20 (and C64) which introduced people to computing, which changed their lives. This is enormously gratifying.
In June I was interviewed for several hours for a television film documentary on the birth of the home computer - the film crew includes American and Italian professionals. I shared several experiences and anecdotes and I will let you know if and when this documentary is completed.
You also wrote the book "The Home Computer Wars". You told me that you will do a update and release it this summer! Is that right? Also tell us about "NanoInnovation: What Managers Need to Know"!
I have toyed with the idea of updating the Home Computer Wars or republishing it, however, I've been constantly occupied with other writing projects and my duties at Wharton which have interfered with this project. I would like to update the book with some additional material at the end of the book including my own analysis of why the company failed. I'm not sure there is a market for this book, however, and I'm not sure if this is worth my time and effort, compared to other projects. Ideally it would be good if a book publisher wanted to publish a "second edition" - which would provide some motivation.
I am currently writing a book on nanotechnology entitled: "NanoInnovation: What Every Manager Needs to Know" that will be published by Wiley-VCH in 2011. I recently contributed a book chapter entitled "Applying the Marketing Mix (5 P's) to Bionanotechnology" to a book entitled Molecular Bionanotechnology, which will be published in 2011 by Springer. In 2005 I co-edited a 130-page research report entitled: "The Future of BioSciences: Four Scenarios for 2020 and Their Implications for Human Healthcare."
What are you doing now and how do you stay involved in technology and innovation?
In 1995 I joined the Wharton School as Managing Director of the Emerging Technologies Management Research Program, which in 2002 became the Mack Center for Technological Innovation. This has become one of the top research centers at Wharton and I'm exceptionally proud of my role in helping to build this center.
Here's a bit of personal trivia: When I started my job at Wharton in 1995, I wanted to put myself in an "out of the box" frame of mind…so I prepared myself by playing a video game called "MechWarrior" - it took me one month to reach the highest level but took an additional month to finish the last mission in the game! The last mission looked like the villain was escaping in a convoy of vehicles - I destroyed the vehicles but still didn't win - and it took me awhile to figure out that the villain was in one of the mechanized robots that had stalked away! Playing this video game actually helped me move into a problem-solving "radical innovation" mode. I still play video games occasionally - most recently, Call2Duty-Modern Warfar, which is a stunningly realistic battlefield simulation. My wife and I both played this game to the top level. I am especially impressed with how well the "avatars" are portrayed - this is a virtual battlefield simulation that provides some interesting glimpses of the future. If we can imagine how avatars will be used (in addition to the examples in the movie "Avatar" which is also terrific) - we can gain a sense of the next generation of future computing.
For the past 15 years I have been working with Wharton faculty and industry partners to develop insights on how to "compete, survive and succeed" in industries that are being created or transformed by radical innovation. We host 4 to 5 insight building events including an annual technology showcase I originated and have been hosting since 1998. This is a fun event where I get to invite tech pioneers to explain what's realIy happening in gene therapy, electric cars, 3D printing, organ regeneration, nanotechnology, cloud computing and lots more. I also teach sessions on emerging technologies in the Wharton Executive Education Program.
In May 2010 I earned a master's degree in environmental studies from the University of Pennsylvania (I have an MBA from UCLA and a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh).
I keep involved in emerging technologies as an advisor to technology ventures - currently, working on smart metering systems to engineer "net-zero" energy-use buildings.
I have pursued one interesting project that was inspired by Jack - although it's fictional - I have written a Holocaust novel that tells the story of four young men who come through the beginning of the World War II in Poland, survive the Holocaust including internment in Auschwitz, and emigrate to the U.S. after the war, where they go on to start the home computer revolution. Some parts of the story, especially the computer years, will sound familiar, I'm sure. I meticulously researched the historical details and events, since although I am not Jewish, I am Polish-American so this is meaningful to me. WWII started in Poland which most people today don't realize. Some key events in the book include the last cavalry charge (which really happened in Poland), the fall of Warsaw in September 1939, the massacre of more than 10,000 officers by the Russian NKVD in the Katyn Forest (kept secret for decades), an escape from Auschwitz (several dozen people did escape), and the story of the first home computer (fictionalized). This Fall I will send the manuscript to a few literary agents, so we'll see what happens.
Periodically I "reinvent myself" by In terms of my career - for example, I am currently exploring the potential to move into a position of greater responsibility and impact, at the university level. You can see my current activities including some "radical innovations" on my personal website: http://www.michaeltomczyk.com .
Thanks for the interview. Do you want to add anything?
I would simply add that I continue to be enormously humbled and touched by the amount of attention that is being given to this chapter in the history of home computing - I am proud of whatever role I was able to play, and of course this is a life achievement that continues to evolve and benefit society. I appreciate this opportunity to candidly share some of my retrospective memories, anecdotes and lessons.