Jack Tramiel passed away this weekend, aged 83. His name is associated with two great names in 1980s home computing; Commodore and Atari. Mr Tramiel was a Polish Auschwitz survivor. After rescue from the concentration camp he emigrated to the USA where he learned to repair office equipment including typewriters.
In 1953 he raised enough money to start his own office machinery repair company in the Bronx, this is where the Commodore business name was first used. From his repair business experience he saw an opportunity to import new typewriters and re-brand them to make more money. The company moved with the times and produced other business machines such as adding machines and calculators though the 1960s. This business started to struggle because of stronger competition and cheaper prices from the Far East. Tramiel’s Commodore sought to innovate again and stepped into the realm of computer manufacturing with their first computer, the Commodore PET, in 1977. The PET was popular in schools and businesses. Later the rise of colour computers that could be hooked up to a TV made the PET seem old fashioned and expensive. Commodore responded with the VIC-20 and then the Commodore 64 which sold an estimated 17 million units.
In 1984, while Commodore engineers were working on the legendary Amiga 16-bit home computer Jack resigned from Commodore. He had a break from computers for a few months and then bought the Atari home computing and games divisions for $240 million. Atari were also working on a 16-bit home computer with a mouse controlled GUI called the Atari ST. The ST was launched in 1985. It was nicknamed the Jackintosh after Jack Tramiel and being similar to the Apple Macintosh of that era - in both architecture and having a WIMP interface. The ST was priced a lot cheaper than a comparable Mac. Because the ST was a more simple machine Jack Tramiel managed to beat his old company to market with their 16-bit home computer, the Commodore Amiga, by about 2 months. The ST had certain strengths that made it more practical in monochrome DTP and CAD/illustration work and with its integrated MIDI ports it became a standard piece of recording studio equipment.
The slightly later Amiga had strengths in its colour graphical ability, sound synthesis and sample playing. Ultimately this led to more impressive looking/sounding games, comparable to 16-bit home games consoles of the time. The Amiga OS required floppy disks to boot to a GUI for productivity tasks, whereas the Atari ST had the entire operating system contained in ROM, it could start in seconds. Both of these 16-bit computer systems sales waned in the early 1990s as competition from faster IBM compatible PCs with dedicated graphics cards and 3D games became popular. Games consoles also ate away at the home computing market. Atari’s later powerful console offerings; the Lynx (1989) and Jaguar (1993) weren’t winners in the console wars, most people put this down to lack of third party software support. Most of these old systems can be tinkered with ‘virtually’ nowadays using emulation software, so while you might not be able to find a working example of these old computers their software continues to be enjoyed by people using emulators.
Jack Tramiel stayed at Atari until 1996 when the company was sold to the JTS Corporation and he retired to live in Monte Sereno, California. He is survived by his wife and three sons.