The Texas Instruments Home Computer
by John C. Dvorak
I remember it well. It was June of 1979 when TI first rolled out its “home computer” the 99/4. It wasn’t the machine itself that was interesting, but the fear that it generated at the time.
For about a year there was a buzz about this “killer” machine. It was the first salvo aimed at the young PC industry. Apple, Processor Technology, Altair, IMSAI and Northstar were just a few of the dominant machines selling in the late 1970′s. Once TI made it clear that it was entering the microcomputer scene “in a big way” all the small fry began to worry. This would be a test of the young industry — a shot across the bow from a company that supposedly knew what it was doing. The smell of fear permeated the business. While Commodore and Radio Shack entered the scene with very successful machines, the PET and the TRS-80 respectively, they never generated the fear factor like TI did. TI made chips, they knew about computers, they were huge. Whatever they did would rock the world. And the rumor was that it was going to be mass produced and a 16-bit machine in a world of 8-bit computing!
Everything peaked during the rumor phase. It was all downhill after the company released one of the worst machines ever put on the market. By the time it was over the company would lose a reported $115 million on trying to make money with this machine. It would sell an estimated 2.5 million units over the next four years. But most of the sales were lowball $99 sales near the end and it’s hard to prove anyone really used the thing for anything other than game playing.
Throughout the marketing and sales of this machine and to this day the real reason it failed was never highlighted nor mentioned.
It was a compound problem. First of all, the machine had a keyboard with missing keys. There was no question mark key. There was no backspace key. There were no arrow keys. There was no tab key. Essentially the machine was useless for any known computing purpose. The missing question mark key was the first thing I noticed. I was stunned.
This and all the other errors in strategy and design were partially due to the fact that the company kept this thing as a skunk works project never showing prototypes to the media or the analysts who might have told the company about the obvious flaws. TI just reckoned it knew it all and needed no help whatsoever. It was amazing hubris.
The machine was released into a microcomputer market in 1979 that had transformed itself for a short time into a minicomputer model. You’d buy a box with a processor and memory and to it you’d attach to it a dumb/smart terminal. These terminals had all the keys. No serious computer user was going to even consider this Texas Instruments fiasco. The home users were the targeted suckers. Worse the machine was a cartridge-oriented machine initially with no mass storage capability. Not even a cassette port. To code for it you needed a different computer so early development efforts were horrible.
The reviews for the machine were interesting since the reviewers were ALL clueless never once citing the keyboard for its inadequacies. When the second iteration of the machine arrived, the TI 99/4A nothing really changed.
The chip was designed around a TI/TMS-9900 microprocessor which was a dud in the marketplace. Some believe the computer was an effort to get rid of the chips. When the project to design this machine began it was promising (so I was told) but then CEO J. Fred Bucy decided that R&D should be moved to Lubbock where he coincidentally lived. While it made his life easier far too many engineers were reluctant to relocate to Lubbock, a rather boring Texas burg. I guess the one guy who knew about keyboards never moved.
The computer was released at the June 1979 Consumer Electronics Show for a retail price of $1150 which included a 13-inch color monitor. It took almost a year, though, before it shipped in quantities. This gave people time to notice the weird keyboard and the fact that the machine had no RS-232C interface, no expansion memory, no cassette I/O. I was told by some old-timers at TI that the machine was kind of designed to be a game machine with a keyboard hence the cartridge-orientation. This made it hard to explain why the joy stick was an option and not standard.
Texas Instruments then muddied the water in 1979 by announcing (yet never shipping) the TI 99/7 a $5000 business computer also based on the unpopular TI 9900 microprocessor. Apparently internal politics at the company killed the machine in favor of the 99/4 home computer.
By January of 1980 after still more positive reviews by people who should know better, the machine is selling at the rate of 1000 units a month — a clear loser. About 30 software packages are written and it was not only impossible to develop software on the machine itself, but TI decided to lock out third party developers by patenting certain aspects of the machine. It then required licenses for anyone selling a commercial product for use on the machine. The company wanted all such profits itself. As a consequence there were no profits.
Meanwhile the company goes on a PR tear highlighted by the computer appearing on the Mike Douglas Show in 1981 with the pop singers Captain and Tenille singing their hit tune accompanied by the computer. Sales improve but not enough to make money. This is exacerbated by production problems with the Extended BASIC software cartridge. Lots of games are released and the machine is kept on the market. Price decreases continued through 1982 and the company finally brought out a expansion box for peripherals. But the price of the box which included a disk controller, a floppy drive, a serial port and 32K of memory is posted at $1474.75 and they were hard to come by even if you could afford it. By April the 99/4A itself was only $329.95. In June Bill Cosby becomes the company pitchman for a cool $1 million a year. Meanwhile, the cheap Vic-20 is taking over TI shelf space. They push the price down to $299 and offer $100 rebate. It begins to look like a fire sale. Atari and Commodore lowered their prices even more.
More cartridges were released along with spreadsheet and accounting programs. The company continued to lose money on the machine. But sales were up! The rebate boosted sales as it was extended and TI made the claim that it is the number one home computer in the USA! To fight them Commodore lowered its price on the VIC-20 to $125 and TI was forced to go lower. No profit could be made on any sales at all. In 1983 shipments are halted as defect is uncovered and the company loses more money fixing the problem which was a faulty power supply. Commodore is now selling the Vic-20 for $99. Consumers flock to it.
At the 1983 annual stockholders meeting TI says it sold its one millionth home computer. It was the high point as new offering caused retailers to start returning machines as the IBM PC revolution had begun and the game business was under pressure. The TI 99/4A is selling for $99 by the end of the year. The company then threatened the unlicensed third-party developers causing an uproar. The slide would begin in earnest as panicky critical reviews finally appeared. In January of 1984 the company reported that it had sold 2.5 million units. Only 250,000 had any expansion capability. J.C Penny’s dropped the machine the next month. On March 28, 1984 the last 99/4A is produced and the computer is discontinued.
Overall, it was an exercise in futility, poor marketing, and a large dose of corporate stupidity.
(Special thanks to Bill Gaskill for posting an outstanding time line of the 99/4 history on the WWW. It was used as the official chronology for this article.)