Since 1980 Mr. Michael Tomczyk was an assistant to Jack Tramiel: the first President of Commodore. During his four years at Commodore, he played an important roll for mapping out plans of home computers such as the VIC-20, the Commodore 64, and for their international marketing. Nowadays he's active as the Managing Director at the Wharton School.
Although Commodore's computers were very popular in the world, only a handful of nuts appreciated them in Japan. However, Commodore was the most careful western company about the danger of rising Japanese computers in those days. In fact they developed the VIC and the C64 to keep back Japanese contenders. How did they see Japanese computers? What did they do against Japanese market? Mr.Tomczyk kindly told us various things related to Japan and many others. (Note: This interview consists of our email questionnaire and his reply.)
Please tell us about the VIC-20 (VIC-1001 [*1]).
In the interview with The Desert Oasis, you said "We developed the VIC partly in Japan and partly in the U.S." Concretely speaking, which parts were developed by Japanese staff?
Actually, there was a blurring of responsibilities between the U.S. and Japanese contributions, and we functioned truly as a multinational team, with contributions from both sides adding to product design, ergonomics, software and other features. For example, the VIC chip which created revolutionary sound effects including voice synthesis and music, was developed at MOS Technologies in Valley Forge. Much of the design work drawn from a different computer, a color version of the PET/CBM [*2], was drawn from Santa Clara, CA. And a good deal of software design came from Yoshi [*3] and his small team in Japan. The ergonomic decisions were mostly mine although I made sure to involve Jack Tramiel in these decisions. Jack had final approval but left most of the key decisions to me—(name of the computer, type of keyboard, color of keys and case, decision to add function keys, built-in RS-232 and some other ergonomics).
In the interview with Rick Melic, you stated,
[The VIC was] called the VC-1001 in Japan, because the
movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was popular and apparently 1001 is more
'friendly' in Japan than 20,. However—please forgive me for
asking such a rude question. '1001' is not recognized as a friendly
number by most of Japanese people. I can't clearly understand why you
thought so. Maybe you were aware of the NEC's PC-8001, the most
successful Japanese computer in those days?
This decision was made by Tony Tokai [*4] in Japan and I had no involvement with the name of the Japanese product. So whether this name was friendly or not rests with Tony who is Japanese. I should mention that I did visit Japan and saw the NEC computer which I thought was a terrific computer and major threat. After seeing the beautiful function keys on the NEC computer, I insisted on function keys on the VIC-20 [*5]. I believe that if the NEC was launched in the U.S. with some major marketing push, that computer could have carved a niche in the market, but when we used my
in the woods strategy—NEC never came in with their excellent
product. The bear in the woods strategy goes like this: what do you
do when you're being chased by a bear in the woods? Answer: you throw
down your knapsack. The bear stops to examine it, and you run like
crazy, or scurry up a tree. So what do you do when you're an American
product manager and the Japanese are breathing down your neck? Throw
them a low-cost, user-friendly computer (the VIC-20)—when they
stop to examine it (which at that time took them 6 to 12 months!), you
work like crazy to make an even better computer (the Commodore 64).
Keeping the Japanese competition at bay was a major strategic goal of
mine at Commodore, since I had lived in Asia for 2 years and knew the
danger of a major Japanese push in home computing. Our tactical moves
in price/performance kept them out of the market during the time that
I was involved at Commodore. I should add that the Japanese were
excellent technical allies as well as competitors and
we greatly valued the contributions and candor with which companies
like Sony et. al. shared their innovations, and previewed what was
coming. I remember seeing an active matrix cell half a decade before
it was used in laptops—but when I saw it, the cost was $125 per
Can you tell something about HAL Laboratory from Japan? Apparently, many of early VIC-1001 cartridges were programmed by them. (At least the following titles have been confirmed: Jupiter Lander, Star Battle, Poker, Road Race and Money Wars. I guess Jelly Monsters, Alien, Mole Attack and Slot might be as well.) Although nowadays they're a popular video game company which is strongly connected to Nintendo, at that time HAL Laboratory was very young and small. The company had been established with a few associates just seven months before the VIC-1001 was announced. Why was HAL Laboratory given important posts from Commodore?
