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June 23, 2021#112 Software

C64 OS Subsite and Guides

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Welcome back Commodore 64 fans and users.

As discussed in the previous weblog post Updates on C64 OS, Beta 0.5, I have been working on a new a piece called, An Afterlife User's Guide to the C64. That guide is finished and online, along with several other updates to the C64os section of the site. I'll link to it and the other recent updates below.

I personally divide the eras of the Commodore 64 into several phases that I refer to by its life cycle. These are only rough divisions, it's not perfect, but it makes things easier to talk about. The early life of the C64 is from its first release in 1982 up to around the time when the C128 and the C64c were released, say, 1986. In this early stage the software is still pretty rough, as the developers hadn't figured out how to make the most of the VIC-II and SID.

The midlife of the C64 runs from around 1986 to maybe 1991. By the end of the midlife of the C64 developers had really mastered the sound and video capabilities of the machine; many games existed that were amazingly fast and smooth with brilliant visual effects. But the C64 was really showing its age relative to other platforms.

The late life of the C64 goes, I would argue, from around 1991 up through the collapse of Commodore themselves in 1994, and into the late 1990s when the SuperCPU was released by Creative Micro Designs. Interestingly, 100% of my time spent with the C64, when I was young, was in its late life and beyond. I missed the entire decade of the 80s because I was too busy being born, and then playing with a VIC-20 when I was quite young. I only acquired my first Commodore 64 in 1991, 30 years ago.

Brief timeline of the eras of the C64.
Brief timeline of the eras of the C64  

Throughout the 90s I spent most of my income—albeit very tiny—on expansion hardware for my C64. A CMD HD, a CMD RamLink, a Turbo232 and 33.6K modem, a 1750XL 2MB REU, a SID Symphony, a pair of SuperCPUs (one for the C128) with SuperRAM, and then eventually I got an IDE64. The late life of the C64 was, for me, the best time of its life, because everything was new to me. CMD was still putting out new hardware and new games and software were being released, even though Commodore the company had folded.

In my personal opinion, obviously this is arbitrary and debatable, the afterlife of the C64 began when Creative Micro Designs exited the market for Commodore 8-bit machines. The early years of the afterlife were dark times. There was a lot of attrition to PC and Mac even by diehard C64 fanatics. Far fewer games and demos were being made, projects that had been started weren't getting finished. The SuperCPU, CMD HD and RamLink were no longer being produced. And it also seemed as though there would not be enough energy or talent in the community to be able to produce new top notch hardware expansions. Magazines started to merge or fold. There was a good deal of infighting. Then Jim Butterfield died. It's hard to get darker than that.

Jim Butterfield speaking.
Jim Butterfield with a PET at his right hand, and a TPUG pin over his heart.

The afterlife lasts a long time

I stopped being really active around maybe 2004 or so, but I kept coming to shows until 2008, and that was my last World of Commodore for a while. Maybe the early afterlife of the C64 wasn't as gloomy as I remember. But I know that when I came back in 2016 a lot had changed. World of Commodore, for example, was no longer being held in a church basement made from mint green painted cinder blocks. It had moved to the conference area in the basement of a decent hotel. You have no idea how much a simple change of venue like that lifted my spirits.

At the same time, amazing things were happening. The 3D printing revolution had come about making it possible for interesting custom enclosures to be made in small quantities. The 1541 Ultimate became a thing, and the Ultimate 64 was under development. New magazines, like FREEZE64 were starting up, and they were spunky and fresh and full of color and vibrancy and proud of our 8-bit culture. I started up the Commodore 8-Bit Buyer's Guide, and my mind was blown away by how much hardware is actually being created and sold today. In part, again, thanks to inexpensive chinese fulfillment companies like PCBWay. The embers in this new afterlife are glowing and warm.

The 17xx REU family, once thought out of reach of the future forever due to the REC chip being out of production, is available again in various forms, and GEORAM too. And let's not forget about the sudden explosion of WiFi modems that give us TCP/IP and replace the old dial-up modems, and SD2IEC devices of every size and shape that replace CMD HDs. Stuff is happening again, and now it's not at the mercy of a single company, like Creative Micro Designs, who could go out of business at any moment.

New Products, New Software, New Users

When I heard about the Bear Essentials, it was the only new game on the C64 that I'd heard about in a long time. I had no idea there were so many being produced and sold, every year.

There are new utilities, new updates to old classics (like the venerable GoDot), and even new operating systems, C64 OS being one. With all this newness, there is a lot of opportunity to attract new users to the Commodore 64. People who, like me and probably like a lot of you, are bored with the angelically pristine, hermetically sealed computer hardware today that has replaced the open-hood, get-your-hands-dirty computer hardware we remember.

