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Fond Computer Memories

Commodore ruled the PC world in the '80s. The company is gone, but devotees of its machines are still coaxing life out of their kilobytes.

June 27, 2006|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Robert Bernardo spent a week this spring traveling the Pacific Northwest, trying to save part of yesterday's future.

The high school English teacher swung through Portland and Astoria, Ore., and then on to Ethel, Wash., to drop off a collection of antiquated computers -- a PET8032, three VIC-20s, an SX-64 portable and a Commodore 128D.

Then on his way home to the Central Valley town of Visalia, Bernardo packed his white Crown Victoria with three more SX-64s, boxes of software and a couple of printers.

With any luck, this agglomeration of decades-old circuit boards and dusty disk drives will allow Bernardo to reboot a handful of computers made by the long-defunct Commodore Business Machines.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Commodore computers: A photo caption accompanying Tuesday's Column One about enthusiasts of computers made by now-defunct Commodore Business Machines misidentified the photo's subjects. Robert Bernardo was at left and Bill Terry was at right, not vice versa.

In an era when a home computer's power is measured in gigabytes, Bernardo still counts kilobytes as a devoted Commodore user 12 years after the last machine was assembled.

Once the largest personal computer maker in America, the company behind the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64 introduced millions of people like Bernardo to the digital age. The company went out of business in 1994, but its legacy survives in dozens of Commodore clubs around the country.

Bernardo presides over the Fresno chapter.

Never mind that the VIC-20 has so little usable memory -- just 3.5 kilobytes -- that it can store only a couple of pages of text in its buffers. Or that Commodore hardware was notoriously clunky and buggy. Bernardo still manages all his e-mail on a 1980s-vintage Commodore 64.

"I've never considered the Commodore obsolete," Bernardo said. "I can still do many things with it -- e-mail, browse the Web, word processing, desktop publishing and newsletters. I still do games on it: new games that are copyright 2006, ordered from Germany."

Like classic car fans, Bernardo and other Central Valley Commodore devotees lug their gear every month to the Pizza Pit restaurant and put the hoods up, so to speak. For many, a Commodore machine was their first computer. They cherish their machines the way some guys pamper their high school hot rod.

The tinker mentality pervades American culture, from guys who fix their lawn mowers to computer geeks who build the next big thing in their garages. Commodore clubs are "about preserving a particular era in computing -- just showing that you can make it serviceable takes ingenuity," said Robert Cole, a professor emeritus of technology management at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Commodore computers are rudimentary enough that enthusiasts with a little technical know-how can repair them themselves. They also can be programmed with relative ease using the BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) computer language. Linus Torvalds, the creator of the popular Linux computer language, cut his teeth writing code on a VIC-20 in the 1980s.

"It wasn't just an appliance. I liked it because it was open and it invited you to play with it," said Mike McDermott, a Commodore fan who co-founded a website that ranks building contractors. "You didn't just do what it told you. It invited you to tinker with it. They really did encourage you to go write programs for it."

And that, in turn, made people passionate about the quirky machines.

Bernardo, who sometimes sports a button that reads "I Adore My 64," says that every room but one in his three-bedroom house contains Commodore equipment. In the other is his "Star Trek" collection. But there is crossover between his dual passions. His prized possessions include six pieces of Commodore hardware and software signed by "Star Trek" star and former Commodore pitchman William Shatner.

If Bernardo and his ilk keep the memory of Commodore alive, they also may hold the key to its future. The Dutch company that owns the Commodore name is planning to resurrect the brand in the United States with devices that act as digital entertainment centers.

"The Commodore 64 was the biggest-selling computer in the world," said Patrick Olenczak, vice president of global sales for the company now called Commodore International.

But that fan base can have drawbacks.

"It's going to be difficult to fulfill their expectations of being a computer company because we're not," Olenczak said. "What we're doing is bringing new forms of computing into the living room.... We are not into computing the way we used to be."

And Commodore used to be in computing in the biggest way.

Few companies illustrate the ruthless evolutionary efficiency of the high-tech economy better than Commodore. Founded in 1959 as a typewriter company by Polish immigrant Jack Tramiel, it later moved into adding machines and then calculators.

Commodore purchased a small chip foundry and built computers around the processors it manufactured itself, the first being the PET, Commodore's first desktop, introduced in 1977. In 1981 came the VIC-20 that could do color graphics and generate simple music.

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