The Commodore VIC-20
by Ian Matthews of March 13, 2003 with proofing assistance from Brent Santin

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Commodore VIC-20 History:
The VIC-20 debuted in June of 1980 at the Computer Electronics Show but its development started almost by accident two years earlier.  Commodore engineered and manufactured the "Video Interface Chip 6506" or VIC1 for the video game market which was beginning to collapse.  After not being able to sell the chip, Commodore developed the VIC-20 as an inexpensive home computer.  Between early 1981, when the VIC actually hit store shelves, and the first few months of 1985, when the last VIC production line was shut down, the VIC sold more than 2.5 million units.  It had an very impressive peak daily production of 9000 units and was the worlds first computer to sell more than 1 million units.

There are reports that during its development it was called the MicroPET.  There is a lot of debate over the origins "20" portion of the VIC-20 name but the Commodore Executive responsible for the VIC's development, and the author of The Home Computer Wars, Michael Tomczyk, has stated repeatedly that he choose the name simply because he thought it "sounded good".

The VIC was to be another important Commodore first:

Commodore's wildly successful 1Mhz, 8 Bit CSG / MOS 6502 CPU powered the VIC.  With a good (for the time) sound and colour graphics, Commodore had winner.  Some sites incorrectly report that the VIC was software compatible with PET but it really was not.  Because the VIC and the PET use completely different memory maps, PEEK and POKE commands were not compatible and because the VIC had only a 22 character screen while the original PET's had 40 character screens, only VERY rudimentary Basic 2.0 software would function on both machines.   However, the VIC-20 was generally peripheral compatible with most Commodore 64 peripherals.

Jack Tramiel told his engineers they could only use 1K chips in the new machine because Commodore had huge inventory they were unable to use in other products.  In the end The VIC had 5.5K of RAM, 2K of which was used by the Basic Operating System.  To do any real development in such a small area required machine language.  Unfortunately 3.5K is not large enough to load a machine language compiler and create code, so developers were often forced to write code by hand.  Fortunately Commodore soon released several memory cartridges (3K, 8K, and 16K) and other companies produced even large 32K & 64K cartridges.  If you look at the photo gallery at the end of this page, you will find an add for 64K memory expander made by Advanced Processor Systems.

Some critics said the machine was seriously underpowered while consumers bought them as fast as Commodore could produce them.  Other than the price, the consumers were attracted to the VIC because most software came on easy to use ROM cartridges that just plugged in the back and started to work.

Commodore's very user friendly BASIC 2.0 operating system and programming language booted when the machine was turned on.  No peripherals were required except a Television to be used as a monitor.  Countless software developers began building their skills using the VIC20 bought for a Christmas or a birthday, years before many schools had any reasonable computer courses.  My Commodore PET ownership and experience allowed me to skip an entire course: I recall enrolling in Grade 10 "Data Processing" course (on Commodore PET's) but on the first day I was told I would be getting an A+ and that I should not to show up for class because I would be taking highly constrained computer time away from others.

Many peripherals, like the VIC 1515 printer, 300 Baud VIC Modem, CBM 1020 Docking Station, 1540 Floppy Drive, and 1530 CN2 Cassette Drive were released to various levels of retail demand.  A VIC 20 combined with Terminal Cartridge and VIC Modem was one of the only ways to use BBS services and pre-internet Information Services like CompuServe.

Unlike the PET, Commodore never produced version Basic 4.0 upgrade ROM chips for the VIC.  Like the PET, however, the Commodore VIC-20 was released world wide relatively quickly after it's U.S. and Canadian introduction.  The VIC had different names in different parts of the world:

Commodore sold the PET product line through a tightly controlled channel of authorized resellers, which gave the PET a professional image but limited mass market sales.  When VIC arrived, Commodore had a whole new plan: sell them everywhere!  Soon enough folding cardboard stands filled with VIC computers and peripherals were appearing in all kinds of stores.  There were still authorized resellers who provided a relatively high level of service and had qualified hardware technicians on site but the majority of VICs were sold in department stores and other businesses that had never dreamed of selling computer previously.  In Canada, they even sold them through the Canadian Tire franchise! 

Late 1982 saw the beginning of the end: the more expensive but much more capable Commodore 64 was announced. Just as the VIC 20 was becoming popular and many stores and some multi-level marketing organizations had acquired significant inventories, rumors began to emerge that Commodore was completing work on a vastly more powerful version of the VIC 20 to be called the VIC 64, which of course was eventually released as the Commodore 64.  As the rumors of the impending C64 release continued there was excitement and uncertainty in the Commodore distribution channel and by Commodore consumers. This was probably the first experience many consumers had ever encountered with the phenomenon we now refer to "upgrading".  Undoubtedly some were resentful. Some of those who had acquired large inventories of VIC product found themselves scrambling to modify their marketing plans and to obtain price-protection as the value of VIC 20 products plummeted.

Commodore 64 production ramped up, prices dropped, and by 1984 it was obvious that there would not be a place in the Commodore lineup for the venerable VIC-20.

Commodore VIC-20 Chronology:
- 6560 VIC1 Chip developed, intended for game consoles to be manufactured by OEM's (i.e. not Commodore)

1980 April
- Jack Tramiel announced at a strategy meeting in London, England.  The intention is to build a US$300 home computer.

1980 June
- VIC-1001 Announced as the worlds first Colour Computer for less than $300 and sold in Japan's Seibu Department Store.  The machine would later be rebranded VIC-20.

1981 Jan - Feb
- First VIC's delivered to retailers
- Bally Arcade licenses Commodore to manufacture its arcade games into cartridges for the VIC-20

1982 Jan
- VIC Modem, a 300 Baud Cartridge, is released for $110

1982 Fall / Winter
- Commodore 64 announced
- Commodore has shipped 750,000 VIC-20 computers by the end of 1982.
- Apple Computer has shipped 600,000 Apple II computers by the end of 1982.
- Timex has shipped 600,000 Timex/Sinclair 1000 computers by the end of 1982.
- Texas Instruments has shipped 575,000 TI 99/4 computers by the end of 1982.

1983 January
- Commodore's sales of VIC-20s exceeds 1,000,000 units!

- January 13th - Commodore shows off prototype 264 and 364 at CES and indicates they should be in production by June
- January 15th - Commodores founder, visionary and CEO, Jack Tramiel quits Commodore with secret plans to buy the near bankrupt Atari
- Commodore shows a Golden Jubilee version of the 64 to commemorate the 1,000,000 C64 to be produced in the US

1985 January
- Commodore shows off the C128 Personal Computer at CES.  This new machine has three modes: 64, CP/M and the new 128KB mode
- Last VIC is produced and shipped
- Total lifetime sales are about 2,500,000 units

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