Michael Tomczyk: Commodore Vic-20 Developer, Computer Pioneer

Michael Tomczyk is a futurist, technology pioneer and a leading authority on best practices and strategies for developing/launching radical/disruptive innovations. He is a popular author, speaker, and consultant to corporations and government agencies. However, he is perhaps best known for his early work at Commodore for his role in guiding the development and launch of the first microcomputer to sell one million units. He did this as the Product Manager of the VIC-20, the predecessor to the better known Commodore 64. He authored the 1984 book The Home Computer Wars which compiled his own recollections and impressions of his time working at Commodore.

Michael is also an authority on nanotechnology. He is the author of the 2016 book, NanoInnovation: What Every Manager Needs to Know and during that same year served on the NNI Review Committee (National Academy of Sciences) which reviewed the billion-dollar US National Nanotechnology Initiative, to recommend changes and improvements to this initiative. He has also written book chapters and articles on the future of biosciences, gene therapy, and medical innovations.

I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Tomczyk some questions over email regarding his career, to include some about the development of the VIC-20, his friendship with Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and what he’s been up to in the decades since the VIC-20’s launch.

Commodore Video Games

Omega Race on the Vic-20

Star Raiders

TFTC: You became hooked on Star Raiders for the Atari 800, which opened your eyes to the possibilities of computers. Did you continue playing games after that?

Tomczyk: In 1979 I was general manager of a company called Metacolor based in San Francisco, that did special graphic effects for Hollywood movies and for Atari video games. To create our graphics we used a modified piece of surplus NASA gear called a Quantizer. Atari made us a beta site for the Atari 600 game computer and my team wouldn’t stop playing a cartridge game called Star Raiders where the player pilots a spaceship while enemy ships keep attacking. Star Raiders was the first video game that had 3D star fields that gave the realistic illusion of traveling through space and allowed objects including enemy spaceships to move toward and away from you. It took me 3 nights to reach the highest level. I recall looking up one morning at 6 a.m. to see a thin shaft of light streaming in through the living room curtains and realized I had been up 3 nights in a row playing this game. I got an average of one hour of sleep each night and realized that I was totally hooked on personal computing.

I recall looking up one morning at 6 a.m. to see a thin shaft of light streaming in through the living room curtains and realized I had been up 3 nights in a row playing [Star Raiders].

Star Raiders got me hooked on computing and led me to quit my job to find a way to enter the personal computer industry. I was 31 years old and before this I had been a journalist, a captain in the Army, a management consultant in Beverly Hills, and I had an MBA from UCLA. I started taking computer classes at night to learn to program in BASIC and get familiar with word processors and spreadsheets. One night we had a Commodore PET and the next night an Apple and I became ambidextrous, which gave me some keen insights into the advantages and disadvantages of Commodore and Apple.

My first article after leaving Metacolor was an interview with Doug Neubauer, the creator of Star Raiders who was a chip designer. With one article published, I was able to get interviews with Steve Wozniak and I started hanging around Apple in my spare time.

VIC-20 Games

TFTC: What was your favorite game on the VIC-20 or C64?

Tomczyk: I actually didn’t play many games after I started product-managing the VIC-20. I was busy writing manuals, evaluating games to license and defining the computer features. Jack Tramiel had made me the “VIC Czar” and I was responsible for major decisions affecting the new computer. Sometimes when we were at the office printing out a manual or some assembly code (which took a long time on a dot matrix printer) I would play a “rain” style game – avoiding falling rain – and we all tried to get higher and higher scores.

C64 Mini

TFTC: The C64 Mini has brought commodore games back to American homes once again. Were you consulted for its development or have you had a hands-on experience with it?

Tomczyk: I had no involvement with the C64 mini.

Impact of the Video Game Crash on Commodore

Jack Tramiel (Left) and Michael Tomczyk (right)

TFTC: You left Commodore in 1984, a year after the video game market in the U.S. began to crash. Did that impact Commodore’s sales or were the Vic-20 and C64 completely insulated from that due to them being home computers?

