The world around the Tandy TRS-80

I know you are going to laugh, but I will say, at the risk you stop reading this right now: Radio Shack could have owned the entire computer market, and Apple may have not existed today. There, I said it.
If you are still here, here comes the second statement that could make you close this window: This machine was a revolutionary, and ahead of it time. In 1977 there was a lot going on: The Apple II, Commodore Pet, and TRS-80, plus many other not so popular machines. Which of these one was superior is probably a matter for discussion, and it is not that relevant, they were about the same. What did matter is that Radio Shack had more than 3000 stores in the US and elsewhere, and they could all upgrade, repair, offer training services, and sell you accessories. Basically, Tandy had the "Apple Store" in place before anyone else. And they had so many accessories, peripherals, components and other **** to hook to your computer, it was like visiting an amusement park. So, what happened?
Well, the original TRS-80 computer was not really that sexy, nor it was that classy. It simply was not fun computer, like a C64; and it was not serious, like an IBM PC. It lacked charm. It also had some technical issue (interference, bad keyboard, bad video quality and flickering). And in a way, it was destined to go nowhere, because Radio Shack was not so sure about it from day 1. It did not have a "Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak" behind it, who were absolutely convinced they had the best thing ever. And, by the time Radio Shack management realized they had a hot product, and a hot line. it may have been too late. The market already had Apple, Commodore was working on a what would end up being the best-selling computer ever (C64), and the business market was tilting towards DOS and the IBM PC. Basically, Radio Shack though they will be selling CB radios for the next 100 years, and where not ready to sell computers. And the rest is history. Radio Shack eventually died, all together.

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The TRS-80 Expansion Interface

Initially Radio Shack management did not put a lot of emphasis on their computer business. On one side, it was going to be one of the most expensive items they would be selling. On the other side, they just simply did not believe Radio Shack was a place to sell computers, their ambitions were quite limited. Little they knew that the TRS-80 model 1 was going to be such a big success. And those who got it, wanted more. While there was a lot you could do with your TRS-80 model 1; you could not connect many peripherals, and expansion was limited. The TRS-80 expansion interface allowed users to expand memory to 16 or 32K; connect up to four disk drives; it had a parallel interface, and a slot for a serial card. Not really sure why the serial card interface was not part of it. The Expansion Interface certainly became one of the most useful peripheral you could connect to the TRS-80 model 1. And it was pretty well designed to sit just between the keyboard and your monitor. It even made your computer look more like a more advanced personal computer. Of course, there was one caveat: there's nothing you could do with the Expansion Interface by itself. You either need to put more memory, hook up more disk drives, or buy other accessories. So, you spent $299 just to be able to spend more money on other things.

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The TRS80 Expansion Interface

Lower Case support (seriously)

You may be asking yourself why this made it to my #2 in the list of accessories and peripherals for the TRS-80. As mentioned before. RadioShack did not think their computer product line would be such a massive success. In their minds, their computers would be adopted by hobbyist, as was the case with CB radios, and most of the electronic components they sold. Soon enough, it became a household product; it was also adopted in the corporate world, educational environments, and in some research and scientific facilities. And really, no one thought there would be a need for lower-case characters. When designing the computer, there were a number of limitations, and lower-case characters were clearly not a priority. The success of the TRS-80 forced management to develop a solution. Corporate reports needed lower case characters. In the classroom, kids needed to learn the lowercase alphabet. In labs and research facilities you needed to write formulas with lower case letters. Of course. RadioShack learned the lesson. Every model after had lowercase characters. Needless to say: every model after had more capabilities and it was easy to incorporate lower case characters.

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Lower case character support

TRS-80 Cassette tape deck

There is not a lot to say here. The standard method to store and retrieve data for most computers of this era was cassette tape decks. I am glad for this. It made home computer affordable. Most people already had a cassette tape deck at home, so you just need to find to buy the $5.95 cable, and you were ready to go. And if not: the $50 tape recorder at RadioShack sold you was not as expensive a disk drive. Yes, it was not convenient, it was not reliable, it was slow, it was not random access (it was sequential), but still, it was one more factor that contributed to the affordability and adoption of home computers worldwide.

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TRS-80 Disk Drives

The coming-of-age moment for your TRS-80 model 1 was when you bought an expansion interface and a disk drive. Now you had a capable computer that could run business applications, and more than anything R/W to disk interactively. And while it's true that when RadioShack released the TRS-80 model 1, they did not have a lot of faith in it; by the time they started marketing the companion disk drive they were much more serious about the whole computer line. The drive was a solid product and companion for their model 1 and cemented their standing in the computer business. When I say solid, I mean it was not a Commodore 1541 drive, which was total garbage.
The one thing that was amusing was how hard Radio Shack was trying to convince its customers to buy four disk drives. Yes, that's four. Most personal computers of the time would come with two disk drives. RadioShack doubled the ante. And they even raised their bet by selling furniture that could hold up the four drives in a neat package. It's almost like they took the example from Gillette, trying to put as many blades as possible in a razor.

