The TI-99/4a, a True Classic

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The Keyboard of the TI-99/4a

The TI-99/4a is my ultimate classic system.  This was the machine that taught me to love video games, the computer that taught me how to program, and the voice of silicon that I'll always remember.  The silky, sensual voice of the Speech Synthesizer (Parsec) taught me lessons I won't soon forget - asteroid belts are truly dangerous, the universe's veritable yellow light .  This week, I am proud to bring you TI-99/4a Week - all of our coverage will be dedicated to the 99/4a.  This week will not come easy for me - the TI is both beloved and misunderstood.  The TI-99/4a is quite possibly the most fiercely defended and simultaneously the most shamelessly mocked of any home computer to ever hit the market.

Today, I present to you a bare-naked look at the TI-99/4a.  You'll see where it succeeded, and where it failed.  And maybe, just maybe, you'll give the system a quick look on eBay (and if you're the type to mock, maybe you'll give the system a second chance). 

One of the major reasons the TI is considered a classic, especially in the eyes of the video game collector, is that it was originally intended for home use, kind of like a console system, rather than a full-blown computer.  It did all of the "console things", and it did them right; it had cartridges, it booted instantly, and it hooked right up to the TV. This ease of use was deceptive, too; at the time, the CPU power of the TI was second to none.  It used a 16-bit processor, which ran at a whopping 3 Mhz - it could run circles around any other chip in the market at the time.  Not to mention that the TI-99/4a was well within reach of the "Average Joe" - for most of its life, it had a great price point.  Its other capabilities and elegant styling could have, should have, put the TI-99/4a on the top of the home computing pile.  Sadly, in addition to the harsh price war that defined the 99/4a era, Texas Instrument's biggest obstacle to success was Texas Instruments themselves. From circuit board to market plan, the 99/4a may have been a victim of its own over zealous creators.

For the every day user of the TI-99/4a, the cons of TI-99/4a ownership were bound to certain aspects of the system's architecture (whether or not people were aware of these problems).  Ironically, architecture is also the system's strongest point.  Perceived mistakes in design may be the reason that folks on boards like Slashdot pick at the system mercilessly to this day (yeah, they still pick on the TI-99/4a; it's possible that they have some idle time on their hands).  The main point of contention is that its mere 16K of main memory was (and is, I suppose) laughable in the face of it's 8-bit competition, which had a whopping 64K of RAM.

Most importantly though, the TI-99/4a was made infamous because of it's competition.  TI was one of many losers in a marketplace battle that was so intense and Pyrrhic, it nearly brought down the entire video game and computer industry (crash of '84).  In that war, it's main competition was Commodore, first with its VIC-20, then with its much lauded Commodore 64.  Commodore later gave the world the Amiga, which has multitudes of fans, and can be described most simply as "geek street cred".  It's no small wonder that the fans of the Commodore line would have an affinity toward Commodore, and perhaps, some residual feelings about Commodore's competition.  Yes, that's conjecture, and you're welcome - your next psychotherapy session is at 2pm, Thursday.

LogoTexas Instruments would learn the fine art of making mistakes over the life of the 99/4 and 99/4a.  Developers, especially vital third party developers, would learn to loathe the 99/4a.  First off, the licensing fees that TI tacked on were harsh, given the competition.  They also kept tight control of what was and was not published for their system (a strategy successfully used by Nintendo, but which had a crippling effect on the 4a).  Second, it wasn't selling as many units to "computer users" out the gate as its competition, because its disk drive was extraordinarily expensive (relatively speaking).  While people could create and save or share their games easily on systems like Commodore's, the TI-99/4a needed a Peripheral Expansion Box to get a disk drive.  The box was priced at a princely $250, and each peripheral cost yet another wad of cash (it came with an serial interface and disk drive, though).  So, the only "real" choice for introductory programmers was to store their programs on tape.  This was a monumental waste of time - I can remember the minutes just crawling by when my TI was loading anything from tape - 15 minutes, and more!  Slow execution of BASIC programs (at least, the BASIC that came packaged with the system) also hurt "homebrew" development efforts on the 99/4a.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that TI changed their minds about the chipset that they were going to put into the TI-99/4a, and hence the version of BASIC that came with the system was not optimized for the system by any stretch of the imagination.  Since BASIC was lacking several functions, it wasn't very useful to the serious programmer unless you had the Extended Basic Cartridge.  