Tomczyk: When Jack Tramiel was ousted from Commodore (by Irving Gould, supported by a group of grey-haired executives who argued that “professional management” was needed) – most of the “family” departed within 6 months. In one week in May 1984, 35 top people left the company – these were what Jack called the “family” – the trusted insiders who understood his tough business philosophy which he called “the religion.” As soon as Jack departed, the remaining Commodore executives, who did not understand the concept of a full-spectrum product line, started dismantling and disabling the home computer line including cancelling products like the Commodore 364 which was announced but never produced, and the Plus 4 which had built in software but was not supported.

My contribution as Marketing Strategist – which was part of my official job title – was to help Jack develop a full spectrum product line including 1) the VIC-20, the low-end entry level computer that poor families, elementary schools and virtually anyone could afford, 2) the Commodore PET developed in 1976 that was a favorite in schools, and 3) the Commodore Business Machine (CBM) which was a business-capable personal computer. This set up a progression where a Commodore customer would get into our computers in grade school, graduate to a PET in middle and high school, and move up to a CBM in college or business.

When Jack left Commodore his culture of innovation left with him and the product line lost its cohesion. Also, the grey-haired executives who took over were cliched business managers who saw that R&D was the largest cost center so to reduce expenses they started downsizing R&D staff and projects at exactly the time when R&D needed to be increased – it was a fatal error.

Speaking at VCF East

TFTC: You were one of the keynote speakers at VCF East, scheduled for October 8, 9 & 10th. Which other speaker were you looking forward to hearing from the most?

Tomczyk: At VCF I had a chance to spend a few hours with Scott Adams, who is still a great friend after all these decades. When I desperately needed games for the VIC20 I called Scott and asked if he could port over half a dozen games to help us launch the computer. His text based games didn’t use much memory and were perfect. We sold them on cartridges and they helped launch the computer. Scott and I stay in touch on Facebook and it was great catching up in person.

I also had dinner and spent time chatting with Bill Mensch, a true guru who designed the 6800 Motorola chip and 6502 chip – Bill and I had a great time catching up and he said he was kind of surprised to learn about all the things that happened behind the scenes at Commodore that many people, even Commodore insiders, never really knew about.

Friendship with Woz and Steve Jobs

TFTC: You were friends with both Steve Jobs and Woz how did your friendship start?

Tomczyk: My first Apple article was a review of an 80 column add-on board for the Apple II, which had a 40 column display. I interviewed Woz and Andy Herzfeld, and met Jobs. After that I started hanging out at Apple, mostly sitting at Woz’s cubicle which was right behind the main entrance. One day I was chatting with Jobs and Wozniak and I said, “Hey, I’m not doing this for my health, I’m looking for a job in the industry” to which Jobs replied, “Ok, Michael. Go in the cafeteria, look at the job requisitions posted on the board, pick something you’re qualified for and we’ll hire you for that.” I looked at the job requisitions but they all looked so sterile and official, on pre-printed forms, and Apple also required me to sign in when I visited even though everyone knew me and I had the notion that Apple was kind of bureaucratic.

I started hanging out at Apple, mostly sitting at Woz’s cubicle which was right behind the main entrance.

I also felt that I had to choose one of the “three bears” in personal computing. Apple was the papa bear. They had too many geniuses. Atari was baby bear. They didn’t have enough geniuses. I got an interview with Conrad Jutson VP of Consumer Electronics at Atari and was offered a job as Director of Software. Jutson said he felt computers were going to be like stereo systems. Atari really WAS the baby bear – most people don’t realize that Atari LOST more than a billion dollars in five years. They were not well managed.

Commodore was “mama bear.” Commodore had half idiots and half geniuses. So I got myself an interview with Jack Tramiel at Commodore’s offices in Santa Clara, CA. I told Jack about 20 things that I felt were screwed up that I could help fix – bad PR, poor user group relations, 1940s style packaging, essentially no advertising—to name a few. Jack hired me as Assistant to the President and Marketing Strategist.

Apple and Gaming

TFTC: Steve and Woz both got their start working on arcade games for Atari and Woz later held a record high score for the Game Boy version of Tetris. Did video games ever come up in your conversations?

Tomczyk: I never discussed the development of the Apple computers or their involvement in video games with the two Steves. After leaving Commodore I used Apple computers mostly and at one point got hooked on a great Apple game called Mech Warrior which places the player inside a large robot that looks like the giant robots in the Transformers movies. Today there are robot prototypes that are operated by human pilots, and several types of exoskeletons that are essentially wearable robots. I talk about these in the new innovation book I just completed.

