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Cheap Computing, The Future of TI Calculators

Posted on 26 August 1998

The following text was written by S.T.L.:

Let's see, it's late at night (or really early in the morning), and I'm reading Wired (a good magazine). September 98, pg 212, if anyone's interested. Nicholas Negroponte writes:

"But the potential for very low cost computers is wildly more than we have made of it. Why? Because inexpensive computing is a crummy business. [description of low profit margins, etc] US companies just do not know how to tackle the low end. And by 'low end' I don't mean the much vaunted sub-$1000 computer - I mean PCs that cost less than $100."

I argue here that Intel, and the other big chipmakers, are good at the very high end (can't wait for the Merced to arrive), but their attempts at "Network PCs" and (for example) the Intel Celeron, are laughable. Thus we shouldn't expect very low end computers to come from them. I say that the "PCs that cost less than $100" that Negroponte speaks of are ALREADY HERE, in the form of TI calculators. Just as with PCs that range from $2000 to $5000, one can pay less than $100 for a low-end TI (like an 81), pay $100 for a TI-85 (good general purpose calc) or splurge and get a $200 TI-92. Or $275 TI-92+.

Calculators used to be very simple. Add 2 and 2, please. They were electronic abaci. Nowadays, I would say that the TI calculators aren't abaci anymore, they are small computers in their own right. This isn't like saying a car is a computer, because it contains microprocessors. TIs (my experience is with the 85 and the 92) can do most anything an Apple computer can do (the old ones), and sometimes faster. PDAs will never be successful until they can act as a universal computer. I also would say that TIs and their decendants may replace PDAs as the small electronic devices of choice. I take notes on my TI-85 when I don't want to remember something. And small videogame systems, like the old 8-bit Game Boy. For example:
In the "olden days", someone could get an Apple to do math for them. TIs do this much better, and they fit in your pocket. (Well, large pockets.) In the "olden days", someone could take notes on a PDA. TIs do this, and more. In the "olden days", someone could play games on a Game Boy. TIs have a wealth of (mostly free) games.
And like a PC, they can connect to a large network of new programs (via a PC), and communicate directly with one other TI. (Like a modem-modem connection.) And remember - this was all done WITHOUT Texas Instruments really intending this to happen. The first assembly shells exploited loopholes that let them get to the core of the processor. Texas Instruments saw how people loved the computing capabilities this gave them, and then put assembly support into the 86 and others. The low-end future of computing is probably within TI's reach, if it can keep costs under (say) $300 max, and be even MORE versatile than the current TIs. If anything, the history of computing shows that *open architecture is the road to success*. IBM let everyone clone their computers and make OSes for it. Apple was hissy and only allowed itself to build their computers and write OSes. (Allowing cloning a decade later didn't help any). Result: you're probably reading this on a system that is IBM-compatible. Even more so: the current success of the "Wintel" systems is because Microsoft made a shell for MS-DOS that made it friendly, and powerful.

Texas Instruments probably planned to just make a calculator when it made (say) the TI-85. Yet because it left a loophole, people made shells, and OSes for it, and programs. And they did all that for NO pay at all. Just people hacking up programs in their free time. TI didn't even make it convenient to exploit that loophole, and yet the various assembler shells have large bases of support. (How large, I don't know). As processor costs go down, Texas Instruments will be able to either reduce the price of their calculators, or add new features. Weasels have developed memory expanders and figured out ways to get TI-85s to make sounds. And that's just with one link port. Imagine a TI-X that had the following features:

  • 1 MB user RAM, 3 MB archive RAM
  • 20 MHz processor
  • Headphones port
  • Calc/PC Link port
  • Calc/Calc Link port
  • Memory Expander port
And perhaps an extra port, for future devices such as IR links, pads that could allow handwriting recognition, etc. I don't believe the name "calculator" would apply to such a device, it would truly be a low-end computer. The interesting thing is, (except for the increased on-calculator storage and processor speed), all these things are here already in the TI calculators: more ports would just make it more convenient. Right now, the TI port functions as the sole "extra port for future devices", and it wasn't really intended as such.

My opinion is, that Texas Instruments should also finally ACKNOWLEDGE that TI calculators can do other things than calculate, and in future TIs make it easier for people to add features to TIs. Look what's happened so far. What's your opinion?

  Reply to this item

More than a calculator?
Steve Russell
(Web Page)

You present an interesting hypothesis, but I think you are overlooking the main market for calculators: educational institutions. A big part of that being middle and high schools. Furthermore, many college math/science courses require TI calculators. If TI begins marketing a "little computer," schools will be much less inclined to continue supporting the product, as it implies that student's playing games (or otherwise) in class is acceptable. Furthermore, to be a useful "little computer," it would need a better keyboard, which would most likely lead to the College Board banning it on its set of tests. In other words, the TI calculator will always need to be "just a calculator" to keep its main markets. Of course other devices could be created, but the line between them must not be blurred.

