Actually, it was 30 years and a few days, but who's counting? For one thing, lots of computer retro geeks and freaks. And what are they counting, besides the years? Well, the all time highest sales figures and an astounding production run for starters. Between 12.5 and 17 million C64 consoles were sold between its introduction in 1982 at the amazingly low price of US$595, and Commodore International's demise 12 years later. In the vanguard of gaming machines, over 10,000 titles were developed for the C64.
Those sales were due to some pretty innovative design features, as a result of some gutsy decisions by Commodore engineers and designers, and some spot-on foresight by Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel. The C64 certainly had its faults, however, including a crude beyond belief power supply which tended to overheat and cause the machine to lockup. Its ABS plastic case tended to brown with age, giving it that classic 1980s artifact look.
But the Commodore 64, with 64Kb of random access memory (that's right 64 kilobytes of RAM, the size of a medium length plain text document these days) which gave the machine its name, made a stunning debut at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, in January 1982. Attendees, including staff from rival Atari, kept visiting Commodore's booth to ask how the C64 could sell for only US$595.
The Commodore's subsidiary MOS Technology started designing the graphic and audio chips for a new generation video game console, and had them ready by November 1981. Meanwhile, Bob Russell, a system programmer and architect on Commodore's earlier VIC-20 game machine, along with VIC-II graphics engineer Bob Yannes, were opposed to the further development of the Commodore PET line of business computers.
Russell and Yannes joined with Al Charpentier, another VIC-II engineer and Charles Winterble, the manager of MOS Technology, and pitched a new, inexpensive gaming machine as a successor to the VIC-20 to CEO Jack Tramiel.
Tramiel concurred with them, but insisted that this new machine have 64Kb of RAM. At the outset of that project, 64Kb of DRAM (dynamic random access memory) cost $US100, but Tramiel presciently said that it would drop in price by launch date, given trends at the time, and Commodore's efficiencies due to vertical integration.
Despite many market competitors including IBM, the Apple II, the TRS-80 from Tandy Radio Shack, the Commodore 64 was a hit from the get go. Those 10,000 programs developed for it included development tools, office productivity applications, and word processor programs, although the majority of them were games, with a healthy smattering of music programs. Sure, doing anything but gaming and music was painful (and painfully slow) on the C64, but at less than half the price of an Apple II, it put home computing within the reach of the masses.
Almost everything needed to make the C64 operate as a gaming system was an outboard peripheral: keyboards, joysticks, tape drives, monitor, and so on. Some of Commodore's own peripherals, such as joysticks, deserve to be in the Hall of Shame. But industry standard ports instead of proprietary plugs let users enjoy interfacing third party hardware.
The Commodore 64 could display 16 colours, and scroll graphics smoothly. Engineer Yannes had been critical of earlier sound chips designed by "people who know nothing about music," He then designed the SID (sound interface device) chip, which even today keeps the C64 in use for music on the so-called demoscene. RF (radio frequency) TV output permitted connection to an ordinary TV set, and thereby competed successfully with game consoles like the Atari 2600. In addition, baseband composite video output for specialized monitors made the C64 appealing to serious users.
A dozen years of production for any CE/IT product is an amazing accomplishment since the mid-1980s. Continual upgrades kept the C64 competitive. Two designers, Fred Bowen and Bil Herd, were determined that C64's successor the C128 would be fully backwards compatible, so they quietly made the plugs that way, without management approval, and without announcement until it was too late to change anything before the 1985 CES.
Commodore also marketed its C64 differently than competitors. In addition to authorized dealers, the C64 could be found in department stores, and toy and discount stores. Commodore was an aggressive advertiser. William "Captain Kirk" Shatner had flacked the earlier VIC-20, asking in TV commercials, "Why buy just a video game?"
Tramiel also cut the price aggressively on it and the C64 in 1983 to capture market share. The resultant crash in the video game market and disputes over this with the company's board led him to leave Commodore in 1984. He ultimately bought Atari from Warner Communications, where he developed the Atari ST
Price and format wars followed, along with an exodus of talent from Commodore. Of all the formats extant at that time, including Atari and Amiga, only Apple's survived to compete with the PC. Commodore declared bankruptcy in 1994.
An entire kiosk was devoted to the C64 at Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibit called The Art of Video Games exhibit, which opened in Washington, DC, last March. Four games were actively displayed.