One interesting thing that happened while I was chatting with Jobs and Woz in early 1980, Apple’s president Mike Markulla came up to Woz and asked a question about something on a system software entry which was extremely technical and surprised me that the CEO was that much into the software.

Additionally, Woz and I were friendly and chatted during computer trade shows, after I joined Commodore. I also knew Bill Gates and we were friendly and also chatted at trade shows. Later I got to know Adam Osborne and Clive Sinclair, all true gurus and wonderfully charming, intelligent and friendly. Steve Jobs never forgave me for joining Commodore instead of Apple and he never spoke to me at computer events, even when I walked up to him, he turned his back on me! He was not a particularly friendly guy.

Tomczyk and Commodore

Starting Out at Commodore

TFTC: What were those early days like working at Commodore?

Tomczyk: My first day was in London around April 1—I flew to London sitting next to Chuck Peddle, Commodore’s Chief Engineer and a true computer guru. Chuck told me what I needed to succeed in a very tough business environment. He told me a meeting with Jack was called a Jack Attack because Jack was so tough on everyone. I said I don’t care about that because I had been a consultant to some very tough CEOs and in the Army I worked mostly for tough general officers. In London I made friends with Commodore’s general managers in Canada, Germany, the UK and Japan. Tony Tokai (Japan) and Kit Spencer (UK) and I especially hit it off.

At the meeting, Chuck Peddle presented a new color computer shaped exactly like the Apple II – the form factor was identical. Jack said he preferred to launch a small introductory computer first. He knew that a young engineer named Bob Yannes had developed a prototype based on a chip developed by our MOS Technology subsidiary in Valley Forge. During the debate about which computer to produce first – the Apple II style “ColorPet” or the small home computer – most of the 20-plus people at the meeting argued for the ColorPet. I argued passionately for the intro computer because we needed it to fill out our product line and provide an affordable path to the other computers. Kit Spencer and Tony Tokai joined me in making this case. Jack had left the meeting and the next day he came back, listened to all the arguments on both sides, then stood up, banged his fist on the table and declared, “Gentlemen, the Japanese are coming – so WE will become the Japanese!” Everyone had to buy his logic because he was right.

Becoming “Japanese” had more meaning than anyone realized at the time, because Chuck Peddle didn’t want to develop the new computer, he had several contentious exchanges with Jack and wound up leaving the company several weeks later, along with some key engineers. Yash Terakura and the Japanese engineering team had to do a lot of the work to make the new computer.

Building the VIC-20

For me personally, the next few weeks were like a whirlwind. After London we went to Germany and asked the government for some concessions so we could take over a failing electronics plant, to make Commodore computers for Europe. I was in the meetings. The Germans said, “Why should we give you concessions?” to which Jack replied, “You owe it to me – I’m an Auschwitz survivor” – then he added – “Besides, it will be great PR for you.” They accepted his logic and gave us the plant which was in Braunschweig, West Germany.

I asked Jack if he held resentment toward the Germans to which he replied, “The German people didn’t kill the Jews. The rules killed the Jews. Germans always follow the rules and if the rules are made by madmen, they still follow the rules.” Another time I asked him how he dealt with the memories of Auschwitz and he immediately replied, “I live in the future.”

After we got back to California Jack asked me to check out the Marketing Department which I had criticized in my first interview. I interviewed 12 people in the department and reported my findings to Jack. One day I came back from lunch and the marketing offices were empty. I asked the secretary where they were and the secretary said, “Jack fired them all just before lunch.”

I scrambled to Jack’s office and said, “Jack, what did you do?” to which he replied, “You said you hated our Marketing Department, so I fired them.” Talk about a guilt trip. I had to admit that they deserved to go, however. A few days later he announced that I would be serving as temporary US Director of Marketing. “You hire a new Marketing Department, who you think we need, and I’ll hire a Marketing Vice President. We’ll divide up the tasks like that,” Jack told me. This was only my THIRD WEEK with the company.

