IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000

On January 29, 1984, two computers hit the market. One was Apple’s Macintosh. It needs no introduction. The other was the IBM PCjr. It was a little less successful. We’ll talk about what this has to do with the Tandy 1000 in a minute.

The PCjr is one of the biggest flops in computing history. Few people know much more about it than that. It ended up being an important computer, but it certainly didn’t meet IBM’s expectations.The IBM PCjr was IBM’s attempt to make a home computer. Like the name suggests, it was a cut down version of the PC. That was the best thing about it and the worst thing. It wasn’t quite compatible enough and quite expandable enough, and arguably it was too expensive, though Apple managed to sell a reasonable number of computers at the PCjr’s price point.

The IBM PCjr had plenty of promise. It offered a faster CPU than home computers of its time, and the ability to address more memory. It had graphics capability comparable to an Apple II, sound comparable to a Coleco Adam, and lots of available software on day one. Thanks to the success of the IBM PC, it seemed IBM could do no wrong. Many analysts expected the IBM PCjr would be unstoppable once it hit the market.

Why the IBM PCjr failed

IBM PCjr with display and keyboard
This IBM PCjr features a color display, single floppy drive, and the infamous chiclet keyboard.

The PCjr failed mostly because IBM didn’t want to compete with itself. This was a common theme with IBM in the 1980s. They wisely gave the PCjr better graphics and sound than the PC, which allowed it to compete with Apple and Commodore. It could use game cartridges like a console. And they gave it an infrared keyboard which was innovative, but the keyboard was awful to type on. And you couldn’t expand it beyond 128K of RAM or add a second floppy drive to it, at least initially. That made bringing work home to the PCjr difficult. You could run Lotus 1-2-3 on it, but it was a cut-down version, not the one you had at the office. The whole point of buying a home computer from IBM was to have something that worked like the computer you had at the office. The IBM PCjr didn’t quite deliver.

IBM eventually addressed most of these problems, and third parties came up with innovative ways to expand the IBM PCjr to more closely match an IBM PC. But IBM couldn’t shake the IBM PCjr’s early reputation and only sold about 270,000 units. The same year, Commodore probably sold 3 million Commodore 64s. We don’t have exact sales figures, but 1984 was one of Commodore’s best years. Demand for home computers was very high in 1984, so IBM’s timing with the PCjr was impeccable. But unfortunately they didn’t bring out what consumers were wanting.

Retro computing often involves a lot of armchair quarterbacking. We look back with the perspective of decades of experience and think about what could have been different. Asking questions about what could have made an unsuccessful computer successful, or a moderately successful computer a runaway bestseller, is part of the fun. But with the IBM PCjr, there aren’t a lot of what-ifs.

Enter the Tandy 1000

Tandy 1000SX
This Tandy 1000SX, from 1987, was essentially a no-compromises PCjr, combining PC-like expandability with PCjr graphics and sound. Unlike the PCjr, the Tandy 1000 line was very successful.

How it could have been different is a very easy question, because Tandy figured it out. In 1984, Tandy developed an IBM PCjr clone. But by the time it was ready to release, the PCjr was clearly failing. So Tandy didn’t market it as such. They just called it a PC clone with enhanced sound and graphics, dubbed it the Tandy 1000, and sold it in its Radio Shack stores. It became one of the most popular early PC clones.

Unlike the PCjr, the 1000 came with a reasonable keyboard from day one, and had expansion slots and a second drive bay. If you wanted, you could expand a Tandy 1000 to match the IBM PC feature for feature, and it would cost less than a PC. If you didn’t, it was a usable home computer pretty much as-is, too, for around $1,200 including a monitor. A comparable PCjr setup cost about the same, since both units frequently went on sale.

Tandy charged less than IBM for the computer itself, but made quite a bit of it back on peripherals. Tandy’s monitors and printers cost about the same as IBM.

The Tandy 1000 wasn’t quite an exact clone of the IBM PCjr. Tandy made the decision that if it had to choose between PC or PCjr compatibility in the design, PC compatibility was the safer bet. The result was a computer that ran most PCjr games and most PC productivity software, unmodified. Combined with good marketing, the Tandy 1000 showed what the IBM PCjr could have been.

Competing with itself

Had IBM taken such an approach, it would have squeezed the PC. But by that time, the PC wasn’t aging well. IBM already had the PC/XT, which was more expandable, ready to replace it as a serious business computer. In retrospect, a Tandy 1000-like PCjr could have come in to replace the PC both as a computer for lower-end business use and for home use and IBM probably could have done fine.

IBM discontinued the PCjr in early 1985, but even by Christmas 1984 there were indications its days were numbered.

The Tandy 1000 was very successful. Its less-than-100% compatibility wasn’t a problem for long, as software developers tested their software to ensure it would run on Tandy machines. Software labeled “IBM and compatibles” soon started carrying labels saying “IBM/Tandy and compatibles.” After a couple of years, the Tandy 1000 evolved from a one-size-fits-all machine into a series. This allowed Tandy to chase different market segments with it. Several models were all-in-ones resembling the Apple IIc. Others were desktop PCs for small businesses who preferred that form factor. As new CPUs became available, Tandy outfitted new 1000s with them, slowly phasing out the older models. The Tandy 1000 line survived about a decade, only going away because Tandy wasn’t able to match other companies’ economies of scale any longer.

Tandy was far less concerned about competing with itself. Offering a wider variety of models helped the Tandy 1000’s longevity.

IBM’s comeback

IBM returned in 1990 with its PS/1, which, like the name suggests, was a cut-down PS/2. The PS/1 eventually split into several products and was moderately successful. But the sales strategies that served IBM so well for minicomputers and mainframes didn’t translate well into the consumer space. IBM never replicated the early success of the PC and PC/XT.  Ultimately IBM left the personal computer field entirely in late 2004, selling out to Lenovo.

The IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000’s legacy

In the mid 1980s, people wanted a no-compromises home computer. They wanted sound and graphics comparable to a game system. But they also wanted to run the software they used at the office. Apple, Atari and Commodore couldn’t deliver that.

Tandy added one more element to that mix, besides delivering on the promise of being able to deliver a gaming-capable home computer that could run serious office software. Radio Shack stores were almost as ubiquitous in the 1980s as McDonald’s restaurants. Its competitors had large dealer networks, and Atari and Commodore sold their computers in discount stores and toy stores. But none of them had a reach quite like Radio Shack, especially outside of large metro areas. The overwhelming majority of the population lived within a 10-minute drive of a Radio Shack. The stores were open long hours and had ample stock of upgrades, software, peripherals, cables and supplies.

Between them, IBM and Tandy invented the modern mass-market PC. By 1987, the majority of software publishers were all-in on the PC compatible market, including game publishers who’d made their names developing for Apple, Atari and Commodore.

In 1985, it looked like the future of computing belonged to Motorola and a new generation of computers based on Motorola’s 68000 CPU. The Atari ST, Apple Macintosh, and Commodore Amiga all offered new and exciting graphical user interfaces, speed, and power. The ST and Amiga offered cutting edge color graphics and sound on top of that, and the Amiga had multitasking.

The Tandy 1000 wasn’t as flashy as any of those machines. But it was inexpensive and it had more software available. Within a few years, other retailers followed Tandy’s lead, offering PC compatible computers at a low cost, with a good selection of software. Apple survived by positioning itself as a luxury brand. Commodore and Atari couldn’t afford to make a single mistake.

Tandy left the computer business in the mid 1990s. But the Tandy 1000, taking its cue from the IBM PCjr, is the big reason billions of people use computers that run Windows instead of a descendant of Atari ST or Amiga technology.

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