As a younger(?) (24) person I am astonished at how many options there were for different home computers back then. Computers computers computers. I wonder what the margins were like back then compared to today (HP and Dell have around 5%, and PCs arent even the most lucrative in % parts of their biz). Does anyone know where we could find such numbers?
I highly encourage people looking at prices to adjust for inflation to get a feel for things. Here's one such calculator: http://www.westegg.com/inflation/
Word processing for $200 ($450), crappy games for $10-20 ($22-44 today), real games (page 48) for $15-35 ($33-78!!!). I feel spoiled rotten.
Today people throw better-than-the-best-games-in-this-catalog at us for free. For a lark. For a laugh cause they were bored and made something in Flash or Canvas that is fun and incredible and we click and move on.
I think its interesting how little game prices have moved since the cost of making a game has gone up so astronomically. I remember a lot of people balking when the change for A-titles went from 50 to 60 dollars, but in terms of money invested, that's so damn cheap.
I wonder if that contributes to modern game-makers hesitation to pursue really innovative titles. Common A-titles when I was growing up were things like The Secret of Monkey Island, a hilarious point-and-click adventure game, and Warcraft/Starcraft. Both of these genres are nearly dead in the mainstream except for names with a lot of clout behind them (Starcraft) and indie developers.
Big publishers, it seems, want to stick to the (admittedly very popular) formula of shooters where you fight Russians, Arabs, Aliens, and Zombies.
Also note that not a single mouse (or pointing device of any kind) was mentioned in the catalog.
If you see paid iPhone games, for example, part of the reason prices are so low (generally $1-$5) is because the cost/complexity of making an iPhone game is very low, whereas the audience is extremely large.
Byte back in the early 80s too. Page after page of esoteric gear. So many different kinds of computers before the PC completely dominated the world.
The other really cool magazine was early 90s, I think. Midnight Engineering, run by a guy named William Gates (different one), which was all about tech entrepreneurship from the very bottom up. Guy printed the magazine himself, bought this huge industrial printing press. His columns on getting it up and running were one of the best parts of the magazine. Also, a running theme was that patents were useless for the little guy since you couldn't afford the costs of protecting them.
Same as it ever was.
Contemporaneous article on Midnight Engineering and the printing press: http://www.westword.com/1995-10-18/news/one-s-company/
That was probably the biggest margin as Commodore was fully vertically integrated.
Commodore's ongoing hunt for vertical integration and their huge margins in periods were definitively impressive, and the numbers you cite probably indicate their peak margins (at least in percent)
But Commodore rode waves - they kept getting close to crisis and then rode through it once they had their next temporarily high margin product for a while, then their margins would get squeezed either by their competition or their own decisions, as their product lines were aging and they were too slow to replace them. It happened with the PET, the Vic-20, the C-64, and eventually did them in with the Amiga.
With the Vic-20 and C-64 it was actually Tramiel (Commodore's founder) himself that dropped margins massively to force Texas Instruments out of the home computer market.
The $595 price lasted for a very short time, as Commodore went through wave after wave of slashing VIC-20 prices (eventually to under $100) and C-64 prices. With a $100 trade-in offer, the C-64 dropped as low as $300 in 1983, and at Spring CES they dropped their prices to dealers to $200-$250...
The result was that TI lost $100 million a quarter, and was forced to quit the home computer market entirely. Commodore was still making money at those prices, but obviously their margins had been slashed massively, and so again R&D suffered.
Towards the end their vertical integration was pretty much gone - Commodore Semiconductor Group had seen so little investment that they were not competitive at all, and more and more of Commodore's chip manufacturing was done by partners.
Also, while it's been covered in HN before, you might be interested in Jimmy Maher's ongoing series on the history of interactive fiction, including how it's tied into the mainframe hardware of the 1970s and micro hardware of the 70s and 80s. It's at http://www.filfre.net/ .
I can't believe how cheap games are today.
Funny but true it ran Microsoft Xenix!! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenix and had a Microsoft Multiplan (excel like) you could run from a tty or the console.
I have a customer who still has a running copy of Microsoft Multiplan that I have to hack once in a while to keep runnning. It's quite amazing that this customer still keeps a ton of stuff in that old system using telnet/ssh to the SCO Unix box that they host Excel on.
I did my first commercial C code development on these monsters! After a time I even had one in my house so I could do development at home without 1200baud modems dropping my connection etc. And I had a "test" environment to develop code before deploying to my customers machines.
