Jack Tramiel, 1928 - 2012

Jack Tramiel

Jack Tramiel, 1928 - 2012

Of all the people mentioned in the history of computing, one should be remembered more than others. Like him or loath him, Jack Tramiel was a businessman who hailed from an earlier era of business dealings, his rules of engagement were simple, give the people what they want at a price they can afford, get it right and they will come.

It was well known that Jack was a survivor of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, and it is often said that his experience there defined him and how he did business. After emigrating to America after the second world war and serving for a time in the US Army, Jack started what would become Commodore Business Machines, starting by repairing and refurbishing typewriters, moving on to calculators with a deal with Texas Instruments. However this deal went sour as parts were constrained and agreed prices changed.

This led to looking at technology from other companies, and MOS technology provided the necessary technology at a competitive price. Other technology by the company would also open up new markets to Commodore, so in what could be seen as either a strategic business decision or a leap of faith, MOS technology was bought outright and became part of Commodore. This acquisition also gave Commodore preference when it came to components, which helped a lot when developing its computer line.

Under both Commodore and Atari, Jack Tramiel did get a lot right, but if you could pinpoint a failure, it was that the business tactics did not change with the market. When the PET, Vic 20 and Commodore 64 were launched, there was little need for huge marketing campaigns, getting the machines in front of the customers was enough, but by the late 80's and early 90's rolled along, you needed to stand out to be counted.

While I have read that Atari would have been better off without the Tramiel family being involved, I don't feel they had a true grasp of the situation at hand in 1984. Jack had left Commodore and founded Tramel Technologies (The misspelling of his name was a deliberate attempt to get people to pronounce the family name properly), Warner Communications had a computer company that was threatening their very existence as the computer games crash had turned Atari from a profitable company into a money pit losing millions of dollars every month. When Jack showed an interest in buying the computer division, Warner were more than eager to sell.

With that in mind, you should have no doubt what so ever that without Jack, there would be no Atari, at least not outside of the coin-op business (Which Warner kept as it was making a LOT of money). As he was an outsider, he could do what the older management had failed to do, cut the company down to a more manageable size and start making products that made money.

While the deal over the Amiga flopped (With the Amiga going to Commodore), Tramel Technologies was already working on a low cost next generation computer, the point of buying Atari was to have a known brand to get the machine noticed, which when you look at it, is a very shrewd business move as you don't need to spend billions getting a new brand noticed, it is far cheaper to buy a known brand instead.

You can argue that the Tramiel's cut too deep too quickly into the company and missed a lot of potentially superior technology (Amy sound chip, the Sierra and Gaza projects and others in the development phase), but would these machines have been feasible at a price point that the ST came in at? That is highly doubtful as even the Amiga (Which was more complete than Sierra for example) was more expensive than the ST at time of launch and with half the memory. Tramiel's business model had allowed Atari to capitalise on the falling cost of RAM at the time, allowing the low end machines to have 512KB of memory, rather than 256KB.

The point is though that Jack Tramiels strategy in the end was right. Had it not been, there would have been no Atari beyond 1985, no Commodore 64 before that and no Commodore PET before that. In some ways these were some of the most influential machines of their generations. Ok the Mac influenced interface design, but the ST influenced the way computers were used in music, while the Commodore 64 was the home of today's most popular sequencers (Logic/Garageband and Cubase).

When discussing computing history, the Tramiel name is often missed, possibly because in the end both Atari and Commodore failed, and possibly because some of the ways the Tramiel's did business left a bad impression with the end users. Either way it is an unfair reflection, as without them the home computing world would have been worse off. After all, how many other people of the time can lay claim to having the best selling computer of its time, not once but twice within the space of a decade.

For the technology you brought us at a price we could afford, on behalf of the generations who enjoyed and used them, thank you Jack.