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In 1976 Commodore as a company had been running for more than twenty years and had extensive experience with designining and selling consumer electronics products: they were one of the top-selling electronic calculator manufacturers of the early 1970s. The team put together to design the PET also had at least one member, Chuck Peddle, with extensive experience in computer design and engineering. (Peddle had worked on the 6502 CPU itself, and also designed the KIM-1.)

Commodore seems to have started design of the PET in the summer of 1976,¹ and they had a prototype working well enough to demonstrate to the public at the Winter CES in January 1977.

Yet Commodore didn't ship the PET 2001 to consumers until December 1977,² eleven months after the prototype and about eighteen months after design had started.

By contrast, Tandy had engineers with less experience and budget and didn't start design until December 1976, yet Tandy was shipping the TRS-80 by Septemember 1977.³

So what happened to delay Commodore so much in getting the PET 2001 into volume manufacturing, when Tandy managed to do the same with a similar system in only about half the time?


¹"Jack Tramiel gave Chuck Peddle six months to have the computer ready for the January 1977 [CES]." —[Wikipedia]
²They did ship a hundred review units in October 1977.
³The initial quanities were low, but that seems to have been due not to inability to manufacture more computers, but due to incorrect sales forecasting resulting in an initial manufacturing run of only 3000 units.

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    So you are essentially contrasting the production ramp-up abilities of Commodore and Tandy. Keep in mind that while Commodore had been around awhile in 76/77, Tandy [Radio Shack] had been around a LOT longer and was a much bigger name in household electronics. – Michael Tracy Apr 13 at 12:02
  • @MichaelTracy I'm not particularly convinced that even decades in the leather business would make much difference, and Commodore had been selling office equipment (such as typewriters and adding machines) longer than Tandy. Remember, Tandy didn't enter the electronics business until 1963. – cjs Apr 13 at 13:44
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    Tandy's purchase of Radio Shack (in the electronics business since 1921 and producing its own private label electronics since 1954) in 1963 is not the same thing as starting in electronics from scratch. – Michael Tracy Apr 13 at 17:07
10

This was the standard fare for Commodore's computer division under Jack Tramiel. Tramiel was famous for setting very aggressive timelines for engineering to deliver prototype machines, usually to be exhibited by Commodore at CES. Based on the level of interest and/or orders the product received at the show, Tramiel would then generate a new go-to-market timeline.

Bringing a consumer hardware product from prototype to volume production is no trivial matter. It is not that unusual for such a process to take as long or longer than the hardware prototyping effort. In the case of Commodore, where Tramiel also demanded a vertically integrated approach, there were even more potential pitfalls - starting with tooling the chip factory and refining chip production to ensure economical yields. Tandy, not owning their own foundry, would default to simply designing around off-the-shelf parts they knew they could easily procure.

Then there is the rest of the factory tooling for all the non-chip components. And many important parallel activities related to procurement, documentation, regulatory approvals, packaging, export, distribution, sales & marketing, etc. Anyone who has actually been involved with volume manufacturing will be familiar with the lengthy set of tasks involved.

The good news is that Commodore improved greatly on their subsequent iterations. The VIC-20 was about a year from prototype to production, and the C-64 only took 8 months. Interesting, the VIC-20 (initially called MicroPET) prototype had been cobbled together at home by engineer Robert Yannes in his spare time. At least the C-64 was an official project and somewhat properly resourced. This likely resulted in a more complete prototype and easier/quicker transition to production. Also, Commodore was becoming a more successful company by that time, which naturally makes the resource acquisition easier.

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    Good summary of basic practice at Commodore. I own a whole correspondence between Commodore and an early PET owner, being put of for more than 6 months after already paying in full. The commodore letters include continued attempts to upsell - of course with up front payment as well :) – Raffzahn Apr 13 at 11:33
  • I am familiar with how much work it takes to go from prototype to production. But eight months vs. eleven months from prototype to production is a fairly substantial difference. What ICs might have caused issues with the PET? Perhaps the MOS 6522? I notice that its preliminary data sheet was not released until Nov. 1977. – cjs Apr 13 at 13:57
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    @Raffzahn That would be some really cool documentation to have, especially alongside the actual computer! – Brian H Apr 13 at 13:58
  • @cjs Point taken. IIRC, the original PET used MOS 6520. – Brian H Apr 13 at 14:12
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    @BrianH Well, it came with the computer. A 4K Model, serial#4. – Raffzahn Apr 13 at 14:13

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