I believe Jelly Monsters (a replication of Pacman [*6]) was also programmed in Japan. As I recall, there were very few if any groups in the world capable of programming cartridge based video games [*7].
The Atari games were pitifully crude. The best games in the world were on video consoles found in arcades, bars, etc. Nintendo was a major player, along with Bally-Midway. At one point, I negotiated a contract with Ninendo for all of their games to be ported to Commodore computers, and got them pretty excited about the prospect of being on home-based machines. At the last minute—when the contract was ready to be signed—Jack without warning told me he was cancelling the deal I negotiated. I was extremely humiliated by that, and lost face as a result. I believe that my efforts to evangelize home computing to Nintendo had a direct impact on their decision to go into the game console market [*8], because they weren't really thinking about that before I approached them with our licensing deal. I have always regretted Jack's decision because I desperately wanted Donkey Kong and other games on our machines. I believe that Jack decided to snub Nintendo because we had an agreement in place with Bally-Midway.
Please tell us the background history of the MAX Machine. What does
MAX stand for?
I have a MAX machine at home. It was a small black machine that was going to revolutionize the home computing field. I had identified the four basic killer apps for home computing: wordprocessing, spreadsheets, database management, and graphics. All four apps were built into the hardware of the MAX, along with a terrific 256 word speaking vocabulary (I researched and selected the words myself). We also planned to fix any bugs and provide software updates on a plug-in cartridge, a very elegant way to do upgrades that addressed the problem of having the software apps on chips in the motherboard.
Well, the MAX Machine you mentioned is quite different from the system that Commodore fans have already known...? The Max Machine I said means the cheaper model of the Commodore 64 which was actually released at almost the same time as the Commodore 64 in Japan. But your Max Machine sounds like another machine. It's interesting. Please tell us more details.
The MAX machine I describe was a prototype that was actually product engineered and built by Commodore as a next generation computer. We were growing very impatient with the poor and slow support from software vendors, so we decided to license some of the best software around the simply include it with the machine. The vendors were happy because they would be in every machine, and were prepared to license their software at an affordable rate, as a result. This allowed us to include a wordprocessor, spreadsheet, database and graphics package—the four primary
killer apps that were driving
home computer uses at the time.
The MAX was a small sleek black computer with grey keys and red highlights. It had a built in vocabulary of 256 words and could be programmed to speak. It was also compatible with the low-cost modems that we pioneered (actually the first $100 direct connect modem on a cartridge was my idea and I contracted with a small engineering firm to do the work since our engineers were overloaded at the time). Anyway, this was an innovation we perceived as a "next generation" home computer that would expose first time users to some of the real "power" of computing—and we figured they would find their own individual uses for the database and spreadsheet features. We were also going to provide software programs to go with the spreadsheet, database, etc.—templates—for such things as mortgage calculations, some rudimentary accounting and so on.
Unfortunately, Jack was voted off the board the season we were supposed to launch this product, and the leadership left in place—mostly men from outside the computer industry, mostly in their 50s and 60s—had a penchant for getting back into the business computer market, where they thought the price margins would be higher. That shift in strategy from home and personal computers to business computers—including the development of PC clones sold in Europe—was the beginning of the end for Commodore, and it began with the cancellation of the MAX. This machine—although taken to final design—and as I've indicated, I still have one at home—was killed by the incoming management team that took over when Jack Tramiel left the company.
That figures. The MAX machine you described seems the ancestor of the Commodore Plus/4 [*9] which was released just after the mass talent exodus from Commodore. At least it took over your MAX's
four killer apps concept and the
black body with grey keys. But the Plus/4 marrketing was too poor to be
the next generation machine. What's the link between the MAX and
The Plus/4 was salvaged from the MAX concept, but lacking the strong support of the product managers and technical staff who departed in 1984, it faltered in the marketplace.
As you can imagine, the six months following Jack Tramiel's
departure were extremely frustrating for me and everyone else at the
company, except the new
professional management group who
really messed up the company after we had become the world market
leader in home and personal computing. I've never in my career seen
such squandering of market power, or such disastrous strategic
decision making. Frankly, I was always surprised that more people
weren't sued by the shareholders.
Also, 6 months after Jack departed, about 35 of the top talent in
the company all walked out in one fateful week, in May 1984 [*10]. Nearly all the top middle management and technical
management team left the company in that single week (including me,
the president of the U.S. company, many of the top engineers, etc.).