Reply to this comment    26 August 1998, 03:06 GMT

Re: More than a calculator?
Matt S
(Web Page)

I agree....Someone in my grade was talking about something about a TI-98...and it was a graphing calc where you actually spoke to the calc and it responded ...I was anxious to get home and check ti.com when I thought: "TI's goal (with graphing calcs) is for educational uses....They would never make that...never...becauseit would look stupid taking a test and everyone talking to their calculator...If you didn't have a calc...you could just sit there and listen to your neighbors and you got the answer...so I doubt that TI will ever make "low-end computers" like that could connect to a non-graphical internet or something...no way...really TI doesn't like the fact that TI-xx calcs are being used to play games in class....


Reply to this comment    26 August 1998, 03:29 GMT

Re: Re: More than a calculator?

First off why would you believe the kid who told about a 98 the idea is possible but stupid and I hope ti wouldn't make a calculator like that. Also how do you know Ti doesn't like the fact kids use their calcs to play games. I personally think they like it because it markets their calcs kids want a 86 versus a 82 because it has better games (in mine and maybe some others opinion) thus spending more money or buying the new calc like an 89 or a ti versus brand x because more people have tis and you can get games. Why do you think they put assembly support on their new calcs sure ti has made a couple finance our stat programs but to go out of their way for that.

I think the computers would be a great idea they would still make low end graphing calculators.

Reply to this comment    26 August 1998, 07:59 GMT

Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Dark Ryder

Actaully, that may be true. So far, we've done almost _nothing_ truly educational with assembly - just games. Perhaps TI has included built-in assembly in the latest models because they approve of their being used for non-educational purposes. You don't need assembly for math you don't need 96k or more RAM for math, and you sure don't need a user-expandable interface. (can you tell that I have an 86? ;)

Reply to this comment    26 August 1998, 16:09 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
James Split

I agree with you. Texas Instruments is not at all stupid. I have an 89 and I don't think TI meant for everybody to fill up all 500k with math variables/programs. I think it was Casio that invented graphing calculators but it was early TI-8x programers who made TI so polular. I think that TI's may be getting too popular in fact. I am a high school junior and I don't know of one person in my entire school who has a Casio or HP calc. I even know of some colleges (MSU for example) that require students to have an HP calculator, and that is probably because the profs. know that students wont be playing games on them. I wont be putting games on my 89 for a while. One, because there are no games; and two, games are fun but if all TI's are used for are games and cheating TI's reputation will decline.
I love playing games and making assembly programs but too much of a good thing isn't good at all.

Reply to this comment    29 August 1998, 03:26 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Chris b

I agree that TI are not stupid at all. It is not that the programmers have made TI popular, it is that TI is popular among programmers. Of all the calcs, the TI line is the CLOSEST to a basic computer. I had the chance (oh boy) to be in an unsuccesfull high school Calc AP class that had its curriculum based on the HP 38g. it was no fun at all. The calc is too slow in general and is like a calc version of a macintosh. I did have a 3 color Casio first and it was great to use but in the first week of class i saw the compatibility power of having a TI-85 and returned it to the store.
When it comes to the new versions of TIs it is simply evolving towards the goal of a $100 mini computer, just what this article is about. It is not simply a marketing ploy to corner the market, it is the way of making a useful machine that can be more than a calculator, and thus corner the market.

Reply to this comment    19 September 1998, 01:33 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Brad Bortree Account Info

First of all, what's "...like a calc version of a macintosh..." supposed to mean? Mac are great. don't bash macs. Get With It, Get A Mac. But anyways...
TI-Claculators would be TI's if they had handwriting recognition, etc. They would be PDA's. I am a high school student and I own a Palm m100, and most of my teachers are fine with that. I even play games with it in class.
There are much better games for PDA's than there are for calculators. PDA's have a higher resolution and a bigger screen, and you can write programs for them using conventional programing languages, not machine specific basic.
TI's have their better sides. We used CBL's(calculator based laboratory) in my chemistry class. Those connect to and are controlled by a TI calculator. I don't know if this type of thing exists for anything else.
TI calcs should become computers. PDA's are closer to a computer than most graphic calculators, and if you want a handheld computer get a PDA, which can also be a graphing calculator. But if you just wnt a calculator, get a TI. Calculators are easier to use for calculating than PDA's since all the buttons are there, you don't have to switch screens to get them.
Also, buy a mac. Because macs are the best computers around. Because I said so. 'Nuff said.

