The Know It Guy

The Texas Instruments ninety nine/four: World’s First sixteen-Bit Home Computer

In the past due 1970s, personal computer systems had been starting to take off, with lots of alternatives from an array of corporations. The Altair 8800 became an early entrant, famous amongst techie customers and developers. Others, which includes Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (noted by means of its critics as the Trash eighty), the Apple I and II, and the Commodore PET, offered to a more mainstream set of clients.

Industry watchers expected TI to have a massive effect in the marketplace—if it controlled to introduce an aggressive product. By 1977, TI engineers have been tough at work on not simply one PC design however 3: 1) a low-end online game console meant to sell for underneath the US $two hundred, with video games saved on ROM cartridges; 2) a non-public computer aimed at hobbyists and users of Radio Shack and Apple computer systems, and 3) a high quit enterprise computer with nearly 10 megabytes of hard disk garage.

As tends to take place in big companies, turf wars broke out. The boundary among the online game and domestic laptop businesses, both of which have been competing for sources in TI’s facility in Lubbock, Texas, started out to develop fuzzy. Meanwhile, the business laptop’s meant market surely overlapped with that of the minicomputer and transportable terminal products, which came out of TI’s Data Systems Division. Ultimately, the online game and private computer efforts merged, and the business laptop turned into moved to the Data Systems Division, wherein it turned into regarded with hostility and in the end killed.

 

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The surviving domestic PC organization, whose product became now called the 99/4, started receiving masses of company “assist,” consisting of pressure to apply TI’s troubled sixteen-bit TMS9900 microprocessor. Peter van Cuylenburg, who turned into in TI’s European marketing department, got here up with a progressive option to this company stress. He commissioned a third-birthday celebration contractor to layout and build a personal PC, code-named “Mojo,” the usage of best chips made by using TI. The contractor used TI’s version of the Intel 8080A further to lots of TI TTL, reminiscence, and different additives.

While Mojo type of solved the preference for corporate synergy between the employer’s semiconductor and customer products agencies, the TMS9900 became extra certainly a TI microprocessor. And so after a sequence of discussions and compromises, the Mojo concept turned into discarded, and the 99/4 ended up the use of the TMS9900 as well as the TMS9918 photos chip. The 99/4 additionally ended up with an aggregate of features from the unique video game layout (together with an ultra cheap keyboard, RF clips to attach to a TV set, and ROM-based totally packages).

When the ninety nine/4, in the end, emerged in 1979, having by hook or by crook transcended three units of TI control, it obtained normally disparaging evaluations. Benjamin M. Rosen of Morgan Stanley, who turned into then the main semiconductor analyst and fast becoming the main private computer analyst as well, wrote a funny article approximately the disappointment of what changed into anticipated to be a first-rate contender in the non-public laptop commercial enterprise. A revised version, the TI-ninety nine/4A became launched in 1981 with a higher keyboard, but it wasn’t enough: In 1983, the New York Times called the ninety nine/4 “an embarrassing failure.”

Despite being the sector’s first 16-bit domestic computer, the ninety-nine/four, like the microprocessor on which it became based totally, was a canine. Intended to fulfill two very unique markets, the ninety-nine/four and ninety nine/4A served neither one well. Unsurprisingly, initial income had been weak. By 1982 Commodore had initiated a fee struggle with its VIC-20 computer, forcing TI to first offer $one hundred rebates and sooner or later cut back the price from a preliminary $1, a hundred and fifty to an unsustainable $49. The charge conflict turned into an extraordinary boon to consumers, as it made non-public computers inexpensive to a much wider marketplace. TI saw income of the ninety nine/4A explode, eventually accomplishing 2.8 million devices.

But the ninety-nine/four and ninety nine/4A were luxurious to build, and the employer lost cash on every home PC it bought. One cause they cost so much to build became the excessive fee of the TMS9900’s unconventional packaging. Specifically, the massive number of connecting pins for a sixteen-bit microprocessor compelled TI to expand its own packaging era. By the time others entered the 16-bit microprocessor market, widespread packaging configurations have been developed to conquer this hassle.

The 9900 additionally had a few performance problems due to its specific “reminiscence to reminiscence” structure, which used off-chip memory in preference to on-chip registers, as a consequence slowing performance. The decrease price TMS9995 chip that followed the TMS9900 overcame a number of these issues with an on-chip check in report cache, but there has been no smooth way to substitute the TMS9995 for the TMS9900 inside the TI-99/4 architecture.

Meanwhile, maximum 0.33-celebration software program builders remained reluctant to spend money on packages for the 99/4A. As demand for the 99/4A soared, TI initiated a crash application to ramp up manufacturing. But it couldn’t compete with Commodore, which had a low-price layout and continued to lower the charges for its computers even similarly. Just as TI’s production output took off, call for the ninety nine/4A started out to fade. In 1983 the agency took a huge write-off of $330 million, and it abandoned the house PC commercial enterprise the following 12 months. Ironically, by using then the TI machine had a dedicated following amongst customers who had bought the ninety nine/4A because they couldn’t face up to its low fee. Remnants of that cult still exist nowadays.

Interestingly, the TMS9918 portraits controller used within the 99/four series discovered huge usage inside the MSX fashionable for home computer systems, which also used a Zilog Z80 microprocessor and the CP/M working device from Digital Research. The MSX architecture became the brainchild of Kazuhiko Nishi, who based a publishing business enterprise called ASCII Corp., which later have become ASCII Microsoft. The TMS9918 pics chip, designed with the aid of TI’s Karl Guttag, become crucial to the MSX fashionable and eventually became used in products from recreation producers like Coleco and Sega, as well as Sony, Yamaha, and Toshiba. Had the IBM PC by no means come along, the MSX fashionable could have been a great deal extra widely adopted.

Jessica J. Underwood

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