Commodore Legends: Bil Herd
It’s been a while now since the last interview in the Commodore Legends series, but today, I have a treat for all the Commodore fans out there: an interview with the man who brought us the Commodore C128: Bil Herd!
Bil is still very active in the scene, posting videos and articles on his site www.c128.com and I am very grateful that he took the time to answer my questions on his work and career at Commodore. You can read the entire interview below or even see it on the right, as Bil made a video of the answers as well.
Robby: How did you start your career in the IT industry?
Bil: IT is something that I’ve done for maybe the last 12, 15 years when I started an ISP back in 1995.
My career in electronics goes back almost to the fourth grade when my dad gave me three dollars for fixing a blown SCR (Silicon-Controlled Rectifier) in what we called a light organ, those things that pulse to the music.
Then I was a TV repairman at the age of 17, I was licensed and I was also licensed to do CB repair and master antenna.
I trained other kids in my small hometown in Indiana to drag me their TV chassis because I would get the tube out of them and go around fixing other TVs and stuff so aside it’s fair to say I was extremely passionate in my middle teens on up. I was basically living, breathing and eating electronics.
Robby: What was the life of an engineer at Commodore?
Bil: Well I guess it was whatever you made it. If you wanted to slink in there and not do anything and play video games, yes we had some of those. Sometimes we didn’t see them the day after a Jack Attack (actually we didn’t experience many of those).
We also had our share of people that went around trying to blame other people for their failures and we had other people blaming the technology… and then there was a group of us that just got shit done and that’s what we did. It was the same 8 or 9 of us including the chip designers and PCB layout people (when the department was only about 25 people) that were doing the work and when the department bloomed up to fifty-plus it was same 8 people doing the work.
With that said the other people helped, like the people in the drafting department, but for us it was whatever you put into it. We put in 16-hour days and brought our beer back from the bar and went back to work at 1 in the morning.
So it was it was a good time… it was probably the best time of my life.
Robby: How did you approach your project, i.e. the TED concept?
Bil: I just found this the other day. It looks like a prototyping board for 6502 and this is something I worked on at home.
I had been learning a split bus structure. For the 6845 video processor, where you basically sat and waited for the vertical retrace or horizontal retrace, I had taught the 6502 and the 6845 to share the same bus.
So I get to Commodore and I didn’t know this till I read Bagnall’s book, that I wasn’t hired as an engineer but that I was hired as a technician (Commodore, A Company on the Edge 2nd Edt., Brian Bagnall, page 481)
I thought that was kind of humorous :)
When I showed up they set me in a chair to be a programmer, so why not right? I could have done that, I knew assembly language really good back then for the 6502, but then it turns out that the 2nd or 3rd person to inherit the TED project was leaving and so I kinda walk into the hardware lab and I look at what they do and I’m going “oh cool, you’re sharing the bus between this thing and that. I’m doing one at home!” and before I knew it I was head of the project.
So it was luck, it just meant right place right time literally!
But with that said, then keeping the job was hard work. The TED was whatever it was supposed to be according to management.
I remember Shiraz Shivji opening the door and pulling out a Sinclair Spectrum and said this is what we’re going after. That was cool, I could see it, touch and feel it and it looked nothing like a C64
Robby: So how did you envision the concept moving ahead?
Bil: Well it became a moving target. I’ve made no secret of my feelings on this. I was part of the last generation to work for Jack Tramiel and I was part of the first generation to work without Jack Tramiel.
I was there as the company changed and with Jack Tramiel at the helm it was driven. You didn’t even have to understand where he was aiming, you just had to help keep the ship running and he’ll take care of it.
The main thing was to fulfill Jack Tramiel’s vision and with the TED we knew there is vision because these guys show up from Texas and they’ve got a speech chip and by the way we’re going to make a version called the 386 that talks, so it was very clear to us there was a vision and it did not include intruding into the Commodore 64 space. You want to play games? Get a 64! You want to do text? Get a TED! (remember, TED means “TExt Display”).
He wanted to break open the cheap business, home office market and just look today, that is a market! I credit him with really trying to go after that market, back in the 80s when – I don’t know what Apple did… they did stuff for kids and things and some dithering around – but if you look at a 64 it was very clearly marketed… it’s up to 27 million!
I think he would have gotten not that many, but a strong business following nonetheless if he had told marketing what to do.
Jack Tramiel showing the TED computers, with the 364 prototype.
