On the edge: the spectacular rise and fall of Commodore

Author: Brian Bagnall



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 unpleasant.

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.