But the problems went beyond the programmer world.  During a rather intensive push of TI equipment, it was discovered that the power supplies used with the TI-99/4a caused a fire hazard.  So much so, that Texas Instruments ran a massive recall, including shipping out new power supplies to existing customers.  To this day, I can remember the 3 weeks that we waited for a new power supply.  My mother wouldn't let us play with the TI for fear that the entire house would explode if it were to be plugged in.  Commodore seized this unfortunate opportunity, and began running massive rebates to TI's users. Bring in your working or non-working computer, they said, and we'll give you additional money off the purchase of a new Commodore system!  It was a huge win for Commodore, who was actually making money off the manufacture of their systems (unlike TI).  Not only was TI losing money on each system produced, they were spending an obscene amount of money marketing the system. 

In the end, the TI-99/4a had a pretty short market run - only lasting till from 1979 to 1983 (if you count the 4 and the 4a).  TI took it on the chin to the tune of more than $100 million, after banking on the system as their future.

But the failure of the system in the marketplace does not make the TI-99/4a less of a classic.  Just like the Sega Master System, the Atari 7800, the TurboGrafx-16, and the Odyssey^2, it is obvious that there is more to making a classic than making money.  

The TI-99/4a is, and should be, considered a classic for everyone - it's extensive fan network tells the tale of a system that just doesn't know how to die.  From homebrew software to the preservation of everything TI, there is something to be said about a system that inspires such loyalty.  Unlike the Commodore line of products, it's generally recognized that the aesthetic styling of the TI-99/4a's case is a beautiful, timeless design (but not the 4's design - oohhh, that was ugly).  Aluminum cases, after all, are still considered the geek chic. 

The TI-99/4a has a nice design, featuring some beautiful brushed metal (until later in its life, when the all plastic version came out).  It was nice, until 5 peripherals are daisy chained together making a mess that spans several feet.

Technologically speaking, the TI-99/4a had a lot to love.  It had 3 channel sound, that could span 5 octaves, and an optional Speech Synthesis module.  The speech synthesis was the most realistic available at the time, and was fully programmable, even by a beginner to the system. Out of the box, the system had extensive expansion ports (for "home user" consumer oriented peripherals), including joysticks, tape-drive, a general expansion port (most commonly used for the Speeck Synthesis module), the cartridge bay (which served double duty as an expansion port at times), a monitor port (composite video available), and more.  All of this expansion possibility sat on top of 16-bit CPU architecture, among the absolute best in the industry at the time.  The CPU wasn't the only place that this box rocked - the TI-99/4a featured tiled graphics, with 16 colors on-screen simultaneously.  And the origin of the system is no less impressive.  The brilliant engineers that created the system:  Rod Canion, Jim Harris, Bill Murto - these were the founders of Compaq Computers, and they built the first IBM clone, the "luggable" Compaq portable! 

Socially, the TI-99/4a changed the way that the average person thought about computers.  Bill Cosby was the pitchman for the TI-99/4a (and /2).  This was an expensive move by TI, and may be the first time a computer company used such an illustrious super star to market a computer.  Sure, the "Trash 80" (TRS-80) computer had Issac Asimov, but he's a virtual unknown compared to Cosby.  This brought the TI into people's minds - this wasn't a machine that only the computer geeks could use, it was a system for the average FAMILY.  And the strategy worked - at the end of 1982, the TI-99/4a was the number one home computer in America, with about 35% of the market!

Here is the most important reason that you should consider adding a TI-99/4a to your collection.  Yes, TI had a rough time keeping 3rd party developers interested in the system.  But the in-house TI programmers brought stunning games to the table.  Sure, many of the games were knockoffs of more popular games for more popular systems.  But many of the "fakes" for this system were far, far better than the original games.  Munchman was faster, controlled more smoothly, and featured more variety than Pac Man.  The graphics in TI Invaders are simply stunning when compared to its competition.  Parsec, Tombstone, Car Wars, Hunt The Wumpus (yes, even Hunt the Wumpus) had such effort put into them, it's hard to describe my fondness for these games.

I hope you enjoy the week I have in store.  And I hope that you'll consider picking up the TI-99/4a again - it's a timeless classic, and one that deserves some attention again.

Sourceshere, here, here, here, here, here, here, as well as my own memory, and various user manuals (TI Extended Basic for the TI-99/4a Home Computer, TI-99/4a Owner's Manual, Compute's First Book of TI Games, and more).

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