Today, we have devices like the iPad and any number of powerful and cheap laptops from the likes of HP, Dell and Apple. Back in the 1980’s, however, iPad like devices were the stuff of science fiction and there was one other major computer player: Tandy Corporation. Tandy owned a chain of stores that you may know: Radio Shack. Radio Shack introduced it’s TRS-80 computer in the late 1970’s. The machine, based on the Zilog Z-80 microprocessor, became something of a hit for the company. It was priced right and came with a monitor. Unlike today’s computers with Windows or Mac OS X, computers in the 70’s and 80’s came with something called ‘Basic’, which is a programming language. Out of the box and with just a few hours, an ‘ordinary’ person could, theoretically, write computer software. It was not really that easy, but that was the idea.
By 1980, Tandy had introduced several more computers, including one that featured color graphics. They teamed with several Japanese companies and introduced some really nice portable computers. Among them was the TRS-80 Model 100, an early notebook computer. The machine was an instant success, selling over six million during its lifetime. Quite impressive. So popular was the machine that many people still cling to them. In fact, I still see them being used in small businesses as cash registers, controllers and other uses. A quick search on eBay revealed a healthy market for the computer and peripherals.
Introduced in 1983, the 100 was remarkably small for the time. It weighs in at about three pounds, but packs a full size keyboard and very readable LCD panel, monochrome of course. The truly incredible thing about the machine was its battery life. We remark, today, about how good the iPad is with a 10 hour battery life. That’s nothing compared to the 100: it could, reportedly, go for days on a set of AA batteries.
The 8 by 40 character display was adequate for note taking or, in case you were a reporter, writing a column. The 100 was very popular among the press, presumably for its diminutive size and relatively low cost for the day.
The device had some really nice accessories, including a disc drive that also included a video adaptor. A barcode scanner was an optional add on as was additional memory. It came equipped with a cassette port and serial and parallel printer ports. It had a 300 baud modem built in.
The computer had several applications built in, including the aforementioned Basic programming language, a telecom app, a text editor, schedule application and others. The Basic is supposed to be the last shipping product that Bill Gates himself worked on.
The Basic language was very similar to the ‘other’ Basic’s that were in the other popular computers of the day. This was handy if you owned one of them and wanted to adapt a Basic program for the 100. The computer came with a fairly comprehensive manual that did an adequate job of showcasing the language in a tutorial like format. Now, it could not teach you to be a good programmer, but it could teach you about the language itself. The version of Basic is a very good implementation of the language and is like the version that shipped in the IBM PC. It is of the old-fashioned type that required line numbers and was ‘top-down’, meaning the interpreter began execution with the first line of code and executed them sequentially until it was told to branch elsewhere.
Many magazines of the time featured type-in programs that you could use for this and other computers. The ‘fun’ in doing so was trying to get that one program to work on the computer that was designed for a different machine. Yeah, I have weird notions of what is ‘fun.’
Looking at the device today, one might think ‘so what?’. Indeed. Compared to today’s devices, the Model 100 is very primitive. It’s 240 by 64 graphics can’t even hold up to a Palm Pilot from ten years ago. The 300 baud modem isn’t good enough to even render a Google home page. Heck, it would be considered heavy compared to devices like the iPad and the Kindle. Yet, in 1983, this thing was truly revolutionary. It still took several more years before portable technology surpassed what Tandy and Kyocera had released in 1983 and, even then, people didn’t give them up easily. That they are still in use today is a testament to not only the design and durability but also to the loyalty most users had toward the machines. I’m not sure we’ll still see people using an original iPad in twenty years, but it would not shock me to see a TRS-80 Model 100 in use in 2030.