Opinion: Catching up with Commodore

The hugely successful (for its time) A500+

The hugely successful (for its time) A500+

Commodores & Amigas may be little more than an antique now but it was be well ahead of its time in some ways, says Adam Maguire.

As fondly remembered as Commodore may be, few fans would trade in their existing computer for a C64 or Amiga A500. However as antiquated as the technology is it did approach computing in a way that was ahead of its time; one that is only now being seen as a selling point by modern manufacturers.

One of the most visually apparent identifiers of the Commodore has always been its unified hardware, which combined the keyboard and computer within one body. This – along with the ability to hook the computers up to a standard TV instead of a monitor – added hugely to the appeal of both the Commodore 64 and Amiga A500 amongst regular consumers.

However as Commodore’s grip on computing began to sink its design style faded with it. The hardware involved in making a computer became more complex – and bulky. Graphical demands changed, squeezing the household television out of the equation altogether. Manufacturers like IBM and Apple also preferred to take full control of the hardware, shipping their computers with a dedicated monitor as standard.

As a result of this the computer quite quickly became a far more imposing beast that demanded a space all to itself, not just for the dedicated monitor but for the oversized tower that powered the whole thing.

Fast forward a few years and Apple – a manufacturer that had espoused the separate computer+monitor+keyboard approach during the age of Commodore – released the iMac and started a trend towards unification once more. As Apple realised computers were becoming a factor of the living room and suddenly lower desktop real estate became a selling point. The more incidental a computer could be the better, a trend that has helped the laptop to grow its market significantly.

Today the computer is as acceptable – or even expected – in a living room as the television itself. People now sit on their couches watching TV while working away on a laptop; perhaps even as a way of discussing what’s on their TV over Twitter. This is one of the justifications given by Apple for its iPad – as a way of bridging the gap between television and computer.

However they are not being ambitious enough, perhaps still smarting by the luke-warm reception received by the Apple TV. In fact they – and others – are still playing catch up with a company that went bankrupt 15 years ago. While the iPad is a stylish way to go online it is no more a part of the furniture than a laptop or netbook, nor is it any more integrated with the television itself.

It is instead Asus – purveyor of the original netbook – that has seen the light and is leading the trend towards the re-unification of TV and PC. Its EeeKeyboard, which is now going on sale in the US, takes its lead from the C64 of old and combines the computer with the keyboard in one case. It also sports a touchscreen panel on one end which makes it easier to switch through applications and functions.

However the EeeKeyboard has no real purpose if looked at as a standard computer. It cannot be used on the go so is not a good laptop replacement, it is low-powered so is not a good gaming rig and is not the cheapest computer out there so cannot even compete with mini-desktops.

What makes the EeeKeyboard a device worth considering is its built-in HDMI-out port and – perhaps most importantly – a UWB module and receiver. In other words this machine was made for TVs, which takes it out of the traditional PC space and turns it into a peripheral just as the Amiga A500 was all those years ago.

The logical applications of this combination are plentiful. For a start it allows people to go online as an aside, hopping over to their computer during an ad break to check e-mails or search for something – just as they might change channels. It also opens the door to extremely easy media centre creation, where the user’s videos and music is easily accessed and viewed on the central screen.

This idea – that the computer is as much at home in the living room as a video player – is what made Commodore such memorable and successful manufacturers. For a long time computer makers have shied away from returning to this idea but users’ actions are now forcing them to come back to it. It is something that Apple and others may not have expected to have to do after all these years but companies are having to play catch up with Commodore once more.

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