Doing my part to keep the TI-84 Plus on top

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A pair of brand new Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus graphing calculators sit today on my kitchen island, still encased in what I assume will be annoyingly difficult to crack plastic packaging. My children start school on Thursday and the calculators – that specific brand and model – were “recommended” on a list of supplies.

Which meant little to me until reading a story in this morning’s Washington Post headlined: “The unstoppable TI-84 Plus: How an outdated calculator still holds a monopoly on classrooms.”

From that Post story:

Texas Instruments released the graphing calculator in 2004. …The base model still has 480 kilobytes of ROM and 24 kilobytes of RAM. Its black-and-white screen remains 96×64 pixels. For 10 years its MSRP has been $150, but depending on the retailer, today it generally sells for between $90 and $120. …

Even with a 320×240 pixel screen, 128 kilobytes RAM and 4 megabytes ROM, overall the TI-84 line of calculators appears unnecessarily expensive given the components. Apple — which is notorious for high margins on its products — sells an iPod touch for $199 that comes with 16 gigabytes of memory and a four-inch screen with a resolution of 1136-by-640 pixels. …

Electronics almost universally become cheaper over time. But with essentially a monopoly on graphing calculator usage in classrooms, Texas Instruments can charge a premium. Texas Instruments accounted for 93 percent of the U.S. graphing calculator sales from July 2013-June 2014. Casio took the other 7 percent. …

 “Compared to other electronics this day and age there is very little content,” said Barclays analyst Blayne Curtis of the TI-84 Plus. “Plastic case, small black and white screen, two semiconductor chips. The batteries are even not rechargeable like a cell phone.” He estimates a TI-84 Plus costs $15-20 to manufacture and has a profit margin of over 50 percent for Texas Instruments. “There are alternatives but TI became the dominant player in school calculators as schools needed to standardize on one design and TI won out.”

Coincidentally, my long-retired father toiled more than 30 years for Texas Instruments based in Attleboro, Mass. And while his work involved the manufacture of circuit breakers, I believe I remember him bringing home an early calculator prototype that was about the size of a shoebox.

The accuracy of that memory aside, there’s no doubt that throughout my childhood a TI paycheck put a roof over our heads, food on our table, toys under the Christmas tree and eventually helped push five kids through college.

Seems the least I can do is let them gouge me on a couple of calculators.

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