I had all my customers setup with UUCP so they could email me and my staff and alerts from low disk space, backs etc would come to us at the central machine via UUCP emails.
Those were the days.. ;-)
EDIT: iPad autocorrect pain and corrected memory error
And that's how I learned to program without having a computer. :-)
My 'golden years' were in '79 - '84 so much changed, so fast, you felt like every year there was new chip or a new gizmo that you could do _something_ cool with. Later, in the 90's it became a sad joke. We had an informal contest at the Robotics club to come up with anything you could build out of just Radio Shack parts.
These days they are kind of confused. They started adding Arduino kits, and stuff from SeeedStudios (an interesting business model there ) I look at the AdaFruit catalog and see hints of the Radio Shack of my youth.
 Originally gave you a place to 'sell your design' for other folks who wanted to build it, they were cheap. But now they are selling those same designs through retail channels which seems not quite in spirit with what they started as.
From page 5:
"TRS-XENIX is derived from the powerful UNIX operating system developed by Bell Laboratories. UNIX has been extensively field-tested for the past decade and has demonstrated outstanding performance under heavy workloads. The TRS-XENIX "core", or runtime package, includes the modules required to set up and operate a multi-user system. It includes a hard disk initialization routine, a text editor for modifying the parameters of the system, utilities to transfer files from TRSDOS diskettes, RUNCOBOL to support our COBOL software, and full password protection."
One question, though: is this the same XENIX that Microsoft was licensing from AT&T?
"Microsoft did not sell Xenix directly to end users; instead, they licensed it to software OEMs such as Intel, Tandy, Altos and SCO, who then ported it to their own proprietary computer architectures."
You also had to pay $750.00 just to get Vi and a C compiler!
You could run XENIX programs on Windows NT up to NT 3.51
It is very likely there are still traces of XENIX left in Windows 8.
In the heyday of the TRS-80, they looked like this: http://mew3.us/images/vintagecomputer/trs80m3.jpg
Then Radio Shack came out with the later TRS-80 models (as pictured) attempting to move into the business market. Never got traction.
The IBM PC was the serious business computer. I don't think you could say it was superseded by the Mac. The Mac was for artist types and relatively expensive.
Then the PC clones came along and the Mac was marginalized.
The IBM PC was the serious business computer.
IBM PC's were stand alone for quite some time. We had many "bake offs" between Model 16's and a couple of IBM PC's with arcnet or other hodge-podge solutions and win most of the time.
When you have an office with 8 people in it and 4 people need to get into A/R and several need access to G/L for financials the TRS-80 Model 16's with Xenix (UNIX) were great solutions.
I don't say this as a FanBoi I say it as someone who was there and sold and supported them for a long time. What Tandy failed to do was understand the shift in the market to networked systems and they died almost over night when IBM PC's became more affordable AND networked with reasonable software allowing multiple people to work on the same stuff.
The IBM PC was the serious business computer.
I don't think you could say it was superseded
by the Mac. The Mac was for artist types and
That's a completely different picture from where I lived. The Mac was a curiosity that you'd come across every now and then but pcs were everywhere.
My first computer was a ColecoVision ADAM, around Christmas 1984, which was really a horrible choice -- never shipped in large quantities, and discontinued a month later (which is why it was cheap). An older or less capable machine with a larger userbase would have been a whole lot better. I hate that I missed out on Apple II, C64, and TRS-80 culture.
Fortunately I went to a crazy gifted/talented pull-out program once a week which had a lab full of Mac 512k (and later, plus and SE) (for a public school in Pennsylvania!), and even better, there was a modem. I went out of my way to be there as much as I could (skipping regular classes to "work on projects" there, etc.). Eventually I got a dumb terminal and modem of my own. Mmm, VAX/VMS and Cyber 205.
We installed a lot of these machines for many years while PC's were just beginning to be "interesting".
My personal favorite of that era is the TRS-80 model 100, of which I own several. I give them to my kids when they turn 10. Best notebook keyboard of that era (and periodically, since then).
It was the ROM asking you how much memory you wanted to allocate for BASIC variables. You could tune this for various programs and/or if you were planning on running machine language programs you wanted to have BASIC get out of the way and leave your program more memory.. :)
Sadly, that amount of typing (I was 10 or so and not very quick back then) for such little output stopped my interest in programming.