Robby: On your facebook and also in Bagnal’s book you state that the TED-line was killed as soon as marketing jumped in and started taking control. Why do you think Jack Tramiel sided with marketing on this one?
Bil: That almost sounds like a misquote. The TED line wandered of and died an ugly death after Jack Tramiel left. As I mentioned, and if you a look at my video from VCF we call “Part II, The Commodore Story” (it’s up at C128: http://c128.com/vcf), I walk everybody through it where I hold up the first machine and say “Does this look like a Commodore 64?”, and then the whole room goes “No!”
Without Jack there to punch marketing types they just knew “well, this Commodore 64, it sold well so can we do it again?” The answer for a sane person is “No!”, the answer for somebody in marketing is “Sure why not! As a matter of fact you don’t have to sell it, it sells itself!”. That’s the problem we had as they waited for the C128 to sell itself and they even waited for the Amiga to sell itself, because after all, the 64 had sold well.
Jack was gone and the 364 wandered off and died, the 116 wandered off and died and the 264 became a Plus/4 for $400. Eventually the C16 showed up looking like a Commodore 64 and everybody was happy, if you can call it that for the 64 headed people :)
Robby: When Jack Tramiel at the CES ’83 lowered the price of the C64 dramatically, do you think this made the whole idea of the TED product seem “outdated”? It sure hurt TI in a big way, so wasn’t then the direction shift for the C264 line logical?
Bil: You know, Jack Tramiel said “Business is war” and I tend to believe he meant it! What he was doing by lowering the price is not only keeping the sale going and creating adopters out of somebody that already started with a different computer, but also, he got those computers off the street. So now there’s less computers to sell software for and the software people have to go somewhere else. There was this symbiotic relationship between the programmer, i.e. the third party software developers and the hardware people. When you couldn’t buy a TI99, you went on to program something else and later when the TI99 recovered from its hiatus, the software was off the streets and sitting downstairs in our loading dock. A great move!
TED again has nothing to do with the C64, it was meant to be a business machine, a text display and he just wanted everything cheap. That was a good way to summarize Jack.
Jack Tramiel and Bil Herd at the 25th Anniversary of the Commodore 64 at the Computer History Museum
Robby: As Dave stated in his interview “It was, however, a good learning experience for us… many of the good ideas in the C128 were prototypes on the TED systems.” Do you see the C128 as the victory over what went wrong with the TED-line?
Bil: No, I merely saw it as something different. What went wrong with the TED was Jack left. I couldn’t fix that!
I wrote a memo, “Saying, yes Virginia, there can be compatibility”. I was serious! At the CES show she showed me educational software she had spent close to a year writing and she said “The computer you just came out with won’t run my hard work. I just did it and you’re not there to help!”
I did see that if we could make something compatible that it was to the benefit of the people that we benefited from and in both directions, you know that hardware-programmers-software developer loop I was talking about.
If we could give them something so that the thing they’re already working on would run on the newest computer but could also do some new things then everybody won.
The C128 came from a void. I don’t think there’s been much of a time when a company the size of Commodore let somebody pull out a piece a paper off his desk and say “Here I’m working on this”. That’s what we did! There had been a C128, I think it was actually going be to be called a D128 or something. It had 6509 unit. It was like somebody took a B-machine, a D-machine and then a PET 2001 and shoved them all together and try to throw some color on it as well. It was a mess and so I got into it and I knew that to be C64 compatible in the least little bit, meant we had to be C64 compatible to a pretty big extreme.
I never used the words “a hundred percent”. I wouldn’t have ever said that, marketing said it and so we adopted it.
I can even tell you the day that I made the mistake, where something wasn’t compatible – I remember the few minutes, the few seconds that I made that judgment I’d make it again the same way, because it’s better to have a machine with a slight problem than one that doesn’t work at all! I’m referring to the way I failed to hide the double speed bit in the VIC chip.
It absolutely was a good learning experience for us because we did the C128 in half the time: we did it in 5 months and had something at the show.
I was so plugged in, I knew the chip guys, I knew the MOS guys, I knew all the things. I could just go like hell and that’s what we did.
Robby: Again it seems, marketing jumped the gun when they claimed the C128 would be fully backward compatible with the C64. Was this not something that was set from the onset, i.e. banking on the huge software library of the C64 along with the great volume of software for the Z80?
