Commodore Legends: Michael Tomczyk – Part II
Last Wednesday, you could read how Michael’s career started at Commodore and how the VIC 20 came about. Today, in part II of the interview with Commodore legend Michael Tomczyk we’ll learn more about Michael’s current career and look back at some of the happiest and saddest moments at Commodore.
Robby: How have your years at Commodore influenced you?
Michael: My Commodore experience set me on an interesting course that kept me involved in radical, disruptive innovations throughout my career. I’ve been Managing Director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School for the past 16 years. In this capacity, I have been privileged to work with a group of Wharton faculty to help guide the world’s leading center for the study of best practices and strategies for managing innovation. I am also involved quite strongly in advising companies on innovation initiatives, and this year I’ve done a lot of speaking at conferences and workshops including my own annual conference at Wharton which is called the Emerging Technologies Update Day – this year’s theme was “Turning Science Fiction Into Science Reality.” In 2010 I earned a master’s degree in environmental studies, focusing on environmental and energy technologies and solutions. My technology interests include advanced computing and IT, biosciences, energy solutions, nanotechnology and security/threat assessment.
I list my activities and ideas on my personal website: http://www.michaeltomczyk.com.
Robby: In your current role, you’re confronted with innovation on basically a daily basis. How do you see innovation and computing in today’s world?
Michael: I don’t think we can underestimate the power of computing to draw people into new fields that are emerging. Think about social media today. How many people are now programming in new languages that are linked to social media and the Internet? Think about the “apps” revolution that is going on right now in handheld devices…the people developing these “apps” are just like the kids and hobbyists who were developing applications for the VIC-20 and Commodore 64 in the 1980s. They are being sucked into the market – and forced to learn very sophisticated concepts – by the excitement of creating applications for new devices. If you put this into a historical context, this is a long way from the days of Shakespeare, who had to write two versions of his plays…one version for the uneducated “groundlings” and another more sophisticated version for the more intellectual “court.” Today, we are so sophisticated, we talk on our cell phone while answering our emails in one window on our computer screen, while at the same time searching for something on Google in another window… the ultimate refinement of human brain power… multitasking that still hasn’t reached the limits of productivity.
Robby: Computing for sure has changed the world we live in and continues to do so. How was it like witnessing the birth of a world changing industry?
Michael: For me, and the entire development team at Commodore including engineers and marketeers, this was an exhilarating ride. Who doesn’t enjoy being at the cutting edge of technology? It gives you a rush to think that you can develop something that will change (and improve) the world.
Let me give one example of this “world changing” impact. When we started developing and promoting the VIC-20, school teachers were telling me that they didn’t teach algebra until high school because psychologically and intellectually, students can’t comprehend algebra until they are about 13 years old. Some teachers actually told me that! So at one convention, I had the 4 year old son of a colleague stand at a computer and type this: A=1: PRINT A – which caused the computer to assign the value of 1 to the variable A – a purely algebraic formula. And this was a 4 year old child doing this. In the early 1980s, elementary schoolchildren were learning to program. What really happened is that students learned algebra and even more sophisticated concepts in geometry and more as they learned how to program in BASIC and other early programming languages. Many of them wanted to do things with their computers that required them to learn to program – and learning to program also taught them a lot about math, algebra and geometry – and this led quite a few people into careers in software, engineering and related fields. I still receive notes from people around the world who tell me that their computing careers began with the VIC-20 and Commodore 64.
Robby: Let’s cast our minds back to the 80s, to your years at Commodore in this quick-fire round of short questions.
What is, in your opinion, next to the fact that Commodore made the best selling computer of all-time with the C64, the greatest achievement of Commodore?
Michael: The VIC-20 was actually the first microcomputer to sell 1 million units, and the VICModem, which I contracted and actually helped design, was the first million-seller modem. A lot of people are confused by this statistic because some research reports at the time mis-reported this. I actually have a photo of myself standing in front of a large banner with Jack, proclaiming the first million computers. The VIC-20 jump-started the home market but only had 5K RAM that netted down to 3.5K when you turned it on – this is equivalent to ONE PAGE OF TYPEWRITTEN TEXT including the spaces! The VIC’s memory was expandable in 8K, 16K and 32K increments if you bought an expansive add-on memory module. More expensive personal computers were set at 32K, and the Commodore 64 had 64K memory which was a giant leap forward in the home computing market at the time. The C64’s price/performance package was terrific.
Michael Tomczyk at the 1982 Commodore press conference – New York
(Picture courtesy of Michael Tomczyk)
Also, the C64 benefited from a lot of innovations that originated with the VIC-20 such as a very thick Programmer’s Reference Guide (which contained technical info needed by software and hardware developers to create “razor blade” products for the computer). Also, it didn’t hurt that we hired Bill Shatner to be our spokesperson. I have a picture of me showing Bill how to work the computer, which I believe was his first real introduction to computing! Also, the distinctive voice of TV personality Henry Morgan as the voice behind our TV commercials – Morgan’s voice was oozing with irony and edgyness, long before “edgy” came into vogue. It was a daring choice for our advertising. Our advertising team for the C64 was really first class and did a lot of cool stuff – for example, we bought prime time TV ads that were either abandoned or available at the last minute, which effectively doubled the impact of our ad budget.
