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Jack Tramiel's Impact on the IT Industry

InfoQ takes a look back at the life and career of Jack Tramiel, who died on April 8 2012 at the age of 83. As the founder of Commodore Business Machines, Tramiel made a huge contribution to the IT industry, arguably rivalling that of Steve Jobs.

Born in 1928 to a Jewish family in Poland, he was 10 when the Nazis invaded in September 1939. He and his family were confined to a ghetto for 5 years, and then shipped to Auschwitz in August 1944. His mother survived the war, but he and his father were sent to the Ahlem slave labour camp in Hanover, Germany, where his father died. Tramiel's belief was that he was murdered by being injected with petrol. At 16, Tramiel was liberated by the United States 84th Infantry, which included amongst its number Vernon Tott, whose photographs of Ahlem later became very important to Tramiel and other survivors. Tramiel stated

But here is a person who liberated me. It is the proof, because sometime you start doubting - "were you in those camps?" So proof like that, you can't get. I'll never forget him and my kids won't forget him.

After two further years in Germany Tramiel emigrated to the US, and joined the army, where he learnt to repair office equipment. On leaving the army he set up his own business, Commodore Business Machines, selling typewriters, and later other office equipment including calculators.

Tramiel was a notoriously tough businessman who regarded business as war. Brian Bagnall's book "Commodore: A Company on the Edge" describes how he would regularly not pay his suppliers, particularly if Commodore was interested in acquiring the company. Consequently, many suppliers would only deal with Commodore on a cash on delivery basis. But underpinning his philosophy was a desire to make low cost machines that he could sell "for the masses and not the classes". As a result, as Commodore expanded into making computers, many of us who were then teenagers got our start on Commodore machines, including InfoQ editors such as Craig Smith, Alex Blewitt and me. Commodore also started Alex Blewitt's writing career, with an article on Interrupt Requests and doing background/interrupt driven processing published in Issue 28 of Commodore Disk User in February 1991. All three of us still own our Commodore machines.

Martin Goldberg, speaking with Forbes, said

Jack Tramiel was an immense influence in the consumer electronics and computing industries. A name once uttered in the same vein as Steve Jobs is today, his journey from concentration camp survivor to captain of industry is the stuff of legends. His legacy are the generations upon generations of computer scientists, engineers, and gamers who had their first exposure to high technology because of his affordable computers.

Tramiel hadn't intended to get into the computer business, but Texas Instruments, who supplied most of his calculator parts, started making its own calculators and selling them at a lower price than Commodore could. In response, he bought a small American chip company called MOS Technology, and met a designer called Chuck Peddle. MOS Technology had developed the cheap 6502 microprocessor, and Peddle wanted to use it to create a personal computer. Tramiel had considered acquiring Apple, which was still in its garage-based infancy, but Steve Jobs asked for $100,000 for the firm, and Tramiel instead decided Commodore should design its own computer around the 6502 processor. That machine, the Commodore PET, launched in January 1977 (shortly before the Apple II) and was the first mass-produced home computer. The 6502 was also used in the Apple II, and a number of other home computers of the era, including the Acorn BBC Micro.

The PET proved popular, and was followed up by the VIC-20, the first PC to sell more than a million units, and then the Commodore 64 (C64), which was the bestselling PC of its era, selling over 20 million units, and getting roughly 40 percent of the US market. In 1982, when it began shipping, the C64's graphics and sound capabilities were rivalled only by the Atari 8-bit family, and appeared exceptional when compared to the Atari VCS and Apple II.

The system, in common with most other home computers, had a tape drive that used standard cassette tape, making pirating of software between machines remarkably easy in the days of ubiquitous tape-to-tape recorders. However, it was the advanced graphics and sound, along with optional peripherals such as the (admittedly painfully slow) external floppy disk drive, that combined to make the machine an excellent games machine; doubtless contributing greatly to its success.

The C64 used another 8-bit MOS Technology processor, the 6510 for its CPU. This was a close derivative of the 6502, but added a 6-bit internal I/O port that allowed the C64 to bank-switch the machine's read-only memory (ROM) in and out of the processor's address space, and also to operate the datasette tape recorder. The graphics chip, VIC-II, supported 16 colours, 8 hardware sprites per scanline (enabling up to 112 sprites per PAL screen), scrolling capabilities, and two bitmap graphics modes. The sound-chip, SID (Sound Interface Device), was another MOS chip, developed by Robert "Bob" Yannes, who would later co-found the Ensoniq synthesizer company. Composers such as Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway were quick to exploit these capabilities, both becoming well known composing original music for games on the Commodore 64.

Accessing these capabilities though, at least via the ROM based version of the BASIC programming language, was something of challenge. The BASIC implementation (Commodore BASIC 2.0) was limited to say the least, and did not include specific commands for sound or graphics manipulation. Instead it required users to use "POKE" commands to change the content of any address in the memory address, ranging from 0 to 65535, to the given byte value in the range 0 through 255. So for example, POKE 53280,1 would change the screen colour to white. POKE 53281, PEEK (53280) would set the background colour the same as the screen frame colour. A misplaced POKE could cause the C-64 to lock up, or delete the program currently in memory. All in all, you got very close to the machine. It was tremendous fun, and introduced many teenagers to the art of programming.

Tramiel fell out with his chairman and major shareholder Irving Gould, who had financed the MOS Technology takeover. Tramiel left Commodore in 1984, bought Atari's loss-making consumer business from Warner Bros, and started competing against his old company. The first result was a cheap line of Atari 8-bit machines repackaged as the 65XE.

I owned another Tramiel machine, his fourth and final hit, the Atari 520ST. The ST ran slightly faster than the Apple Mac, had a better monochrome screen, and was way cheaper. In the UK, for example, a 512K Atari ST with disk drive, monitor, mouse and software cost £750, compared to the £800 that Apple charged just to upgrade a 128K standard Mac to a 512K "fat" Mac. It was also the first home computer with integrated MIDI support, and thus enjoyed considerable success running music-sequencer software and as a controller of musical instruments. It was much used by both amateurs like me, and professionals including Jean Michel Jarre, Madonna, Tangerine Dream, Fatboy Slim, and 808 State.

Under Tramiel's leadership, Atari, which he ran with his three sons, was a genuinely innovative company. Products included the Lynx (first colour handheld games console), the 64-bit Jaguar games console, the Atari Portfolio (first PC-compatible palmtop), and the revolutionary Transputer Workstation (using parallel-processing Inmos chips). None were great hits, however, and as the 1990s progressed low cost Windows-based PCs began to dominate the computer side, whilst Nintendo, Sega, and Sony cornered the games console market. In 1996 Tramiel sold the company and retired.

Tramiel and his wife were significant donors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. In 2005 he made an additional large donation in tribute to Vernon Tott.

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