Retro Computer Story: The Commodore VIC 20

The Commodore VIC 20 made its debut in June 1980 at the Computer Electronics Show, but its development began almost by accident two years earlier. Commodore was designing and building the “Video Interface Chip 6506” or VIC1 for the video game market but it was starting to collapse. Unable to sell the chip, Commodore decided to use it on an inexpensive home computer.

Pubblicità del Commodore VIC 20 su
Pubblicità del Commodore VIC 20 su

Between 1981, when the VIC entered shop windows, and the early months of 1985, when the last VIC production line was interrupted, more than 2.5 million units were sold. The VIC 20 assembly line had a surge in production that reached 9000 pieces a day, making the VIC achieve the first home computer record selling more than 1 million units.

Rumors show that during its development the VIC 20 was called MicroPET and there is also a long debate about the origin of the number “20” in the name. The VIC’s development managers and the author of “The Home Computer Wars”, Michael Tomczyk, claim that the number “20” was only a choice dictated by chance and by the fact that “as a name sounded good”.

Il Commodore PET. La Storia del Commodore Vic 20 su

The VIC 20 added further records to the Commodore: The Commodore KIM1, intended for the hobbyist market, was the first single-plate computer. The Commodore PET, intended for the business market and for beginners, was the first complete computer. The Commodore VIC20, for the home market, was the first color computer that was sold as a “computer for the masses” for less than $ 300.

The heart of the VIC 20 was the MOS 6502, 8bit, 1mhz CPU. With the addition of good (at the time) graphics and sound, Commodore had a winning horse in his hands. Some documents indicate that the VIC and the Commodore PET were compatible, but in reality this did not happen. VIC and PET used completely different memory mappings. The PEEK and POKE instructions were not compatible and the VIC had 22 characters per screen, while the PET 40 was compatible. The only compatibility could occur with software written in a rudimentary Basic 2.0. However, apart from this diversity, the VIC was compatible with most of the Commodore 64 devices.

La schermata del basic del Commodore VIC 20 su

Jack Tramiel, founder, president (and soul) of Commodore Computers, told his engineers that they could only use 1k chips on the new machine because the company had large amounts in storage and could not use them in any other project. Eventually the VIC 20 found itself with 5.5k of RAM, of which 2 used by the BASIC operating system. To really develop something in so little space the only way for programmers was to work in machine language. But unfortunately 3.5k weren’t even enough to load a decent compiler and that’s why developers often had to write “by hand” in machine code. Fortunately for them, later, Commodore will distribute additional 3k, 8k and 16k memory cartridges.

For some, the Vic 20 has always been a machine that is not very powerful and overestimated, but the fact was that consumers bought as many as Commodore was capable of churning out. In addition to price, consumers were attracted to the VIC because many software was distributed directly to ROM cartridges. No loading difficulties, no manuals to read or programs to write. It was enough to insert the cartridge and the program was nice and available. The VIC’s friendly Basic 2.0 Operating System was self-executing every time the machine was turned on, ready to work. No peripheral was needed, only a TV per monitor was enough.

Pubblicità del Commodore VIC 20 su

Infinite programmers have cut their teeth on a VIC 20 bought for Christmas or Birthday, years before any computer school could offer a decent programming course.

Numerous peripherals, such as the printer, the modem, the floppy drive and the cassette player were distributed according to market demands. A properly equipped VIC 20 with modem and card was one of the few possibilities at the time to connect to a BBS or pre-internet online information services such as Compuserve in America.

La Stampante ad Aghi del Commodore Vic 20 su
I Paddles, il Joystick e le Cartucce per il Commodore Vic 20 su
Il VIC Cassette Unit per il Commodore VIc 20 su

The VIC 20 was quickly distributed in all world markets and sometimes its name was changed to make it “more familiar” to consumers.

La versione tedesca VOLKSCOMPUTER del Commodore Vic 20 su

For example in Germany the VIC 20 was called VC-20 because the original name read in German had the sound very similar to a bad word !. In addition, “VC-20” was the verse of the Volkswagen car manufacturer: as the company produced “machines for the people” (Volks-wagen), so Commodore produced “computer for the people” (Volks-computer). Needless to say, it was a success. In Japan the VIC-20 was VIC-1001.

La Versione Giapponese VIC 1001 del Commodore Vic 20 su

Commodore, in the past, had distributed PET through extremely selected channels made up of authorized retailers and points of sale. This gave PET an object image for professionals at the expense of mass selling. When the VIC arrived, Commodore completely changed strategy: The goal was to sell the VIC 20 everywhere! In no time, practically all the shops and large chains set up a corner dedicated to the VIC. Even businesses that never dreamed of selling computers offered computers VIC 20 … including hardware!

Obviously the authorized retailers and points of sale remained, but they were mostly used as qualified service centers and not as sales points.

The late 1982 was however the beginning of the end: the most expensive but much more powerful Commodore 64 was announced. As soon as the VIC 20 established itself as a mass asset and many stores and many national and international chains were acquiring large stocks, news began to leak from unofficial channels regarding the production of a new Commodore. This obviously caused great excitement on the part of consumers, but endless concerns for shopkeepers who feared losing the money (several) invested in the VIC.

When the Commodore 64 came out on the market, the price of the VIC-20 dropped, as expected, ruinously. Retailers with large ground-based VIC 20s tried not to sell the product, but with poor results. There was now no room for the venerable VIC on the Commodore assembly lines and the buyers were clamoring for the Commodore 64.

In 1984 a myth was finished, but a new, bigger one was about to be born: The Commodore 64.