A working 65 is the Holy Grail of the Commodore 8-bit world
February 16, 2015 9:35 AM   Subscribe

The Commodore 65 (aka C64DX or C64DX Development System) was never officially released. Prototypes escaped development hell when Commodore was liquidated in 1994, and 200 have survived to this day. The complete manual can be read here (all 660K of it). One just sold on eBay for €20,500.
posted by slogger (22 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating. As the owner of a still working Commodore 128 this makes me wonder what the computer world would be like if CBM was still producing computers today.
posted by Splunge at 9:59 AM on February 16, 2015

The C64 was such a good home computer, with such a vast pool of software, that Commodore wasn't able to get people to upgrade to newer technology as it became available. Having a not-good-enough product will doom you quickly, but having too good a product can doom you just as surely.

Which is why every other Windows OS sucks, maybe?
posted by rikschell at 10:13 AM on February 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

It'd probably look pretty bleak, given that Commodore's downfall was almost entirely self-inflicted. For Commodore to have survived, the rest of the industry would have needed to be in shambles.

They put out some cool products, and the computing monoculture that we ended up with is.... bland and unfortunate. But, holy smokes, Commodore did not know how to run a business.

Personally, I think that Commodore would have evolved into something resembling BeOS, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the same people were involved. Be's demise is a far greater tragedy than Commodore's downfall.
posted by schmod at 10:15 AM on February 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

The C64 was such a good home computer, with such a vast pool of software, that Commodore wasn't able to get people to upgrade to newer technology as it became available.

Meh. You could say the same thing about the Apple ][ line (and, admittedly, Apple did have that problem).

However, Apple managed to work their way out of it, although it sure is interesting that Apple and Commodore both managed to make almost the exact same set of mistakes throughout the 80s -- they both had a "good enough" consumer product with no clear/affordable replacement or upgrade path, and ended up creating/maintaining several parallel platforms that were targeted at identical market segments, and ultimately flopped due to high costs and sloppy marketing.

Apple, Commodore, and NeXT had no clue who they wanted their customers to be, even though each already had a solid base of customers that they could have expanded organically...
posted by schmod at 10:22 AM on February 16, 2015

Reading this makes me wonder about the internal politics of Commodore more than anything. I mean, Commodore had a unibody, integrated 3.5" floppy drive successor to the 64/128/16/+4 line: The Amiga 500/600/1200. Commodore released the 500 in 1987 and was iterating on that end of the line until the early '90s.

I remember Commodore managing the two lines (64 et al vs. Amiga) as completely parallel universes. And they floundered around with the C16 and Plus 4 (which felt like ways to either position the C16 as the "mini" end of the line or funnel utilitarian business users into the Plus 4 with its integrated "business apps.")

It seems like the grand unified product theory for Commodore could have been "settle on a single 'mini' down at the introductory end, then fill out the Amiga product line, and spackle the differences over with an emulation layer for the Amigas that allowed for those mini people to graduate."

The 65 seems anchored in a mindset that the 64/128/16/Plus 4 line should have continued to be anything other than an evolutionary dead end better used to loss-lead people into becoming home computer users at all.
posted by mph at 10:24 AM on February 16, 2015

CBM's business model was based on owning (or having a really close relationship) with the fabs that made their silicon. Once computers got too complex for small teams to design all the chips, Commodore's model didn't scale.

Looks like a 1985-vintage Amstrad CPC664, or a 1987 ZX Spectrum +3. A little too little, a little too late.
posted by scruss at 10:26 AM on February 16, 2015

I saw the stuff on this last night and considered making a post about it myself. Particularly, I read through some of that 660K document.

The copyright notice on the manual is 1991. For context, the Commodore Amiga, a 16-bit computer based on the Motorola 68000 running at 7 mHz, came out in 1985. PC clones running DOS ruled the roost. Microsoft Windows 3.1, the beginning of the Windows hegemony, was released in 1992. The C65 would have been an 8-bit machine capable of running at a top speed of 3.5 mHz, and with 128K of memory. While the 6502 processor family isn't as underpowered as you'd think it'd be (in the 80s they were used all over the place: many home computers like C64, Apple II and Atari 8-bit, game consoles including the Atari VCS/2600 and NES, and arcade games, and ideas behind the 6502 design form the basis of the popular ARM architecture), it was still grievously underpowered for 1991. I like the ol' Commie as much, or even more, than anyone, but that wasn't flying in that year, which is probably why development was abandoned.