I personally know of people who are into retro computers, who before recently never used a C64 in their lives. Maybe they were Amiga users, or Amstrad or early PC users, and all of a sudden the C64 is looking like a pretty interesting machine. It's simple enough to get into, it's powerful enough to be fun and useful, it's got a huge library of fantastic games and demos, and the hardware is easy enough to get hold of.

But, where to start?

It's a bit like a sci-fi fan trying to get into Star Trek for the very first time. With 8 TV series and 13 movies, it can be intimidating to even contemplate where to jump in and not feel lost. Customizable/collectable card games that have been around for 25 years have got this problem too, like Magic The Gathering, or the Star Trek CCG with its 65+ expansion sets. How can you recruit new users to a game or a TV show... or a computer platform... with such intimidating depth and history?

Star Trek First Edition CCG Logo. Magic The Gathering Logo. TOS Star Trek Logo. A Commodore 64.

Well here's one way: Modernize the documentation. Make a Getting Started guide that includes modern content so someone new is introduced to what they need to know today in one concise place. Use of modern terminology and comparisons drawn to things they're accustomed to in today's world, that might be helpful too.

That's the idea I had in mind when I wrote An Afterlife User's Guide to the C64.

The Afterlife User's Guide is divided into two parts. Part I: The C64 gives a brief introduction to a handful of topics starting from an introduction to the computer, its ports, keyboard and primary user interface, to working with the BASIC environment (in direct mode), to opening channels to devices and redirecting information, and finally an invitation to try your hand at learning simple BASIC programming, with links to important resources.

The second half of the guide is Part II: Beyond the C64. It gives a short history of storage devices, shows you how to read and write files and perform the most common file management tasks. Then on to some slightly fancier file management for mass storage devices. To make life easier and faster, there is an introduction to DOS Wedges, Speedloaders and JiffyDOS. Then finally, untangling RAM expansion and what you can expect from it, to a short history of telecommunications on Commodore computers from acoustic couplers to highspeed RS-232, to ethernet adapters, to WiFi modems that handle TCP/IP for you.

An Afterlife User's Guide to the C64 is a 30,000 word crash course in what you need to know to start using a C64 again—or for the first time—in the third decade of the 21st century.

Screenshot from an Afterlife User's Guide to the C64. Screenshot from an Afterlife User's Guide to the C64.
Screenshot from an Afterlife User's Guide to the C64. Screenshot from an Afterlife User's Guide to the C64.

I have started some serious work on the User's Guide for C64 OS, more on this below, but it occurred to me that some of the concepts in C64 OS are built on top of concepts that come from the C64's built-in operating system.

Where, therefore, is the C64 OS User's Guide supposed to start? Is it supposed to introduce you to how files are written and directories are changed on a storage device? And, why does C64 OS require a mass storage device? Why can't it be run from a 1541? In my opinion, it doesn't make sense for the C64 OS User's Guide to go that far back or that deep into the machine. Instead, it supposes that you are already familiar with how to use a Commodore 64 and how it works.

But that raises the question. So I decided to write the Afterlife User's Guide not to C64 OS, but to the C64 itself. If you're new, or returning, and maybe a demo you see of C64 OS catches your eye and makes you want to dig back into your C64, what should I do to help you? Should I leave you up to your own devices to find that chestnut of a book, written in 1985, and archived among a hundred other books on

The Great /c64os/ Subsite Reorg is divided into a few "subsites" by the main tabs along the top.

/weblog/ is where I write all my blog posts, this being one, and these are tagged so they can be grouped into things like technical deep dives, editorials, programming theory, etc.

/buyersguide/ is one massively long page, the visual catalog of all the hardware out there for the Commodore 8-bit computers that is currently commercially available. I've made numerous updates to this section over the last couple of years.

/c64luggable/ is a documentation journal detailing the construction of the luggable C64 that I built. I haven't full finished this documentation. Also, I may someday extend this into a more general section about physical hardware projects, of which C64 Luggable will be only one project.

/c64os/ although it bears the name of the whole site, is just for dealing with the documentation for C64 OS itself, as a product. Until recently, this section has truly had the least love. I put some haphazard work into it, but I am the first to admit it was a total mess.

I'm happy to say that I've put some serious work into reorganizing the /c64os/ subsite. It used to be just the User's Guide immediately. The table of contents for the User's Guide was long, and disorganized, and started with my ramblings about weird thoughts about what an OS is. Then the table of contents changed into programming topics at the end, which were also terribly disorganized.

People would come to the site, and say, okay... so, where's the download?

The subsite is now much better organized. It starts with a commercial splash screen, and the fact that it's currently in beta testing, but that it will be sold and you will be able to purchase a copy right there on that introductory splash screen.

Following that are links to 4 guides. The lefthand sidebar also gives you links to those 4 guides, plus convenient links to the hardware user manuals of several important storage devices and to JiffyDOS.

