The TI-99/4 series holds the distinction of being the first 16-bit personal computer. However, the TMS9900 CPU chip used was hampered by having only an 8-bit memory bus and a 1-bit I/O bus. The computer also had unusual features such as GROMs (graphic read-only memory) and an accompanying programming language called GPL (graphic programming language). Because of these, the TI-99 series gained a reputation for being quirky and eccentric, which endeared it to some and maddened others.
In the early 1980s, TI was known as a pioneer in speech synthesis, and a plug-in speech module was available for the TI-99/4A.
Initially, the TI-99/4A was reasonably successful, and it's been estimated that it had about 35% of the home computer market at its peak. However, TI quickly found itself engaged in a price war, particularly with Commodore International, and was forced to lower the computer's price in order to compete. By August 1982, the computer was losing shelf space and TI offered a $100 rebate, which caused spokesman Bill Cosby to quip about how easy it was to sell a computer if you paid people $100 to buy one.
In February 1983, TI lowered the price to $150 and was selling the computers at a loss. And in June 1983, TI released a redesigned, cost-reduced version that it sold, also at a loss, for $99. TI lost $100 million in the second quarter of 1983 and $330 million in the third quarter. In October 1983, TI announced it was exiting the home computer business.
A total of 2.8 million units were shipped before the TI-99/4A was discontinued in March 1984.
The TI-99/4A was technologically a competitive computer, offering more memory and more advanced graphics capabilities than the Commodore VIC-20 and in some regards rivaling the Commodore 64, which was aimed at a higher point in the market. However, a number of elements of its design attracted criticism: All peripherals plugged directly into the right-hand side of the unit, which caused the computer to not fit well on top of a desk if a user added many peripherals besides a tape drive and a printer. In addition, the keyboard layout didn't match that of a typewriter very closely, which made it unpopular for word processing.
However, the 99/4A's biggest drawback was its limited software library. TI closely controlled software production for the machine, which resulted in a software library of around 300 titles and few of the big-name hits available for other computers of its day. By comparison, the VIC-20, whose history paralleled the TI-99/4 series except its software development was completely open, had a library of more than 700 titles.
As a result, the TI-99/4A found itself selling for around the same price as the VIC-20, even though it was much more expensive to manufacture.
The TI-99/4A maintained a cult following for years after its death in the marketplace, in part because of its eccentricities, and a number of PC-based emulators for it exist.