The Fascinating Story of the Commodore 128

Commodore 128

Commodore. A name that conjures nostalgic feelings for many people across the world. The Commodore 64 is the computing powerhouse they associate with the Commodore brand. But what of its more powerful descendant, the Commodore 128?

This is the Fascinating Story of the Commodore 128. 

From the Beginning 

In 1958, Polish entrepreneur and Holocaust survivor Jack Tramiel founded Commodore Typewriter Company. It made affordable quality typewriters for small businesses and home use. As the East Asian manufacturing industry exploded, the company shifted focus to other markets.

With the Commodore focus on innovation and quality, wasn’t long before it was in home and business markets in North America. 

Then, in 1975, the calculator market changed. Texas Instruments entered the market, in a shift from making parts. Seeing the writing on the wall, Commodore changed again.

This time, it entered the burgeoning industry of personal computing. 

The Commodore Revolution 

Commodore swung into the market with the Personal Electron Transactor – the Commodore PET. It took over the microcomputing market and the company became one of the top 3 Microcomputing companies on the market. 

The followed this success with the Commodore VIC-20. While PETs had found their niche in schools and small businesses across the United States, the VIC-20 evolved the game. Affordable, sleek, and powerful, the VIC-20 opened the home microcomputing market for Commodore. 

No amount of prior success could prepare the world for what was next to come. 

The Birth of an Icon 

The Commodore 64: Omnipresent in the zeitgeist of the 1980s, the Commodore 64 found its place in bedrooms and dens across the world. It had sharp graphics, 64-kilobyte processing power, and unparalleled sound. So, the C64 took the market by storm, bringing home computer gaming to the forefront of the market.

The C64 also managed to price out many of its competitors. Its products cost around half the price of other 64k options at the time, living up to the Commodore promise of “computers for the masses, not the classes”. 

This success, however, did not sit well with competitors. The company’s success led to one of the most contentious market competitions of the 20th century. 

The Home Computer War

Atari, Texas Instruments, and Commodore – these were the major players in the Home Computer War of the 1980s. With personal computers in thousands of homes, and the market shifting sharply away from businesses and schools, the race was on to be the one to capture the hearts of homes everywhere 

While Commodore was an early strong contender, it stagnated in the second half of the Home Computer War with Tramiel leaving Commodore and taking over Atari. And with the strategic, but ultimately unsuccessful purchasing of the Amiga Corporation – Commodore was in desperate need a miracle. 

Enter the Commodore 128

128 Kilobytes of RAM on the first multi-processor computer ever made available for mass market sale, a sleek beige case with a full 92 key QWERTY keyboard, and a staggering 640x200i display onboard. 

The Commodore 128 was a revolutionary 8-bit machine that anyone could own. It was the device of the future – now – and it was for sale. 

From high-end department stores like Harrods to your neighborhood K-Mart, anyone with electricity, and five hundred US dollars to burn. This affordability acted as a trojan horse, pushing the C128 out into a market that had begun to see Commodore as an outdated and stagnant company.

Technical Revolution 

Underneath that affordable price tag was easily one of the most powerful computers of the 8-bit era. 

While Commodore’s SuperPET had previously earned the title of the first computer with a multi-processer core, the C128 brought that technology to the eager masses, allowing for astonishing speeds at nearly any task put to it. 

The C128 also had the unique feature of having two separate video outputs, allowing for the use of any CRT compatible Television to act as a monitor. 

The C128 was unique in that it had not one, but three operating environments built in. First up would be Commodore 128 Mode, allowing for 2Mhz processing speed, full access to the 128k memory, and a beautiful RGB display mode that brought images to life. 

Then there was Commodore 64 mode, a unique environment in which you could run any of your C64 programs or devices from the C128 hardware, with little to no effort. This mode pioneered the concept of backward compatibility in computing, leading to efforts of legacy software integration for almost every industry device moving forward. 

Finally, there was CP/M Mode. This allowed for the C128 to be integrated into the business and professional environments through compatibility with popular CP/M Business applications. 

Modern Design 

The Commodore 128 was a weightlifter in a silk robe. The clean beige case with a full 92 key keyboard set the standard for aesthetic case design in the mid-1980s. Compared to the boxy and dull cases of Commodores competition, the C128 stood out as a beautiful example of innovative design. 

Ease of Use 

With its attractive design and revolutionary power, one may anticipate the Commodore 128 would have been unapproachable for the general market user.

This was not the case. By integrating legacy software and ergonomic design, the C128 earned a reputation for being a computer for the whole family. It took the user-friendly reputation of the Commodore 64 and expanded it to astronomical levels. 

End of An Era  

The diamond in the rough that is the Commodore 128 would sadly not be enough to win the Home Computer War for Commodore. Indeed, the C128 would stand as the last 8-bit computer ever developed by Commodore before they refocused their efforts to 16/32-bit machines with their Amiga line.

While 8-bit computing may have fallen by the wayside, the legacy of Commodore and their creations will live on, with the C128 as the crowning jewel in the coffers of history.  

Want More? 

The story of the Commodore 128 isn’t the only fascinating tale of tech from yesteryear out there. The stories about old Macs, about the rise of gaming systems, and other electronics fascinate everyone. The history of how our lives took shape is extensive and rich.

For more content like this, check out the Retrothusiast blog here

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