I'm 38 now and over the last year have renewed my interest in programming having self-learned html, css, js, python, and django. Really wish I had stuck with it back then.
Man though, does that catalog take me back.
I have 2 pocket TSR-80s, 1 TSR-80 'laptop' (model 100) and a model III in my 'museum'; all working. Switching them on is an interesting change from my ipad/mbp retina tools. What I find most interesting about all 80s computers I have is that they still work and work perfectly.
I really wonder if that would be the case with after '95 computers. I have a lot; they are all broken except my Sun E450, SGI O2, Sparcstation 5s and Ultra 10. Almost none of the over 50 laptops, netbooks, pads and desktops from '95 till now I have work perfectly. It depends in how far they do not work; most desktops do nothing (besides spin up the power), most laptops come on and start beeping. And I don't work in a builder yard; i'm a programmer, so I didn't expose them to the elements. Computer museums and retro collectors depend a lot on the fixability of computers; all 80s stuff you could easily solder / repair yourself and it is worth it. In the 90s you still could, but after a certain time it gets annoying and people just 'buy new'. We now moved in the everything SMT, micro, system on a chip, glued computers, which means repairing them, especially in 30 years from now, will not be so easy I recon.
Old computers are still hell useful. The value you get out of it is entirely arbitrary.
Funny thing: People would come in all the time needing RAM for their 1983 TRS 80's. And we sold it for about $2,000 per 4k.
Why didn't they upgrade their computers? Legacy software running in their auto mechanic shop or similar.
Page 17.. yes you had to PAY $750.00 just to have a C compiler and VI!
Seriously, you only got 'ed' with the basic system, no C, no Vi, lots of stuff missing.
I remember trying to beg my customers to buy it so I could use Vi and compile code on their systems. Otherwise I would edit code on my system and have to compile and transfer binaries via 8" floppy disks!
Worse was explaining to them why they had to pay $250.00 for the COBOL Compiler PLUS another $750.00 for the Development system so we had Vi on the system to edit files with! :-)
I am so thankful for my parents paying an arm and a leg to get me a computer at a young age. I'm guessing the Apple ][ they bought me 30 years ago must have run them a few grand at least.
Myself as well. My first computer was an Atari 800XL, tape drive (cassette no less!), floppy drives, etc.
I attribute my deep interest in the IT field (along with my high salary) to their early support/nudging. Thankful, very much so.
Video of Zeppelin:
My dad also had a computing magazine where you could transcribe small programs or text based games into your 800XL and make your own simple programs - which probably has a lot to do with why I'm a software developer today.
That and the IBM PC junior. Good times.
It ran for 20 hours on 4AA batteries. It was instant on and daylight readable and had a full sized keyboard. Maybe something like a largish netbook or 11" Macbook Air with a lowish resolution transflective display, the ability to sleep for a month or run for a week in a low power/console only mode. What I'm describing isn't a mass market item, of course. It would be more for field research. (Just a few years back, I'd heard that some Model 100's were still being used in this capacity.)
I regularly get 12 hours of usage out of mine.
This is obviously a much later catalog because of fancy 5mb harddrives and the model III is in there.
We could never afford any of this but I learned Basic one summer by repeatedly visiting the store demo unit and flipping through the books. I vaguely remember it only had the "level 1 basic" rom so there was only $A and $B (whopping 4k of ram?)
Perhaps as museum pieces? From what I've seen, old computing hardware practically never becomes more desirable.
Also there's a strong supply/demand component. The supply of PDP-8 hardware is low enough that the prices are about the same per pound as silver, or at least copper. But PDP-11 and VAX equipment (currently...) has a large enough supply that its hard to exceed triple digits.
However, I am waiting for the Allied Radio catalog collection http://alliedcatalogs.com/ to be up and functioning. I got a few of my radios from there when I first became a ham in the early 60's. When I went to the university in 1965, I actually got to visit the store, which was a thrill.
Their swivel workstation chair would be $450 in today's dollars. My chair is much nicer for much less money.
Sometimes we get fixated on how Moore's law or related effects are churning out better tech, but forget that this is against a backdrop of refinement towards better quality, less expensive consumer goods overall.
Tandy nearly gave the computers away, then made big $$$ on add-ons/peripherals.
Or how about $1244 for a Heath 8080 computer system KIT? (The H8 originally sold with RAM as an OPTION.) http://www.informationtechnologyschools.org/wp-content/uploa...
