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Thinking Kindly about Tandy Radio Shack

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Thinking Kindly About Tandy Radio Shack

 

TL;DR: TRS saw a growth market and dove into it with both feet! They weren't sure how they were going to win, but they made the most of the opportunity.

 

I've played with emulated Tandy machines over the last year, and read 80 Micro and TRS-80 Microcomputer News. I used to be puzzled by many of Tandy Radio Shack's (TRs's) decisions. I think I have a better perspective now.

 

It's easy to critcise TRS. Every hardware upgrade brought some quirky incompatibility for software.
Keeping track of all the TRSDOS versions is almost impossible. And trying to support six kinds of computers** at the same time was always a crazy idea. But they did this because each line served a specific market need, identified by weaknesses in the Model I.

 

Like most early microcomputers, the TRS-80 Model I was kind of a shot in the dark. Further development came fast and was *all* Tandy noticing and responding to market forces.

 

Business needs more storage, lower-case letters, and 80-column screens? Model II.
Home users want color, sound, and games? Color computer.
The expansion box isn't reliable, the FCC is unhappy, and schools want all-in-one design? Model III.
Computers on the go? Pocket computers, Model 100, both developed by other companies but sold and supported by TRS.
IBM workalikes? Tandy 2000: ran MS-DOS, slightly faster than the IBM PC AT, on the market six months *before* the IBM PC AT. On paper they knocked this one completely out of the park.
100% IBM compatibility required? Tandy 1000, which quickly spawned a whole line of true IBM compatible computers.

 

To contrast with the incredibly popular 1981 IBM PC 5150:

  • $1565 base price
  • 8/16 bit processor
  • 16KB RAM
  • CGA if you wanted color, MDA+printer port if you wanted a machine for word processing
  • First versions of DOS didn't understand hard drives

 

By early 1982, Tandy beat that in any dimension you cared to go.

  • The Color Computer and Model III were cheaper, especially when you put a complete system together
  • Model 16 had a 16/32-bit processor
  • Computers from 4KB to 128KB RAM built-in
  • Color Computer roughly equals CGA, slightly higher-resolution monochrome graphics available for models II-16
  • Hard drives available and fully supported for models II-16

 

In retrospect, it would be great if TRS made these options cross-compatible. I can only imagine the confusion of someone walking into a store and finding software for six competely different systems. But nobody was doing that kind of compatibility yet! It took several years and millions of dollars of engineering effort to put IBM clones in all these different markets.

 

TRS should be applauded for the extensive work they did making computers affordable, available, and useful to people with different needs. They tackled this problem early on, and in a way nobody else did.


** The six computer lines: Model I/III/IV, Model II/12/16/6000, Color Computers, Tandy 2000/1000, pocket computers, and the Model 100. You could probably split the 1000 and 2000 into their own lines since software came in different versions for each.

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You forgot the 1200 which was an IBM clone.

 

I doubt there was any confusion (I certainly wasn't at age 12).  If you were investing in a computer at the time, you knew what you were buying.  People weren't mistakenly buying CoCo software for their Model II, or Model III software for their 100.

RS had a great business model.  The RS Computer Centers were very well laid out, the sales staff was very intelligent and they had technicians in the store doing upgrades/repairs and answering technical questions.  That wasn't something you'd get when buying a C64 from K-Mart.

TRSDOS was just TRSDOS for each line and aside from the first Model I version, all were excellent and each had very few revisions.  There were many aftermarket DOSs, but once again, you knew what you owned and why you wanted that other DOS.

 

I'm also not convinced the Model III was initially an FCC thing.  Mine is a very early release and it never had the metal cage around the motherboard.  Some have insisted it was lost over the years, but I'm the original owner and it wasn't there from the first time I opened things up.  The hi-res board kit has a new cage that replaces the old one, there were no mounting holes in mine so I had to tap new ones.  Hi-res documentation also states that metal cage may not be there.   

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The only sort of legitimate complaint I've ever heard about Radio Shack back in the good old days is that the sales people didn't always know what you needed to know. This is understandable though. Radio Shack was a chain like Burger Clown (or whatever it's called) and like those other chains, they hired local people, often including high school kids. Expecting the average high school kid to have a ham radio licence *and* be familiar with six different computer lines is ridiculous. It probably also led to more electronic engineering and computer programming degrees than slinging slop at that other place.

 

Radio Shack's business model had it's good point and it's flaws. A slight lack of knowledge by some of it's employees was to be expected. A bit more knowledge by it's customers should have beeen expected as well. I always thought the critics should have been more understanding, and that many customers should have been more responsible.

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Radio Shack actually understood their shortcomings and in many of the higher sales stores they had "Computer Centers" and they specifically hired people with great and proven sales backgrounds, not just the average run of the mill Radio Shack bullshitters, but REAL sales people who actually took the time to listen to the needs and wants of the customer (qualify them) and set them up with the proper system(s).... because they knew their product line and that of the competition as well.  During their high point, they actually had in-house training for the Computer Marketing Managers, although one had to commute to the larger metropolitan areas like Portland.  We could even get custom software made for the customers, for example specialized point of sale systems. I always thought that was amusing, because when I was setting up other stores with such systems, I still did my invoicing on paper!

 

All in all the computer side of the company did not wait for customers to come through the door, we went out and generated our own governmental and commercial accounts and there were some pretty nice commissions.  A good CMM could easily make 3 or 4 times more than what a regular store manager could make in a month... and boy did it piss them off!   It really saddens me to see what became of that company.

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One other thing...some of the Computer Centers also provided customer training.  Mine had a classroom with about 20 or so computers set up.  I took BASIC and Advanced BASIC classes.  This was back in '82 and I still have the workbooks and certificates of completion.  The lady who taught the class was a genius.

I was 12 and the only kid in there, most were business people who were there on company time.  My uncle paid for the classes and then gave me my Model III after completing them.  I wish I could remember the price, I know they advertised in the local paper.  I think it was either $100 or $200 per course.  I believe they also offered a course for Scriptsit and maybe some database programs. 

 

Definitely a different world back then.  If you bought a program and found a bug in it, you could stop by the computer center and they would try to resolve the issue right there on one of their systems.  If they couldn't figure it out, you would usually have an answer (often a patch) the next day.  It's great for a home user, but also think of what that level of service meant to a business.

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