When you think of groundbreaking home computers, which companies spring to mind? Apple, Commodore, and a host of others may be spoken about, but it is very seldom that people will mention Texas Instruments. More famous for children’s educational toys, their foray into the home computer market was one of the most important steps in its development.
This was because the Texas Instruments TI 99 4A was the first 16 bit home computer. Below, we discuss the importance of this device and why this milestone in home computing has been largely forgotten.
Rise of the Home Computer
Late in the seventies, as game consoles flooded a tired market, a new contender emerged to take their place. That was the home computer.
The home computer aimed to provide a range of office tools, software programming, and gaming options all in one. Commodore brought the PET to consumers, Radio Shack brought the TRS-80 along, and a host of other companies emerged each with their own solutions. Many of them had a less than lukewarm reception, and one of these was the Texas Instruments TI 99 4A.
Texas instruments started out as Geophysical Services Incorporated in 1930. The company created equipment that could be used to look for seismic activity, mainly for locating oil and gas deposits. However, during the second world war, it began to change its approach to the design of defense equipment to detect submarines.
After the war, it was reorganized and became Texas Instruments. By 1954 for they had invented the world’s first silicon transistor, releasing the first transistor radio in the same year. By 1967 they had created the first handheld calculator, a device they would become synonymous with.
After this, Texas Instruments began selling a number of consumer electronics. This included a range of LED watches, bedside digital clocks, along with updated calculators. The most famous of these items was their children’s Speak and Spell learning tool, made famous by the iconic scene in hit movie E.T.
Texas Instruments TI 99 4
Despite introducing the TMS1000 series of microcontroller integrated circuits in 1974, it would not be until 1979 that they would launch their first home computer. This was the Texas Instruments TI 99 4. It would retail at a high price of $1150 and had a tepid reception.
The TI 99 4 main fault, in addition to its high price, was the chiclet-style keyboard. This was a style of keyboard that emerged in the home computer boom of the seventies, in which the keys were small rubber domes that resembled ‘chiclet’ branded gum. In addition to being less than user friendly, the TI 99 4 keyboard-only allowed uppercase characters.
Despite this, the computer did have a lot of promise. It was the first 16 bit home computer, using a Texas Instruments TMS9900. This gave it a lot of power for a home computer of the time.
Texas Instruments TI 99 4A
Realizing its potential and the mistakes they had made, Texas Instruments relaunched the computer in 1981 with an added ‘A’ at the end. Internally, the computer was almost identical except for the addition of a TMS9918A video chip. On the exterior, it had a redesigned travel keyboard that finally allowed lowercase keys.
With the new design, came the added ability to expand. A slot on the right-hand side of the machine meant you could add on floppy drives, serial interfaces, and other peripherals in a long chain. However, unless you had an extremely long desk, syncing these at once could be impossible if you needed to use a number of them at once.
One of these daisy chain peripherals was the extremely popular speech synthesizer. It was the first time many people heard a talking computer outside of science fiction television shows. The text-to-speech feature from this emulator was well used in many videogames of the time and still has a loyal, cult following.
To solve the space problems with these expansions, Texas Instruments released the Peripheral Expansion Box. This included a disc controller card and a floppy drive, RS-232 interface, and a 32k memory expansion card. It is estimated that for every ten consoles sold, one Peripheral Expansion Box went with it.
Upon its release, the Texas Instruments TI 99 4A did better than its predecessor but still failed to make the commercial impact expected. This can be aimed at a number of factors, one of which may have been the oversaturation of other computers on the market doing the same thing.
In addition, Texas Instruments worked hard to discourage third party products. This meant that only 100 games were made in its lifetime, as the company concentrated on the creation of educational software.
However, the real nail in the coffin was an aggressive price war from Commodore, who was aiming to put its competitors out of business by offering low prices on its powerful Vic 20. Commodore would begin offering rebates for anyone who traded in a rival system, which Texas Instrument responded to by offering $100 rebates themselves. Due to its high manufacturing cost, they were now selling them at a loss.
When Commodore released their 64 in 1982 and continued the price war, it was too much for the Texas Instruments TI 99 4A. With huge prices drops and units going out at a profit loss, they would announce a second-quarter loss of $100 million. In fact, the company would take such a financial hit that it would begin a withdraw from the home computer market in 1984.
In summary, the Texas Instruments TI 99 4A suffered from high build costs, a plethora of other competitors with other systems on the market, and a vicious price war. However, it did pioneer 16-bit technology and its graphics controller would later be used in the MSX standard computer system. For these reasons alone, it deserves a place in the home computer hall of fame.
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