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Monday, December 10, 2007 11:40 PM PT Posted by Harry McCracken

Jack and Woz: Together Again For the First Time


Back in May, there was much geekly excitement over the onstage reunion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs at the Wall Street Journal's D conference. Only a particular type of nerd--such as, oh, me--will be equally excited about an event I attented tonight at Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum: a panel on the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64 that included (among others) Commodore founder Jack Tramiel and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.

The fact that Tramiel was there at all was noteworthy--the man has been out of the limelight since his version of Atari faded away in the early 1990s, and I can't remember the last time I saw him quoted anywhere, let alone making a public appearance. But there he was, looking exactly like the balding, portly guy I remember from the days of the PET 2001, Vic-20 and Commodore 64, and speaking amusingly and nostalgically about the 64, which remains one of the best-selling PCs of all time.

Woz, by contrast, has never been out of the news for long--actually, he's one of the most prominent citizens we have here in Northern California. And--like IBM PC father Bill Lowe and Amiga technologist Adam Chowaniec, who were also on tonight's panel--he had nothing to do with the launch of the 64. (Chowaniec did join the 64 team a year after the machine's debut.)

But Woz told a story tonight that I'd forgotten about, and which I always thought might be apocryphal: More than thirty years ago, Steves Jobs and Wozniak showed the Apple I to Commodore executives and entered discussions to sell their fledgling computer company to Jack Tramiel. The deal didn't happen, and it's just as well--I can't imagine that even the Apple II would have emerged as the breakthrough machine it was, let alone that the Mac could have ever been built at Commodore. (I'm not even going to ask myself whether there could have been a Commodore iPod--it make my head hurt just to think about it.)

The version of the Apple-Commodore talks I've heard has Steve Jobs declining to sell out, but Woz said that Commodore decided to pass in favor of building the PET 2001: "We got turned down—Commodore decided to build a simpler, black and white machine without a lot of the pizzazz of the Apple II." Woz also said that he didn't meet with Tramiel at the time; in fact, this CNET blog post says that the two gents never met until tonight, despite the merger discussion and the fact that the Apple II used the 6502 microprocessor, a chip manufactured by a division of Commodore.

Anyhow, that's them in the photo above, which I took as they chatted before the event began. Tramiel told the panel's moderator, the New York Times' John Markoff, about his hardscrabble origins: He was a holocaust survivor who repaired typewriters in the army, then continued to do so at Commodore in its earliest form in the 1950s. (He told us that the company's name came about because he wanted something with military associations, and there were too many companies with "General" in their names, and "Admiral" was also taken.)

Back in the day, Tramiel was most famous for driving down the price of home computers, and he continues to revel in that reputation: I asked him what he was most proud of in his career, and he told me that it was the fact that the Commodore 64 eventually sold for just $199.

He seemed to get along famously with Woz onstage, but they both genially tweaked each other during the panel. "You built computers for the classes--I built them for the masses," he told Woz, echoing a famous Commodore slogan. Woz, meanwhile, noted that the Apple II was cheaper to build than the PET 2001 and sold for three times the price. "We wanted to build a company that would be around for awhile," he told Tramiel, who's associated with both the defunct Commodore and Atari, whose name is now used by a games company that's not related to the computer company it was when Tramiel controlled it.

We're only a little more than thirty years into the personal computing revolution, which means that a sizable majority of the most important people associated with it are still alive and well. It was a joy to see Tramiel and Woz tease each other and enjoy each other's company--two utterly different men, brought together only by the gigantic impact they had on the industry...

(Misstatement in first paragraph now fixed, thanks)


Hi, you've mentioned Steve Jobs instead of Steve Wozniak in the first paragraph. Wish I could have been there.

December 11, 2007
3:24 AM PT

Great report, Harry. I'm jealous that I couldn't be there (guess I need to move to the west coast). I got to meet Woz last year at the Computer History Museum, and it was a blast. Did you get a chance to talk to Jack after the panel?

December 11, 2007
11:01 AM PT

I'd dare say that you won't find a single Atari enthusiast who gives a "whit" about anything Jack Tramiel related. Due to the way he and his sons plundered and ruined that company. Before anyone says, "But Atari still exists" -- it's not the same company and hasn't been since all of its properties were sold to JTS a long time ago, and in turn, sold a couple more times since. Any real Atari fan will have a bitter taste come up in their mouth when they hear the name "Tramiel." They made promises they knew they couldn't keep (or intended to keep) and all but ignored the potential U.S. market in favor of Europe and Canada. Atari was nothing more than a quick "cash cow" for them and they slaughtered and barbecued it and ate every morsel before leaving it for good. His "version of Atari" was more of a "conversion" in my opinion.

December 11, 2007
5:57 PM PT

I am not only an Atari enthusiast, but had been an Atari dealer for over two decades. Much of that time would not have been possible without Jack Tramiel. In fact, Tramiel's Atari survived longer than Bushnell's and Warner’s combined. Tramiel took a company that was driven near bankruptcy under Warner Communication's mismanagement and totally reinvented it. Atari’s turnaround from bleeding red ink to a Fortune 100 Company once again was said to be impossible, but Tramiel did it. Without Jack the Atari logo would never had been displayed on a array of great products; including the ST, TT, Falcon, Portfolio, Lynx, and even the ill-fated Jaguar. In the end there were plenty of mistakes made. But the simple truth is that only Apple survived the onslaught of the PC clone market. At lease Jack gave us Atari fans another interesting decade or more, and I for one appreciate his efforts.

December 11, 2007
7:20 PM PT
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