Launched in 1979 by the company that mass-produced the first integrated circuit, the Texas Instruments 99/4A computer gave the famous calculator makers a fair shot at the burgeoning home computer market. With a video chip that displayed high-resolution graphics in 16 colors, and a polyphonic sound chip (hardly standard equipment in the late 1970s), the TI99/4A gave its contemporaries – Tandy’s TRS-80 family, the Apple II, the Commodore PET and Atari’s newly-introduced 400 and 800 computers – a run for their money. It also raised the bar of what could be considered a baseline feature rather than a luxurious add-on, and this would affect such future machines as the Commodore VIC-20.
TI was also ahead of the curve in providing its own family of peripherals, including an external speech synthesizer (one of the very first such devices for the home computer market) and a massive expansion box which included disk drives and extra peripheral slots. TI also made joysticks available, along with a copious amount of games developed both in-house and by third parties such as Imagic and Parker Bros.; educational titles were available, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that the majority of the TI99/4A’s software library consisted of non-educational games which took advantage of the machine’s audiovisual hardware. Arcade-style games and groundbreaking titles which were the sole domain of home computers, such as Adventure and Tunnels Of Doom, were the mainstay of the cartridge-based library. The game-playing power of TI’s video chip wasn’t overlooked in the industry either – Coleco used the same chip in its high-end ColecoVision video game console.
When the video game industry suffered its massive 1983-84 shakedown, TI persevered and tried to reposition its computer as a serious tool for learning and business, even going to far as to redesign its external casing in a more austere grey-white color. But by 1984, the battle for the home computer market belonged to IBM, Commodore and Apple. Though they maintained what might be described as cult followings, the TI99/4A and other minor players – TRS-80, Coleco’s Adam and Mattel’s disastrous Aquarius – retired from the fight.