Review by Gary W. Cox
The weekend of February 14th, 1998 will be remembered as one of the most significant events in the history of the TI99/4a! TI99/4a enthusiasts from across the world gathered February 14th, 1998 At TI Fest West 98 in Lubbock, Texas, the birthplace of the Texas Instruments TI99/4a Home Computer!
As people arrived in Lubbock Texas on Thursday and Friday many noticed right away the signs, produced by the Lubbock Visitors and Convention Bureau, in the Lubbock Airport which said "Texas Instruments Computer Faire". The same sign displayed at the Four Points Sherriton Hotel lobby said "Texas Instruments Computer Faire"! Thursday the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (local newspaper) printed a fantastic full page article on the TI99/4a, the event and on Lee Kitchens, the manager of engineering for the consumer products division of Texas Instruments during the production of the TI99/4a. People attending the event arrived from Germany, Holland and England as well as across the United States from states such as Illinois, Ohio, Arizona, Tennessee, Colorado, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, California, Indianapolis, Iowa, Utah, Kansas, Texas just to name some of the states. A hospitality room at the events Hotel was open continuously to greet attendee's. The main display hall was next door to the hospitality room where attendee's could pre-register on Friday and sit around and talk and eat...
Saturday morning at 7:45 am faire attendees were shuttled from the hotel to the Texas Instruments production facility which was about five minutes away. This Texas Instruments facility was where the Texas Instruments TI99/4a was designed and manufactured. Due to security restraints only two photographers were allowed, myself and someone else who video taped the event. Some of these pictures should be shown where you are reading this article as well as located on the GWC WEB site at http://www.netten.net/~garycox .
Gary Cox standing under TI Sign
Shortly after arriving at the Texas Instruments facility everyone converged in the cafeteria where a sort of "time line" of TI99/4a history was on display. The display contained various pieces of equipment including a TI99/2, hexbus equipment, the original 300 baud TI Acoustic modem, various peripherals on up to a Geneve...
Table displaying TI History
The conference began by an introduction from Rodney Cates of Texas Instruments followed by a very impressive presentation by Lee Kitchens, former manager of engineering for the consumer products division starting in 1978, just a year before the introduction of the TI99/4. Lee actually started with Texas Instruments in 1974 in Holland and moved around until settling down at Texas Instruments in Lubbock, Texas in 1978...
Lee presented to us a remarkable insight into the inter workings of Texas Instruments during the time of production of the TI99/4 followed by the TI99/4a. According to Lee, the first model of the Texas Instruments Home Computer, the TI99/4, was produced in a sort of simulator device in order to design and perfect the hardware and software. The TI99/4 hit the market in 1979 followed by the TI99/4a in 1980. The announcement of the discontinuation of TI99/4a was released on Friday, October 28th, 1983. Production of the TI99/4a stopped in 1984. Lee mentioned that Texas Instruments did not want to stop production in 1984 as prices dropped on the equipment and sales were consequently way up! However, agreements were made to stop production which they had to follow... Support for the TI99/4a continued for many years past what was required by law. These practices by Texas Instruments in it's ethics behavior really impressed Lee as not many companies will go that far!
Crowd at TI Plant
Lee stated that originally Texas Instrument had trouble convincing employee's to move to the small town of Lubbock, Texas. However, when people found the wide open spaces, the ease of driving in low traffic, the friendly people and the interest in the home computer project no one wanted to move away from Lubbock when it was all over!
Lee said that when the TI99/4 was being conceived the idea was to produce a video game. However, the video game idea quickly became an idea for a computer. Perhaps this is where the idea of a plug in cartridge into a computer came into play as home video games of that day and even today have the idea of using a plug in cartridge?
The first production run of the TI99/4a yielded about 200 computers which endured a wild array of testing. Quality assurance tested the units under various conditions such as dropping the unit, submitting it to heat and extremes in voltages (within specs) to try to produce a failure. However, Lee found that in all this testing and design that his engineers were spending way too much time "playing" with the computer as it was "the greatest thing since sliced bread"! So Lee arranged for the engineers to own a Texas Instrument computer at home, so they could "play" at home and "work" at work. This policy also helped engineer's families who wanted to know why their spouces where working nights, weekends and spending so much time at Texas Instruments instead of home.
The quality of the product was a big concern for Texas Instruments! After a production run the first 100 units which were returned for repair where examined further and each given a cause of failure and steps were taken to eliminate the failure in future production runs. Texas Instruments found that the ultimate test of the unit was in the hands of the consumer so TI paid a lot of attention to it's customers.
Lee gave us quite an insight into the problems of getting a product from design into production and then to market. Lee's main job was to keep the variety of groups working on the computer project talking to each other and ultimately to get a quality product in the hands of the consumer at a reasonable cost. The first units produced by Texas Instruments were made out of the best materials. However, the best materials were expensive and to be competitive TI had to find ways to cut costs. Lee worked with engineers to find ways of substituting lower cost materials and consolidating parts. Thus if the engineers discovered that one part can do the job of two why not use just the one part? The system board of the TI99/4a went through many different revisions during production. However, when a flaw was found and a production of boards had already been run a modification to some boards had to be made. Thus the reason many of us, who have opened their TI99/4a, may see some "little green wires". These little green wires corrected some of the mistakes made in design. When the next production run of system boards were made these mistakes where corrected until finally the final production run of the TI99/4a did not have any little green wires!
