Editorial: Radio Shack and the state of the computer industry

© 1982 Lawrence I. Charters

80-US Journal, December 1982, pp. 6-7.

I used to think of Radio Shack as nothing more than a somewhat dingy little chain store that gave away free batteries. It seemed that all they sold were CB radios and Made In Hong Kong battery-operated plastic toys that broke after you got them home. In retrospect, it is hard to say if this image ever was true — I never bought a CB or plastic toy — but one thing is certain: Radio Shack is not a dingy little chain store. It is a corporate colossus.

Tandy Corporation (Radio Shack) is now the 20th largest computer firm in the United States, and the top microcomputer company. According to Computer Decisions (June 1982), Tandy’s computer revenue for 1981 totalled $460 million, and its revenue growth rate ranked fourth in the computer field. Compared to IBM’s $25 billion in computer revenues, Tandy’s performance seems modest but, compared to IBM, no one is very impressive. More recent figures (Computer Decision’s ranking was based on Tandy revenues ending June 30, 1981) suggest Radio Shack has climbed even higher. Other microcomputer firms in the top 100 included Apple (23rd), Commodore (49th), Warner (Atari; 71st) and Zenith (89th).

Since your average Radio Shack computer is not very expensive, this performance is remarkable. Another industry magazip.e, ICP Software Business Review (Autumn 1982), reports that Radio Shack is just as potent as a software firm. With revenues of $38 million in 1981, Tandy was the top microcomputer software supplier in the United States, and ranked 54th when compared with all software firms. The only other microcomputer software companies to hit the top 100 were ·Vector Graphic (75th), Apple (77th), Commodore (92nd) and .Microsoft (93rd).

There are several conclusions you can draw from these figures, but. probably the most important one is By Lawrence I. Charters this: Radio Shack is not a joke. The microcomputer community long made fun of the “Trash-80,” and suggested that Tandy get out of electronics and go back to selling leather goods. Computer magazines and newspapers used to pay so little attention to the TRS-80 that a whole new publishing industry grew up to support it. Independent retailers, busy selling rival computers, often refused to carry any hardware or software for Radio Shack machines. After a time they forgot why they didn’t carry such goods, and were able to delude themselves into believing nothing was available. If you go into such a store today and ask for TRS-80 merchandise, you will often be met with a sad look and a suggestion that you junk your machine and buy a real computer.

Computer snobbery is nothing new, nor is the sales tactic of selling one item by slandering another. What is odd is the lack of loyalty by Radio Shack computer owners and the TRS-80 press. You will rarely find an Apple owner who will admit to any problems with Apple equipment, and Apple magazines are either enthusiastic promoters of Apple, Inc., or carefully neutral. In contrast, one large TRS-80 magazine has made something of a career of criticizing Radio Shack in general and TRS-80s in particular, and TRS-80 owners have never shown any hesitancy when it comes to gripes. There is nothing wrong with healthy criticism, but is this healthy?

One commonly heard complaint is Radio Shack’s lack of software support. Looking through their latest computer catalog (which, by the way, is free — some companies make you buy their catalog), it is hard to take this charge seriously. Even the newest member of the Radio Shack stable, the Model 16, has more manufacturer supported software than most microcomputer firms offer for their entire line. Radio Shack’s customer service lines, and its company sponsored newsletter, TRS-80 Microcomputer News (free for a year with every computer purchased), are unique – no other microcomputer firm offers such services.

Radio Shack does have an annoying habit of ignoring the outside world (a typical problem in the computer field), but even this is changing. Their newsletter has recently referred to 80-U.S. articles, explained how to connect various gadgets to TRS-80s, and even detailed how different versions of CP /M might work on the Model II. The NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome is still stronger than most of us might like; but it is not as severe or as important as some contend.

Radio Shack’s repair policies – particularly concerning modified machines – have received the most interesting complaints. Almost all computer firms will repair their own machines provided those machines show no sign of modification or tampering. Considering the ·complexity of computer machinery, repair technicians are understandably reluctant to risk their equipment – and lives – poking around with some unidentified and undocumented modification. If a computer has been modified you are usually invited to look elsewhere for help. (Some companies will even seize your computer – permanently – claiming such tampering is equivalent to theft of proprietary material.) Such repair policies are not limited to the computer field, either; try taking a Ford in for repair to a Ford dealer – after you have installed a Chrysler engine. All things considered, Radio Shack’s policies are both flexible and reasonable.

Radio Shack has grown from an uncertain, pioneering microcomputer infant into a solid, adult giant. With over a million Radio Shack computers of various types installed worldwide, it is time for the TRS-80 community of owners and users to make a similar transition. Show some loyalty, camaraderie and understanding. Add some well considered praise as well as constructive criticism. It’s more fun, and more productive, than ignorant, lonely, peevish grousing.


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