Monday, June 27, 2011

Is old technology "funny" or "fascinating"? Some thoughts and rants about the ongoing announcements and recaps for the never dead Commodore 64

A situation yesterday was the same as many situations before - a friend who knows I am interested in sent me an article about the new company Commodore USA and their "rebirth" of the famous home computer Commodore 64 of the original firm.

Now, this wouldn't be so bad, had the publisher not included some always reoccurring flaws people like me are becoming sick of. Seeing these again made me think a little about why on earth these articles, whether they are recaps or announcements of new “Commodore” products pop up from time to time anyway.

So what is it that makes me uncomfortable with these articles?

First of all, some background information… After Commodore filed for bankruptcy in 1994, no less than 4 different companies took over the name. While the first still tried to bring the until then existing product line up to date, the second just hoped for a boost in sales of their own, unspectacular products. This went on for a while, and now we are seeing the second firm that is packaging off the shelf technology into stylish cases. The current one has rebuilt the Commodore 64 case and will sell it with an integrated standard PC mainboard for triple the price it would cost to build up such a system yourself.

So naturally, people are going to write about this. Like in most articles, the writer of the one I read yesterday began with pointing to the heritage of the firm that originally built the machine that now gave but its casing to the new product of the new firm, Commodore USA. We read the sentence "The legendary Commodore 64 is back!".

This beginning is chosen despite the fact that absolutely nothing on the product has anything to do with the Commodore product line back then - except the casing.

Still, the author sees the product of Commodore USA, which is by the way called the Commodore 64X, as some kind of late successor.

This then brings us to the recap of the original Commodore 64s functions, specs and games. It always seems as though all the research effort that goes into this is typing a few things into Google and randomly looking up some games, some of which weren't even released on the machine.

We are looking at a few minutes work, often with some factual errors or unclear passages, being published on major (technology) news sites and the question is: How could this have passed inspection? Maybe because nobody cares? But then why publish this anyway? And what if things that actually DO matter can pass inspection with the same carelessness, with the exception that there are probably few people noticing this (something the Commodore 64 articles publishers probably also hope for)?

What also bothers the reader is the subjectivity. One is always confronted with the question whether this is a serious article, informing the interested reader about a new product, the reason for its release and possible predecessors, or if it is a subjective and humorous write up of the "good old times" and how companies still draw on them?

THE prominent example for subjectivity is the commenting on the Commodore 64s specifications in comparison with those of todays machines or those of the new products. You will read about the almost laughable 64 KB RAM and the tiny amount of 1 MHz CPU clockrate. This serves a primitive goal: To make the reader giggle and to give him the impression that the current product is in magnitudes superior.

At this point I always think about to what extent you can compare the technology then with the technology we have now. The difference was that more than 64 KB RAM would have made the product unaffordable to the home consumer market, and so programmers had no choice but to work with this amount.

Today, we see a doubling of computer memory from 2 to 4 gigabytes, while the general architecture of the machine stays the same – this gives programs more potential RAM, and if they could actually also be coded to run with less is not the question anymore. Also, using all possible resources will make customers buy newer products, which is always a goal of the industry.

Also, if you compare the architecture of the IBM-compatible PC to that others, you will see that a lot of the processing power is used to compensate for bottlenecks the system features by design and definition. The overall “power” a PC system with a 1 Ghz CPU has compares to an Amiga architecture with half the CPU power, for there are supporting chips, for example. These comparisons have existed until the age of PowerPC architectured Apple computers, but they are now obsolete and probably forgotten by most of the people, since there is only one processor architecture left in the industry.

All in all, in this hardware specifications section, I would wish for a little more respect and knowledge of the authors. A final example could be that the first PC released could still do less than the Commodore 64 despite its 5 times as great processor power (5 Mhz vs. 1 Mhz).

Well, we have said a few things about the incomplete knowledge the authors of the announcement articles often have. Well, for whom are these articles written anyway, you might ask yourself? This brings us to the next section...

My big complaint is, that these articles are written by and aimed at a target group which will not buy the product. Why would somebody who is not familiar with the Commodore 64 buy an overpriced PC in an unergonomic design? Will the retro hype the writers are artificially trying to create draw new customers or scare away the few “veterans” that might find it funny to own such a product with some company support (rather than building one themselves)?

Even though nobody can deny the fact that retro is catching on to the mainstream nowadays, it remains an interesting observation if products like these, which really just copy a traditional shell which is then stuffed with new technology, will find any buyers. If yes, from what target group do they emerge? For me, the only possible customers could be quite upper class trendsetters and fashion fans or fans, users of and experts on the actual machine. Can the new Commodore 64X really be dragged into the mainstream or will not only I, as a person knowing about the original machine, but just that mainstream, laugh about these hyping articles in the end?