Becoming the “VIC Czar”

The best known story about how I was put in charge of the VIC-20 involves my famous memo. I wrote a long single spaced memo and put a happy face with a beard and mustache on the cover and tossed it on Jack’s desk. “What’s this?” he asked. “That’s everything that needs to be done with the new computer. Make sure whoever’s in charge does all these things.” A week later Jack threw my memo back on my desk. “What’s this?” I asked. “That’s everything that needs to be done with the new computer. I told everyone that nothing gets done on the new computer without your approval, but none of the people involved reports to you so you’ll have to do this mostly by persuasion.” I told him I could do that.

I wound up giving the VIC-20 it’s name, set the price at $299.95, forced engineering to use full size typewriter style keys instead of a flat membrane and after a visit to Japan where I saw a prototype (from NEC) with programmable function keys, I added function keys to the VIC-20. I also asked Jack if I could be VIC Product Manager and he said, “I don’t believe in product managers.” “So what can I be?” I asked. At this time we had a gas shortage and the President had appointed an Energy Czar. Jack smiled and said, “You can be VIC Czar.” “Can I put that on my business card?” I asked. He nodded. And the rest is history.

I wound up giving the VIC-20 it’s name, set the price at $299.95, forced engineering to use full size typewriter style keys instead of a flat membrane.

The VIC-20 was introduced as the VIC-1001 in Japan at Seibu Department Store in September 1980. I had been working very closely with Tony Tokai and I was there for the launch. I recruited a product team I called the VIC Commandos. Our motto became Benutzefreundlichkeit which means User Friendliness in German. I licensed a half dozen Adventure games from Scott Adams and bought some other games such as Jupiter Lander from hobbyist programmers.

The VIC-20 was introduced at the January CES Show in the US. It became the first full-featured color home computer and the first microcomputer to sell 1 million units. I became known as the “marketing father” of the home computer.

Commodore’s Lasting Impact

TFTC: In John Wick Chapter 2 (2017) the Vic-20 was shown to provide security through obsolescence, for a secret organization of assassins. What are your thoughts about the computer’s continued presence in popular culture?

Tomczyk: I keynoted the Vintage Computer Festival East in October and several people told me they are still using VIC-20s for various functions, which surprised me. Of course hobbyists and retro computing enthusiasts in many countries keep their VIC20s and Commodore 64s up and running. I am also gratified (and humbled) to receive one or two emails or chat messages EVERY MONTH from someone, somewhere in the world thanking me for fighting to get this computer made, because it changed their lives. 

William Shatner (left) and Michael Tomczyk (right)

Commodore and William Shatner

TFTC: When you showed Shatner the Vic-20, did he try out Star Trek and if so, what was his reaction?

Tomczyk: I was at the first Shatner TV ad shoot in New York and Shatner was friendly, cordial, warm, professional and cool. We sat next to each other during lunch and he told me he should have been a technology spokesperson after Star Trek, instead of becoming a spokesperson for margarine!  Actually the VIC20 wasn’t connected to the monitor in the photos of us together because to get a clean screen image we had to do a different type of video feed to the monitor to avoid scan lines. I hold the distinction of being the first person to actually show Bill Shatner a real computer because the Star Trek TV series computers were fake. Also, Bill was so impressed by how we described home computing that he wanted a system so we gave him a CBM computer system and I believe that’s what he used to write his first scripts and novels. We had a CBM delivered to his home with someone to show him how to use the software. 

I hold the distinction of being the first person to actually show Shatner a real computer because the Star Trek TV series computers were fake

Two years ago I asked Bill’s assistant if he would autograph a photo of him and me and Bill invited me to send several photos – he signed three. I kept one for my wall, sold one, and am keeping one for the future. 

A couple of months ago I sent a message telling Bill that I’m dedicating my new innovation book to him and included the dedication page. He sent me an email back that began “Thank you for your excellence!” That was very touching. I am totally blown away by how “fan friendly” Bill has remained over the decades, and he even made a trip to the edge of space. He feels obligated to keep promoting space travel and also promotes green energy and climate control which he feels are not incompatible. I feel a similar obligation to keep innovating and I’m still pioneering new technologies because it’s an obligation, I think.

TFTC: While working for Metacolor, I read the company used “NASA space technology to do special effects for motion pictures”, like Logan’s Run. Can you elaborate on that and talk about which effects you worked on?