From what I've read so far of that manual, its graphics chip, the VIC-III (a name that, admittedly, gives me a slight thrill to hear it) looks underpowered compared to the marvelous graphics chips inside Commodore's own Amiga. One interesting thing about it was that it would have included a built-in 3-1/2" disk drive. I suppose under the theory that they got it right the first time, it would have had two SID chips. It supported a Commodore 64 compatibility mode, but considering all the tricks that C64 software pulled out to eke out performance, push the VIC-II chip for special effects, and for copy protection, it couldn't ever be very compatible without going the C128 route of basically reimplementing the original machine under the hood.

Commodore experimented themselves with making a couple of PC clones, the PC-10 and PC-20, but in a crowded market I don't think they stood out.

I'm still reading through the manual, will comment more as it comes to mind.
posted by JHarris at 10:30 AM on February 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

It should also be remembered, for a while, Commodore was doing extremely well. One of the best business decisions they ever made was buying MOS Technology, creators of the 6502. Because they themselves made the chip in their computer they were able to undercut everyone's price in making hardware, while also profiting off of the sales of their biggest competitors. But that success may well have been Commodore's downfall, because they became complacent; I seem to remember reading somewhere that people working at MOS wanted to improve upon the 6502 and advance the line, but Commodore wasn't too interested when it would have mattered. (MOS themselves was founded by Motorola exiles.)
posted by JHarris at 10:40 AM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Consumers in the 1980s weren't used to an upgrade path. You bought an appliance and used it till it broke. Seems like it was the confluence between Windows upgrades and Intel's 286/386/486/pentium line that really solidified for people that buying a new computer every few years was necessary. And they built in enough backward-compatibility that it wasn't too painful to just bite the bullet and do it.

Commodore built great computers to play with, but never succeeded in the business market. And Amigas had great graphics, but without the sort of creative tools to apply that power in the wider realm (like Apple building wysiwyg DTP into the Mac). Also, from what I understand, Jack Tramiel was a real pain to work for.
posted by rikschell at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Jack Tramiel was long gone from Commodore by then, he left in 1984.
posted by JHarris at 11:06 AM on February 16, 2015

I understand, Jack Tramiel was a real pain to work for

Understatement of the year!

Commodore: A Company On The Edge is a brilliant book and well worth a read for anyone interested in the history of the company and the people who worked there. It covers all the above (and more) and is incredibly well written.
posted by garius at 11:14 AM on February 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Was just coming in to recommend that book! Bil Herd is around on Twitter but doesn't post much; I have fantasies about getting stuck in an elevator with that dude & trying to get Golden Age stories out of him.
posted by mintcake! at 11:21 AM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

On paper this was the ultimate 8-bit computer. It's like an 8-bit Amiga. If only we had seen its potential realised.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:32 PM on February 16, 2015

Bil Herd is around on Twitter but doesn't post much; I have fantasies about getting stuck in an elevator with that dude & trying to get Golden Age stories out of him.

Fantasize no longer (well, about this anyway...)
posted by roue at 1:19 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

On paper this was the ultimate 8-bit computer. It's like an 8-bit Amiga.

I don't think it was, no. I mean, there's things they could have done to make this a stronger system. I mean, it has no blitting hardware, it runs at only 3.5 mHz, and it still only has the C64's eight hardware sprites. Considering that Commodore themselves made the Amiga, they certainly could have done better. A lot of things that an 8-bit computer can do are really things that any computer can do.

The machine would have been, like all mass-produced computers, a tradeoff between power and price. It seems evident that Commodore was going for a super-low-end machine in a year when the (long delayed) Super Nintendo, which has tons of sprites, hardware scaling and sampled audio, was hitting shelves.

And they wanted backwards compatibility with the Commodore 64, when, because of how long it had been out and the wide variety of tricks that had been adopted to get around platform limitations, would have meant to have a serious chance at it they'd have had to have included another whole C64 in the case, which I notice they didn't do -- there is no VIC-II chip in there, so a certain percentage of software wasn't going to work.

And really, 8-bit hardware carries no intrinsic advantages itself. It's just the size of the processor's addressing bus.

