How a firm as big as Commodore managed to self-destruct so spectacularly has always intrigued me. I can remember reading the Amiga press at the time and wondering (as both a C64 and Amiga owner) how such a big, successful company could go bust. I’ve heard various tales over the years, but David Pleasance’s book, Commodore: The Inside Story, is the first I’ve read from the perspective of someone who was there for much of Commodore’s rise and fall.
The book is divided into two sections. The first is Pleasance’s recollections of his time at Commodore, recounting company’s successes (and latterly) many mistakes. The second contains contributions from various people associated with Commodore or the computer industry, including R J Mical whose name will need no explanation to Commodore aficionados.
It makes for a fascinating read. In the first section, Pleasance manages a good balance between the autobiographical (early chapters focus on his somewhat varied pre-Commodore career) and broader Commodore-related things. He is an engaging storyteller and (crucially) pulls no punches when it comes to his version of why the company failed. He is deeply critical of the Commodore US management, but also quick to praise some of the contributions of his fellow Commodore UK staff. Given the somewhat sad subject matter, the whole tone of the book is surprisingly optimistic. It would have been too easy to make this a negative, depressing, moan-laden read but Pleasance resists this, recognizing where mistakes were made but also highlighting the good times.
Another of the book’s strengths is in the level of detail provided. It’s much more than a superficial overview, without being too detailed. There’s a good mix of personal anecdotes and straightforward story-telling and you really get a sense of the highs and lows of working at Commodore during the period.
There were times when I thought Pleasance was using the benefit of hindsight to pinpoint what went wrong, or saying if only Commodore had listened to him, things would have turned out very differently. There’s a danger this could have come across as arrogant and egotistical, but when you read the second section many of the other contributors make exactly the same points – which suggests that they contain a strong element of truth. One thing Pleasance and many contributors are all united in is their belief that the ultimate responsibility Commodore’s demise should be laid at the feet of Mehdi Ali – the man who presided over Commodore’s transition from a multi-million dollar company to bankruptcy (an “achievement” recognized in one online biography as a period in which he “achieved a major operational turnaround”. Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it.
The hardest part to read was the one dealing with the failed management buyout of Commodore by Pleasance and others. I remember this period vividly. Pleasance and colleagues heroically kept Commodore UK going for around 18 months after the demise of its parent company and tried to put together a package that would keep the brand alive. I remember avidly reading Amiga Power and CU Amiga every month, hoping that there would be some positive news that their bid had been successful and being devastated when I heard that the bid had been withdrawn. For me, that was when the Amiga really died (at least commercially). This part of the story was new to me and learning of the skullduggery that effectively scuppered the bid left a really nasty taste in the mouth. Commodore came so close to surviving as a viable company, that you really are left thinking about how different the computer industry might be today if it had survived.
After the enjoyment of part one, I was slightly surprised to find I enjoyed reading part two just as much. Here the content is more varied (some people recount personal memories of working at Commodore, some recall how certain things were achieved with the Amiga, others are just collections of anecdotes associated with the company and its products.). Like the first part, though, it’s rarely anything less than interesting. It’s true that there were some chapters which were too technical for me (I’ve always had a strong interest in computers but my eyes glaze over as soon as anyone starts talking tech!) Such chapters are, however, in the minority, and even the most technically based chapters still contain plenty of interesting memories.
One of the book’s biggest let-downs was a relative dearth of period images and photographs. I had hoped it would provide a treasure trove of unseen or rare insider photos, Commodore memorabilia or unusual items, packed with pics of the Commodore offices at their peak or the Commodore staff in action. Whilst there is some (particularly in the latter part of the book) I would have liked more.
The wait for this Kickstarter funded book ended up being considerably longer than originally anticipated (originally due for publication in December 2017, it finally found its way into backers’ hands in September 2018), but it was absolutely worth the wait. It’s well-written, interesting and doesn’t pull its punches. You could argue that it’s only one man’s personal account and that other people might present things differently, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great read.
For my part, it mostly confirmed the view I’ve always had of David Pleasance – that he was one of the good guys in this tale. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have had a happier ending.
Available for £30 from Downtime Publishing (hardback)