Lee was under tremendous pressure to keep costs down, produce a quality product and to get that product to market as soon as possible! Each unit had to pass FCC testing so that it would not interfere with other consumer products. Each unit also had to have UL approval. These approvals took time and time was of the essence when competing with others who are producing a similar product. Therefore Texas Instruments built their own FCC testing facility called an Antenna Test Range. This Antenna Test Range was built away from any buildings and was made of wood and no metal to eliminate the chance of interference from anything during the testing. A UL lab was also built at Texas Instruments to speed up UL approval. According to Lee Texas Instruments was a "very ethical company" concerned with following all government regulations. However, he mentioned that some of the competition may not have followed the rules while TI did! In particular, he wondered how some of the competitions units, which they purchased off the shelf at retail stores, they found did not pass all FCC regulations which TI's product did. Lee's thoughts where that possibly the competition submitted a special modified unit for testing FCC approval?
Antenna Test Range
Texas Instruments didn't produce everything which went along with the TI99/4a, an outside contractor produced items such as the TI monitor. Lee said that other companies were already experts in television production and Texas Instruments wasn't so TI gave the specifications to a vendor to produce the monitors. The first shipment of monitors had a 5 percent failure rate right out of the box. According to Lee, this failure rate was totally unacceptable as they were expecting a near 0 percent failure rate and would not be happy until they arrived at it! So the monitors were redesigned to withstand the roughness of bad shipping and made sure the quality assurance of the vendors were up to par. While Texas Instruments was already producing thermal printers and produced a 132 column thermal printer for the TI99/4a, consumers wanted more. Thus Texas Instruments also contracted out the production of the Texas Instruments Printer which had to meet TI's stringent quality standards. As an additional note, Lee mentioned that each computer went through a 96 hour "burn in" using high temperatures, varying voltage conditions and powering on and off! This "burn in" was done before any unit was shipped to make sure of it's quality! I asked Lee why the PEB box was made like a tank? His answer was that TI tried to make everything to survive not only the consumer but the rough treatment received in shipping. They were not concerned with it's weight but it's endurance!
The TI99/4a was such a unique product that Lee said even high up executives could be seen touring the production facility watching the production of this revolutionary product. However, as often the case, the engineers butted heads with "marketing" who didn't believe the TI99/4a was a viable product for the consumer market. Marketing believed the TI99/4a was only for the "gadgeteer's". Marketing also believed this of the digital watches when TI first introduced it. Marketing at TI also gave some trouble to the South West 99'ers in setting up this event at the Texas Instrument plant! It just goes to show you that marketing and engineering doesn't always get along.
Lee discussed the GROM chips in the TI99/4a as in those days memory chips were very small so programmers had to squeeze every bit of their code together in order to fit. The GROM chips where mentioned as the best programed marvels of the world. Programmers today defiantly do not follow as stringent compression of code as was present in the TI GROM chips. Programmers today could take some lessons from those who wrote the TI GROM chips!
A question that someone had of Lee, during the questions and answers session, was why a 16 bit CPU was used with an 8 bit buss on the TI99/4a? The answer was simple, the TI99/4a was designed to work with an 8 bit CPU. However, Texas Instruments had already designed and produced a 16 bit CPU. So instead of designing a new CPU for 8 bit's from scratch TI just used an existing CPU. This sort of mindset was encouraged at TI as Lee told his engineers "not to re-invent the wheel", if something that you can use already exists then use it!
Lee also mentioned that Texas Instruments had a retail store in Dallas, Texas. At that store he met a kid which constantly was pointing out flaughs in Texas Instruments manuals. Lee had an idea to give the kid a manual prior to their release which the kid took and tore it up with problems he found in it. Texas Instrument quickly hired this kid to review their manuals but since he was still in school he had to stay in Dallas instead of Lubbock. However, this kid is responsible for many of the good manuals that TI produced with it's equipment!
Back in the days of the TI99/4a production the Texas Instruments plant in Lubbock employed over 5,000 employee's and operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Today the plant only employee's about 750 employee's although the plant still operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The only product produced at the Lubbock plant now is chip wafers. These chip wafers are then sent off site to another facility off shore where the chips are assembled. These chips are ultimately used in various speaking devices, seagate controllers, automobiles, modems and other devices...
After Lee's presentation we all were given a fantastic tour of the Texas Instruments plant and shown how chips were made. Following our tour Bill Gaskill gave a sort of time line of events in TI99/4a history. We all then made it back to the hotel by noon to start the actual faire!
