Technology evolution – a look back at the Commodore 64

In early 2000, I wrote the paper as both a "remember when" and coursework for my masters degree. While destroying the evidence (shredding old paperwork), I ran across it and decided that some may get a kick out of reading it. And even though many enthusiasts have put Intel inside their newly revamped Commodore systems, that's not the point here. More a historical look at my beginnings.


In the early eighties, while completing High School, I became fascinated with computers. Each weekend began with me hauling a Commodore PET home so I could continue working on projects that I had not finished at school. This alone should be sufficient to paint a picture of my conviction, since this system was an all-in-one unit, much like the iMac, with about twice the physical dimensions weighing in over 35 pounds. Since there was no real public accessible Internet at that time, there was very little enthusiasm in the general public towards personal computers and their use for anything other than for work related tasks. During the summer of my sophomore year I worked two full time jobs with my end goal of buying a new computer on the market - - the Commodore 64.

When the PET was introduced early in 1977, their goal was to try and take over the market that had been created by Apple six months earlier. It was created using 4kb of RAM, a monochrome monitor, and the use of an audiocassette system for data storage, at the same cost of the Apple product except built in a factory versus a garage on plywood frames. Lucky for me, the science department at a North-Eastern Oregon High School decided that computers had a future in the world and bought six of them in 197 8. By 1982, when I began playing with the Commodore 64 (C-64) it had just been released, and the school was considering their use - - which is why I had my own personal PET on weekends. Since the PET systems were built with such a limited storage and memory capacity, the programming that could be conducted was limited in scope (size and complexity).

Having expanded my abilities to the point that the PET no longer provided a challenge, I began petitioning teachers to expand the computer capability that we had. By the end of my quest, we had replaced the six PET’s with twelve C-64 units using color monitors. The new capabilities within the C-64 unit started a whole new industry of computer game enthusiasts, and teenage interest grew from there. By my senior year I was teaching a C-64 BASIC class along side a teacher in a classroom containing twenty C-64 systems and students doubled up. Based on my experiences, 1983 was the year when a computer became user friendly enough, and contained sufficient capabilities to be dubbed a Personal Computer (PC) for the masses.

When I was first introduced to the PET, and later the C-64 I immediately wondered how this thing worked - - meaning the operating system and programs written to work with it. This led me to learning the programming language Commodore BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instructional Code) in order to build my own worlds. The programming language, BASIC, was first created in 1963 by John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz at Dartmouth
University. The original intent of this program was to allow students to learn how to program in relative ease on a time-sharing General Electric computer. BASIC is a language that allows the programmer to write a relatively easy to understand program that then is interpreted by a compiler at run-time, which converts the BASIC language commands to one understood by the computer processor- - machine language.

In the late l960’s and early l970’s BASIC was taught in most Computer Science college courses because of the relative ease that college students understood it. As time progressed, eventually Pascal replaced BASIC as the core language within colleges, which has since been replaced by other languages such as C or Visual Basic (and beyond). This trend of changing teaching languages follows the increasing complexity of systems being used in the world. Initially, the systems were of limited complexity and thus a language of limited abilities was used - - BASIC. Today, systems are of higher complexity, and languages such as C are used, bringing us closer to the logical core of the hardware.

When you look at the market of Operating Systems today there exists domination by one company more than others - - Microsoft. Ever wonder why this is? I have, and the conclusion I came up with is that they developed Operating Systems and then Programming Languages or interfaces to allow those systems to be used. The C-64 is no exception to the rule since it is running Microsoft BASIC version 2.0. This version contained 70 separate commands
that when compiled into object based code could perform a plethora of tasks within the system.

The key to the success of BASIC as an operating system programming manipulation language is in the simplicity. As long as there was a run-time compiler written to work on the hardware platform/operating system package, any program written in BASIC was transportable between systems. This meant that just like Java touts today, you could write it once, and use it anywhere on any system simply by recompiling it correctly. Does this mean that the C-64 is as prevalent as it was in the late eighties? Although there are still computer clubs that share in programming experiences and software findings related to the Commodore, manufacturing the C-64 stopped when the company was sold in 1992. This brought to an end the single most successful, record selling sub-$1000 PC in history. In a ten-year period, this single model sold over 25 million units, with continued support from companies such as Creative Micro Designs; their use is still going.

Of course, since the OS and BASIC commands were burned onto the Read Only Memory (ROM) chip that runs the system, it is impossible to upgrade to newer versions. There are after market add-ons enabling you to upgrade to l6 MB of memory, and even increase the speed of the CPU, but not upgrade the OS. This has brought to an end the growth potential of the C-64 as a product for the future. Microsoft went on to improve their operating systems, and increase the functionality of BASIC through subsequent releases. For systems that were ran off of hard drives, versus ROM devices, upgrading is simple.

Is Commodore-64 still a viable solution for home computers today? Not if you are looking for a system that has the width of functionality of today’s systems. Especially if you are looking for the ability to program in more than two languages. At the time I was programming on the C-64 you programmed in BASIC or in assembly language - - that was it. Based on research, and the fact that the company is out of business, the C-64 owner and programmer of
today is a hobbyist. Of course there is rumor that the Amiga is about to be released by another company in a revamped, redesigned layout for the modern gamer and graphics artist - - that ought to be interesting.

(Written March 7, 2000, by me)