Bil: It made sense to us and nobody was telling us ‘no’, so we just went full steam ahead. Same with a Z80: nobody told me I couldn’t put it on there. I had a lot of good reasons why.
Basically, the Sun went down in West Chester and the C128 was a single processor system and when the Sun came up it was a dual processor system. The techs wire-wrapped it in during the night and we kept going.
Robby: On your site you state “The C128D was designed to be released at the same time as the C128. As you might expect, this was my preferred version over the barndoorstop version.” Is this because of the drive integration, making it look more like a business computer?
Bil: I have no idea why they decided not to do it. I didn’t even know they weren’t doing it when I left. They were supposed to be doing it and it was only years later I figured out they didn’t and I think at some point or other when you talk with old Commodore people you’re going to get to a point where things get sad and so for me it was earlier because I left. For the people like Dave Haynie that stuck it out till the end – you know his video: a Death-bed Vigil“, the title says it all. I’ve never watched it. I watched two-minutes or something and I couldn’t watch it. I have one but I can’t watch it.
The train was coming off the tracks and I can honestly say that I didn’t care. If I did everything right in the computer so that it didn’t fail in production or under load or in front of the customer, so that in other words it worked and it wasn’t what the best product that year was (somebody found a way to be even more attracted by the users), I wouldn’t have taken that as a failure.
I call the 128 “9 pounds of shit in a 5 pound” bag because I couldn’t get 10 pounds to fit :)
It was my job just to stack as much stuff in there that the users may want to use and hope that they did use it, like CP/M. With that said, do I know what people want? No of course not, I’m an engineer not a not a psychotherapist for the world!
If it worked and that was good enough, then we go on to the next one. That’s the whole key issue you know, turn out another one.
Commodore LCD (picture courtesy of Bil Herd)
Robby: You were involved with some amazing prototypes, such as the LCD Commodore. Legend has it that Commodore’s CEO, Marshall Smith had a talk with the CEO of Tandy about the future of LCD. When Smith was told that LCD would be going nowhere, he cancelled the project. With no need then for LCD technology, and no real calculator or watch production going on at Commodore, Smith sold of the entire LCD division and closed the chapter… Now, is this an urban legend or did this actually happen?
Bil: Well, I didn’t know Smith sold the LCD division. I didn’t know what happened to it, but everything else there is true.
My role in the LCD was on the initial architecture. I had specified how I was going to index the editor into the 25th line for the menu and how to index the editor right in memory so you would not be rewriting to the video screen all the time. We hired Jeff Porter, who lived, breathe and ate FCC part 68 subpart J, or whatever it is for the modem stuff, and the LCD was going to be very “modemistic”. He was just a rock star so it made sense for him to take over the LCD as I switched to the 128. Jeff was far better at doing something that I couldn’t do and that was acting like a decent real human being in front of customers. I have this long hair and tended to bite people. Jeff knew how to tie a tie and how to be respectable and so what he did at the CES show was go around and get commitments for people to buy the LCD machine. I couldn’t have done that, he did it. I believe he had 10 or 15.000 sales and they still weren’t interested in it.
It wasn’t for any lack of trying and at this point in time I would say if Commodore had to choose between the LCD and the C128, they should have chosen the LCD because the C128 really was just the last of the 8-bit machines. We were throwing everything in there that we could. We were ready to turn off the lights and walk out of the 8-bit arena and into the 16-bit.
The LCD would have been the thing that wasn’t just more of the same. I love a computer that you can carry with you. It just wasn’t done in the 80s. Even the Osborne would just basically hit you right in the ankle; knock you off your feet, if you didn’t bounce the hinge right. We called those machines “transportable” at that time :)
Bil Herd (right) & Dave Diorio (picture courtesy of Bil Herd)
Robby: How did you see the competition from TI and others? What would you consider to be Commodore’s greatest asset compared to them?
Bil: Well, we owned a chip company! Even though TI did as well, they didn’t act like they did.
We owned an amazing design crew of people, the chip designers and then the production engineers at MOS.
I saw something the other day where somebody is talking about the genius of one of the Apple engineers, in that he hooked up this computer using our parts.
Wait a minute, isn’t the geniuses in it basically the guy that made the microprocessor that they hooked up?
The VIC chip that thing was better than anything that you could put together with chips anywhere else. The VIC chip did it, the SID chip did it. They’re superlative. You couldn’t do better than that!
