REVIEW: On the edge: the spectacular rise and fall of Commodore

John Costello cos at
Mon Nov 21 04:32:03 GMT 2005

On the edge: the spectacular rise and fall of Commodore
Author:  Brian Bagnall
ISBN:  0-9738649-0-7
Publisher:  Variant Press,
Reviewed by John Costello

	Brian Bagnall's history of two decades of Commodore teeters on the edge
of being a good book, much as its subject teetered on the edge of
success, but the assemblage of interviews and magazine excerpts is as
messy as its subject.  On the edge: the spectacular rise and fall of
Commodore does deliver on its promise of two decades of Commodore history
as told by engineers and managers, but the best voices with no exception
are the voices of the engineers.  Bagnall mostly lets the engineers speak
for themselves and tell the history of their major projects, from the
6502 and Pet development, through the heyday of the C64, to the evolution
of the Amiga, down to the final disintegration of the company.
	The book is part obituary and part tribute, beginning with the quote "Do
you remember? I do" from the musical group Bouncing Souls and ending Byte
Magazine's August, 1994 obituary of the company and a "Where are they
now?" section about the major characters mentioned in the book.  Between
these sections, Bagnall charts the course of the company in segments
between one and four years per chapter.  At times, he revisits the events
of a given in year in separate chapters and refers backwards and forwards
in time.
	This chronological approach does not work well for Bagnall.  He sometimes
makes declarations that contradict earlier events and his constant
jumping can make for tedious and muddled reading.  In a chapter covering
1981 to 1983, we hear that after the departure of Commodore's lead
engineer, Chuck Peddle, ideas for a business computer are ignored by
Tramiel.  In the following chapter (Eleven) that deals with 1981, we are
told that once Peddle left Commodore Tramiel proposed a line of business
computers.  That contradiction is not acknowledged or explained, nor does
Bagnall explain contradicting statements at the beginning of Chapter
Eleven.  Near the middle of the book, Bagnall begins to repeat quotes
from his interviews, and it is apparent that either Bagnall or his editor
had trouble digesting 44 hours of interviews and dozens of magazine
articles.  At times, Bagnall disingenuously juxtaposes quotes from his
interviews to assemble a pseudo-dialog, and the results are stilted and
	Despite some flaws in the book's construction, the book succeeds in
telling the evolution of Commodore's major and minor systems and
chronicling the internal battles fought over the development of each
system.  Bagnall competently describes the chip design processes of the
1970s, details the challenges faced by engineers who were ordered to
produce working models on short notice before major trade shows, revives
the aura of success surrounding Commodore in the 1980s, and does an
excellent job illustrating the erratic course of the company.  The
company's successes and brilliance shines through the recollection of
engineers, and Bagnall details the low points in sections entitled "The
Curse of Commodore."  Each curse is numbered as though a sequel to the
previous curse, and like any sequel some curses indicate greater damage
to the company.  It is telling that chapter 22 contains the last section
listing a curse, because the following final two chapters are a
continuous series of missteps, anger, frustration and failure.  Bagnall
would have been challenged to identify a single misstep during
Commodore's final six years.
	The strength of the book is in the anecdotes told by the engineers, and
their memories brought back happy personal memories of the machines. 
Anyone who propped open a PET to let it cool on a hot summer day, or who
programmed their first complex code on a C64, or even who enjoyed
tinkering with a 6502 processor may remember fondly those distant days
spent trying to make the Peeks and Pokes bend to one's will.  Readers
outside of North America may be disappointed by the light attention given
Commodore's international business, but the focus on America derives from
the location of the engineers who designed the machines.  The book
suffers the lack of an index, which would make it easier to untangle
Bagnall's rambling story, and the bibliography is respectable.  The book
was worth the several-month wait between announcement and publication,
and would be a fine book to read during the holidays when one has tired
of food, family and all things non-technical.

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