How the Commodore 64 Became the Most Popular Computer of its Time

Commodore 64

Are you a Commodore 64 enthusiast wanting to know more about this classic retro computer?

You might have fond memories of playing those vintage C64 games back in the eighties. Have you considered how the Commodore 64 came to be and why it was such an enduring hit in the home computer market?

If you remember the C64 as one of the most groundbreaking computer models of its era, you’re not alone. Time magazine ranked Commodore 64 computers among its top twelve most influential gadgets and gizmos. With its affordability and ease-of-use, it was the C64 that first opened the possibility of personal computing to a wider audience.

Do you want to know more about the Commodore 64 computer, including its history and popularity? You need to read our guide on this influential machine, so read on!

What Is the Commodore 64?

The Commodore 64 computer was introduced in 1982 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). In addition to the Commodore VIC-20 that came before it, the C64 exposed millions to their first computer.

Like other computers of the same time, the OS (Operating System), known as BASIC, was minimal and provided in ROM (Read-Only Memory).

Built into the motherboard, the low-level OS, Kernal (Keyboard Entry Read, Network, And Link) provided 39 functions. This was the foundation for higher-level BASIC ROM routines. Although BASIC is generally considered part of the OS, in reality, it is not, but it allowed users to create, save, load, and run programs.

To run programs, special hardware needed to be added to the system. A floppy disk drive or tape cassette player was required to load software media.

Often magazines included program software that could be hand-coded and saved to a floppy disk for future use. In the 1980s and early 1990s, C64 magazines often included cassette tapes that could load playable game demos and full programs.

The software could be also be bought on a plastic cartridge that could plug into the C64 expansion port. Cartridges were faster and less susceptible to errors.

History of the Commodore 64

Originally a manufacturer of typewriters, Commodore progressed to adding machines. Then came electronic calculators and later computers.

Their 1976 purchase of MOS (Metal Oxide Semiconductor) Technology, Inc gave them a distinct advantage. They could now produce chips in-house.

MOS was behind the popular 6502 processor, available in many machines at that time. This included the Apple II, the Atari 2600, and the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System).

The Commodore 64’s journey begins in early 1981 at MOS Technology, Inc. MOS was in the business of semiconductor design and fabrication. They would later become CSG (Commodore Semiconductor Group).

After the popularity of the VIC-20, the company decided not to anticipate market needs for their next chip. Instead, they focused on creating the next generation of video and sound that would enable advances in video gaming.

By the end of the year, the arcade game market was showing signs of stagnation.

The Commodore president Jack Tramiel decided to develop a home computer with 64KB of memory in time for CES in early 1982. The incredibly short-timeframe for the engineers was six weeks, yet the design was complete within days. Prototypes were produced with weeks to spare, and the C64 was soon rolled into production.

Just eight months after CES, The Commodore 64 had already begun shipping out from the factory. The fast turnaround of the C64 project led to both engineering flaws and supplier issues. This negatively impacted the quality of the first computers to hit the market.

Despite this, several revisions were made, and quality control problems did not appear to harm sales. 

How Much Did the Commodore 64 Sell?

The Commodore 64 sold extremely well. According to Guinness World Records, the C64 was the best-selling desktop computer of all time!

During a manufacturing run of almost twelve years, millions of C64 computers were produced between 1982-94. Although the exact number of units has remained elusive, the current estimate is 12.5 million computers!

The official estimate released by Commodore is 17 million units. Jack Tramiel suggests that the real number is somewhere between 22 and 30 million. The lowest modern estimate is still enough to elevate the Commodore 64 to the number one spot as the most popular desktop computer ever.

The C64 was a then-powerful computer. The original retail price of $595 (about $1600 today) was significantly lower than competing machines. Initial production costs came in at $135, so the profit margin was high.

Economies-of-scale lowered production costs to around $50 within a few years, and by the mid-eighties, the dealer price was about $100. Some retail outlets sold units for less than $100, as a loss-leader. This would hopefully encourage sales of the high-profit-margin peripheral devices.

The decision to sell units outside of the computer and electronic stores also helped lead to incredible sales figures. Cardboard stand-up stacks of C64s were available in big chains throughout the US, like Sears, Toys ‘R’ Us, and K-Mart.

The initial popularity encouraged much game development. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of titles were available, keeping C64 interest alive for years. 

The cost of PCs decreased in the early nineties, and specs began rising. The generation of home computers led by Commodore finally faced obsolescence. The company would be bankrupt by 1994.

Was the Commodore 64 Popular?

Attempts were made to surpass the Commodore 64 with future models, such as the Commodore 128. The strong ecosystem around the C64 made its popularity endure. 

The MOS team behind the C64 chip believed that the free-reign given to engineers in creating a new chip fostered a unique opportunity. Without that autonomy to bring something entirely new to the market, such a radical chip design may not have been possible.

The Commodore 64s influence on future game platforms was significant, and its legacy still lives on. 

To this day, a solid fanbase remains, even fueling new programs to load on vintage machines. Modern rebuilds now exist, with HDMI and internet connectivity. Virtual emulators are also available for modern computers.

Commodore 64 Computer

We’ve shown that the Commodore 64 was a successful computer, remaining popular among enthusiasts today. Don’t end your journey into retro computers here.

If you’re a vintage computer lover, we can revive your nostalgia. We are a retro computer resource site and an informative one-stop-shop online community. Our goal is to boost the visibility of the retro enthusiast world and pave the way for revivals of vintage computers.

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