The top management including Irving Gould the chairman, did nothing to
stop anyone from leaving. They basically let all the
geniuses and wunderkind of this remarkable company walk out the
door. I think if they simply asked some people to stay, they would
have, but basically they thought they could re-engineer the company
business computer firm, which was a strategic disaster,
as everyone knows from the crash in revenues, profits, and stock
I don't like to dwell on
soap opera issues, but it's
interesting to note that when so many people left, the company's
management and legal staff harassed the departees and in several cases
tried to prevent people from exercising legitimate stock options and
even tried to prevent people from receiving their last pay check. At
one point I had to write a personal note to Irving Gould in order to
get my stock registered and last check paid (Irving took immediate
action to help me, I should add). Anyway, this hostile attitude may
explain why some hot new products like the real
MAX were simply
killed. Politically, the transition from Jack Tramiel and the team he
built was extremely messy and inept, and what happened to the company
subsequently reflects the result of all this turmoil.
What a mess that was. It left a bad taste all around. To sum up the
demise of Commodore, after Jack Tramiel left, the creative core
of the company was sucked out of the organization and only a shell
remained. I was totally dismayed by the ineptitude displayed by the
waves of management teams that came in, one after the other, to try to
run the company, after Jack. Keep in mind, in 1984, we were the
dominant home computer company in the entire world, and had vanquished
such competitors as Texas Instruments, Atari and many others. All
Commodore had to do was keep from committing suicide. Hmm. Well,
there is always the potential for company's to go insane and melt
down, I guess, and the Commodore saga certainly demonstrates this.
At the beginning the Japanese MAX Machine was announced as the Ultimax, in the same month the Commodore 64 was announced. Later it was renamed to the MAX Machine or the VC-10, and was announced in Canada, Germany and Japan. However, it seems to have been sold on a large scale only in Japan. Why Commodore focused this platform on Japanese market?
First of all, names changed a lot at Commodore. Sometimes we introduced a model at a computer convention just to see the reaction, and only pursued it if there was high demand. We had such a terrific engineering team, that we could slap together (over 6 to 9 months) a commercial quality prototype, float it at a convention, and then decide whether to production engineer it, or not. For example, my original name for the VIC-20 was
Commodore Spirit which I thought
had a nice cache—however, at the last minute, my Japanese
colleagues informed me that the word
spirit in Japan does not
wonderful energy or
Casper the friendly
ghost—but rather would be associated with horrid, ghastly,
ghoulish things. So I went to my second choice, which was VIC, and
since VIC sounded to me like a truck driver, I arbitrarily added the
number 20, because 20 is a friendly number.
To address your specific question, I can only say that most of our international general managers had a terrific amount of autonomy to customize computers for their markets—it was one of our truly ingenious secrets—giving country-managers the freedom to adapt the core technologies to their home markets which they understood best. Anyway, I would assume that Tony Tokai in Japan saw the possibilities of the Max and gave it a shot in his market, because the U.S. management team had an entirely different focus.
You wrote a book titled
Home Computer Wars in 1984.
Incidentally, Japanese version of
Home Computer Wars was also
started around the time when the Japanese MAX Machine was released.
Tomy released the Pyuuta (cheaper TI-99/4A clone) and Sord released
the M5 (very close to the MSX) at almost the same time as MAX
Machine. Soon after them more competitors including more popular MSX
computers also came. MAX Machine was the cheapest among those
competitors. Video game cartridges for MAX Machine were also cheapest,
but unfortunately, they were obviously lacked novelty for
kids—eight of the first (and the last?) twelve titles were
recycled versions of the VIC-1001 games made by HAL Laboratory. The
only serviver of the wars in Japan was the MSX. However, MSX could
never hold a candle to the C64 and even the Atari XL in the US
market. What impression did you have about the MSX?