After playing on Model III and Model IV's and Commodore 64's and VIC-20's, my parents bought me a TRS-80 Color Computer in 1983. Just like the one in that catalog. 4k of RAM. 4K!
But that little TRS-80 changed my life; it introduced me to the joys of programming. Fast forward 30 years and I still love to program; have had a great career and have spent the past 10 years running a software company.
And it all started in the very same 1983 Radio Shack catalog. Thanks for sharing!
It's full of big charts and text wrapped around deep etched images. Making me dizzy just thinking about it.
Radio Shack by then was it was long on the tooth with soundless black and white computers (OK, you could get sound by using a radio to tune into RF interference - not kidding). The color computer was kinda of a late comer, with the Apple, Atari then Commodore already on the market with compelling color systems... and games.
Another trend that was emerging was they were pretty much working on a lock-in strategy, it was buy only their stuff or the highway, all the way down to printers. They kept with that MO into their PC clones which had slightly incompatible card spaces in their PCs to force customers to buy RS cards.
RS users seemed to be a pretty nice sort though, I'm sure a lot of HAM radio guys got them since they frequented the store already. Their magazines like 80 Micro were informative.
That went on for Amiga/Atari as well; for the entertainment market (graphics, video, audio and games) these systems were excellent and great value; upping the price with the Amiga 2000 for instance and selling it 'for the business market' was a nail in the coffin.
In fact it kills me they charged $100 extra just for extended BASIC. But I guess in retrospect I'm glad my parents sprung for it as Bresenham's was a bit out of my league when I was 6.
The CoCo & its UK clone the dragon 32 had 64 K ram (it took a while to figure that one out), a better screen and a much better processor (the 6809) on which you could run (with some fiddling) os/9.
Those were redeeming features. The C64 was a fantastic gaming machine with hardware sprites and a really nice audio chip, the CoCo/Dragon was the better machine if you wanted to learn how to program.
Computers back then were not as simple to compare as they are today, depending on what you wanted to do with your computer then one or the other was the better choice.
When I was young I thought that game was unbeatable and the adults who could beat it had a secret code or something. Now I realize it just plays a perfect game but you can win if you understand it.
Oddly enough one of the movies that I remember best when I was a child was also (seemingly unrelatedly) called "The Secret of Nihm"
But then it reminds me of how thankful I should be for the times we live in now :D
When, many years later, I found that I couldn't test out of my college's C programming course which was a prereq for a CS major, I sighed and showed up for class -- with the exact same dog-eared copy of K&R 2nd I'd used to attempt to teach myself C on the old Tandy.
This amazing devil actually tap dances to computer accompaniment of "Ain't She Sweet"! You can even create your own musicals and dance routines! Requires audio amplifier.
It's a very cute and well-known program.
For example, ISI was talking about "data scientists" and the "information explosion" back in the 1960s. Here's part of an ad from theirs in the 1966 "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" at http://books.google.com/books?id=WAgAAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA49...
"Despite the deluge of scientific and technical papers, only a small fraction falls within the area of each individual's specific interests. ... So your problem may not be one of information overload at all. You may actually have a shortage of information."
(I'm reading through a collection of essays, written during the 1960s from the founder of the ISI. The complaints about there being too much information haven't changed in the last 40+ years.)
BTW, the earliest Google Books hit I could find with that phrase comes from 1963: http://books.google.se/books?id=jPgqAAAAMAAJ&q=%22inform... .
Its almost noteworthy what they didn't stock. They didn't stock much in the line of non-electronics raw materials and power tools, so if you made a subwoofer for your car you'd need to buy the wood and saws elsewhere.
It was very popular and was very profitable, at least compared to now. There's probably a greater entrepreneur lesson here that your customers don't "buy things" they "do projects" and every different place they have to visit to do a project probably costs about 50% in sales, or at least a ridiculous number.
My dad still sometimes recounts the story of how he bought a TRS-80, and found that the screws holding the case together were sealed in place with Glyptal. When he wanted to upgrade the system he drilled through the Glyptal to get at the screws, and then placed a few stern calls to Tandy HQ in Fort Worth, admonishing them that once a computer was sold, it belonged to the consumer and the manufacturer had no right to prevent the consumer from repairing or modifying it himself if he so chose.
Tandy listened, and future TRS-80 models were sold without the Glyptal on the screws. Which means, I guess, that some things HAVE changed after all...