The past, present, and predicted future of the VIC. Jim Butterfield, an internationally recognized expert on Commodore Computers, discusses VIC software, add-ons, and VIC's place in the world of computing.
VIC has been around for about a year now. It is catching on? Old hat? Will it survive in the turbulent marketplace?
A Little History
The first VIC units had problems. Some were physical in nature. The unit ran too hot — you could hardly touch the ROM plug-in area. The picture was of poor quality. Radiation emission standards were not met. These were cleaned up in a redesign.
VIC had another problem, too. People didn't perceive it as a computer. There were few programs available, and the only peripheral was cassette tape. Memory was limited, and memory expansion was a distant promise.
And to top it all off, VIC was an unknown quantity. The VIC-20 User Guide — the "friendly computer guide" was brightly written and by far the best user documentation that Commodore had yet put out, but it was limited in scope. A Programmer's Reference Guide was hinted at, but seemed slow in making an appearance.
By late summer of 1981, the hardware problems had been resolved, but the VIC had still not established itself as a mature product. Disk, printer, and modem were still promises. Software was still limited.
VICs sold in quite respectable numbers during the Christmas season. A number of games had materialized, allowing the machine to be nicely demonstrated. The economical price and educational potential seemed to appeal to many buyers.
In early spring of 1982, VIC suddenly started to grow up, and a new class of users developed an interest in the machine, not as a game, but as a computer.
The 1540 Single Drive Floppy Disk unit made a dramatic appearance. It looked good and behaved well. It proved to be compatible with the Commodore 4040 units, allowing easy transfer of programs and data files. Speed isn't up to the PET/CBM standards, but for most applications it's quite usable.
Printers are now available in limited quantities. The style is familiar to the Commodore user, but the price is more economical.
Other devices are on the horizon. An IEEE-488 interface, which allows connection to the PET/CBM range of machines, has been demonstrated. An inexpensive modem is almost ready.
Several sizes of memory expansion are on the shelf, from the tiny 3K to the huge 16K. A mother-board system is promised soon which will allow the expansion of the VIC to a full 32K system. On the full system, BASIC will have about 27,500 bytes free; not quite as much as a full PET, but enough for most of us. The remaining memory isn't available to BASIC, but can be used for high-resolution screens and other special applications.
New hardware is appearing from non-Commodore sources. It looks like there will be two types: some will extend the capabilities of the VIC, making new things possible; and others will compete with existing products, hopefully keeping prices interesting.
Commodore has now made available three major software support modules: a Monitor to allow machine language program writing and debugging; a Super Expander, to make graphics easy; and a Programmer's Aid to help in the writing and debugging of BASIC programs.
These three modules are not essential to the VIC's operation. You can write machine language without the Monitor; you can draw graphics without the Super Expander; and you can certainly write BASIC without the Programmer's Aid. But a job can be made much easier with their help.
The Super Expander, in particular, seems to be very popular among programmers with artistic inclinations. Computer art, geometric figures, and animated sketches have been enthusiastically produced by users.
The initial games library is being beefed up with new offerings. I have seen several prototype games which are nearing release and they look good — an order of magnitude better than the satisfactory, existing games on plug-in ROM cartridges.
I'm pleased to see good quality programs coming from non-Commodore sources. There's a lot of good stuff already out (see Table 1) and high-quality programs are a vote of confidence in the VIC by the software houses.
Commodore has now released the Programmer's Reference Guide, which contains a great deal of reference information on the VIC. That's the kind of resource we need to exploit the capabilities of the machine.
This is software that I've seen that looks good.
There's undoubtedly lots more. All games listed run in the 5K VIC.
Amok — Nicely animated joystick chase game.
Similar to the arcade game Berserk.
United Microware Industries, Inc.
VIC Pics — Many high resolution pictures derived from TV camera. With explanatory booklet.
Un-Word Processor — Simple, but does the job.
Needs printer, of course.
Midwest Micro Associates
Snakman — Fast joystick graphics game. Similar to the arcade game Pacman.
The Qube — Draws, scrambles, and solves the Rubic's Cube.
On the learning level, Commodore has released An Introduction to BASIC. This is a beginner-level text which comes as a book and two cassette tapes. At first glance, it looks quite attractive.
It looks good. Users are now seeing a computer system rather than a toy. There's a new level of interest in the VIC.
Are there clouds on the horizon? Commodore has announced new products — in particular, the Ultimax and the Commodore 64 — which have new capabilities (and some of the new features won't be VIC-compatible). Will VIC be obsolete before it really gest started?
I think not. In their first incarnations, Ultimax and Commodore 64 won't be direct competitors. Ultimax is too small, and the 64 is twice the price. More to the point: it will be some time before these products mature, just as it took the VIC some time to reach its present state.
I suspect that it will be a couple of years before VIC begins to fade away from the retail market. To a buyer interested now, that makes it a worthwhile investment. Less than $300 for a couple of years' computing? A bargain price. Indeed, in this technology-driven era, it would be optimistic to expect any machine to have an economic life that's much longer.
The box isn't the only part of the question, however. If you move on in two years, how compatible will your software be? The Commodore line has been relatively stable for some time. There are occasional grumblings from long-time users (myself included) when Commodore introduces an improved line which calls for adjustments in some specialized programs, but most programs move fairly easily. Commodore's adoption of the "Kernal" standardized program system is likely to help.
Some things aren't likely to transport. Those plug-in games, for example, are in ROM memory, and can't be trimmed up for a new machine. That's OK ... keep the VIC for the games, or delight the kid who eventually buys your VIC by tossing in the games as part of the package.
At a computer club meeting in 1976, I asked a member what type of system he had. He replied, "I'm waiting for prices to drop to zero." I don't know if he's still waiting. But prices are down to the point where obsolescence in a couple of years shouldn't be an important factor in the decision.
Exciting things are happening with the VIC. There are user groups, there are lots of programs, and new hardware is appearing very quickly. It's going to be fun.