I never considered TI to be competition. The only competition I saw at all was, I wondered why we weren’t doing more in the educational market. Apple knew to reach out to the young minds and we had one person in charge of the educational department. That sums it up, when a company our size had one person to deal with a market, a whole market, we just had a non-existing educational reach.
Robby: How did Jack Tramiel leaving Commodore affect you?
Bil: Well it would have affected me more if I didn’t have anything to do but I kinda stepped into the 128 and just kept going. It’s like you’re playing football and you see the coach leaves the sidelines and another coach steps up. You’re in the middle of a game so you just kept going.
Robby: How have your years at Commodore influenced you?
Bil: Well I know what real mass-production is! I know when I do design, at every temperature, every voltage, every part, every tolerance should work every time because when you make a million or 5 million, your design mistakes will be just hanging right out there like your underwear. So it made me very much a mass-production guy. I can make something where saving twenty cents on a part is just a great day, because you multiply that times 5 million.
I’ve been also been in the service and that helped make me who I am. So I’m this weird mix of a lot of these things.
I did have to go and work at trauma centers after leaving Commodore. If you remember the movie “The Deerhunter”, where they come back from Vietnam and they’re playing Russian roulette, in the same way I was on the street, didn’t have anything to do, I knew how to handle stress, so I needed to handle stress. So I went to work at a Cooper trauma center in New Jersey, a level 1 trauma center and was taking people out of helicopters. That was just another day if you came from Commodore.
Robby: 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?
Bil: How can anything compare to the 64?
For that matter I have people all over going like “You must be you so horribly broken-hearted that the C128 didn’t do anything like the C64″… It’s like having a bigger brother it’s an all-star, nothing could have sold as much as 64. It wasn’t till we got a whole new horizon with the iPads, that was the first single thing that could be called a computer that sold as many as a C64.
The C128’s claim to fame? It sold more than the Apple II for example :)
No, its claim to fame was that I probably sold some people who already had a C64, I sold them again. Yeah, and that counts and then there were some people that went ahead and didn’t buy a C64 but did buy a C128 so you know in our case, that’s $1.2 – $1.4 billion revenue of 1980 dollars, so not as big as the 64, not a problem! Nothing’s as big as a 64!
Robby: Which Commodore machine was most groundbreaking and why?
Bil: Well, obviously the C64. The Amiga, I think, suffered from the fact that it was designed to look good on a TV at a time when people stopped using TVs for their computer and it looked horrible on a monitor. Somebody just recently said, that the icon made you “not want to click on it”. That’s probably true enough :)
VIC20 was pretty interesting too, it be second of those.
The last two, the 128 and the Amiga, they just didn’t hit the market. They didn’t hit a stride. Again we made a billion dollars revenue, probably the Amiga $2 billion but it never really became what it could become.
Robby: What is the funniest moment you had at Commodore?
Bil: Oh way too many to tell you! You would have to be talking to me in a conversation where there is at least one more Commodore guy in the room, then I’ll start telling you stories about that person because I know all the stories from all the other people. I was kinda like the comics scribe at the moment.
Robby: What is the saddest moment you had at Commodore?
Bil: Just the way it ended. It shouldn’t have ended that way. I just shouldn’t. There were too many things we had going and it just crawled off and died a slow death.
The day after (picture courtesy of Dave Haynie)
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?
Bil: Well, I wouldn’t have quit! I quit quickly because I thought that Commodore was going down the tubes. I was right, I was ahead of myself, but I didn’t know they had as many good years left in them as they did. I would hear about these projects and I’d hear about them in ways that I could do better and it was kinda sad for me. But at the same time, so I could have done the C65 better but who cares? We’re going backwards now if we’re going back to 8-bit computers
Robby: How do you see innovation and computing in today’s world?
Bil: Now things are a little different than they were even five years ago and it’s with this openness of open hardware, open software platforms, instead of hiding your design because that’s the work product. We’re putting it out on display inviting people to try and build it themselves, to try and add to it.
What’s interesting is, I see a dilution of some of our hardcore principles: people going to learn the hard way about high-speed mistakes, data lines, grounding and stuff. But there’s literally hundreds of percent more people trying than we were in the old days. As far as I’m saying and that’s kinda one of the things that made me interested in joining Hack-a-day – they’re a mouthpiece for some of those efforts going on.
Robby: What does the future hold in store for you?
Bil: Death, everybody dies…
Robby: Many thanks for taking the time for doing this interview and all the best in your future endeavors!