Who started it?

In the final chapter of Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson assembles a bulleted list of Jobs’ greatest career contributions – the iPhone, Pixar, the whole App ecosystem – and of course the Macintosh, which Isaacson describes as: “[it] begat the home computer revolution and popularized the graphical user interface.”

Brian Bagnall, author of Commodore: a Company on the Edge, would beg to differ:

“[The] rosy picture of Apple starting the microcomputer industry crumbles under inspection,” he writes in the introduction to his book, “Commodore put computers in the hands of ordinary consumers.

Bagnall replied with his own list of what he believes were Commodore’s successes – first to sell a million computers, first major company to show a personal computer, and the first to release a multimedia computer.

In this way, Bagnall’s book begins as a direct challenge to Isaacson’s book, but aside from this opening salvo and fighting over turf, the books are excellent compliments to each other.

While Isaacson’s book is not strictly about Apple the company and Bagnall’s book is about the Commodore as a whole, both books have a lot in common - each author had a tremendous amount of access to the people involved in the history of these companies and saturated their book with quotes and firsthand sources, and both are very concerned with and detailed about late 70s and 80s computer history.

Commodore, who closed their doors in 1994, was the progenitor of the Commodore 64 and the manufacturer of the Amiga. Commodore has become emblematic of the shifting sands in the computer industry in the transition from the 80s to the 90s. Commodore had money, had technology, had vertical integration (much emphasized by Jobs in his biography) and yet, they couldn’t survive. While Bagnall has yet to publish a long-awaited follow-up to Commodore, The Future Was Here by Jimmy Maher, a book profiling of the Amiga, explains that Commodore just simply didn’t know what to do with their computers or how to market them as multimedia became a requirement of consumers. However, Jobs certainly knew how to market his machines.

Bagnall’s book makes a thorough and persuasive presentation of the contributions of Commodore and notably its technological heart Chuck Peddle. You can’t read Bagnall’s book and then look at Isaacson’s bullet point list of Job’s accomplishments without thinking “Well…..”

Unfortunately for Bagnall’s subject, history is written by the victors. Or rather, fans of the victors it seems.

This collision of these differing authors is central to a lot of what is currently being written about personal computing history. There’s a plethora of books available now that attempt to state who invented the computer, or who sparked the revolution (since it needs to be called that for whatever reason), or what influenced the revolution. Ultimately boiling down to the question - who was the first, such that they deserve credit?

Commodore, to its credit, is getting recognition - the documentary From Bedrooms to Billions, the aforementioned The Future Was Here, and the tremendous amount of retro computing interest has brought the company’s technology back into popular interest. Commodore for many of us, does sit as a time capsule of that era, perceiving its products unaltered by its present form, as is the case with Apple.

For myself and my near-peers, computing history is not just industry on its own merits, but also valuable because it is our personal history as well. We experienced that history, and many of the details filled in by books like Isaacson and Bagnall’s are enriching simply because we can say to ourselves “Oh yeah, I do remember that.” It helps us to explain and understanding the evolution of the digital world, one in which, we directly inhabit and is still quite new.

However, I don’t care who started it. Computer history is always a tremendous confluence of factors that assigning historical responsibility is a pointless task. Oh absolutely, individual people had tremendous impact or influence, but I can’t say Alan Turing started the computer revolution more than I can say Morris Tanenbaum did as well. In fact, it is the combining factors that makes the field of study so fascinating. The iPhone wouldn’t be half as interesting if we didn’t have social outlets such that we always had a reason to be engaged with and notified by our phones.

I commend Isaacson and Bagnall on their enormous efforts to document the history of personal computing and choosing such large subject matters and persons of importance. While I agree that Commodore has indeed been downplayed as Bagnall claims, the whole problem isn’t that Commodore isn’t getting its just desserts from history. Instead, the motivation to claim ownership of the digital age is going to be there regardless of history, especially when money, power and success are intertwined.