Jack Tramiel died this week at 83 and that means I missed my chance to know the guy. People have complained in the past that my work ignores Commodore, which Tramiel founded, and Atari, which he took over after leaving Commodore following a fight with chairman Irving Gould. That’s a fair criticism. I haven’t written much about those topics because, frankly, I didn’t know Jack Tramiel. But asking around about the guy yesterday and today it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t at all the way he was typically portrayed.
Here’s what most people know about Jack Tramiel: 1) he founded Commodore in Canada to make typewriters then digital calculators; 2) he was an Auschwitz survivor; 3) he said “business is war,” and; 4) he bought Atari out of spite to wreck his vengeance on Commodore and his former partner Irving Gould.
What I learned this week that I didn’t know before was that the people who worked for Tramiel really loved him. Jack Tramiel was no Steve Jobs: he was better.
“As tough as he appeared on the outside, he was genuine through and through,” said Antonio Salerno, who was vice president of applications for Atari.
“Jack was the most intuitive, naturally brilliant and inspirational person I’ve ever met,” said another friend who worked in engineering at Atari and asked not to be quoted by name. “He was a true visionary and an instinctively brilliant businessman. He could see through anyone, right to the heart of their motives. At a personal level, I absolutely loved brainstorming new product ideas with him and I learned a lot.”
That’s an extraordinary statement coming from one of the best engineers I know: he learned a lot about computers and video games from a guy who drove a cab in New York before entering the manual typewriter business. Jack Tramiel was a genius.
What mattered most to Jack Tramiel was his family — something you don’t hear very often in Silicon Valley. But remember Jack wasn’t from the Valley, having started Commodore in Canada then moved to Pennsylvania where computers were actually invented before following to the Golden State the aroma of Chuck Peddle’s 6502 microprocessor.
The Commodore 64 was a phenomenal success. People forget that in the early 1980s the C64 outsold the Apple ][, IBM PC, and the Atari 400/800 combined. Commodore was the first to sell computers through discount retailers, opening whole new distribution channels. And don’t forget it was Jack who saw the value in Amiga, which in many ways set performance targets that took Apple years to beat. It would have been very interesting to see how the Amiga would have faired had Jack Tramiel stayed at Commodore.
But he didn’t stay because he wanted to bring his three sons into the business, I’m told, and Irving Gould didn’t want that. The rest is history. Atari under Tramiel took a good shot with its ST and Mega toward making a cheaper Macintosh and the Jaguar video game was the best of its time. if the company eventually failed it was due mainly to Microsoft’s and Sony’s success with third-party developers, not Atari’s failure.
Jack Tramiel is gone but the Tramiel boys are not. It will be interesting to see what they do next.