Sunday, January 07, 2007


The TI-99/4A home computer from Texas Instruments. I had one of these. I think the main reason I had one was that my mother had an amazing rebate. I think it cost $50 and she had a $50 rebate. I think it was just about free. It was my first home computer and I used it on my little 13" black and white TV screen in my bedroom so I always saw that bootup screen in b&w. I actually learned a lot of programming on it especially with the assistance of this one Sunday comic strip in the papers with all the funnies that did computer flowcharts and computer lingo. They would also publish some basic programs to type in and run. I remember once typing in a 400-line program that took me hours with my lack of typing knowledge at that time and all the program did was a little tune with a miniscule stick figure dancing. However, I learned a lot about flowcharts and garbage in-garbage out mentality and what a program was supposed to do and what they could do. At one point, I actually programmed in my own trivia game that calculated points based on correct or incorrect answers. I was pretty proud of that one.
But then the TI-99/4A also had some games! These are the four games that I specifically remember having. If I had any others, I do not remember them at all.
The first one I remember was ALPINER. I never did get to the top of Mt. Everest. It was tough, if I remember correctly.
Climb six of the world's tallest mountains and evade dangerous obstacles. But be careful - the Abominable Snowman is waiting for you atop Mt. Everest!

I used to play this game called CAR WARS a lot too. You raced around and had to avoid the other car or collide. It was a good game and I wonder why no other system did anything like this one.
Car Wars
It's your car against the computer's in this exciting race! Score points by out-maneuvering the computer's car as it tries to run you off the track!

Then there was a game that I loved just for saying the name of it: HUNT THE WUMPUS. It was actually a pretty good puzzle game. I played the hell out of it. Those red spots were blood, if I remember right, that led you to the Wumpus.
Hunt the Wumpus
Deep within a maze of caverns and twisting tunnels lives a creature known as the Wumpus. Protected by giant bats and pits of slime, the Wumpus feeds on unwary visitors that enter his dwelling. Will you be victorious in slaying the Wumpus, or just its next victim?

