Texas Instruments TI 99-4
Instruments, the semi-conductor giant, had lagged behind Intel and
Motorola in the development of microprocessors, concentrating on the
production of memory chips and calculator chips, in which field they
were first in the world. Texas Instruments calculator division had
engaged in a world-wide price war, in which they had destroyed or
crippled the competition for all time. They had brought the price of a
"four-banger" calculator from over $100 to under $10 and
added refinements while they were doing it.
Texas Instruments labs had been engaged in R&D to flank the CPU
makers by producing a superior microprocessor. The TMS9900 was the
result, a 16-bit CPU with advanced features and supported by a family
of peripheral chips that provided graphics and fast mathematic
processing. The first application of the TMS9900 was in the Texas
Instruments line of mini-computers, which were marketed to compete
with Digital Equipment's PDP-11 line of computers and Data General's
Micro Nova. These were moderately successful, but the field was small
and largely dominated by DEC and Data General.
Texas Instruments was looking for was a large-volume consumer product.
Tandy, Radio Shack, and Commodore seemed to be on the crest of a new
wave of electronic products called Home Computers, and Texas
Instruments was determined to repeat their calculator success in this
field with a much superior system. Their philosophy was
completely different from that of other manufacturers.
meant to control the system completely. The design of their Home
Computer would include color, and programming would be in a
proprietary language that
would be loaded into Read-Only-Memory (ROM's). The ROM
chips would be mounted in plug-in cartridges which would be sold to
the computer owners. Software developers would have to buy the
cartridges from Texas Instruments and program them. Texas Instruments
would only license specific software developers and they did not
envision much competition among them.
T.I. 99/4, introduced in 1980, was Texas Instruments's
contender for the home computer market. It used the 16-bit TMS9900
running in an 8-bit bus for economy. One of the first places it was
shown was at the Personal Computer show in
I left the hall to catch my return flight, I met a Texas Instruments
salesman who had tried to enroll our store as a dealer for their
advanced line of calculators. We shared a cab and sat together on the
told him of my interest in the T.I. 99/4, and he asked me if I wanted
to become a dealer.
I said. "I am out of the retail business, but I am interested in
developing software for the machine."
told me that Texas Instruments had exclusive contracts with large,
experienced firms to develop cartridges. They would not just sell the
cartridges to anyone. However, I was free to develop BASIC programs
which could be loaded from cassettes. All I had to do was apply
to Texas Instruments for a license and pay them royalties. They would
then give me information regarding the (GPL) Graphics Programming
Language and color system. The catch was that there was only 16K of
RAM memory in the basic computer, not enough write any meaningful
software. It was definitely not an open system.
the face of competition from Commodore, Radio Shack, and Atari 400 and
800, the TI 99/4 was a huge flop. Texas Instruments pulled it back and
started a re-design. They included a new motherboard known as the
"Q" (Quality improved) that used a smaller number of chips.
The result was the T.I. 99/4A, which was a very improved machine that
could be sold at a competitive price. They eliminated the color
monitor and included a TV interface. They improved the keyboard and
added more memory in the BASIC machine. The new computers were to be
sold through department mass market stores and mass market stores for
about $450. The new machines started to sell and gained a group of
devoted fans. Then a problem with the power supplies caused Texas
Instruments to hold all T.I. 99/4As until it was solved. During that
time Commodore introduced the VIC-20 for $300 and the C-64 for $595,
and launched a big promotion for the C-64. By the time the T.I. 99/4A
could resume selling, Commodore had
launched a price war when they introduced the VIC-20 for less than
$300. Texas Instruments responded by offering a $100 rebate on the T.I.
99/4A for Christmas 1982.
Commodore had several things that the public liked better than the T.I.
99/4A. First, there was much more software available,
and it cost less. Second, it was easy to add Commodore's floppy disk;
all you had to do was plug it in. The operating software was built
right into the disk drive. To expand a T.I. 99/4A required a large and
expensive expansion module plus the drive unit. Texas Instruments had
never expected that everyone would want a disk drive.
responded to Texas Instruments'rebate by
offering rebates on their Model 400 and 800 computers. Texas
Instruments came back and extended their rebates until April, plus
giving away free speech synthesizers to customers who bought
quantities of software.
the start of 1983, Commodore started selling C-64's to discount mass
merchants for resale at less than $400. They also sold VIC-20's at
Instruments responded by cutting $48 off the 99/4A price.
Commodore cut further, and the price of VIC-20 went under $100
if the customer bought some software or other peripherals. Texas
Instruments talked about meeting the cut later in the spring.
next salvo was a "trade-in" rebate of $100 on any computer
or video game the customer brought in, even if it didn't work.
bought broken Sinclairs for $10 and got a
$100 off a C-64, which they could take home for $300. Dealers started
giving VIC-20's away if the customer bought peripherals and software.
coup de grāce took place at the 1983
Spring Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in
to perfected design and Jack Tramiel's
business acumen, and Sig Hartmann' sharp
dealing with software vendors, Commodore's cost on a C-64 was less
than $100! They had been making money on both hardware and software
while running Texas Instruments into the ground!
debacle at the CES was the last straw for Bill Turner, President of
Texas Instruments' Consumer Division. His accountants told him that
they would lose $100 million in the second quarter of 1983, and that
was too much even for the giant Texas Instrument Corporation. Bill
Turner resigned, and on the fateful October 13th "Black
Friday" Texas Instruments announced they were ending production
of the T.I. 99/4A Home Computer. However, that was not the end of the
inventory of T.I. 99/4A computers was dumped on the market at prices
as low as $50. This gave thousands of people the opportunity to own a
computer who had not previously been able to afford one, and created a
large and dedicated hobbyist user population who organized into User
period from 1982 to 1983 was an intensive period of T.I. 99/4A
support. Publishers brought out hundreds of books on the computer, and
software development was at a peak. Most general computer magazines
carried articles on the T.I., and the company supported the computer
with peripherals and software.
production death of the T.I. 99/4A brought on a peculiar situation.
The dumping of the hardware at way- below-cost prices created a huge
group of users who wanted books, software, and support. While Texas
Instruments did not provide it, small supporting companies grew by
selling what the new users demanded. User groups grew and became
bastions of loyal T.I. support. Software continued be developed and
circulated within the group.
the time Texas Instruments pulled the plug on the T.I. 99/4A, they had
been working on the T.I. 99/8, which was known as the "Apple
Killer." This advanced machine used an improved TMS9995 display
chip and had UCSD Pascal in
death of the T.I. 99/4A had an extremely bad effect on the overall
position of Texas Instruments as a manufacturer of general purpose and
memory chips. The home computer production lines gave Texas
Instruments a base on which to plan production of chips and to achieve
economies of scale. With that gone, Texas Instruments had a difficult
time competing against the Japanese.
user groups continued on GEnie, Compuserve,
ten years after the official demise of the T.I. 99/4A, a sizeable user
community continues to use and support the "computer that will