Retro Home Computers – Commodore Vic 20


Commodore Vic 20,
1980-1985

The VIC-20 was intended to be more economical than the PET computer. The VIC-20’s video chip, the MOS Technology VIC was a general-purpose colour video chip designed for use in inexpensive display terminals and game consoles, but Commodore could not find a market for the chip.

Commodore 64C GEOS

Above: Commodore Vic-20

With theApple II gaining momentum with the advent of VisiCalc in 1979, Jack Tramiel wanted a product out that would compete in the same segment, to be presented at the January 1980 CES. The end result is a 22-column VIC chip instead of the custom chips designed for the more ambitious computers.

Beating the Japanese with Low Cost

In April 1980 at a meeting of general managers outside of London, Jack Tramiel declared that he wanted a low-cost colour computer. When most of the GMs argued against it, he said, “the Japanese are coming, so we will become the Japanese.” This was in keeping with Tramiel’s philosophy, which was to make “computers for the masses, not the classes.”

Selling Through Retail

While the PET was sold through authorized dealers, the VIC-20 primarily sold at retail, especially discount and toy stores, where it could compete more directly with game consoles. It was the first computer to be sold in K-Mart.

Commodore 64C GEOS

Above: William Shatner Ad

Commodore 64C GEOS

Above: Commodore Vic-20 VicModem

Commodore took out advertisements featuring actor William Shatner of Star Trek fame as its spokesman, asking, “Why buy just a video game?”. Television personality Henry Morgan became the ironic voice on a series of clever Commodore product ads.

The VIC-20 had 5K of Ram, which netted down to 3.5K on startup, which is the equivalent to the words and spaces on one sheet of typing paper. The computer was expandable to 32k with an add-on memory cartridge.

Commodore Vic-20 Boot Screen

Above: Commodore Vic-20 Boot Screen

Although the VIC-20 was criticized in print as being underpowered, the strategy worked: in 1982 it was the best-selling computer of the year, with 800,000 machines sold In January 1983, it passed the 1 million unit mark, which was a first in computer history.

Replaced by the Comoodore 64

At its peak, 9,000 units per day were produced, and a total of 2.5 million units were sold before it was discontinued in January 1985, when Commodore repositioned the C64 as its entry-level computer due to the forthcoming release of the C128 and Amiga.

In 1981, Tomczyk contracted with an outside engineering group to develop a direct-connect modem-on-a-cartridge (the VICModem) which at $99 became the first modem priced under $100. The VICModem was also the first modem to sell over 1 million units.

Commodore 64C GEOS

Above: Commodore Vic-20 VicModem

VICModem was packaged with $197.50 worth of free telecomputing services from the Source, CompuServe and Dow Jones. Tomczyk also created an entity called the Commodore Information Network to enable users to exchange information and take some of the pressure from Customer Support inquires, which were straining Commodore’s lean organization.

In 1982, this network accounted for the largest traffic on CompuServe, which, it can be argued, was an early implementation of Internet-style user groups.

Commodore 64C GEOS

Above: MOS 6502 used in most 8-bit computers like the Apple 1, Atari 400 and Commodore 64



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