What kind of hardware did the VIC-20 run on?
The VIC-20, like many computers of its era - including the Apple II - ran on an 8-bit MOS 6502 processor with 5KB of RAM and a custom video chip, the MOS VIC, which allowed for 16 colours - albeit not all at once - and a maximum normal resolution of 176x184. Spread that resolution over a normal TV screen and you're talking extremely chunky by today's standards, but in 1980 it was quite acceptable stuff.
Who was the VIC-20 intended for?
Commodore already had some market penetration with the PET line, but it was comparatively expensive. Commodore wanted to hit the lower price market with the view that an inexpensive system might not make as much of a profit, but could potentially sell in the millions. In one sense, that makes the VIC-20 the netbook of its day - not the most powerful hardware available at the time, but affordable for a fixed set of tasks. Commodore also wanted to attract some of the buying dollars that were being spent on the consoles of the day, most notably the Atari 2600. Back then, there was a viewpoint that all these new fangled "video" games couldn't possibly be good for the kids.
We haven't come terribly far on that score, have we?
Anyway, we're probably not selling the concept terribly well. What we need is some kind of spokesperson. Somebody with technology authority. Somebody approachable. Somebody with a bad wig. Somebody who obviously loves saying "Wonder Computer" as often as possible.
Given that set of credentials, there was only one person Commodore could possibly approach to be the VIC-20's spokesperson.
Whatever happened to the VIC-20?
Commodore effectively made the VIC-20 redundant when they launched the Commodore 64. It held on for a few years as the cheaper and significantly less powerful Commodore alternative until it was discontinued in 1985.
As with most retro systems, that's not quite the end of the VIC-20's development history, at least in regards to software. For example, it's clearly also very fashionable to develop unlikely Twitter clients for ancient hardware, so why should the VIC-20 be any different? If you want to tweet from a chunky old keyboard, the TweetVER client - developed by the Personal Computer Museum - will let you do so.
Why was it relevant?
The VIC-20 was a stepping stone to the phenomenally successful Commodore 64 line. It was one of the earliest attempts at a mass market retail affordable computer system. A direct attack - one of the earliest, again - on the emerging console market.
As with most vintage systems, you also don't have to dig far to find someone of note who cut their teeth programming a VIC 20. In this case, that'd be father of Linux, Linus Torvalds. Although we'd argue that Linux today would be a significantly different penguin if it had to fit in the VIC-20's limited memory footprint. Which probably means that somebody's working on it right now...
What's it worth?
Thirty year old computers are a little tough to find in mint condition these days, but that should be no surprise. For a system that was as popular as the VIC-20 back in the day, though, there's not a whole lot of online auction action. We spotted some game cartridges (yes, despite being a system aimed at console owners, the VIC-20 supported cartridges) for around $20 each, and some completed auctions for full VIC-20 computers at between $60-$100 each. You might be waiting a while for a VIC-20 to pop up if our searches are any indication, however.