Monday 14 June 2021

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (1981)

Introduced June 1981

When Texas Instruments (often known as just “TI”) entered the home computer, it wasn’t a typical player. Most machines were made by startups, or companies that had specialised in calculators and electronic games. Instead, TI was a massive and long-established electronics manufacturer which could trace its origins back to the 1930s, and by 1981 it was the largest semiconductor company in the world.

Rivals such as Motorola were happy to supply all the important bits and bobs to go into these new microcomputers, but that was as far as it went. However, TI chose to leverage its considerable expertise in silicon to try to carve out a slice of the market for itself.

In 1979 TI launched the TI-99/4, based on the 16-bit Texas Instruments TMS9000 CPU. The TI-99/4 was expensive, had a horrible keyboard and was limited in expansion capabilities. Two years later, TI fixed many of these issues with the improved TI-99/4A with a massively improved keyboard, clever expansion system and – crucially – a price tag that was half that of the original. The TI-99/4A looked promising to consumers, and sales started to take off.

It was a good-looking machine, with plenty of brushed aluminium and black which was in line with the aesthetics of the time. It wasn’t cheap, but the 4A’s price ticket of $525 was at least competitive unlike the 4. The graphics and sound were amongst the best in its class, so initially at least it seemed like a compelling proposition.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
Texas Instruments TI-99/4A

At its heart was the TMS9000 CPU, a sophisticated beast that was essentially a 1970s Texas TI-990 minicomputer on a single chip. It should have allowed the 99/4A to be one of the most powerful microcomputers on the market, but instead it was a major source of problems. Because building a full 16-bit system would be prohibitively expensive, almost all the internal architecture is just 8-bit which negated the possible performance impact. More difficult still was the fact that the 16-bit CPU’s instruction set was twice as memory hungry as a contemporary 8-bit CPU.

To get around this, TI essentially created an 8-bit virtual machine using an intermediate language called GPL. This made coding more efficient and was a technically advanced technique, but the processing limitations of the hardware meant that all of this sophistication created a computer that was significantly slower than its 8-bit rivals, despite running with a 16-bit core.

No computer of the era was perfect though, so the TI-99/4A wasn’t disadvantaged as much as you might think. But there were other problems – and the main one was software. TI were reluctant to share information about the platform with independent developers, instead TI wanted to produce the bulk of the software and peripherals for the 99/4A themselves – and thus profit from them. In truth, the TI-99/4A was probably better than most offerings but it was much weaker than the likes of the venerable Apple II or the upstart Commodore VIC-20.

But there was trouble brewing, and it was the Commodore VIC-20 which would deliver it in a giant tankard with a single raised finger painted on the side. Commodore’s boss – the legendary Jack Tramielloathed TI for nearly bankrupting his business during the pocket calculator wars of the 1970s. The VIC-20 ran on the 8-bit 6502 CPU (built by Commodore subsidiary MOS Technology) which was cheap, fast and well understood by programmers. The VIC-20 wasn’t as sophisticated as the TI-99/4A, but it was about half the price… at first.

Tramiel dropped the price of the VIC-20, TI followed suit. A price war emerged with both Commodore and TI dropping the prices until both units were shipping at less than $100. TI was haemorrhaging cash at this price point, but sales were good and it thought it could make the money back on software and peripherals. It couldn’t. TI started to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in this price war, driving the whole corporation into a sea of red ink. Even cost-cutting in production couldn’t turn it around – late 99/4As swapping to a cheaper beige case rather than the snazzy aluminium-and-steel one.

Late model fully-expanded TI-99/4A
Late model fully-expanded TI-99/4A

TI couldn’t sustain these losses, and in late 1983 it announced that the TI-99/4A would be discontinued. Production ended in the spring on 1984 and TI cancelled the interesting TI-99/2 and TI-99/8 systems that it was working on. Instead TI switched its efforts to 8088-based PCs running DOS, machines that were better than the IBM PC but weren’t IBM PC-compatible. In retrospect this was not a winning market strategy either. On and off TI stuck with the PC business, coming up with the TravelMate line of laptops which were quite successful, but TI sold their PC business to Acer in 1997.

Ultimately TI went back to concentrating on making the components that make the world go around apart from one consumer product – calculators. Yes, the product that so ired Jack Tramiel is still a profitable line for TI and outlasted the Company that dared to challenge it.

Image credits:
Max Mustermann via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0
Leigh Anthony Dehaney via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0

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