Robby: What is according to you the biggest innovation Commodore made?
Michael: Commodore’s greatest innovation is best described in the words of Jack Tramiel, whose mantra was “We make computers for the masses, not the classes.” Those were profound words, a powerful business strategy, and something that came from Jack’s personal philosophy and vision. He led the creation of the home computer market in the U.S. and Europe and many other regions of the world, and I was privileged to play a role in championing, sharing and implementing that vision.
Commodore seeded the home market by making home computers and telecomputing modems affordable to not only home users, but also to elementary and middle schools, and to countries and markets where affordable computing was essential. In 1982, the Commodore Information Network, which I created to leverage the power of the VICModem and allow Commodore users to talk to each other and share solutions, was the largest user community on CompuServe. This was an early Internet-style user community so I guess we were ahead of the market on that concept.
Robby: Which Commodore machine was more groundbreaking and why: The VIC-20, C64, the Amiga or another?
Michael: I’m prejudiced of course, because the VIC-20 was the first million seller microcomputer and jump-started the home market. But the C64 was a critical achievement, technically, because it not only brought business-level computing power to the home market, but it also kept the Japanese from entering the market which was a major concern at the time because they couldn’t match our price-performance package. The C64 also drove Texas Instruments out of the home market. The Amiga was not developed at Commodore but was acquired from an entrepreneurial team – Commodore probably overpaid for this and despite its popularity, the company lost its engineering infrastructure after Jack Tramiel and the rest of us left the company, so the company could not sustain and build on the Amiga’s base, which is a shame.
Robby: What is the funniest moment you had at Commodore?
Michael: There were many funny moments at Commodore. Let me think about a few. One day Jack came storming into my office waving a check for $32,000. “What’s this?” he demanded. It was a check from CompuServe. Jack thought someone was doing some sort of business deal behind his back, and he insisted on touching and feeling every part of the company, even when we reached the billion dollar revenue level. I laughed like crazy and said, “That’s the royalty check from CompuServe – the Commodore Information Net is the largest CompuServe community and they pay us for the traffic.” We both shared a laugh over that. It is ironic and strange to recall that in the first days of telecomputing and the Internet, companies like CompuServe and later AOL paid service providers a royalty for generating traffic on their site. In the 1990s of course, this totally reversed and information providers had to start paying the portals a fee.
On another occasion, I was invited to showcase the VIC-20 on the Today Show, and had to show up at 3:30 a.m. to set up the computer. Because I showed up early with my engineer, we were able to solve some technical problems that allowed us to synch our display to their video feed – I created on the spot some scrolling messages that could be used when the show cut to a commercial break. I also made friends with Bryant Gumbel who was hosting that day with Jane Pauley. Later that morning, a half dozen other computer people showed up from Apple, Radio Shack and the other computer makers, but they were not able to synch their computers and I had already set up our system and planned out the segment with Bryant. Those other computer people confidently set up their displays in a semi-circle – but when the show started, the crew wheeled out the VIC-20 on a separate cart, right in the center of the stage – and the segment was all about the VIC-20, and Bryant interviewing me. It was the kind of coups we were constantly staging and I laughed like crazy over that one. The early bird really does get the worm!
Robby: What is the saddest moment you had at Commodore?
Michael: Hearing the news that Jack had been ousted by the board of directors in January 1984 was the saddest moment for me. My personal network in the company was at this time quite strong and I knew a lot of things before they were made public, just through my contacts. I heard this sad news from a secretary who worked in Irving Gould’s office and knew what had happened while the board was still in session. Jack was on a plane back to California while the board was still meeting.
The pragmatic side of this news was that Jack probably caused this himself as a result of two fateful decisions:
1) In the summer of 1983, Jack cut software and peripheral prices in half which drove Texas Instruments out of the market – this resulted in a bad financial quarter in December as a result of “stock balancing” that was demanded by our retailers (which meant we had to give them all free products) and the dumping of product by T.I. hurt our Christmas sales.
2) Jack had proposed bringing his 3 sons into the company at executive/VP levels. His oldest son Sam was an operations genius who had run a consumer electronics company in Hong Kong; his son Leonard had helped develop the first P.E.T. computer and was technologically brilliant – he had a degree in astrophysics from Columbia and had experiments on the first space shuttles; and youngest son Gary was a financial wizard who had acquired remarkable financial acumen at a relatively young age. Commodore Chairman and largest shareholder Irving Gould rejected this proposal, in favor of what he called “professional management” – which led him to conclude that a group of grey-haired seasoned executives from outside the computer industry should be brought in to manage Commodore – which was a horrible decision that sent Commodore into a death spiral. Within a decade, Commodore shareholders (including Irving Gould) lost a fortune as the stock plummeted, and Commodore as a company became vaporware.
