The VIC-20 (Germany: VC-20; Japan: VIC-1001) is an 8-bit home computer which was sold by Commodore Business Machines. The VIC-20 was announced in 1980, roughly three years after Commodore’s first personal computer, the PET. The VIC-20 was the first computer of any description to sell one million units.
The VIC-20 was intended to be more economical than the PET computer. It was equipped with only 5 kB of RAM (of this, only 3583 bytes were available to the BASIC programmer) and used the same MOS 6502 CPU as the PET. The VIC-20’s video chip, the MOS Technology VIC, was a general-purpose color video chip designed by Al Charpentier in 1977 and intended for use in inexpensive display terminals and game consoles, but Commodore could not find a market for the chip. As the Apple II gained momentum with the advent of VisiCalc in 1979, Jack Tramiel wanted a product that would compete in the same segment, to be presented at the January 1980 CES. For this reason Chuck Peddle and Bill Seiler started to design a computer named TOI (The Other Intellect).
The TOI computer failed to materialize, mostly due to the fact that it required an 80-column character display which in turn required the MOS Technology 6564 chip. However, the chip could not be used in the TOI since it required very expensive static RAM to operate fast enough. In the meantime, freshman engineer Robert Yannes at MOS Technology (then a part of Commodore) had designed a computer in his home dubbed the MicroPET and finished a prototype with some help from Al Charpentier and Charles Winterble. With the TOI unfinished, when Jack Tramiel was confronted with the MicroPET prototype, he immediately said he wanted it to be finished and ordered it to be mass-produced following a limited demonstration at the CES.
The prototype produced by Yannes had very few of the features required for a real computer, so Robert Russell at Commodore headquarters had to coordinate and finish large parts of the design under the codename Vixen. The parts contributed by Russell included a port of the operating system (kernel and BASIC interpreter) taken from John Feagans design for the Commodore PET, a character set with the characteristic PETSCII, an Atari 2600-compatible joystick interface, and a ROM cartridge port. The serial IEEE 488-derivative interface (which could use far cheaper cabling than a real IEEE-488 as was used on the PET) was designed by Glen Stark. Some features, like the memory add-in board, were designed by Bill Seiler. At the time, Commodore had an oversupply of 1 kbit×4 SRAM chips, so Tramiel decided that these should be used in the new computer. The end result was arguably closer to the PET or TOI computers than to Yannes’ prototype, albeit with a 22-column VIC chip instead of the custom chips designed for the more ambitious computers.
In April 1980 at a meeting of general managers outside London, Jack Tramiel declared that he wanted a low-cost color computer. When most of the GMs argued against it, he said: “The Japanese are coming, so we will become the Japanese.” This was in keeping with Tramiel’s philosophy which was to make “computers for the masses, not the classes”. The concept was championed at the meeting by Michael Tomczyk, newly hired marketing strategist and assistant to the president, Tony Tokai, General Manager of Commodore-Japan, and Kit Spencer, the UK’s top marketing executive. Then, the project was given to Commodore Japan. Engineering team led by Yash Terakura created VIC-1001 for Japanese market. The VIC-20 was marketed in Japan as VIC-1001 before VIC-20 was introduced to the US.
In 1981, Tomczyk contracted with an outside engineering group to develop a direct-connect modem-on-a-cartridge (the VICModem), which at US$ 99 became the first modem priced under US$ 100. The VICModem was also the first modem to sell over 1 million units. VICModem was packaged with US$ 197.50 worth of free telecomputing services from The Source, CompuServe and Dow Jones. Tomczyk also created an entity called the Commodore Information Network to enable users to exchange information and take some of the pressure off of Customer Support inquiries, which were straining Commodore’s lean organization. In 1982, this network accounted for the largest traffic on CompuServe.
In 1982 the VIC-20 was the best-selling computer of the year, with 800,000 machines sold. One million had been sold by the end of the year and at one point, 9000 units a day were being produced. That summer, Commodore unveiled the Commodore 64, a more advanced machine with 64k of RAM and considerably improved sound and graphics capabilities. Sales were slow at first due to reliability problems and lack of software, but by the middle of 1983, the latter had turned into a flood and VIC-20 sales abruptly plunged. It was quietly discontinued in January 1985.