Meanwhile, Windows 3.1 comes out next year, the Macintosh has been out for several, and Commodore themselves make a competing line they would be understandably reluctant to imply they were abandoning. The Amiga 500, the most popular of the line, was discontinued in 1991, to make way for better models. How would it have looked if one of them were this?
posted by JHarris at 1:56 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Commodore didn't create the Amiga. It was created by a startup called Amiga Corporation, largely backed by Atari money, and due to various twists and turns Commodore managed to buy the whole thing out from under Atari in 1984. There is a reason it isn't like the stuff rolling out of Commodore's own R&D dept in that period.
posted by w0mbat at 3:27 PM on February 16, 2015

I mean, it has no blitting hardware, it runs at only 3.5 mHz, and it still only has the C64's eight hardware sprites.

It had a DMA chip, the DMAgic, which maybe might have been a useful helper for blitting operations. Although it's annoyingly under-documented in the linked manual -- for example, the registers are specified but not the format of the DMA list. And the "Note: Minterms & Subcommand will not be implemented until F018A, at which time the register map will be reorganized & support for the REC added" to me sounds very much like "it isn't working in the first spin of the silicon, we'll fix it in the next rev."

The 3.5MHz, yes, although the CPU description ducks it by noting that "many instructions are shorter or
require less cycles than they used to"; so it's using those MHz more efficiently than a 6510. (And in C64 mode it runs at 1.02MHz with dummy cycles inserted to stretch the instruction timings back to the 6510 cycle counts.)

The C64 compatibility seems shaky at best: "a reasonable degree of C64 software compatibility
and a moderate degree of add-on hardware and peripheral compatibility." And as JHarris notes, the class of applications that you'd most want back-comparability on -- the C64's games -- would be the least likely to run on this, given the not-quite-compatible VIC-II mode of the VIC-III, plus games' frequent exploitation of quirks and very specific timings in the VIC-II.

On the VIC-III/C4567R6: the manual hints at what Commodore were hoping for it: "a low-cost high-performance system/video controller, designed to be used in a wide variety of low-end home-computer type systems ranging from joystick controlled video games to high-end home-productivity machines with built-in disk drives and monitors"; "a high performance single chip video controller designed to bring exceptional graphics to low cost computer and game systems". This seems a more ambitious remit than simply "next-gen C64". Were they hoping to enter the home console market? Or to become a silicon supplier to that market?

It is an odd duck, though; although really all of Commodore's post-C64 8-bit machines were odd ducks. The C16, like anyone wanted something lesser than a C64? The Plus4 with its weird "productivity" focus. The C128, which was really three machines crammed into one box: a 99.99%-compatible C64 mode, the somewhat-faster-somewhat-bigger C128 mode, and then also a Z80 to run a CP/M mode: and I'll bet that most of them ran in C64 mode most of the time. I know mine did.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:36 PM on February 16, 2015

Well, yes, I know that, but they owned Amiga, they manufactured it. I suppose there wasn't much intercourse between their Amiga guys and their in-house guys, though, which would explain some things. But I don't know, with how far everyone else was beyond Commodore at that time, it sounds like they didn't really encourage much in-house development beyond the C128, which is strange because of course they owned MOS Technologies.

I keep forgetting about the 128's Z80 mode. Did anyone really use that?
posted by JHarris at 3:43 PM on February 16, 2015

JHarris, there was a small cult of C128 owners that ran in CP/M mode. The developer hung out on CompuServe and was pretty good about fixing things - it started out fairly buggy, and didn't even handle a serial port right, but he turned it into something pretty good. All I remember is that he went by Von something or other.

I bought and ran the CP/M version of Turbo Pascal on mine.

The C128 was really the best 8 bit computer ever made.
posted by rfs at 6:07 PM on February 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Meanwhile, Windows 3.1 comes out next year

You mean...

posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:32 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hopefully the C= 65 meant it had 65K of memory.
posted by mazola at 8:39 PM on February 16, 2015

JHarris: "I seem to remember reading somewhere that people working at MOS wanted to improve upon the 6502 and advance the line, but Commodore wasn't too interested when it would have mattered"

Ys, well, as to the question of what the world would be like if the C64 and 6502-ish PCs had continued, well, that is kind of the mobile world now. The little, fast instant-on mobile computers with radios we carry around inour pockets? They're just souped up micros, shrunk down to pocket size. ARM is a spiritual descendent of the 6502, since originally it came about because Acorn wanted a 6502 successor cool enough for their planned graphics workstation. ARM designers Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber visited the MOS Western Design Centre to see how their approach and ethos for the 6502 and kind of ran with it, aiming at similar fast interrupt handling, low power and simple design. Acorn basically spent a few years transitioning their R&D from 6502 over to ARM. We're living in a 6502 Bizarro World.
posted by meehawl at 9:54 PM on February 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

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