Tomczyk: NASA apparently had a piece of surplus gear called a Quantizer that converts black and white images to color and can layer colors, which the founder of Metacolor adapted to create creative graphics for movies and video games.

Commodore’s Legacy

TFTC: The C64 has a vibrant community of enthusiasts who update the system with mods like USB ports and Raspberry Pi based floppy emulators. Do you keep an eye on how your computers are being used today?

Tomczyk: I am the co-moderator (with Dave McMurthie) of the International Commodore Historical Society on Facebook and also associated with VIGAMUS the Videogame Museum in Rome. I stay connected with several retro computing groups and collectors, and I try to make items available now and then from my own collection, to preserve and archive them.

The VIC Modem

TFTC: You helped develop the first modem to sell over a million units. How would you describe the pre-internet CompuServe experience to younger readers who really only know the internet as it is today?

Tomczyk: In 1981 we were getting swamped by customer service calls, mostly from users, so I thought if we could connect user groups on CompuServe, AOL or the Source (the first telecomputing services which were like pre-Internet communities) then users could help each other. Our engineers were too busy to design a modem so I contracted a small industrial modem company and told them it had to cost less than $33 so we could retail it for $99. The key was to make it affordable just like we made the VIC20 affordable.

One night I came back from a convention in Las Vegas and the engineers were sitting in front of my hotel room door. It was past midnight. “We can’t get it under $33” they said. They showed me a drawing of an acoustic modem. “Why can’t we do a direct connect modem and put it on a large plus in cartridge, like a video game cartridge?” I sketched something on a notepad. They kind of screamed “Eureka!” and scrambled down the hall like a bunch of meerkats. The result is the Commodore VICModem – first modem priced under $100, first to sell 1 million units. Then I negotiated free computing time which totaled almost $200 in free service, and put a sticker on the box advertising that. I also trademarked the phrase “The Friendly Computer” and put it on boxes, in ads and on a poster I asked an artist to design. I still have that poster and made a few copies for collectors which have been very popular.

I sketched something on a notepad… the Commodore VIC Modem – first modem priced under $100, first to sell 1 million units.

Commodore For Learning Programming

TFTC: When it comes to learning programming, do you think that the VIC-20 with BASIC so central to its operation is still a viable tool for introducing programming to young learners?

Tomczyk: Today I think it’s interesting that so many retro computing fans keep working with vintage Commodore computers. While programming was essential to operating the first home computers, software has evolved so far that we now have user interfaces that do not require programming, per se. Today most apps are written with development apps and tools rather than programmed from scratch.

Of course, we still use spreadsheets and word processors and those are pretty much unchanged except now our data and files are portable thanks to the Cloud and wireless telecom. My smartphone is my favorite device and I use it for everything I used to do on my laptop.

Michael Tomczyk Today

Michael Tomczyk—Futurist

TFTC: You are also known for being a futurist, where do you see technology going?

Tomczyk: I talk about emerging technologies that are giving us the powers that used to be reserved for gods, in my new book, which I just completed. 

I think we’ve gone FAR beyond home computing and computing as it was originally developed, in standalone devices. We are now in the era of convergence. The cloud has made the Internet a computing base. The Internet of Things links devices with computing. Elon Musk is developing Neuralink to integrate computers with the human brain. Humanoid robots exist today and they are being designed to look and talk like real people. We have so much bandwidth and speed now that we have handheld devices that can translate dozens of languages like devices we used to see in science fiction movies. Autonomous vehicles are actually robot vehicles with computers connected to the Cloud that can navigate virtually anywhere and adapt to a variety of situations. Nanotechnology allows us to use atoms and molecules like LEGO building blocks – I wrote a book on Nanotech in 2015 (NanoInnovation: What Every Manager Needs to Know) published by Wiley VCH. Computers have also allowed us to map the Human Genome and carried us to a point where we can now edit genes to cure disease.

Our cell phones have morphed into futuristic devices. We use our phones to take pictures more than we use cameras. Who would have predicted or guessed that would happen? We are all videographers now, and we are all cartoonists, using emojis and bitmojis. There is more computing power in our phones than supercomputers had a couple of decades ago.