Then there was the bestselling TI-99/4A game called PARSEC. It was a great space shoot-'em-up. It is one of those games that made you create a story in your head to put you behind the cockpit and really get into the game.
Fly into combat with the starship Parsec. Destroy rebel alien fighters and cruisers by outmaneuvering them and laying down withering fire from your laser. Then try to survive the deadly asteroid belt!
(All pics and game descriptions from Video Game House at :
This computer wasn't good for much else. It required a cassette tape RAM drive that I never had, so saving stuff was never an option for me. That trivia game I wrote was erased once the power went off.
I found this article online that explains a lot to me about what happened to the computer system and also explains why we had one, with the rebate thing. My mother was absolute queen of the rebates when we were growing up.
by Stan Veit
Originally published in the September 1996 issue
Now that super chips are being produced by companies other than Intel and Motorola, I am reminded that the success of new processors can rely on more than technological innovation. The silicon graveyards are filled with technically superior CPUs that lost out because of poor marketing or because the manufacturer misread the buying habits of the public. In the early days of the PC industry, the Intel 8080 family received a huge boost because of the public's early adoption of the Altair/S-100 series; Zilog's Z-80, which was compatible with the 8080 CPU, continued that success. Similarly, Motorola's 6800 chips were used in the widely popular South West Technical Products PC and many others.
A Different View
Texas Instruments (TI), the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer, developed the TMS9900, a true 16-bit CPU that was quite advanced for its time, having capabilities that the Intel and Motorola 8-bit CPUs lacked. Unlike TI, chip makers Intel, Zilog, and Motorola were not eager to become computer manufacturers. They made development systems, but these were not designed or priced for public use. Most chip manufacturers did all they could to help computer makers improve the systems that utilized their chips, but TI gave little help to outsiders. TI did develop the TI 990/4 and 990/5 minicomputers, which used the TMS9900 processor, but they were too expensive to attract developers who would write software for the processor. Although TI did little to encourage second sources for the TMS9900, TI itself was a second source for Intel, producing the TMS8080A, a version of the Intel 8080. In fact, much of TI's PC competition was powered by chips it had manufactured. As a corporation, TI had a different view of the PC market. It envisioned a product that would be used in the home, at school, and on the job, just as its calculators were. This machine would be filled with TI chips, run TI software, and earn millions for the company. Since such a machine did not yet exist, TI had to design one--the Texas Instruments 99/4. In the spring of 1979, I went to Boston to see the 99/4--I was hoping to sell it at my Computer Mart store in New York. I also had thoughts of becoming a software developer for graphics-based games. Priced at $1,200, the 99/4 had highly polished metal parts, 16K of RAM, TI BASIC in ROM, a 13-inch color monitor, and a thin keyboard. The 40 keys on this prototype were of a style that came to be called "Chiclets," and the monitor displayed 24 lines of 32 characters. The system also had a built-in slot for plug-in, solid-state software modules, which did not yet exist. The plug-in program modules were to hold extra RAM to run the software. Interestingly, the TI engineers had crippled its 16-bit CPU by running it in a 8-bit bus. This permitted them to use fewer memory chips and reduce costs. Later, IBM followed the same path with the IBM PC, using the 8088 microprocessor rather than Intel's 16-bit 8086.
Back to the Drawing Board
I liked the TI 99/4, but thought the price was a little steep. So did the rest of the world. Shortly after it was released, TI recalled the 99/4 and went back to the drawing board to bring down the costs. The new TI 99/4A required fewer chips, due to large-scale integration, and it came with a real keyboard. TI priced it without the monitor and provided plug-ins for expansion. By the time of the 99/4A's release, some software for it had appeared, and TI encouraged third-party software developers to write for the new system. However, the royalties TI demanded were discouraging; ultimately software developers lost interest in the 99/4A. In late 1982, TI re-engineered the motherboard to put most of the "glue" chips into a single package. The new machine was called the QI, for "Quality Improved." With a new and improved system, TI had a system that could compete with the Apple, Atari, and Commodore systems of the day. It also had a better product for a small but growing group of devoted users. The 99/4 series users were among the most devoted fans you could imagine. But the company did little to support users, and except for Computer Shopper and a small magazine called 99er, the computer press ignored the systems. When all other manufacturers turned to floppy disks to expand their machines' usefulness, TI came out with the expensive Expansion Box as a way to add a floppy drive to the 99/4. It was designed like a piece of equipment meant to meet military specifications; the box was made of a thick aluminum plate, a heavy-duty design that was obviously unnecessary for home computers. Compare this with the Apple II, which needed only a small plug-in interface board to connect a floppy disk. Once again, TI had to provide a fix to the system because it did not understand the market and had to learn the hard way. In January 1982, TI was poised to throw all its marketing efforts behind the TI 994/A. At the time, the success of TI's home computer meant more to the company than just another item in its huge line of electronic equipment. It was counting on the TI 99/4A, and its successors to be the major consumer of the company's own chips. This was TI's core business, and the strategy would have succeeded if TI hadn't run into a stone wall--Jack Tramiel, the president of Commodore. The troubles started with the introduction of the $300 Commodore VIC-20. Although the VIC's capabilities were below those of the TI 99/4A, its introduction cut into the TI system's market share. Commodore followed up the VIC-20 with the introduction of the excellent Commodore C-64 and started selling them through discount stores like Kmart. The cost of the C-64 quickly dropped from the $595 introductory price to about $400.
Rebate Wars
In August 1982, TI issued a $100 rebate on the 99/4A and a price war was on. Atari joined the battle with rebates on its 800-series systems, but those systems' list prices were way above the free-falling cost of the Commodore and TI systems. By February 1983, TI again cut the price to dealers, and the cost of a TI 99/4A dropped to about $150. At this point, the Commodore 64 cost about $350, and the VIC20 cost less than $100, including peripherals. TI suffered a massive blow when the power supplies in the 99/4A proved to be defective. Retailers had to stop selling the systems, and TI had to replace thousands of power supplies. Sales were dead, and Commodore announced a $50 trade-in rebate for any computer, even nonworking ones. This dropped the street price of a Commodore 64 to less than $300. Commodore later announced additional cuts in C-64 dealer prices, bringing costs down to $200 and causing the retail price to fall to about $250. Commodore also cut software prices by 50 percent and lowered peripheral prices, too. Tramiel slashed Commodore's production costs so drastically that in the end, the C-64 cost about $100 to manufacture. Meanwhile, TI was bleeding dollars with every price cut. In June 1983, after counting second-quarter losses of $100 million, Bill Turner, president of TI's consumer division, announced that Texas Instruments was bowing out of the home-computer market. The day of the announcement was called Black Friday by the loyal TI 99ers, but the announcement lowered prices on the TI 99/4A to less than $100 in stores all over the United States. Thousands of people who had considered buying a home computer suddenly rushed out to buy a TI 99/4A at its closeout price. Although many of these systems ended up as doorstops, they provided the first look at personal computing for many users. The death of the TI 99/4A did not quite kill the TMS9900 family of CPUs, however. Some minicomputer manufacturers continued to use it, but the handwriting was on the wall. Soon other companies were making faster 16- and 32-bit chips. But TI 99/4A fans carried on, and some small companies continued to provide software and peripheral support for years afterward. In hindsight, it's easy to see that Texas Instruments learned little from the disastrous TI 99/4A-Commodore 64 conflict. Soon after, the company released the TI Professional Computer, a rival to the IBM PC.This non-IBM-compatible 8088 machine, which used special versions of MS-DOS, CP/M-86, and application software, had a good keyboard and fantastic color graphics. But its proprietary architecture killed it. Since then, TI has focused on its calculator, chip, and printer businesses. Interestingly, it was the people who left Texas Instruments to found Compaq Computer who took on IBM and won. (Reprinted from accessed January 7, 2007.)

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