To market or not to market… Commodore’s prototypes of 1985
It seems 1985 was the year that Commodore announced several new computers and peripherals, but never got them to market.
In this “Friday Commodore”, I’ll be talking about the Commodore LCD portable computer, the 1572 drive and the C900… 3 very interesting products, that never made it to market.
The Commodore LCD was presented simultaneously with the Commodore 128 at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas back in January 1985
As a 65C02 based computer, many thought it would be a portable 64 (like the SX-64), but this was not the case (it even barely weighed 2,5 kilos). The LCD has its own version of BASIC (3.6, modeled on BASIC 3.5 from the 264 series) and several programs in its 96 Kbytes ROM including a word processor, spreadsheet, calculator, terminal program, monitor, memopad, file manager and an address book (so yes, it was unrelated to the 264 series, but you’ll have to admit this does resemble the Plus/4 – even the keyboard has some resemblance with the arrow keys).
All these programs came fully integrated and allowed you to be in the spreadsheet and word processor simultaneously on the split screen and switch smoothly between them. A drawback was that it was not directly compatible with other Commodore home computers (on the application side), but its built-in Commodore BASIC 3.6 interpreter could run programs written in the Commodore 128’s BASIC 7.0 (which was presented simultaneously at the Winter CES), as long as these did not include BASIC 7.0 specific commands.
Technically, this computer was a gem as it had one of the best LCD screens at that time, delivering 80 characters on 16 lines (480×128), a built-in 300 baud modem, a professional keyboard with 8 programmable function keys and 32 Kbytes of battery-backed memory to save data.
In contrast to the application compatibility, it was fully compatible with the wide range of existing Commodore peripherals as it featured the classic serial bus and expansion port, an RS232C/Centronics bus and even an HP compatible bar code reader.
It had an external power supply but could run “cordless” with four 1.5V NiCd batteries which would allow it to operate for 15 hours!.
Next to that, Commodore also had a custom 3,5” drive, battery powered and for use with the Commodore LCD.
The price was suggested at roughly 1000 Euro for the LCD.
Surely with a superb machine like this, sales would have been sky-high, so why did it never reach the production stage? 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… who knows how history would have been different if only Commodore had produced this technological marvel…
It is assumed 4 models/prototypes are still in existence, with one belonging to the original LCD project engineer, Bil Herd.
You can see it as well in the video in this article (around timestamp 08:00) from a 1985 episode of the excellent “The Computer Chronicles”.
At the CES in Chicaco, in the Summer of 1985, Commodore introduced a series of new peripherals for its 128-line. One of these, was the 1572 dual floppy drive.
The 1572 drive had two 5,25” drives next to each other and was 100% compatible with the 1571. It could make ultra-fast back-ups and could handle up to 410 Kbytes of disk capacity per drive.
Taking care of things was a 6502 CPU, 8 Kbyte RAM and 64 Kbyte ROM. The drive mechanisms were separate, implying that internally, it could well have been 2 complete 1571 drives, being addressed as device 8 and 9 (instead of device 8 drive 0 and device 8 drive 1).
Transfer rates would be as high as 300 cps (characters per second) when operating in C64 mode and a whopping 5200 cps in C128 and CP/M mode.
The drive was supposed to be compatible with Kaypro, Osborne, IBM CP/M 86, Epson QX-10 and some other formats.
As it never reached production state, it is unknown what would have been the retail price of this drive.
The Commodore 900 was the company’s first “flirt” with Unix (they would at a later stage also introduce Unix on the Amiga product line , with a port of SVR4 Unix to the Amiga 2500, called “Amix” and a native Unix called “Amiga 3000UX”).
Designed as a multi-user, multi-tasking Unix compatible business system, it would support up to 8 workstations, with a port of the Coherent OS, fully compatible with AT&Ts Unix System V, version 5.2 (according to Commodore’s engineers, the Coherent OS was much more compact than the System V, so it didn’t take up as much memory and made programs load and run faster). The setup would have 1 “base” terminal or “first user” terminal and then connect the other terminals (stand-alone, industry standard RS232 character-mode terminals).
Next to multi-user configuration, Commodore also made a personal workstation setup, boasting a 1024×800 display (making it one of the first megapixel Unix workstations). In this setup, it uses a window manager for both text and graphics windows, and can have different text fonts and proportional spacing for quick, accurate document processing.
On the inside, the C900 had a Z8001 chip running at 10 MHz, 512 Kbytes RAM (expandable to 2 Mbytes), 20 Mbytes built-in hard drive, 1.2 MByte built-in 5,25” floppy drive, two RS232 ports (more added with an expansion card), an IEEE-488 port, Centronics parallel printer port and four expansion slots.
It further featured a C-compiler, a business BASIC-compiler and over 50 utilities. It was also capable of running COBOL, Pascal and could handle a virtual device interface for handling graphics devices such as plotters.
You could expand the system with a high resolution monochrome monitor (14” up to 20”), a 40 or 67 Mbyte hard drive, tape streamer and additional floppy drives.
Commodore never really marketed the system, as it was ditched later that year when they bought Amiga.
So, looking back, 1985 was an important year in the post-Tramiel era of Commodore, one that was filled with excitement over the 128, but also dissapointment, especially for the engineers, as they saw many of their projects being ditched for not always the right reasons… who knows how the Unix world and LCD machines would have evolved if Commodore had pursued these initiateves… we’ll never know.