The Commodore VIC-20
was not my first love in personal computers, nor will it be my last.
But I know that someday, when I'm old and gray, I'll look back with
fondness on its compact curves and spunk.
Poor VIC (I like to think this was short for Victoria, though it really meant "video interface chip"): born with so many strikes against it, with an antiquated microprocessor for a brain, always considered the runt of the family, ready to be sacrificed at a marketer's whim. And yet VIC managed to break popularity records around the world. It was the first personal computer model to sell more than a million units.
Alas, so many of us merely flirted with VIC, eventually leaving countless models sitting on closet shelves to gather dust. If only we had realized then what I know now, that VIC had heart and soul and was deserving of the consideration not even its designers ever seemed to accord. VIC's was a classy chassis, a compact design that turned out to be every bit as definitive as the pregnant typewriter silhouette of the Apple II or the schizophrenic detachable keyboard of the IBM PC. And for a machine based on a 6502 microprocessor it did wonders, including sprightly graphics and sound that put Apple to shame. But we were all so blind ...
VIC was living on borrowed time. It was just an interim machine, a stopgap by the manufacturer until the brawnier Commodore 64 could be produced in quantity. Its life cycle was a mere year and a half or two-long enough to bring a decent profit. Introduced at $199, it could have been sold for $99 and still made money for all involved.
When VIC came into my life, my heart already belonged to another. The Apple II computer and I had not exactly experienced love at first sight, since my encounter with an adolescent, diskette-less early incarnation left much to be desired. With time, however, infatuation turned into love and I decided to bind my fate to an Apple II Plus-a decision I have never regretted, despite our occasional spats.
I suppose VIC could never really satisfy me once I'd experienced the depth of software for my Apple II. VIC's limited memory capacity (5K expandable to 32K) was no match for an Apple's ultimate 64K, and' the software showed it. Word processing was a joke in its 22-character-wide display, and cassette storage of data meant that serious professional use was out of the question.
But VIC had spirit and style. Its BASIC was as good as anyone's. Its color graphics were remarkable. With a synthesizer program, it could put an early Moog to shame. As an entertainment machine, it could play Choplifter, the helicopter rescue game, with the best of home computers. As for its telecommunications capability, VIC and an accompanying $100 modem from Commodore probably did more to bring the network revolution into American homes than the advent of the electrical pulse. When a nineteen-year-old California hacker was caught breaking into the Defense Department-sponsored ARPANET network, it was not with some IBM PC or TI Professional, but with a humble VIC-20.
I suppose it was inevitable that my fingers would return to the familiarity of my Apple II. I saw less and less of VIC. The flow of new software for the VIC-20, once a torrent, turned to a trickle and dried up completely. The Commodore 64 was starting its ominous squeeze-out in the stores. VIC was no longer a serious contender.
It was over between us, but there's a happy ending to our story. Instead of being relegated to the cruel limbo of dust-gathering in my closet, my VIC-20 has found fulfillment at the hands of my six-year-old cousin Ilya in Queens. The VIC is his first computer. It will influence him for life. (Perhaps as the noisy old Royal typewriter in my father's office made me think at age six that writing for a living might be fun.)
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