Robby: If you could go back in time, what would be the one thing above all others, that you would like to have changed in the course of Commodore’s history?
Michael: Keeping Jack in the company would have ensured Commodore’s survival and about 35 to 50 of the managers, marketeers and engineers would have remained in the company and continued our evolution. We had reduced our product cycle time from 24 months for the next generation computer to about 12 months, and we had lots of great ideas on the drawing board which were totally ignored and lost after Jack left the company. No one knows what would have happened if we all stayed in place, but I can guarantee that the results would have been profound because Commodore’s culture was truly a culture of innovation and we all had an evangelistic passion that would have produced more groundbreaking results.
Robby: Do you still actively follow the Commodore scene, with its fans still making software and hardware for the old machines?
Michael:I am privileged to be in touch with most of the webmasters who maintain “retro” sites in the U.S. and Europe, and have given interviews whenever asked, and time permitting, because I feel it’s important to keep history alive. My own personal motto is “I live in the future” which is something Jack Tramiel once said to me, but the future is founded on the pioneering achievements of the past, and the spirit of past innovators who have given us such things as gene therapy, nanotechnology, and of course, home computing and the Internet.
Robby: Speaking of “retro”, what’s your take on Commodore USA launching a PC in the old Commodore 64 “breadbox”?
Michael: There are many examples of brands that almost disappeared from sight and then were restored with some success – examples range from brands of gum and toothpaste, to media. After Jack left Commodore, he and his family rescued and restored Atari to profitability and ran it as a family business. The Atari brand survives today. So why not Commodore? I’m not sure if this is a clever idea with marketing potential, or if it fits author Tom Wolfe’s admonition that “you can’t go home again.”
Robby: Jack Tramiel, your mentor, was interred during World War II – how did he characterize that experience and how did it related to his achievements at Commodore?
Michael: Jack was a Holocaust survivor and this experience gave him his drive and sense of purpose – not only did he want to do something great for humanity, but he wanted to make sure that his entire family and their descendants would be financially secure, which he accomplished.
I once asked Jack how he dealt with his 6 years surviving the Holocaust. He replied without blinking an eye: “I live in the future.” Jack also told me once, “It wasn’t the German’s who killed the Jews. It was the rules.” He explained that culturally, Germans tend to follow rules and if madmen are setting the rules, madness becomes institutionalized. His wife Helen who was also a Holocaust survivor, did not share his view on this. Once when he returned from a trip to Berlin, he told me he thought he had put the past behind him but when someone in an alley outside his hotel room shouted “Schweinhundt!” he woke up in a cold sweat, suddenly thrust back to the time when the Auschwitz guards shouted that at the Jewish prisoners.
This is not widely known and I haven’t pursued this as aggressively as I should – but I was so affected by Jack’s experience and by the experience of several Jewish friends over the years who survived the Holocaust, that I investigated and researched that era in history, as a Polish-American myself, to understand how the war started, and what was happening in Poland at the time. This endeavor led me to write a novel about the experience of 4 students who survive the war and who go on the start the home computer revolution. Most of the story occurs in Poland before and after the start of the war. Most people today don’t remember that World War II started with the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. I’m not sure if this will ever be published, but I guess I should explore the possibilities. The part of the story that occurs during the war is mostly fiction and drawn from my historical research and imagination, and the part that involves computers is drawn from my experiences and observations.
Robby: What does the future hold in store for you?
Michael: I’m currently considering how I might be more directly involved in technology and innovation. During the past year, several of our industry partners in the Mack Center at Wharton have asked me for advice on innovation strategy, expansion into adjacent markets, ideas for managing their innovation ecosystems, etc. This has whetted my appetite as an innovator, and I’m currently considering how I might be involved more directly and exert a stronger impact on technological innovation and the solutions they provide. I do a lot of networking and have about 2,500 innovation leaders, business managers and technologists in my personal contact database.
I’m also doing more writing, to explain complex technologies to business managers and the general public – this year, I authored a chapter on bionanotechnology called “Applying the Marketing Mix (5 P’s) to Bionanotechnology, in a 2011 book, Biomedical Nanotechnology: Methods and Protocols (Springer 2011). I’m currently completing a book entitled “Nanoinnovation: What Managers Need to Know” for Wiley, which is an exciting project. As part of my research, I interviewed more than 70 nanotech insiders for this book.
Last but not least, I’m flattered that my book The Home Computer Wars is now listed as a “collectible” on Amazon.com. I’m being encouraged to republish my book, The Home Computer Wars as a Kindle and am hoping to get around to this during the summer. The Kindle version would update the book and add some insights I’ve gained since writing the original book.
As you can see, I don’t believe in slowing down. I still live in the future.
Robby: Michael, many thanks for taking the time for this interview. I could not have asked a better person to “sit in the chair” for this first of the series. I wish you all the best and success with the Mack Center for Technological Innovation and I’m 100% sure all of my readers will want to have an updated version of “The Home Computer Wars”. All the best!