Actually, the Home Computer Wars was published in 1986. As I recall, a Japanese-American convinced a consortium of 12 Asian companies to adopt a common standard and produce a family of game machines and home computers all sharing the same standard and this would theoretically provide a huge amount of software, interchangeable on many machines. Developers could design one game that would fit 12 machines. The potential for 12 companies to come into the U.S. market, each with its own push and advertising budget, could have been a major competitive nightmare for Commodore, and I was very concerned about this when I first learned of the strategy. Then I looked more closely at what they were doing and realized these 12 companies had been tricked into adopting a two year old obsolete technology that produced blocky, slow, embarrassingly crude graphics that were really inferior. When I saw the first MSX machines at a trade show, I laughed all day long! I just walked around howling with laughter and whenever anyone mentioned MSX I exclaimed,
You mean MS-DEAD! because I knew that awful
technology would arrive still-born to the marketplace. I have no idea
why the MSX consortium didn't conduct better due-diligence on this
technology, except perhaps that the person who put together the
strategy was a Japanese American and maybe they trusted him because of
that. I can think of no other reason they would attempt to use that
crude operating system. What a disaster [*11].
Commodore Japan seems to have lacked motivation to sell the Japanese Commodore 64—at least they advertized the Japanese MAX Machine more. So the Commodore 64 couldn't be popular in Japan. I wonder why price-reduction effort and a wealth of software library in the US market weren't brought into the Japanese Commodore 64 business. Does it mean Commodore abandoned Japanese home computer wars in the early stages?
Well, I think the Japanese had other models of computers that were superior to the C-64, such as the NEC and others [*12]. The C64 was a bridge between
personal computing. In the U.S. I think when Commodore
abandoned the C64 in favor of Amiga, PC clones and other machines,
American users upgraded to PCs and Macs and the C64 was a stepping
stone. If the C64 had been evolved, we could have leveraged our brand
loyalty to move into more powerful computers and traded up C64 and VIC
users to Amigas and similar systems—but the Commodore management
after Jack Tramiel did not seem to understand how to leverage a
multi-million user base into a string of multi-year sales and
They simply cut the cord between the Commodore series and the Amiga series and effectively started over with Amiga—abandoning the brand equity that had been established with the VIC and C64 families. Well, I guess not everyone understands marketing in consumer electronics. It seemed so simple to me.
By the way, toward the end of Commodore's lifespan, I couldn't
stand it any longer and went to New York to offer my services to
Irving Gould and the CEO at the time (who looked amazingly, in
physical appearance, like Jack Tramiel!!!)—but instead of asking
how I might help rescue and restore the company to health, they still
viewed me as a
product manager and wanted me to try to help
them launch a game machine. They kept me waiting for almost half a
day which was incredibly insulting. At one point, I mentioned some
firsts and no one in the room knew what I was talking
about—which made me realize, to my horror, that by the
mid-1990s, Commodore had completely lost its corporate memory and very
little of the company's knowledge and talent base had been preserved.
It was a sad ending and very poignant. I couldn't wait to leave New
York after meeting with those people! Thomas Wolfe was right. You
can't go home again!
As for me, I am exceptionally proud and gratified to have had the
opportunity to play a small role—with many other
pioneers—in the launch of home computing. It is even more
gratifying to see computers in almost every home, and everyone
connected via telecomputing, as we always envisioned this to
officialversion which appeared two years later. It proves HAL Laboratory was already a top grade software house. In the USA their Galaxian was also released as the Star Battle, and their Rally X was as the Radar Rat Race.
Looking ahead, I think the next big trend in technology will be wireless computing, which has only begun to realize its potential. I am still waiting to see: 1) full motion video in cellphones (like DoCoMo in Japan) which requires 4G or 5G telecom infrastructure and better handset designs; 2) wireless cable television available on desktop computers in the office (I have this at home but would like to watch the news while working at the office!); 3)convergence of the next generation of supercomputers with medical diagnostics and BioSciences; and 4) better self-correcting software that seamlessly updates systems and makes the transition to new software versions less of a hassle. I also think we have only begun to see microprocessors used in appliances and other devices including cars and trucks—this also depends on better wireless computing.
In my capacity at the Wharton School (I am the Managing Director of the Emerging Technologies Management Research Program, in the Mack Center for Technological Innovation), I do have some ability to influence and report on some of these developments and in the coming months I'll be doing a bit more writing about these issues, in various publications.
Interviewed by Hally (VORC) on September 9th 2003
Converted to valid HTML and archived by Marko Mäkelä on December 30th 2003