Reply to this comment    16 October 2001, 23:05 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Brad Bortree

Sorry I meant TI calcs should NOT become computers

Reply to this comment    17 October 2001, 20:47 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Ryhan Hassan  Account Info
(Web Page)

Yay, the Negroponte's XO came out! :) Except it 300 bucks :(

Reply to this comment    6 October 2007, 02:41 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Mr.Z  Account Info
(Web Page)

I have gotten "Out of memory" errors doing math problems (with over 100KB of free RAM before I pressed enter) (mainly matrix calculations) on my TI-92+. :)

Reply to this comment    13 July 2005, 04:53 GMT

Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Kirk Meyer
(Web Page)

Texas Instruments included assembly support and expandability for things such as the applets. They knew games would be written but did it anyway. I'm sure that Texas Instruments does not support the use of games on calculators, just as I do not support it.

Reply to this comment    27 August 1998, 00:40 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Owen Savill

Oh really ? I have had T.I. programmable calculators since the '70s, yes a 59, and even back then you could buy a Games plug in module from T.I. themselves !!!

Reply to this comment    23 December 1998, 19:24 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?

But the difference back then (regarding the availability of a Games module on the TI-58/59) was that the machine was not meant for the high school crowd. Don't know about you, but my '59 cost over $200 back in 1978 (about $1,000 in today's $$$). I suspect that the games were meant as a recreation for us Engineering types after slaving over smith charts and linear equations.

I don't think that TI now wants to associate their fine 86/89/92+ line with GameBoys.

Reply to this comment    1 June 1999, 05:28 GMT

Re: More than a calculator?

"so I doubt that TI will ever make "low-end computers" like that could connect to a non-graphical internet or something...no way...really TI doesn't like the fact that TI-xx calcs are being used to play games in class.... "

Then why the hell did they include 384k of user memory with the TI-89? For programs to draw slope fields? Ha! Get real. It's hard enough to fill up a TI-86 with games, let alone a TI-89 with Educational Enhancers. Texas Instruments is not stupid. They know, like most of us in the user community know, that if TI plays the game right in front of the teachers and then turns around and plays it right in front of the customers, then their product will be not only sold to the kids, but mandated by the teachers!

Reply to this comment    27 August 1998, 08:29 GMT

Re: More than a calculator?

WOW. 20 comments. Wicked cool.
The keyboards on all TIs are fine. The QWERTY on the 92 takes just as long to get used to as the ABCDE on (say) the 85. You do raise a good point, that the TI line of calculators is so darn successful precisely because they're marketed to educational institutions. But I believe TI could at the very least, acknowledge that TI calcs can do other things, and put that capability into future TIs.

Reply to this comment    27 August 1998, 02:32 GMT

Re: Re: More than a calculator?

In reference to the keyboard topic, we all know that having a QWERTY keyboard makes the calculator unusable on certain college-board tests, BUT... Why not make a QWERTY keyboard that plugs into the link port for use in the TI-OS or ASM software? If it were removable, then you could still use your calc on the tests. Later when you decide to type something up or take some notes, you could pop in your keyboard for quicker input. Then everybody's happy! :-D
I know that this idea has been toyed with, but why has it not yet been pushed to the final leg of the race?
[Hollering to all available devlopers:]

Reply to this comment    1 October 1998, 00:42 GMT

Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Shane Burgess
(Web Page)

That is a great idea. I love being able to input notes on my Graphing Calculator, but it takes to damn long! Instead of building akward QWERTY keyboard, why not do something with the calulator?
I have been thinking of writing a PALTY keyboard program for the TI-86. "What the heck is a PALTY Keyboard?" Well, a PALTY keyboard is a one handed designed keyoboard to minimize the travel time needed to enter numbers and letters on a keypad efficiently with one hand. I got the idea when I was fantasizing about getting a Palm Pilot. I noticed that one program available was for a PALTY keyboard to eliminate the time needed for the stylus to touch certain key functions. Why not develop something similar for the TI-8X Calcs? It would be extremely beneficial, instead of having to carry a small keyboard.

Reply to this comment    6 October 1998, 21:13 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Brad Bortree Account Info

You could either build your own keyboard to plug into the link port, or program it.
I have a Palm Pilot and I'm not sure where you are getting this PALTY stuff from, but there is a company called halfkeyboard that uses half of a normal keyboard to type with one hand. www.halfkeyboard.com
Check out their site.

Reply to this comment    17 October 2001, 03:16 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
angus  Account Info

After having a calc for a few years u get used to the keyboard and can type reasonably fast.

Reply to this comment    8 December 2003, 03:45 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More than a calculator?
Pavel Panchekha  Account Info

Hey, I made a programm that converts the keyboard to QWERTY for the TI-82. It's so much better than the hunt-and-peck method i had to use for the ABCDE.

Reply to this comment    10 June 2005, 23:10 GMT

Re: More than a calculator?
Alex (Alias: double "0" geeky)

I so move.

-Alex the nerd

Reply to this comment    6 March 1999, 23:48 GMT

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