In a separate room from the vendor hall special presentations were given. Bill Gaskill started the presentation with informative TI99/4a trivia. I've never seen anyone who knows so much about the history on the TI99/4a than Bill, if he doesn't know the answer to your history question then no one does!!! Be sure to check out Bill Gaskill's WEB site for some of this information at: http://www.gj.net/~lucky47
Michael Becker of SNUG
Following Bill's presentation Michael Becker and Gerd Weissman from Germany discussed their hardware projects. Among their products are the Enhanced Video Processor Card which operates on a TI99/4a and uses a 9938 chip and connects to an RGB monitor as well as includes a mouse port. Another card from SNUG was the High Speed Graphics Programming Language (HSGPL) card which speeds up the operation of the TI99/4a by replacing the GROMS with new high speed GROMS. Another card was the SCSI card but it's production is limited to sale in Germany only! Another card was the Second Generation CPU or SGCPU card. This card uses an AT keyboard, has a 9900 CPU operating at 12mhz and is designed to operate with the Enhanced Video Processor and GPL card. I call the SGCPU a sort of Geneve clone! While some negociations are ongoing with a vendor in the US to produce these products nothing has developed as of yet. For more information you can contact Michael Becker Care of System 99 Users Group, Diedesfelder Str. 12, 68309 Mannheim, Germany or email him at email@example.com
Mike Wright and Mark Van C. of Cadd Electronics demonstrated the latest beta version of PC99. PC99 is a program which runs on IBM compatibles and emulates a TI99/4a and many of it's peripherials. This beta version known as stage 5 contains yet more additional functions and something that I call a "virtual card". This sort of virtual card allows anyone to write a DSR (Device Service Routine) so that the unit operates as if an actual hardware device is inserted in a PEB. So in other words this "virtural card" emulates a card that you design. Furthermore enhancements have been made which center the screen, additional troubleshooting abilities etc... Sufice to say, PC99 is become quite impressive! When the beta version is finally released current owners will receive a notice of the update which will cost $9.95 for current owners. For more information contact CADD Electronics at 45 Centerville Drive, Salem NH 03079-2674 or call (603) 895-0119 or (603) 893-1450.
Mike Write of Cadd Electronics
Then the final demo was of the Super AMS card by the Southwest 99 users group. The demonstration included an impressive slideshow presentation using the Super AMS card. For more information contact the SouthWest Ninety-Niner User Group at P.O. Box 17831, Tucson, AZ 85731 or call (520) 886-2460 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Dallas TI Users Group of P.O. Box 29863, Dallas, TX 75229 was represented by Mary Leard and Mattie Bosh with a variety of TI hardware and software for sale. Dave Connery of the Chicago TI Users Group had a large variety of hardware and software for sale. The consignment table was operated by Harrison Hoffman and his wife with a variety of hardware and software (Cleveland TI Users Group, 3925 Trowbridge Ave., Cleveland, OH 44109). Representatives from many other user groups did not have tables but attended the event. Unfortunately a few other vendors which were scheduled to appear didn't show up but all who was there had a great time!
Those who traveled the furtherest in order to attend TI Fest West were all from out of country including Berry Harmsen from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Michael Becker and Gerd Weissmann from Germany and John Murphy from Boole Dorset, England! John also mentioned an upcoming TI Faire in England so watch for details on the event!
Many personalities which you hear about in the TI community were present in Lubbock including Dan Eicher, Jeff White, Dallas Phillips, Terry Masters, Bill Gaskill, Don Shorock, Hal Shanafield (organizer of the Chicago TI Faire which will be coming up in November), Mark V, Brad Snyder, Mike Wright, John Koloen, Laura Burns and many others that is too numerous to mention...
Everyone was so nice in Lubbock, the people at Texas Instruments in Lubbock was extreamly hospitable, the people at the 4 Points Sheraton Hotel, the Lubbock Convention and Visitors Bureau and just the people of Lubbock!
The end of the day Saturday didn't end the event, a raffle for a variety of prizes were held. Still after the raffle TI enthusiasts wandered through the hotel until late at night. Sunday a special brunch was held at the hotel before everyone left to travel back home.
Tom Wills gives out Raffle Prizes!
All in all the event was terrific, I commend Tom Wills, BJ Mathis, the members of the South West 99'ers who made all this happen!
Finally I want to make one comment. I was told by the engineer which gave the group I was in a tour of the TI plant said that Lee was a unique person. If you've seen Lee's picture he is only about 4 feet tall and in one meeting he became so upset that he jumped onto the table and walked around pointing at everyone! Lee and the engineers below him were definitely responsible for much of the success of the TI99/4a. Additionally someone also asked Lee why they decided to put a fuse for the PEB power supply inside the transformer? Lee said "it was a dumb idea" but also added that it kept the consumers from putting a fuse that was not rated for the system in the unit thus bypassing the safety that the fuse they had in it.
BJ Mathis demo's AMS
Tom Wills worked hard to setup for the event!
Stay tuned to this page for more pictures as well as a method of obtaining complete pictures of the event!
Also check out Tom Wills' review at:
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