On The Edge

As far as it may seem odd nowadays, there was a time when BASIC was The Language. Computers from different vendors were 100% not-compatible and resources were so constrained that your average mobile phone could be considered a supercomputer when compared to. It was the Home Computer Era. Back then, it was the first half of the 80s, home computers started to spread around even in Italy. I was fourteen and started programming (and playing) with my ZX Spectrum 48k.
We hadn’t Windows or Linux, Vi or Emacs, Java or C#, but we had our religion wars – the most bloody, was Sinclair vs. Commodore and more precisely Spectrum vs. C64.
Owning a Spectrum I was in the Sinclair’s party – the gummy keyboard machine with a nice rainbow. Spectrum had superior BASIC and faster CPU. I like to think I always have an open mind, in fact, some years later, I was about to buy a C64. The Commodore machine sported for sure a superior hardware – more memory, more graphic modes, better audio, sprites, and decent keyboard.

I waited, then evaluated the C128, but bought an Amstrad. Some years later the Amiga arrived and I became a happy Commodore customer.
This book is like a documentary of the troubled history of Commodore. From the very early days, when the designer of the MOS 6502 CPU designed the first PET, to the final days of bankruptcy.
I found the book very good, more balanced of iWoz, maybe just because the writer is not directly involved in the company and just interviews people trying to rebuild facts.
The book reads nearly as a fiction book, with interesting characters, heroes, foes and plot twist, while the narration proceed toward the glooming end.
Two aspects stroke me during the reading – first is about success and failures, the latter is about overtime.
Many of the engineers interviewed hold that the most successful products were achieved when they were free from the marketing and worked almost free (but for the deadlines set directly by the CEO). The most unsuccessful products (notably the Plus 4 and C 16 abominations) were marketing driven. What really strikes me is how could the marketing and the middle management be so computer-unaware? They had a powerful brand, great hardware, yet they failed to steer the company helm to easily reachable success.
Overtime was a sort of way-of-life for Commodore engineers. Unrealistic deadlines were hit thanks to work around the clock for several days. One of the engineers recalls that his longest stay at office was 11 days. He just got some hour sleep in his office.
Unrealistic deadlines were needed to win against the strong competition from other vendors, but this is something you can’t live with for a reasonable time. You have to work less. I am a strong supporter of the 8h/day per 5days a week with just occasional overtime. My argumentation is that overtime tends to burn out people, making them behave in a sub-optimal way in the medium period. Also because of the long hours away from home they need to do something personal at work, just to keep up with life. So I wonder if those jewels (C64 and Amiga) that Commodore gave us could have existed and could have been the same with more human working conditions?

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