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TRS-80 Disk Drive

TRS-80 printers, printers, and more printers

Once Radio Shack figured that the personal computers were not a fad, and there was a real huge money-making opportunity they took action. Plus, somehow, without much effort, there were exactly in the right place at the right time; they were in the epicenter of it, with stores everywhere. The real money was not necessarily on home computers; but in personal computers that would sit on desks in offices all over corporate America. And by the way, there were clearly ahead of IBM. One thing that was needed to win corporate America was the ability to print. So this time when management said let's design some printers, the entire Radio Shack workforce re-focused on printers. Honestly, I think that Radio Shack had more printers than computers, drives, memory modules, modems, monitors, all combined. They basically had a printer for every possible need. They even had plotters. When I said before that RadioShack could have been the apple of today; well, I double down now: they could have also been the HP of the today (in the printer business). Most of the printers were built to be quite robust and tolerate office abuse. And, as it seemed, RadioShack had a pretty effective formula to sell whatever they felt like, everything was now bundled. You'll go and buy your computer, four drives, monitor, whatever they want to sell you and a printer. Radio Shack was the cash cow of the early 80s’.

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Printers, printers, printers...

TRS-80 Modems

Modems were now happening, and RadioShack needed to have theirs. Of course, you could connect any modem if you have a serial port, technically. If you have a TRS-80, the serial port came courtesy of getting an extension interface and a serial card; and then you get the modem. Later models came with a serial port.
The point here is that you could get any modem, but RadioShack at that time was pretty much like Apple today. You'll just go to their store, and they'll sell you whatever they wanted to sell you, and just like with Apple, you'll pay. So, you have a few options: the most popular one was the acoustic coupler type, shown in the photo, in which you rest the phone handset on the device, and let the mic and speaker play they happy tunes. If you were more sophisticated, you'll get a direct modem with automatic dialing capabilities; oh yes, the future is here now. Eventually, better modems came long. Speed was generally 300 and 1200 baud. Indeed, a little ahead of their time since BBSS's were not really a thing yet.
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TRS-80 Voice Synthesizer

Radio Shack was at a point where they could sell you whatever they wanted. Keep in mind, they had two very different segments: business personal computers and home computer. For the business segment, they were a cash cow, and they were happy just selling more and more computers to corporate America. For the home computer market, there was a need to produce affordable and attractive devices. There were many options for home computers now, and RadioShack really wanted to wow their customer base. So, my guess is that one Radio Shack engineer asked the other onw: How can I impress the ladies? And the other one said let's make a computer talk. It is difficult to believe that someone would pay $400 for this, it was more expensive than the computer TRS-80 model 1 and the Color TRS-80, the computers it was intended to be connected to. But once again, at that time Radio Shack could sell you whatever they wanted. Needless to say, this was not Siri. it sounded like a dying robot that was crying, it was terrible.

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TRS-80 Voice Synthesizer


If you’ve just finished reading the section above, you get the idea that Radio Shack was just trying to come up with peripherals for the home computing market; and anything would do. Seeing that the market was gullible to buy any kind of garbage they'll put out, they decided to move to their next product. I believe the two engineers I just mentioned above were given a promotion and the tasked to come up with something else. Remember that this was Radio Shack, and one thing that we're known for was their CB radios. Look at the picture, you get the idea. The technology behind it was pretty simple. You'll sample a sound wave and then compare it to another sample. You knew it was a half-baked product by its description “explore the exciting new experimental field of computer voice recognition!”. To their credit, they were probably the first ones period to come up with this, and they were ahead, the only other similar product in the market was “the clapper”.

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TRS-80 Hard Disk Drives

RadioShack played their cards well with the small business and corporate world. Their bundled packages seem to be popular. And if they managed to convince customers that they needed four disk drives, what’s there to stop them from selling hard disk drives. Keep in mind, these things were not cheap; and no surprise here: they will try to sell you not just one, but multiple.
Truth be told, hooking up a hard disk drive to a TRS-80 increased its productivity exponentially. While expensive, among other things Radio Shack was selling this was worth it. And by the way, they were proprietary, and as you can see from the picture, these were not modular devices that you place in a disk bay inside your CPU case. In a way, they were the first portable disk drives ever. What I do love is the fact that to make them more adult looking, and convey the sense of something valuable, they added a key lock (I guess encryption was not an option back then). From a technical perspective, the most notable thing here was that the OS was built-in, in ROM, inside the drive. I guess they though no one would ever need to upgrade their OS.

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Hard Disk Drive

TRS-80 Network Interface Devices

I guess by the time management told the engineers at RadioShack that they needed to work on some type of networking technology, they were a little bit exhausted from making printers. Logically, what they needed to do was to look at standards, look at the industry and determine what would have been the best technology to adopt. Instead, they decided to come with their own sad attempts to connect multiple computers in useless ways. Those first attempts were first marketed towards education. The Network Interfaces (as they called them) were simply serial adapters connected to multiplexers that allowed one master computer to connect to individual computers and interact via serial port. Obviously, none of this was supported by an operating system, nor by standardized commands. You needed software that was compatible and supported this mediocrity. Eventually real network adapters, and client/server style architectures came along, but most of it was proprietary. I guess Radio Shack did anticipate all of Apple’s moves to upset customers.

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Network Interface 2

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