Dividing the content into 4 guides may seem like I'm giving myself extra work, but it really helps to keep each guide streamlined for what it is meant for. Everytime I'm tempted to go on a tangent, I think, is this content really best suited to appear here? No? Then save it for the appropriate place in one of the other guides.

The 4 guides are:

  • C64 OS Getting Started Guide
  • C64 OS User's Guide
  • C64 OS Programmer's Guide
  • An Afterlife Guide to the C64
C64 OS Getting Started Guide

The Getting Started Guide is actually finished. (Barring changes I might make to it). Going into the least detail, it covers minimum and recommended hardware requirements, installation on 3 different device families (SD2IEC, IDE64 and CMD HD or RamLink), first-run configuration tool, and lastly, booting up. Wherever there is a temptation to go into more detail the Getting Started Guide refers you to the appropriate section of the User's Guide. The Getting Started Guide is relatively short and appears at the bottom of the main page.

Let me also say, the Ultimate 64's video streaming over ethernet is a godsend. I originally set it up so that I could record screencasts for the YouTube C64 OS Tutorial Video Series that I'm working on. But I quickly realized that it is perfect for being able to take high quality screenshots for the documentation. Recently, I gave a Zoom presentation of C64 OS to Commodore User's Europe (more on that in a future blog post). To do this I just put my Ultimate 64 right in front of the iMac. The iMac did the Zoom call with the U64 streaming to a shared window. Super convenient.

C64 OS User's Guide

The User's Guide is in its own subsection of the site with its own left side bar table of contents. It's divided into chapters for the main topics, plus an appendix to summarize useful information for reference.

Chapter 1: Introduction, has a section "Where to start" almost at the very beginning. It divides you into 4 categories: If you don't even remember how to use a C64, stop reading the User's Guide and go read An Afterlife User's Guide to the C64. If you're familiar with the C64 but you just want to hop into C64 OS as quickly as possible, stop reading the User's Guide and go read the C64 OS Getting Started Guide. If you've already read that but you need to know more, then carry on reading the rest of the C64 OS User's Guide. And lastly, if you're looking for much more detailed information, go read the Programmer's Guide.

The first 3 chapters of the User's Guide recapitulate the Getting Started Guide, but go into much more detail, but not programmer-level detail. It's such a fine balance.

I have so far completed those first three chapters and 99% of chapter 4, which details the User Interface. And I'm pretty pleased with all of the diagrams I was able to produce for this section. Again, thanks entirely to the Ultimate 64 being able to so painlessly stream video to an iMac, whence I could take screen captures and then apply labels.

Here are a couple of diagrams that appear in the User's Guide, chapter 4.

Diagram from the User's Guide about Utilities.
Diagram from the User's Guide about Utilities

Diagram from the User's Guide about TKTable Toolkit widget.
Diagram from the User's Guide about TKTable Toolkit widget

I obviously have a lot more work to put into the User's Guide, but it feels like the framework is really solid. And I don't think I'm going to have to redo what I've already done from scratch again.

C64 OS Programmer's Guide

The Programmer's Guide has been split out into its own section. It has its own left side bar table of contents.

I haven't put any addition work into it. Most of what is there is going to have to be redone, including the table of contents. But, I've spent all my time writing the Afterlife User's Guide, the Getting Started Guide, the first 4 chapters of the User's Guide, and generally reorganizing the /c64os/ subsite into these sections.

The Programmer's Guide is going to take a lot of work. And I have to think a lot about how to organize it in a way that makes it easy for people who are interested to actually get into programming something for C64 OS.

It feels like a long shot that anyone will take up the offer. And maybe I'm crazy for putting in so much work. But I know that a lot of other projects fail just because no one knows how they work. So a huge tentpole of the entire C64 OS product has got to be the quality of its documentation.

Final Thoughts

I really wanted to stick to my schedule of putting out one blog post per month. But, it takes a lot of time and work to create a good and detailed blog post on a technical topic. And it takes a lot of time and work to create these other guides. So, something has to give.

The blog still has its purpose. Just take this post as an example. It is a moment in time. It is a place for me to speak extemporaneously about what's going on, and what I'm working on. This blog post is like the director's commentary on the guides and documentation being written in other parts of the site. The guides and documentation itself has to be written in a very different voice. It's been hard for me to learn that, but I think I'm learning it. The User's Guide needs to be written in a matter-of-fact way, without the chatter and opinion that I like to sprinkle through my blog posts.

I still have the I/FLI routine deep dive to write up. Another idea I have for upcoming blog post: Improvements to my Backup program, written in BASIC that backends on JiffyDOS. It's up to version 3, and supports full and incremental backups. I'm excited to talk about how that works. The idea came from Laurence Gonsalves (@laurence on Twitter.) Clever fellow!

Until next time! Stay Safe. And keep loving your C64. Share the Afterlife User's Guide to the C64 with your friends who may be interested in the C64 too.