Recently at my Vintage Computing Festival presentation, I held up a tiny jump drive on my keychain that is half an inch long and holds a TERABYTE of data! I joked that if you swallowed this little jump drive by accident, you could choke on a Terabyte. That’s a scary thought.

Fintech Corporation IPO

TFTC: You have said you adopted Jack’s mantra, to “live in the future?” and you use that phrase to justify your lifelong involvement in emerging technologies. What are you doing now in that space?

Tomczyk: Today I am on the senior management team and a founding member of the board of directors of Fintech Ecosystem Development Corporation. On 19 October 2021, we went public with an IPO and NASDAQ listing (stock symbol: FEXDU). We are bringing a variety of innovations to emerging economies such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brazil, etc. as well as to the U.S. and other industrialized markets. This venture involves a great deal of radical innovation, multitasking, negotiation, and business-building—which are my strong points I think.

Our Fintech venture went public on 19 October 2021 with a $100 million IPO and NASDAQ listing. (stock symbol: FEXDU)

Join Robinhood with my link and we’ll both get a free stock 🤝

I believe that if you’re blessed with the skill sets to be able to make an impact on the world, you are obligated to keep doing that, your entire life. We have to keep giving people in all countries access to emerging technologies, and it’s important to create “ecosystems” that provide technologies, platforms, applications and solutions that help advance civilization.

Also, it’s great fun!

Tomczyk on Current Apps

TFTC: Which computer apps impress you the most today?

Tomczyk: I’m totally impressed by how easily my wife and her friends create videos with special effects using all kinds of apps like Tiktok, Boomerang, Bitmoji and others. There are apps that allow anyone to create emojis, videos, boomerangs, animations and more.  I think the personal computer era was driven by programs and today’s devices are driven by apps. Even state of the art CGI used in movies and games is mostly automated. 

Nanocircuits in semiconductors and parallel architectures in the last two decades enabled broadband speed, and pattern matching that were needed to create natural language translators, CGI systems used in movies, Cloud computing apps, built-in smartphone functions, flying drones, and more. 

My favorite all-time video game is Call of Duty. Call of Duty popularized the concept of massively online multiplayer gameplay, and has always been incredibly realistic, it’s like being inside a movie. Lots of people play games on their smartphones. Mobile games are a.$15 billion industry.

What technology trends are catching your attention right now?

In the past year, the COVID pandemic has created a variety of digital transformations.  Many innovations such as mobile money and digital banking (which I’m involved in) are being driven by the need to avoid handling physical cash. Advanced technologies like crypto currency and blockchain record keeping are accelerating the evolution of the “cashless society.”  In many countries, entire banking systems are being “re-architectured” to allow digital banking. 

When I was guiding the development of the first home computers, I always thought it was ironic that I was basically a literature major/journalist from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who became a home computer pioneer. Today I’m a co-founder of a Fintech startup that will serve global markets in many countries, and a year ago I was barely conversant in Fintech terminology. Innovators don’t have to be experts in the technologies they develop, but they have to be fast learners and able to recognize emerging opportunities. It helps to be a strategic thinker also, since virtually all disruptive innovations were based on creative new strategies as well as new technologies. 

In terms of opportunities for innovators, there is still a lot of room for radical innovation, although it’s difficult for hobbyists working in a dorm room or garage to develop technological breakthroughs like Jobs and Wozniak, because most innovations today are not standalone devices but are complex systems that involve several technologies. Convergence is a huge innovation driver, which means a world class innovator needs to understand several different technologies and figure out new ways to integrate them into something new and different. 

In terms of my favorite emerging technologies, I like smart devices that are still evolving, as well as cognitive computers, brain-machine interfaces, drones, gene editing, nano-innovations and creative ways to extend the human lifespan. Humanoid robots are also interesting although they are still searching for a killer app to make them relevant. Space technology is a field that will grow exponentially in the next two decades since a lot of innovations will be needed to get the first humans to Mars and establish sustainable colonies. Global climate change will require innovations in geo-engineering, to save coastal cities from rising sea levels and we also need better ways to save rainforests, prevent CO2 levels from skyrocketing, preserve ocean reef systems and more. The future is still a great place to live in.

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