August 4, 2022•1,119 words
(Please, note: this post is not meant to advertise sales of C64 or any other computer. It's firmly tongue-in-cheek and written to illustrate general principles, not specific solutions. Your mileage will vary, I'm not your computer uncle, etc.)
I turned 40 this year. You know who else did? This guy.
Commodore C64 was the first computer I ever got. I never got to do interesting stuff on it - I was mainly into playing games, back then. But I did get to experience the clunky, 16-color magic of it all, before the world of PCs opened before me.
I'm writing this in 2022, listening to a collection of C64 games soundtracks, and after a bit of nostalgia-inspired research. And it's fair to say - I'm writing this in "interesting times". After years of stuffing microchips into every imaginable device, the world is suffering a microchip shortage. This started during Covid, and was made worse by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. At the time of writing this, there's no signs of this situation improving.
Ironically or not, a "vibe shift" in computing may be on its way. Will we rethink the way our devices work in our lives? What conclusions will we reach? Will there be fewer chips, in fewer places? As I ponder these questions, I turn once again to C64 - and from this unlikely, untimely source, I think I hear SID-modulated echoes of some surprising advice.
Here we go, then: if C64 and Commodore were alive today, here's why I think they'd ride out the computing crisis in style. Strap in and get
1. Simple hardware matters...
Commodore was known for keeping the hardware simple. The motherboards and components relied on stuff which was never going to lead to technological breakthroughs. The production process - and the end result - was pretty advanced for its day.
C64's specs meant it could compete with the Atari and Apple models on the market at the same time. However, the way it was designed and manufactured meant it could be made simply and inexpensively. This matters...
2. ...because mass production and adoption is your aim
Commodore wasn't perceived as complex or sophisticated. Its goal was different: "computers for the masses". This meant retail price had to be low, and distribution - really wide. This was a computer whose aim was simple: land on as many supermarket shelves as possible, with as much available software as possible.
It worked: C64 was a market success. This meant that the software could get more ambitious: companies were less worried about risks, knowing they were likely to sell more copies. C64 is still the best-selling computer model of all time.
3. Let users work out your good sides...
Let me get back to that game soundtrack compilation for a minute. It is awesome - even in 2022, it kicks ass and delivers tons of unmistakable energy. I'm not the only one thinking that. The SID chip, responsible for C64's sound, is still in demand - and custom-made sound components can be bought for today's PCs to explore this sonic nostalgia. C64 was not fast. It was not remarkably expandable. It had a few things going for it - the memory, the interesting graphics modes, and the sound.
All these things were instrumental in the birth of the demoscene - a community of creators who were keen to showcase their talents (and C64's audio-visual capabilities). I remember these vividly. The C64 games were, by and large, playing it safe when it came to sound and graphics (aiming to please the paying customers, and having to spread the talent over several levels). But the demos were mad flashes of genius - 30-second episodes of serious digital creativity. Commodore may not have had this in mind when selling C64; it certainly didn't encourage the demoscene with its nonchalant attitude to user support. But the demoscene emerged, took matters in its hands, and is still alive and kicking today.
4. ...and offer low-tech connections...
Here's why I was really able to get my hands on C64, back in primary school: it worked with every TV set imaginable. My two candidate television sets, at that time, were both already ancient Polish/Soviet hand-me-downs. I used one of them to watch my own NBA games when parents were occupying the big one. C64 worked with them both, with no hassle. And you know what else it worked with? Cassette tapes. All my software came on them. There was no need for us kids to work out floppy disks just yet: we knew how cassette players worked, and this meant C64 knew how to work with us.
There are more examples I could share here, which at the time I didn't have access to (the telephone modems, connecting to BBS boards; Habitat, the first virtual-world MMORPG game released in 1985) - and some I did (compatibility with existing Atari joystick and mouse ports). C64 wasn't intent on building its own ecosystem of bits and pieces: it was ready to work with whatever we had going on, and that's why it was so many people's first computer.
5. ...for beastly longevity
Commodore went bankrupt ages ago, powering through a retail-price race to the bottom just as PCs started to represent good value for money. The business, which used to produce hundreds of thousands of units of its Amiga and C64 computers every week, is no more.
You can still buy a tested and working C64 on eBay in 2022, though. It can run its BASIC 2.0 system, or an aftermarket OS of your choice. With enough determination, you can connect it to a TV set, to a modem...to the internet, even. You can reach out to other C64 users - they're still out there, and pick up some tips on how to make the most of it. Or just load up any of the old bits of software and feel the nostalgia again.
I'm not saying you should. I'm saying you can. The computer still works with what you've got. The hardware is still a no-brainer. The simple motherboard design helps make life simple for anyone willing to repair or replace stuff. C64 computers are 40, and not dead yet. (This forty-year-old blogger finds a lot of comfort in writing that.)
Now, I want you to look at the device you're using to read these words, and answer this: will you be able to say the same thing about it, in 40 years' time? And if not - what would it take?
I hope you enjoyed reading this. If you're interested in low-tech solutions for learning and teaching, may I recommend my course, "Learning in difficult circumstances (v1.0)"?