One of the biggest tech stories of the last decade has been the rise of ARM and the proliferation of mobile computing devices. In less than 10 years, smartphones have gone from portable email machines to rich multimedia and VR-capable devices with screen resolutions far higher than anything you’ll find on a conventional LCD panel. Given the meteoric advance in mobile technology, you might think that some of those advantages must have trickled down to graphing calculators and similar devices.
As a new story at Mic points out, you’d be almost entirely wrong. When I was in high school, the graphing calculator of choice was the Ti-83. It was powered by a 6MHz Zilog Z80 and featured 32KB of RAM with a 96×64 pixel screen. It retailed for $125 in 1996 dollars, or roughly $190 today. Obviously such hardware is woefully outdated by modern standards, and Ti has updated their product families to account for that. The Ti-83 Plus, first introduced in 1999, packs a 6MHz Zilog chip, 160KB of user-accessible Flash memory, a 96×64 screen, and retails for a mere $129 at Ti’s official store.
The more you poke at this insane situation, the crazier it gets. Texas instrument’s ad copy for the Ti-Nspire CX CAS is shown below:
The device in question has a 320×200 pixel display, 64MB of RAM, 16-bit color, a 132MHz ARMcore, and a mini-USB port. You can literally buy tablets with ridiculously better specifications for less money. Amazon’s new $50 Fire HD tablet is a beautiful bargain by comparison.
As Mic explores, Ti’s near-total lock on the graphing calculator industry has allowed it to introduce new “innovations” at a snail’s pace while sucking down huge profits. The company’s total cost for its $150-to-$200 product is estimated at $15-20 for the Ti-84 Plus. This relatively low-end calculator is estimated to have a profit margin of 50% or more. The profit margins on other devices haven’t been explored, but the Washington Post reported last year that the “other” division of Texas instruments had overall margins of 30.8%.
In Ti’s case, its calculators have become so intertwined with a particular market that one becomes synonymous with the other. In this case, educational tools and materials across the United States, from virtually every publisher, simply assumes that the students and teachers will have TI-built devices. TI itself offers a yearly conference, a help line, and supplemental materials, all designed to help educators and students use its hardware. Some of its calculators sell with preloaded applications.
What’s particularly interesting about this space is that it illustrates how a complex situation can end up costing students and educators far more than they ought to be paying without any sort of smoking gun. Ti’s graphing calculator technology is ancient — older models, like the Ti-83 and 84 can’t draw certain lines accurately, thanks to screen resolution limitations — but they get the job done. The company has obviously invested a great deal in education materials and outreach, and it’s easy to see why teachers would prefer a standardized solution that let them spend more time teaching math and less time fighting with various makes and models of calculator.
The flip side to this, however, is that schools and parents are stuck paying $150 to $200 for dedicated hardware, when modern applications and tablets or smartphones could easily handle the equivalent workloads. An estimated 1.67 million graphing calculators were sold last year — while that’s peanuts compared to Android or iOS devices, it’s a very profitable niche for Texas Instruments. Absent effective competition (Casio makes graphing calculators as well, but has little market share), TI has no incentive to cut prices or change its approach. All of this means students continue to learn on hardware that was quaint ten years ago. Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with that — but it raises the question of why TI’s prices haven’t come down to match the actual cost of the equipment that its selling.